You won’t believe what Facebook is doing with clickbait headlines!

Content marketers can walk the tightrope between compelling headlines and clickbait by asking two questions

Clickbait can be likened to the prawn crackers that precede a Chinese meal: totally insubstantial but strangely moreish.

Facebook’s recent announcement that it is increasing its fight against clickbait should ring warning bells for content marketers as well as peddlers of miracle diets and retirement plans.

We’re all familiar with clickbait headlines. In addition to the classic ‘you won’t believe’ (as above), other favourites include:

The shocking truth about…

When you find out…

You’ll never x again…

They promise so much but deliver so little. The stories they link to do not live up to the hype. The clickbait business has received the page impression it was after and now hopes it can keep your attention for long enough to sell you something or earn a couple more clicks.

Content marketing and clickbait

While there is much to loathe in clickbait’s vacuous hard sell, there is also much to be learnt. Marketers constantly talk about creating content that is compelling and engaging. To create that content and then give it a headline that does not engage the audience and compel a click or an open is clearly a missed opportunity.

The window for such an opportunity is small. Marketers have a split second to make an impression as their target audience scrolls through their emails, scans a webpage or glances at a report. Headlines, titles, subject lines – it’s all about the first point of contact. Get it wrong and your client or prospect will move swiftly on without a backward glance.

Explain the benefit

Clickbait headlines have a clear promise: ‘click here and learn this’. The fact that what you could learn may be trivial (what this puppy did next is unbelievable) or life changing (discover how this tax loophole can earn you thousands every week) is not important. The headline makes the benefit clear.

This is something that content marketers must learn from. Spend some time browsing the magazine stand next time you’re in an airport. The cover lines have to do the same job of grabbing attention in an instant then giving a reason to buy.

It’s about the product, not the package

There is, in theory, nothing wrong with clickbait headlines. The problem arises when the story they link to does not deliver what has been promised. If there really was a miracle cure, or if the ‘shocking truth’ really was (a) shocking and (b) true, then the label and the product would have been matched and everyone would be happy.

The issue is that clickbait fails to deliver. There are, however, enough people with time on their hands to make that speculative click of a mouse, just in case this time it’s different. It’s a numbers game and those clicks make enough money to keep the industry going.

The clickbait pandemic

Clickbait is spreading. It’s at the heart of the whole advertising phenomenon but is also used by sites such as Reddit to drive page impressions for both genuine stories and native advertising.

The language of clickbait has spread into other forms of more mainstream journalism. The constant drive to meet traffic targets has led headline writers to push the boundaries between ‘compelling but honest’ and ‘compelling but unsubstantiated’.

Such attention grabbing headlines have now been massively overused. Waters have been muddied and trust eroded. Now is perhaps the time to retreat to more conservative headlines – to leave some clear blue water between your quality content and that of the clickbait pulp that swills around the internet.

But don’t retreat too far. Don’t forget that clickbait works because it understands how people work.

Ask yourself two questions every time you write or approve a headline: Is the benefit clear? Does the content deliver on the promise?

If the answer is yes to both, you’re on the right track.

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