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As the Internet becomes more and more crowded with compelling content, it becomes harder and harder for one’s content to stand out. This is not a new theory, nor is it something that is particularly revolutionary. Marketers everywhere know that they have to adapt their content marketing strategy to reflect the shrinking amounts of time that people have to consume their content.
The problem is: many companies have adapted their content marketing strategies to lure–not entice–viewers to click on a link. You’ve seen it before:
- “You’ll never believe what happens when…”
- “I wasn’t expecting this at all…”
- “He should considered the possible results before he tried this…”
These are all classic examples of clickbait, and they are crafted to trick viewers into visiting a link, generating traffic for the site and spurring social shares.
Outwardly, the practice seems relatively harmless: the headlines themselves are compelling calls to action that speak directly to the consumer. The problems lie in the ambiguousness of both the title, and the quality of the content. More often than not, clicking on the link will bring the visitor to a nefarious content farm, populated by wide-ranging gimmick listicles generated for the sole purpose of catching roving web surfers in their respective tractor beams.
Curiosity Killed the Consumer
“The idea is both to share just enough that readers know what they’re clicking and to withhold just enough to compel the click.”
-Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
The success of clickbait is predicated on its ability to exploit the “curiosity gap.” By omitting a piece of information from the headline, the viewer is spurred by their sense of curiosity to learn more.
In an article for The Daily Beast, Jake Beckman, the man behind @SavedYouAClick, a Twitter feed devoted to “saving you from clickbait,” summarized the dishonesty at the core of clickbait. “It’s social copy specifically intended to leave out information to create a ‘curiosity gap’. Some of it’s disingenuous. It’s not always, but the reader is always being manipulated.”
With the amount of well-intended, honest content being generated, the question of whether clickbait is just crooked, or outright pernicious?
The answer to that is dependant on the overarching purpose of the content that visitors are being sent to. Granted, the ultimate purpose is to generate traffic, using ambiguous titles to entice visitors can be as it seems: the evolution of a social media strategy. Beckman compared the practice to “shouty journalism,” a la the olden days where newsboys stood on street corners shouting “extra, extra read all about it,” as they harassed potential customers walking down the street.
In this metaphor, the newsboy is social media; ad libbing as best they could so as to sell more newspapers. While the newsboy cannot possibly be held accountable for selling a subpar product, social media managers can. But consider this: what if the content that is being hawked is actually worthwhile? Does that make the means to which the content is distributed justified?
A Means to an End
Upworthy is one of the fastest growing media startups in recent memory. The site is dedicated to hosting content that does one thing well: it compels consumers to want to share it with others.
Upworthy has mastered the exploitation of the so-called “curiosity gap.” Unlike traditional content marketing, their focus isn’t on the content itself, but rather on the headline. The headline serves as the central call to action. “HERE IS WHY YOU NEED TO READ THIS ARTICLE,” it really doesn’t matter what the piece of content is. When you find yourself browsing Upworthy–even if it is for the purpose of writing an informative article on the role of clickbait–the consumer cannot help but be compelled by something on the site.
Upworthy’s calls to action succeed because they are compelling to a diverse audience. While good content marketing spends time and energy to assess which demographics would be most likely to consume the content they are developing, Upworthy instead casts a wide net, relying completely on their headlines to an audience with no real connection to each other.
What’s wrong with that? In the grand scheme of things, digital media is very much still The Wild West. “The bottom line for publishers is that digital media is still trying to find its footing in the revenue game, and revenue is largely dependent on how much traffic and how many uniques you get,” said Beckman.
Upworthy’s model has ensured that their content is marketable, creates a community of readers, and the content itself is built to be amplified; perhaps better-so than other types of content.
Is Clickbait Harmful?
As the clickbait method continues to garner results for advertisers, there grows a sense of resentment towards the practice, giving marketers fair-warning that it might not be a viable option for long. For those that are sick of the widespread adoption of the dumbing down of headlines from simple and informative to vague and ubiquitous, there are those sick of clicking on links that promise some grandiose battle wear good triumphs over evil, only to find a video of a bully sparring with his victim.
With anti-clickbait awareness on the rise, and sites like The Onion’s Clickhole becoming more viable, the sense of cynicism towards clickbait is growing rapidly. Though the popularity of sites like Upworthy know no bounds, questions of the sites’ purpose or legitimacy are furthered with every headline.
In the end, it might be the reliance on the Internet that grows the sense of cynicism surrounding sites that employ clickbait as a means to an end. As more and more people turn to the Internet for news, their patience for sensationalist headlines that guarantee nothing will inevitably turn outward, and those sites that experience great short-term ROI based on clickbait will lose readership.
For all the talk of the “dumbing down” of society, society sure is getting frustrated with the dumbing down of its sources.
Nick Rojas is a business consultant and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Chicago. He has consulted small and medium-sized enterprises for over twenty years. You can follow him on Twitter @NickARojas.
A special thank you to John Siegel for his help with the production of these contributions