Marketing / Content Marketing

What you’ll learn about clickbait could shock you (don't miss #3)

Kathryn Hawkins

Updated: Jun 10, 2021 · 6 min read

Toolkit for download in this article

what is clickbait

Clickbait may be a four-letter word to some people, but it can be effective. The next time you’re scouring the internet, pay attention to which headlines draw your attention (like the one you clicked on to read this). Chances are, you’ve been sucked in by clickbait at some point even if you were annoyed by it—and that’s exactly what it’s intended to do.

However, clickbait can also backfire—especially if it’s not done right.

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding the definition of “clickbait.”

What is clickbait? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, clickbait is “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.” Urban Dictionary puts a softer spin on the definition, describing clickbait as an “eye catching link on a website which encourages people to read on.” Under one definition, clickbait is sinister; under another, it’s more innocent.

So, should posts on your company’s blog or any other content on your business website be "clickbait-y"? The answer depends on how you incorporate clickbait into your content strategy. Follow these five tips to embrace the best of clickbait and learn from the worst of it.

1. Be original and creative, but not misleading

In many cases, clickbait headlines accurately describe what the blog post or content is about. In some cases, however, the content fails to deliver what was promised.

Here’s an example of a clickbait headline that entices the reader but doesn’t disappoint: “The 12 U.S. Cities for Observing World Naked Gardening Day.”

First off, yes, there really is a World Naked Gardening Day. In 2016, an Austin, Texas-based startup called LawnStarter, which connects lawn care professionals with lawn care customers, decided to rank the U.S. cities that have the best climates for celebrating this “holiday.”

Not only did the headline attract curious readers, but it provided what was promised: a ranking of the best cities for observing World Naked Gardening Day. The blog post garnered about 1,600 shares on social media.

The bottom line here is that you should never publish a catchy headline merely to trick readers into clicking on a link leading to content that doesn’t support the headline. That’s a great way to foster distrust among readers who are or eventually could be, customers.

2. When in doubt, ditch the clickbait

Don’t write a clickbait headline just to write a clickbait headline. You’ll never go wrong if you put an informative, straightforward headline on a piece of content instead of a flimsy clickbait headline.

These days, headlines on blog posts and other content are more important than ever, in part because many people share content on social media without reading beyond the headline.

Focus on producing headlines and content that appeal to your audience. Many online media outlets employ clickbait headlines to drive traffic and, therefore, drive revenue from advertising. Chances are, your business model doesn’t rely on online advertising, so it’s OK to stray away from clickbait headlines.

In other words, don’t feel obligated to write sensational clickbait headlines simply because your favorite ad-supported website is doing it. A headline like “5 Easy Ways to Cut Business Costs” very well could perform better than “5 Scary Business Expenses That You Should Eliminate Right Now!”

In the end, helpful wins over sensational.

A cautionary tale about clickbait comes from Fueled, an app development agency based in New York City. One of the company’s co-founders, Ryan Matzner, says Fueled’s blog saw a large spike in web traffic from a 2016 post 5 Funny Prank Apps for April Fool's Day". But that huge spike didn’t lead to online conversions.

“We learned our lesson,” Matzner says, “and while we still coordinate blog posts with relevant and trending topics, we understand there is a line we shouldn’t cross.”

3. Follow Facebook’s lead

Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world, has imposed some pretty strict rules regarding clickbait, and these rules can guide you in crafting headlines for any content, not just content that’ll be shared on Facebook.

In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was tinkering with its algorithms to punish publishers that “churn out vague or misleading headlines designed to lure users into clicking.”

“Under the new formula, posts from publishers that rely heavily on what Facebook considers clickbait will be placed in fewer news feeds and appear lower in those feeds,” the Journal reported.

Given that Facebook is the king of the social media universe, it’s wise to not flaunt its rules. Otherwise, your company might wind up in the penalty box. To stay out of trouble altogether, it wouldn’t hurt to apply Facebook’s restrictions to all of the content you post online. To learn more about Facebook’s best practices regarding clickbait, click here.

4. Don’t put a call-to-action in a headline

People ultimately want to be engaged, informed, and entertained by headlines and the underlying content. They don’t want marketing messages to be thrust at them from the get-go.

It’s perfectly fine to include a call-to-action within content on your website, but don’t turn a headline into a sales pitch. You might think a sales-pitch-oriented headline is bait for clicks, but if anything, a headline like that would be anti-clickbait—no one would want to click on it.

5. Don’t “newsjack” a tragedy

It can be tempting to want to hop on a big newsworthy tragedy to bring readers to your website. Resist the temptation. Just don’t do it.

This practice is known as “newsjacking,” which the Content Marketing Institute describes this way: “Newsjacking is the process of injecting your brand into the day's news, creating a twist that grabs eyes when they're open widest.”

Newsjacking a tragedy for the sake of sales reflects poorly on your brand and can cause a big backlash. Case in point: In 2011, clothing brand Kenneth Cole was roundly criticized for a tweet that tied the company’s new spring fashion line to, of all things, the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo, Egypt.

However, newsjacking a non-tragic news event can work. For instance, a number of brands hopped on the recent solar eclipse to spread the word about a sale or promotion. That’s more than acceptable.

Just remember to tread carefully when engaging in newsjacking, and always err on the side of caution.

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