The science behind clickbait titles (and how to use them responsibly)

“Clickbait” is something of a dirty word in the blogosphere, implying some nefarious intent to trick readers into clicking on a link and being subjected to an article that doesn’t deliver on its tantalizing title.

While it’s true that clickbait titles are marketing poison in many — if not most — cases, they can be a major asset in the right hands.

If you can crack the clickbait code, you’ll have another marketing tool at your disposal to drive more traffic to your site, increase page views and build brand awareness. Just be sure you’re using this info for good.

What makes a headline clickbait?

Clickbait titles typically refer to one of two types of headlines:

  • Sensationalized titles that draw in readers with over-the-top proclamations.
  • Bait-and-switch items that promise one thing but deliver something else entirely in the actual content.

A quick trip over to Buzzfeed should provide all the examples you need of clickbait articles to reference. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are also often inundated with headlines that could be generously described as sensational.

Clickbait isn’t confined to the editorial world, either. YouTube is filled with clickbait content and misleading headlines, much to its users’ chagrin.

Good vs. bad clickbait

What separates the “bad” variety of clickbait from the more innocuous headlines? The types of titles that get on readers’ nerves and elicit accusations of “fake news” usually fit one of these criteria:

  • The article fails to even come close to delivering on the headline’s promise, delivering little to no value.
  • The blog is a barely concealed ad masquerading as an unbiased article.
  • The content is OK (maybe even good), but it’s buried in an avalanche of on-screen advertisements.
  • The article is a full-on bait-and-switch piece, providing none of the information referenced in the title.
  • The info’s there, but it’s presented in a manner that sacrifices user experience for other metrics (e.g., using slideshows to generate more page views when the content could have been placed on a single dedicated page).

Whether you’re talking about “bad” or “good” clickbait, the goal is roughly the same: to entice readers with an attention-grabbing headline, often with an angle that seems too good to be true.

Consider this clickbait example: “12 Kitchen Hacks that Will Turn Any Home Cook Into a Professional Chef.” That headline’s going to appeal to just about anyone looking for ways to improve their cooking skills. Its lofty and suspect promises push it over the edge into clickbait territory.

Are there really a dozen simple tweaks you can make to turn your home-cooked meals into restaurant-quality dishes? Almost certainly not. But even though the headline is hyperbolizing a bit, if the article’s advice helps you become a better home cook, does it really matter? Readers aren’t going to be terribly upset with a clickbait title if they still get something valuable from the content itself.

On the other hand, if the article is solely composed of links to 12 kitchen gadget product pages — all conveniently sharing the same manufacturer — then they’re probably going to feel like they were tricked by a misleading title.

The truth is, for as much as people dump on clickbait, these types of headlines are very effective at drawing in readers. The difference between good and bad clickbait comes down to execution. Does your article, infographic, video or other piece of content actually deliver what its title promises? Or is it just a bait-and-switch that will leave people frustrated and wondering why they wasted their time?

Why do clickbait headlines work so well?

They may be the scourge of the internet, but clickbait titles continue to thrive in virtually every corner of cyberspace because they get clicks. If people simply stopped clicking on them, clickbaity headlines would go away forever.

Clickbait preys on some basic psychology and behavior that’s hardwired into every person. As Psychology Today explained, people have a survival instinct to seek out information to learn more about their surroundings and social environments. Research has suggested that there is a connection (or at least a correlation) between absorbing new knowledge and the body’s flow of dopamine. Basically, we feel good when we learn something new. Just the offer alone can entice a biological reaction, hence the allure of clickbait.

Clickbait titles often take advantage of that thirst for knowledge — even if it’s a topic as inane as celebrity gossip — by posing headlines in a way that piques our curiosity and makes us feel like we’re going to miss out if we don’t click. FOMO is real, people.

Say you came across a headline that read, “You Won’t Believe These 10 Marketing Tricks that Will Triple Your Revenue!” You’d probably treat it with a healthy bit of skepticism. But at the same time, you might think, “What do I have to lose by taking a look?” After all, there could be some useful tips you hadn’t considered, and you wouldn’t want to pass up an opportunity to give your marketing strategy an extra edge.

So, don’t beat yourself up the next time you click on a clickbait headline. Blame thousands of years of human evolution.

Appreciating the bright side of clickbait

Clickbait titles aren’t all bad. If you take the right lessons from them, your content creators can craft headlines that are more likely to resonate with your target audience and deliver better search engine optimization (SEO) and engagement metrics.

In fact, clickbait tactics actually share a lot in common with the latest headline writing best practices:

  • They offer value to the reader (even if they don’t always come through on that promise).
  • They’re short, punchy and easy to understand.
  • They’re designed to appeal to specific audiences and pique their interest.
  • They use “power words” to evoke an emotional response in the reader.

Researchers who analyzed the sentiment, polarization and popularity of newspaper headlines found that article titles with either extremely positive or negative connotations drew in more readers than more conservative descriptions. In other words, it doesn’t pay to play it safe when it comes to headline writing.

Don’t be afraid to be more demonstrative and even a touch outlandish with your blog titles. Find that middle ground between hyperbolic and tantalizing, tapping into your audience’s curiosity and encouraging them to click.

That starts by understanding who your readers are and what they want to know. What do they struggle with the most? How can you help solve those issues? Package that message into a catchy title that offers clear, meaningful value to your target audience.

How to make clickbait work for your digital marketing strategy

Always remember to incorporate SEO best practices when writing headlines (for example, including a targeted keyword in the title) so your article will rank higher on search results and stand out to users on search engine results pages (SERPs).

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List formats are usually a good fit for sensational titles since they quantify the content’s value to some degree (you’re not just getting some marketing tips; you’re getting 10 marketing tips!) and they are easy to scan. For that reason, list-based articles are great additions to any content marketing strategy focused on boosting organic traffic, page views and brand awareness metrics.

The key to using clickbait effectively is to make sure you have the quality content to back it up. Sensational headlines that don’t deliver the goods are only going to turn away readers and increase your site’s bounce rate. Be sure you take the time to create a blog post that actually provides the insights and value that its catchy title promises. Really scrutinize what your headline offers, and don’t post that article until it delivers exactly what readers will expect from it.

Does clickbait content deserve its nasty reputation? Absolutely. The internet is filled with misleading headlines, blatant advertisements and meaningless content. You need almost a sixth sense to parse the quality content from the worthless drivel that happens to have an engaging title.

Clickbait uses some perfectly sound underlying concepts, though. Rather than turn your nose up at the idea of taking inspiration from clickbait tactics, recognize some of the fundamental truths about human behavior that this type of content thrives on. People want sensational headlines, and if you can’t draw them in with catchy titles that inspire curiosity, rest assured there is another brand that will.

Finding that balance between sensational and clickbait may seem tricky, but if you can keep delivering good content and real value to your audience, you’ll never be at risk of falling into the “fake news” trap.

Good luck out there, and remember: If you’re going to clickbait this holiday season, please do it responsibly.

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