Why Clickbait Is Dangerous for Brands

Since the advent of social media, publishers have eagerly teased appealing, easy-to-digest links in order to get consumers to view and share their content. You may know this practice as clickbait, and it’s the siren song of the publishing world. And for emerging brand publishers, figuring out how “clickbaity” to be presents a huge challenge.

There are signs that a revolt against clickbait may be coming. Earlier this fall, Facebook gave one of the clearest definitions of clickbait in a post explaining how they were cracking down on the practice: “‘Clickbait’ is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.”

While Facebook isn’t going to read every headline and penalize brands accordingly, they are going to penalize links that fail to hold user attention, explaining: “If [users] click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted.”

This is the kind of content that’s counterproductive for brand publishers to post. After all, the objective of brand publishing isn’t to get empty clicks—it’s to build relationships with people. But how can brands strike the balance between creating shareable, compelling content and manipulating readers for clicks?

A great start is by understanding the nature of clickbait and some of its consequences.

Why do we even click?

The clickbait technique is old hat. At its core, it’s the combination of journalism content and catchy headline copywriting, not unlike how the six o’clock news teases its upcoming reports on fatalities, scares, and threats. The media is built on emotions (hence the pre-Internet controversy over sensationalist newspapers), and the most effective companies figure out which ones trigger the greatest degree of reader engagement.

Granted, there are varying degrees in the gradient of clickbait. Some publishers create high-quality content and smartly package it with a compelling headline, while other publishers succeed at leveraging the curiosity gap but don’t deliver on the promise they’ve made, leaving the reader disappointed.

The amount of content that fits the latter category is growing. Today, the Internet largely rewards listicles and snazzy headlines riding the coattails of recent news. Albeit short, catchy, and cute, the content is often an attempt to take advantage of your core emotions, like fear, guilt, love, pride, greed, and belonging. Clickbait is pretty easy to identify. As Vox’s acting managing editor, Nilay Patel, writes:

Upworthy’s now-infamous ‘You’ll never guess what happened next’ headline construction is a one-question pop quiz; a call for the reader to actually guess what happened next, and then verify that guess by reading the article. It creates value because there’s a chance you’ll be rewarded with the smug satisfaction of being right. (And if even you’re not, you still get to share that question on Facebook to trick your friends.)

For a deeper understanding of clickbait, The American Reader’s Michael Reid Roberts breaks down the grammar of Upworthy’s headlines:

The key element in these titles is the relationship between the first sentence and the second. The first is relatively traditional, while the second sentence is short, annoyingly informal, and conspiratorial. We might call these couplets epodal because of the relative line lengths, but I think the effect is more similar to catalexis in that the second line’s brevity emphasizes something unfinished or incomplete. The second sentence is intentionally vague: click here to finish the thought, answer the question, solve the riddle! And, like most unfinished stories, the conclusion is rarely satisfying.

As Roberts writes, clickbait becomes distasteful when it fails to deliver on the intensity of emotion that the headline promises. “Most clickbait is disappointing because it’s a promise of value that isn’t met—the payoff isn’t nearly as good as what the reader imagines,” Patel said in an interview with Poynter. “BuzzFeed headlines pay off particularly well because they actually make fairly small promises and then over-deliver. It’s validating, which is maybe the most valuable payoff of them all.”

Ultimately, the line between simply crafting compelling headlines and resorting to clickbait can be murky. But if brands care about delighting readers instead of disappointing them, toeing that line is extremely important. And that’s why brands need to pay attention to metrics like engaged time, average finish, and bounce rate to determine whether they’re delivering on the promises they make to their audience.

It’s also why brands overemphasizing vanity social metrics can be dangerous.

Reading ≠ Sharing

A large part of the appeal of clickbait is that it’s designed to turn readers into a word-of-mouth marketing tool, spreading content far and wide. While that’s great, shares can be awfully misleading. Why? Because people don’t always read the content they share.

This spring, Chartbeat studied tens of thousands of articles and found “no relationship whatsoever between the amount a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention an average reader will give that content.”

It’s an intriguing dynamic, and one that Betaworks’ John Borthwick explained in humorous fashion on Medium:

However, Chartbeat also found that if websites “can hold a visitor’s attention for just three minutes, they are twice as likely to return than if you only hold them for one minute.”


Why is this important? Because it tells us that optimizing for sharing can be dangerous, as many people who share your content might not be very likely to return. It can also lead you down the path of creating content that’s only meant to be shared, not read. As BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti said in an interview with financial journalist Felix Salmon:

I love metrics and I love thinking about optimization, but I think that the optimal state is being slightly suboptimal because as soon as you try to actually optimize, particularly for a single metric, you end up finding that the best way to optimize for that metric ends up perverting the metric and making the metric mean the opposite of what it used to mean.

Closing thoughts

People will always want entertainment, but brand publishers can—and should—choose to be less P. T. Barnum and more Walt Disney. Brands that continue down the road of clickbait risk becoming momentary distractions that fail to build high-quality relationships with readers. By all means, write compelling headlines. But also be sure that your content delivers.

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