Clickbait headlines, designed to entice people to click through to a particular article, may seem like clever tools to boost page views, but they have the potential to destroy credibility in the long run. Brands that use this tactic should think long and hard about the possible consequences of their actions.
One of the consequences of the advent of social media is that we receive our information from countless sources. Anyone with a social media account can generate and share what they consider to be important news. The battle brands face to make their stories stand out from the crowd has grown increasingly intense. As a result, headlines have grown increasingly sensationalist, leading to the clickbait phenomenon.
A clickbait headline is one that promises something that the article cannot deliver, or leaves out information that entices the reader to click on the link to find out what they are missing out on. An example of the former is: "I just turned on this device, and you won't believe that I saw next". These headlines use a random popular topic to draw people in, but then just offer a list of attributes aggregated from other sites. The 'news' is hardly ever 'unbelievable', and the reader has probably seen it before, as it has been in the public domain for a long time.
An example of the latter is: 'Well-known celebrity/politician/religious leader makes shocking/racist/sexist statement'. The actual statement is left out in the hope to attract more clicks. These headlines hardly ever live up to their hype, with the supposed utterance not being particularly saucy at all, or clearly twisted to remove context and paint the celeb as the bad guy.
Clickbait headlines have no value beyond their ability to attract a click. Perpetrators of this practice have no interest in creating content of value, only in driving up traffic for personal gain. The sad truth is that even good content with a provocative title can be confused for clickbait as the fight for clicks intensifies.
The problem with this approach is that it destroys trust. Before, readers would excuse the odd overblown headline, but now, when most of us suffer from information overload, we are much quicker to boycott websites that do not deliver on the created expectation. One or two contrived headlines to drive traffic are all that is required to put the discerning reader off from ever visiting the site again.
We humans are curious by nature. If we get lured in by a promise to satisfy our curiousity, only to be handed a red herring, we do not only feel disappointed, we feel betrayed. It is the news equivalent of being catfished.
Worse still is that readers feel that they are being treated as fools by being directed to useless or irrelevant information. This is not a risk that sites can afford to take. Once you position yourself as a node of information for a critical thinking target audience, you need to act in that fashion.
The reason for the existence of the clickbait headline is understandable, as click-throughs attract advertisers. It is also well known that technology has seriously diminished the profitability of traditional models. However, if dissatisfied readers abandon the site, so will the advertisers.
Users have reached a clickbait threshold and will go to social media to tell the world that a site is full of hot air. Responding to disgruntled users, Facebook has announced that it would crack down on the clickbait articles that were clogging up people's timelines after receiving considerable backlash on this score. They would do this by looking at the time that people spent on the page after clicking on the link. If they go straight back to the Facebook page, they obviously did not satisfy their expectations.
Similarly, brands that do not want the clickbait albatross around their necks should also look carefully at the time that their target audiences take to interact with the content. Short times spent on a page are bad news. Those who neglect the wishes of readers will soon find themselves without an audience.
Greg Forbes is the managing director and founder of Lion's Wing Brand Communications (www.lionswing.co.za). His experience includes almost every industry within the broader marketing and communications sector, from public affairs, investor relations and journalism, to media relations, digital communications, media strategy and advertising. You can email Greg at , follow him on Twitter at @Greg_Forbes or call him on +27 (0) 11 027 0780.
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