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What is Clickbait and Why Does it Work So Well?


You may have heard the term clickbait before, but if you’ve been on the internet within the past 10 years, you’ve been exposed to it. For the most part, clickbait is considered only an annoyance, but it can also sometimes lead to negative consequences. In fact, the world of clickbait itself, isn’t as cut and dry as it may seem.

Using clickbait headlines is a tactic used all over the internet, from news publications to small business website blogs, it’s ever-present. Even at the risk of annoying and alienating readers, the use of clickbait has anything but waned.

What is clickbait, why does it work so well, and should you employ this method? Below, we’re going to lay it all out for you so you can make an informed decision for yourself.

History of Clickbait

Clickbait itself comes from yellow journalism, which pertains to newspapers that show little or no concern for accuracy or research, and offer up eye-catching headlines in order to sell more papers. This term came from a comic strip that ran in the late 1890s, called The Yellow Kid. Another, more familiar form of this type of sensationalist news comes from tabloid journalism, which have been around for ages and include publications like everyone’s favorite supermarket tabloid, Weekly World News, and it’s hilariously ridiculous hunt for Bat Boy.

Bat Boy’s awesomeness aside, clickbait and both yellow and tabloid journalism use the outlandish, sensationalist headlines and content matter because of one reason. Sensationalism sells. The ultimate goal behind clickbait ads or articles are to generate online advertising revenue, which is another reason it’s so prevalent. Consider it the weeds of the internet — Not necessarily bad, but not pretty, and hard to get rid of.

Why does clickbait work so well on us?

It’s not uncommon for advertising to pull on heartstrings or emotions. It’s quite effective. Guerilla marketing is used to shock, intrigue, or induce other emotions like disgust, fear, or guilt, often with a rather elaborate or clever delivery in the real world. In a way, clickbait is similar and the opposite of guerilla marketing.

Clickbait also plays on emotions, but in a different way. The over the top headlines from clickbait are intended to trigger FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) within an individual -- presented in a very, “you won’t believe this!” type of format. This is a powerful anxiety that we experience and one of the biggest reasons we’re so glued to social media.

Above, you see how clickbait is similar to something like guerilla marketing, but how is it similar and also quite the opposite? Well, take into account how each marketing method is deployed. Guerilla marketing is in your face and can be shocking immediately, where clickbait headlines or photos promise a shock (or answer) that will never come.

Clickbait is structured in such a way that the title is essentially telling you that it knows something that you don’t know, and all you have to do is click to find the answer. In this respect, clickbait requires one to indulge in their curiosity. It’s actually quite funny to think about: clickbait wouldn’t be anything if we as humans weren’t naturally indulgent, gullible, or curious creatures.

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to spot clickbait. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The telltale signs of a clickbait article are obvious, but that most definitely doesn’t prevent us from indulging. We still give into clickbait even if we know it’s clickbait. Sometimes, the title is too good to pass up on, and it struck a chord that itched your FOMO bone that you have to scratch.

Good Clickbait vs Bad Clickbait

While it’s easy to assume that all clickbait is bad, it isn’t. It’s mostly harmless, and at worst, you’ll walk away underwhelmed and with a few minutes of time you’ll never get back in your life. Before we dive into the differences between good and bad clickbait, it may be apropos to sort of redefine, or at the very least get another perspective on what clickbait is and isn’t, and where other to get such an answer than from a site that is nothing but clickbait?

In 2014, Buzzfeed posted a blog post claiming that it doesn’t “do” clickbait, and the reasoning is compelling. By definition, clickbait is content that over-promises and under-delivers. Technically speaking, the popular site doesn’t do this. It takes the clickbait model and makes sure it delivers what the headline says. Sensationalist headlines? Check. Practically useless information? Debatable. Time Wasting? You know it. Fun to read? 100%.

The site’s popularity has allowed it to become larger and produce unquestionably better content than anything one could consider “real” clickbait, but it still remains a bit of a gray area. Nonetheless, if there were such a thing as good clickbait, it would be this.

Of course, it’s not just Buzzfeed that participates in this “partial clickbait” method. You’ll see this from reputable publications, too. From tech blogs to movie sites, this is a tactic that’s employed all over the internet. ScreenRant’s 10 Jump Scares In Horror Movies That Still Shock Us article is a perfect example of this.

One of the most common forms of clickbait is found on some of your favorite news publications. Whether it’s a website about games, movies, pop culture — whatever you’re into, you may scroll into a section with a header titled something to the effect of “sponsored content” or similar. It’s clear that these titles aren’t published by the website itself. These articles can also be considered “good” clickbait, or at the very least, “harmless” clickbait.

Clickbait isn’t limited to articles, either. While genuine clickbait is used to generate online advertising revenue, the method is exercised to grab attention and get clicks on video sites like YouTube as well. It’s not hard to find an exaggerated thumbnail on the video streaming platform so that it can stand out from the rest.

If good clickbait is something like a news or Buzzfeed article and standard clickbait is just utterly underwhelming, what would constitute as “bad” clickbait? This is as easy to identify as the aforementioned types. As a precaution, steer clear of articles that either claim to give you money or require you to download a program. While it’s true that it could indeed be harmless and legitimate, you could be risking getting your computer infected with malware, or become the victim of phishing attacks and other, less than desirable results. Believe us, it’s not worth it.

The use of clickbait can also negatively affect your SEO ranking. If you promise the world within your headline, but only offer up a small village-worth of delivery, the reader will leave the page quickly. This can increase your bounce rate and give you a low time spent on a page, neither of which are good news for you. Too much of either of these can get your pages sent further down into search engine results.

Should You Try Using Clickbait?

If it works for others, could using clickbait work for you? Well, that certainly depends, though the easy answer would probably lean towards a big, fat, no. The risk of alienating your audience can be too much of a risk, especially if you’re a small business. The last thing you’d want to do is push the very people you’re trying to attract away from you due to something as silly as using overly-sensationalist headlines and under-delivering on what a reader can expect to see.

If using clickbait is something you plan on dabbling on, the most important thing to do is deliver on your content. Make your answer as compelling as the question your headline poses so you don’t have your readers regretting they arrived to your site in the first place.

If you dare to dabble, here are a couple examples one could use for this article:

  • You Won’t Believe These Shocking Facts About Clickbait!

  • We Wrote An Article About Clickbait, You’ll Never Guess What Happened Next!

  • This Is the Most Incredible Article About Clickbait You'll Ever Read

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