Scourge Or Savior: What Clickbaiting Means For The Future
By Neil St. Clair
This article was originally published on Forbes.com (January, 2015)
Yes, I know my headline would be more ironic if it in fact was a bit of clickbait, but I'm a trained journalist, and simply can't do it. For those of you outside the parlance of millennial marketers, clickbaiting in the analog world would be what P.T.Barnum used for those suckers "born every minute." He'd get the rubes in the tent by promising you'd never believe the most fantastical, amazing, stupendous horror of mankind just behind the curtain. And once you'd paid your nickle, you'd come to find it was a hippo in a tutu. But by then, he'd already gotten your money--tough luck, sonny, no refunds.
Nowadays, instead of dressed-up hippos or pumping up the Spanish-American War with Yellow Journalism, we get: "They Did a Psychology Study of Police Officers. What They Found Makes Me Sick With Worry. (Upworthy)." And "The 3 Deadliest Drugs in America Are All Totally Legal (Vox)." or "The Origins Of The Alleged ‘Dead Cops’ Chant (Buzzfeed)." These are uninformative teases at best, and misleading at worst.
But you clicked, didn't you? You wanted to find out what made Maz Ali "Sick with Worry" (it was the way police perceive and react towards black children). And you wanted to find out the three deadliest drugs in America (tobacco, alcohol and prescription painkillers).
Yeah, I clicked, too. And when I did, Vox got a few cents from its advertisers and Buzzfeed added to its stunningly high monthly user total (around 150 million+/month). It didn't cost me anything (maybe a small piece of my soul), and I didn't find the stories totally uninteresting. Had the headlines read "Study Shows Black Children Treated Differently By Police" or "Alcohol, Tobacco and Painkillers Three Deadliest Drugs in U.S.," the research shows a quantum difference in my likelihood of clicking, and by extension sharing, these stories.
Like a coquettish Victorian girl showing a flash of wrist or hint of neckline, clickbaiters offer just enough intrigue to take the next step. Now, if the next step entices me to a better understanding of a new social crisis is that inherently wrong? But by the same token what if we're induced towards some time-wasting piece of pseudo-psychology just to tick up ad-based revenues?
Even more fundamentally, is it ethical to use clickbait lures while fishing for readers or is it Machiavelli at his digital best? And for marketers, is clickbaiting simply de la mode or a more structural change in the way we approach audiences?
And after parsing through all this, we still need to settle clickbait's grand, painful dichotomy: It works, really well in fact, but should we use it?
Arguments in Favor of Clickbaiting
On the one hand, as a media entrepreneur, I have a soft spot for clickbaiting. For those that derive their revenue from ads, getting more "rubes in the tent" means more money for operations. And more money from operations means the potential to pay for good journalism. And in this scenario I'm willing to swallow the jagged little pill of clickbaiting if that money goes back towards substantive storytelling. Like an actor that does five studio rom-coms to turn out one indy piece of cinematic gold.
Clickbaiting is also merely a product of the give-the-people-what-they-want reality. From the ne plus ultra of the viral genre in Upworthy, Thought Catalog and BuzzFeed to sometimes offenders like the Huffington Post, Business Insider and Slate , the hottest media properties are also some of the biggest clickbait culprits. Are they producing good journalism? That's debatable, but The New Republic didn't play the clickbait game, and its reporting is now in limbo. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed just got a valuation of $850m.
So, for better, or worse, our population has voted with its mouse-controlling fingers and proven there's something inherent to our human psychology that makes these intriguing headlines more clickable--and even if they fail to deliver it appears we're once bitten, twice as intrigued. Hubspot points to studies that show our vulnerability is one of material depravation at our own lack of knowledge--the so-called "curiosity gap."
Now, time to offend some ethicists. I find no moral repugnancy in these types of headlines and content so long as they don't bridge into outright lies. Building a little intrigue often means building good business. It's an uber-competitive world in media these days, and one must do what one must do to survive. And if the beast wants clickable headlines, feed it. Any audience has the freedom to make up its own mind, and the day the public clicks more often on a story about admitting the next EU member than on the "Top 18 Breakup Text of All Time," we'll see the pendulum swing away from clickbaiting.
Arguments Against Clickbaiting
This type of "teaser" marketing has been around since shortly after Gutenberg put moveable type to parchment, so I don't buy claims about clickbait's novelty eventually wearing off or that it's leading to the destruction of our discourse (and grammar). What I do know is that clickbaiting has become more de riguer in the modern era with media models dependent on CPM (cost-per-mille) and CPC (cost-per-click) revenue streams. As the democritization of publishing and content has taken hold (CNN now has to compete with YouTube for eyeballs) there's been a race to the lowest common content denominator. And this is where I have a real problem.
As content consumers we're getting "distractified" by viral-looking content and headlines that tug at our curiosity. And even if it's revenue-increasing junk dressed up as news it's still doing harm. Why? In the past, a certain type of person was going to pick up the National Enquirer in the grocery store line. Now, every one is a "clickhole" looking at the proliferation of nonsense content junking up our Facebook newsfeeds.
Add to that the new scourge of the "sharehole," who wants us to know "What Era he was Supposed to be Born in." BuzzFeed is also a master of this subgenus to clickbaiting, called "sharebait," and I draw little to no distinction between the two.
Stipulated, certain types of folks will self-filter and still only read The New Yorker in hard copy, but I'm not worried about the margins. I'm concerned about the meat of the bell curve. These are the folks that I would submit are most affected by the news, and in need of quality content to make informed decisions about the world around them.
What we're losing is truly meaningful content rising to the top of the consumption cycle. Instead, it's often "listicles," quizzes about what country you should be from or what I call "pilot fish journalism," i.e. rewritten stories from publications of record gussied up with viral headlines. By the time you've stuffed yourself with this click-candy there's very little appetite left for the meat-and-potatoes of The Washington Post or The Atlantic.
What this does is put a massive squeeze on good journalism to either adapt to the status quo or die. Both scenarios are unpalatable. The New York Times is unlikely to debase itself by "clickbaiting" it's normally austere headlines. However, might we see a New York Times that stands firm against the clickbait horde but can no longer support itself as it loses market share to nimbler competitors? This doomsday scenario might seem unlikely, but it could be the start of a worrisome slippery slope.
With Great Clicks Comes Great Responsibility
For all of the ivory tower hand-wringing over the disappearance of Mencken-style wit and Strunk & White grammar, the English language will survive. So will good journalism. But we're just in the early tide of the sea change that will fundamentally alter the media/content landscape, and I hope the benefitting inheritors do proper justice to the estate.
The BuzzFeeds, Business Insider's and UpWorthy-type sites are going to continue doing well. Even as popular sentiment may swing against click-baiting, they've stumbled upon a recipe for internet media success that has a sort of unpleasant permanence. In short, they're going to own the click/view/share-based advertising model for decades to come.
But fret not legacy media and its lovers. There will be some darkest-before-the-dawning ahead, and you'll have to enter a chrysalis to do some deep meditation, but upon emerging, the Old Grey Lady and other standards of record will survive and flourish--their journalistic integrity left in tact. Not only will there be more Bezos-like saviors to modernize and capitalize, but audiences, as they mature, will elevate to these oldies but goodies. What they'll find aren't sites riddled with ads or subscription paywalls. Rather, they'll observe deep, meaningful sponsorship from a select few players who want to utterly and completely own your attention. Remember when TV shows were brought to you with limited commercial interruption by company XYZ? That's the future media model for old-school content brands that entice sophisticated, higher-net-worth audiences: Singularization not Proliferation of underwriters.
What Kind of Marketer Will You Be?
The big question now is should you involve this tactic in your own marketing? Should you take the easier buck to prop up the bottomline, despite some inevitable brow-lowering? Or should you create content that appeals to your audience's better intellectual angels? In the former you'll be relying on volume and virality, and in the latter singularity and sophistication. Neither is right nor wrong, it's simply a matter of your business model and audience.
At AlleyWire, I received an object lesson on this topic as we began playing with headlines to beta test our audience. In the one instance I wrote a headline for our newsletter saying "You Won't Believe What We Discovered..." in regards to a story on an interesting brand consultancy. Shortly after I received both mild and harsh repudiation from our audience. One gent wrote, "Clickbait copy? You can do better. 'Cause I love you guys." It woke me up swiftly to the reality that our audience wasn't looking for us to pander, but merely to inform as straightforwardly and entertainingly as we could. Our decision was made.
Whether you're a media site or a content marketer, as you decide the tonality of your headlines and copy, you'll also want to take note that BuzzFeed and other major players may have already salted the earth of the clickbait landscape. That is, you'll be entering a crowded field that has already been tilled to infertility. And once you cross the metaphorical rubicon intro clickbait territory, there's little going back.
But if that crossing occurs with 10 million more eyeballs on your content you may well have the last laugh of satisfaction.
I'll close simply with this, a line from Edward R. Murrow in the early days of television that appears relevant to our progressing mobile, social and increasingly digital world: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference."
Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation.
Follow him on IG @neilstclair