For centuries, media outlets have done whatever it takes to get people’s attention. From the newsboys of yore crying “Extra! Extra!” to today’s splashy front-page headlines and “tonight, at 11” teases, publishers have always known they can't survive if nobody’s watching them.
While this dynamic hasn't changed with the advent of the Internet, the method by which publishers are rewarded for grabbing people’s attention has.
Whereas a print publication can get people to purchase an entire newspaper with a couple of juicy headlines and a well-curated crossword section, the central currency of web publishing is the pageview, a direct measure of how many people clicked on an individual story and an indirect measure of how many ads the publisher can show its audience.
The result is that rather than having the luxury of filling pages with news briefs and town council reports, these media outlets can now only maximize revenues online by presenting every single story to readers in a way that will make them choose to spend their time with it instead of any of the other things that come down the pike in their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Publishers have always known they can't survive if nobody’s watching them.
Out of this overcrowded media landscape came “clickbait,” the process by which web publishers began using headlines to promote something “amazing” or “epic” that “you won't believe” to lure people to click on their stories — regardless of whether the contents of the story were actually any good.
While everyone has his or her own definition of the term, one thing's for sure: you don't have to look hard to find it on the web these days.
“It’s a hyper-competitive environment, so websites have to gather eyes and hold them,” said Dr. Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). “We had a lot of junk in the old print days, but on the web, it is just so much, and it is piling forth nonstop.”
Of course, simply classifying clickbait as “junk” is perhaps not the best way to think about it. Rather than a judgment about the quality or the substance of a piece of content, the digital publishing industry seems to have coalesced on a definition that focuses more on whether the content’s packaging on social media and search engines match what people will see when they click the link.
As Business Insider's copy chief Daniel McMahon succinctly put it to me: “Clickbait is anything that disappoints the reader.”
While viral news sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed are often tagged with the clickbait label for devoting coverage to social-media friendly topics like cat photos and emotional videos, the truth is that clickbait is in the eye of the beholder.
If clicking on this BuzzFeed story featuring a video of a homeless dog being rescued really does restore your faith in humanity, then it is not clickbait. But if you’re still bummed out about people on account of the “Relatives Of Boston Terror Suspect View Footage Of Deadly Shooting” story linked lower on the page, then perhaps BuzzFeed has over-promised and you’ve been misled.
While “restore your faith in humanity”-style headlines can generate a bunch of clicks very quickly, publishers need to be careful that the content lives up to the hype. Otherwise, they can run the risk of eroding reader trust and persuading people to avoid their links the next time they see them on Facebook.
“Readers are savvy, and they know when they’re being tricked,” said Refinery29 senior content strategist Jessica Novak. “[Clickbait] is not sustainable because you're ultimately going to lose your reader. She’s not going to trust you anymore. Especially with the Millennial audience, where we focus pretty heavily, trust is so important.”
The negative ramifications of clickbait can also be felt by brands running native advertising campaigns. Unlike traditional publishers who make money every time someone clicks on one of their links, many consumer brands pay for distribution on a cost-per-click model.
Publishers need to be careful that the content lives up to the hype.
Rather than profiting the moment people click on a piece of content, brand publishers can only succeed when their content delivers on the headline’s promise and entices the user to spend more time with the story and develop a positive opinion of the brand that created it.
A 2013 study from Chartbeat found that people who spend a long time engaged with a story become likelier to return to the site a second time, and a BuzzFeed case study found that visitors who were exposed to content sponsored by Virgin Mobile between five and nine times were 278% more likely to consider the company when it was time for them to buy their next phone than those who had not seen the content at all.
Together, these two data points show that the recipe for successful native advertising lies not in deceptively luring people’s attention but in keeping that attention with quality content.
Conversely, branded clickbait can lead to some rather negative consequences for the native advertiser, said Melinda Staros, the head of research at Sharethrough, the native advertising company that owns and operates this publication. Staros analyzed the more than 4,000 headlines from native ads that ran through Sharethrough's platform and cross-referenced that with recent neuroscience research to understand which words in headlines draw in readers.
“A well-written headline can color your perception of the content … but when there is no connection between the two, the disappointment is multiplied and the association made with your brand can be extremely negative,” Staros said. “That’s because neuroscience demonstrates native ad messages can impact brand associations.”
So how, then, can brand and media publishers get people’s attention without resorting to the clickbait tactics that will hurt them in the long run?
At Refinery29, the content strategy team A/B tests headlines to see not only whether readers are clicking on them but whether they are spending time on the page and sharing the stories on social media afterward. The publisher also monitors comments and social media feedback, sometimes even changing headlines if readers express that they have been disappointed by what they've clicked on.
Even before testing, editors are trained to resist using headlines that are not true to the story, a process that takes a good deal of vigilance.
“It’s tempting to want to run with the one formula that we know readers will click on, but ultimately everyone here is trained to push back if the reader is going to be left disappointed,” Novak said. “It’s really not a positive experience for anyone involved, and we really want to drive the person who is interested in the end content to that story.”
Another company that employs A/B testing is ViralNova, which does so by placing headlines on its homepage before they shared on social media. When a story generates high engagement and share rates, the company is able to tell that it is not misleading and should be shared on its social media channels.
While the viral publisher takes pains to make sure readers don't feel tricked, CEO Sean Beckner says this doesn't mean media companies need to write boring headlines.
“There’s nothing wrong with making some fun statements with headlines,” Beckner said. “All of us publishers want people to click on our stories. The good publishers also want readers to engage with the story.”
Indeed, this focus on engagement is a trend that appears to be gathering steam among web publishers. In August 2014, Facebook announced it was tweaking its News Feed algorithm to favor publishers that put out stories that people spent long periods of time reading over those people clicked on and immediately bounced away from.
In addition, Chartbeat product owner Annie Fox says that over the last year or two, she has seen publishers get more serious about increasing viewability, a metric advertisers use to determine whether people actually see the ads they buy. Since people are more likely to see an ad if they're spending a longer time on the web page it runs on, publishers are working to create stickier content.
Meanwhile, advertisers are also beginning to see the value of engagement time. In fact, the Financial Times recently rolled out a metric that uses Chartbeat’s web analytics tools to charge brands based on engagement time rather than pageviews.
All this has led Fox to believe that brands and publishers are moving away from clickbait in response to an incentive structure that pushes them to create honest, high-quality user experiences.
“You can't break down the prevailing business model overnight, but the fact that the Financial Times is willing to sell on cost-per-hour rather than just ad impressions is really promising and really exciting,” Fox said. “It means that great content and great content makers will have a chance to thrive and survive.”
Though the scourge of clickbait seems to be on the decline, at least momentarily, it’s up to publishers to make sure this remains the case. At the end of the day, it’s about creating stories people will love and pitching them to people without resorting to false advertising or yellow journalism. Regardless of the short-term spikes in pageviews, the publishers that avoid any sort of headline trickery will likely win out over time.
“As long as your content delivers on what the headline promises, you'll keep reader trust,” said Upworthy editorial director Amy O’Leary. “Whatever you promise in that headline, you have to not only deliver on but exceed for readers.”
Editor's note: Aaron Taube writes for Business Insider on occasion.