Picture the scene: I’m looking at my favourite sport-related website to get the latest news and views from the European Championships, but every time I open a story to read, I notice three pieces of content to the side that flash and throb like a carnival charlatan winking at me, gesturing for me to step inside his tent and see the unearthly delights and horrors that await. I ignore them, as much as I can, walk away from that proverbial tent, but find myself wanting to go back and scream that I won’t be taken for a fool.
These pieces of content are click-bait, and they infuriate me, for several reasons.
Firstly, they are, for the most part, misleading at best, and outright lies at worst. Without naming names, one story promised to reveal 10 Hollywood actors who are actually transgender (Number 8 will shock you!!!), its feature image quite obviously that of a well-known, non-transgender actor with a crudely photoshopped blonde wig placed on it.
Am I to believe he is actually transgender? And if so, how did this publisher find the photographic proof that nobody else has ever found? Or could it be that they are just lying in an effort to get you to click on the story? I will never know, because I would never click on it, but I can guess.
Secondly, they assume they know not only what I am interested in, but what my emotions and thought processes are. ‘You won’t believe what happened next!’ How do you know my levels of credibility? ‘He couldn’t imagine the reaction he’d get from this act!’ He couldn’t care less. ’10 places you’ve never heard of that you must visit before you die!’ How do you know my knowledge of geography? And why must I go to these places before I die? What will happen if I don’t visit them?
Thirdly, they not only wrongly assume they know my interests, but actually intrude upon the things I am interested in with their nonsense, which leaves me even more determined never to click on them. Their assumptions are wrong, yet they persist. Why do they think someone looking up a feature about football will be interested in reading about transgender movie stars (Number 8 will shock you!!!)? Or a made-up story about some bloke who got thanked for an act of kindness, with a sensationalised headline that suggests I will fall into emotional pieces once I read it? (You won’t stop crying when you see what happens next). It doesn’t seem to matter that I never click on these stories – they just keep coming back, like bad pennies, or the shady villain in a soap opera (You won’t believe what he keeps in his attic!).
The whole idea is to make me click on the story to find out the shocking truth about chips, or the little girl from Little House On The Prairie, or whatever, to bring click-through numbers up for advertising purposes, but the result is the opposite – I am so infuriated by their persistent interruption to my online activity that I vow to never click on their content.
I could give plenty more reasons (Number 8 will shock you!!!) but I doubt many would disagree with the point being made. With the growing number of stimuli and interruptions to our online experience, comes a growing cynicism. We know it is click-bait, and choose to ignore it, but there must be enough of us out there who, like the fish that sees the squirming worm but not the shimmering hook, decide to bite, because otherwise this form of misdirection and falsity wouldn’t survive as a marketing method.
The reasons for click-bait and sensationalised headlines are obvious. With so much content being published every day (90% of all the data in the world was created in the last two years), the need to stand out and grab the attention of the online audience is increasingly difficult, and an eye-catching, exciting, curiosity-arousing headline is more likely to grab someone’s attention and compel them to click on the story. Click rates and visits increase, validating the money being spent by advertisers on that site.
When the phenomenon first started it was a ‘new trick’ and (far too) many companies jumped on the bandwagon, yet not enough have subsequently jumped back off, and are still promoting this form of click-grabbing.
But the problem is that it has now become an annoying practice that is more likely to turn the audience away. It is a trick, and to entice people into a story only for them to find completely irrelevant content means that they have given you a click, but nothing else, and will more often than not leave without even looking at the ads on the page. No lead, no potential customer, just an extremely brief visit and an extraordinarily high bounce rate.
The practice is ultimately damaging to a brand because it betrays the trust of the audience to the point where they are likely to turn away at the mere sight of such sensationalism. As thestorytellermarketer.com asks, ‘is burning your reader’s trust really worth that extra click?’
The standing out from the crowd idea doesn’t even work anymore, because, as this blog from seopressor.com explains, most click-bait headlines only appear around other click-bait headlines, so the situation quickly becomes akin to a horde of people shouting for your attention. Chances are, you ignore the crowd. Last year, Tumblr became inundated with click-bait headlines that had no relevant content to follow up with, causing extreme annoyance at the platform until they acted to get it under control.
Facebook too has announced a crackdown on click-bait, and BuzzFeed, the king of cat fact lists and heartstring-pulling tales has come out to claim they don’t use it. You may scoff at that, but while BuzzFeed’s headlines are sensationalised, the stories within do at least relate to the headline to some degree, and knowingly appeal to an audience’s sense of fun and trivial browsing. A headline announcing 10 cats who look like movie stars is going to have an amusing story about cats with facial expressions that may or may not resemble Jennifer Lawrence and Jared Leto. In other words, you get what you expect. They are not the real culprits. They have found a winning formula to gain traffic, and stick by it.
The real culprits are those who believe that they can take this method of attention-grabbing, and tack any old content to it, regardless of whether it relates to the story or not. The results are no longer positive. Mashable points out that a third of users who click on promoted content like this leave almost immediately, while less than a quarter scroll down the page, compared to genuine editorial content, which sees 71% scroll down.
Moving away from clicks as the ultimate metric to measure engagement is a necessity, because the click means nothing if the audience doesn’t stay on the page, click-through to more content, or come away with a positive online experience. Content marketers need to focus more on time spent on page and the further actions taken once there.
How do you make sure the audience engages properly? Well, an eye-catching headline is important, but it should stay within the bounds of reality, it must relate to the content provided, and if possible, should hint at the value attached to reading on.
The headline should be the first step towards getting visitors interested in your site. Providing value on that first click should lead to offering more value through further engagement. Inbound marketing works best off the idea that the visitor to your site is probably already at least a little bit interested in a subject you publish about, so providing genuine, relevant and helpful content is not just the best, but the only way to bring them through the sales funnel and convert them from visitors into leads, and hopefully customers.
What’s my overall point here? It’s this: Tricking people into viewing your content by using sensationalised click-bait headlines is not just wrong, it simply no longer works, because today’s savvy online audience no longer appreciates being led down a dark alley towards irrelevant, intrusive and interrupting content they have no interest in, and will resent being brought there. As George Orwell said, ‘advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket’ – but good content marketing means you don’t have to treat the audience like swine.
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