Last week, my favorite fitness YouTuber, Sydney Cummings, posted a video with a title that left me absolutely devastated.
Quickly I pressed "play." From the title and the opening sequence — complete with sad piano music and ominous text in the beginning ("Trust us — we hate this too … this is hard for us both,") I prepared myself for the sad realization that this was Cummings announcing the end of her YouTube channel.
I'll admit, as the video kept progressing, I was sliding into a slight panic. I thought, "How else am I going to get the same results?!"
But then, the music stopped. The black screen filtered out to reveal Cummings in an empty room. She and her fiance took the time to somberly explain that the time had come for them to finally say goodbye … to their old fitness studio in lieu of an upgrade.
It was then that I realized that I'd been clickbaited.
Cummings expertly played with a vague title and introduction to draw me in and keep my attention — and emotions — at a high. Clickbait is a powerful way to deliver a message to readers, whether the intent is good or bad.
What is clickbait, and how is it so effective? This post will fill you in, so let's get started.
What is clickbait?
Clickbait draws readers to click a link using a title that is often misleading. Because the copy used in clickbait is often deceptive, clickbait is regarded as a form of false advertisement. However, there is a way to use clickbait in a manner that doesn't sensationalize content or mislead readers.
If you've ever been "clickbaited" before, think about what drew you in. Was it the mention of a topic you're interested in or a certain emotion you felt?
As for the video from my favorite fitness YouTuber, it was the terror I experienced when reading the video's title. I had to know what was going on and how I was possibly going to continue without her instruction. That emotional connection kept my eyes glued on the video until I had an answer.
Clickbait is successful because the content often follows a formula. It leaves readers on a cliffhanger and uses a buzzy keyword, celebrity, or known phenom to attract attention. You can often spot clickbait by the strong, reactive language that's used in its titles.
Take this headline from The New York Post, for example:
NASA scientists are a reputable and known source of information about space. This title suggests that they've found evidence of a parallel universe, and that by clicking on the article, you'll find an explanation of their findings.
However, when you read the article, you find a summation of parallel universes, the experiment used to detect the existence of an alternate universe, and the conclusion that no concrete evidence was found. The article ends with the quote, "'We’re left with the most exciting or most boring possibilities,' said Ibrahim Safa, who also worked on the experiment."
Because the content didn't deliver what the title alluded to, the headline can be seen as clickbait.
Let's go over clickbait titles in a little more detail.
Clickbait titles are generally vague, imply a great benefit to readers, and invoke emotion.
In the NASA example, the vague title suggested that the benefit of reading the article through to the end would reveal a brilliant, groundbreaking discovery. It inspired a sense of wonder and intrigue. In reality though, when reaching the end of the article, most readers probably feel just as let down as I did.
Clickbait is great for raising click-through rates, but you'll likely leave readers feeling deceived. If you continuously use clickbait titles and mislead readers, it could damage your brand's credibility. Readers could start to believe that the content you're providing isn't valuable, but instead created to drive traffic.
Common clickbait titles include phrases like, "You won't believe this," or "This is how …". If the headline implies a great value from reading further, it's a good contender for clickbait.
Clickbait titles don't have to be deceptive. They can allude to valuable content while still following the rules of clickbait. This is why, though clickbait is considered false advertising, it doesn't have to be — it can still be truthful about the post's content.
For example, let's look at this title from BuzzFeed:
This title conveys to the reader that they'll most likely enjoy the list of knick knacks in the post that are under $40. It still expresses the emotional value, is slightly vague, and implies a great benefit. The content within the post backs that title up — you'll find a list of 33 items underneath $40 that readers may or may not love.
The goal of clickbait is to increase clicks and bring readers to a webpage by using an engaging title. Let's go over some examples of clickbait in the next section.
Generally, if your title compels web browsers to engage with your content because of the benefit you allude to, it's most likely clickbait. Additionally, clickbait titles tend to use absolutes, such as "Always," or "Never."
Keeping in mind some other clickbait commonalities, like the use of a celebrity, phenomenon, cliffhangers, or the promise of relatable content, let's see how they're used by brands:
1. "OMG! You'll Never Believe These Talents"
Popular talent reality show, "America's Got Talent," showcases the unique talents of its contestants for the grand prize of $1 million dollars. This compilation uploaded from the show's official YouTube channel boasts a clickbait-y title for the ages.
In the video, the talents include gymnastics, acrobatics, and magic. If you've ever seen AGT or a show similar, this is usually what contestants do to show their skills. Although the title suggests that viewers will "never believe" the talents displayed, a regular watcher of the show can easily guess the type of contestants in the video.
While the competitors do express unique abilities, they're not out of the ordinary from other types of talent shown on the show. Thus, the title, alluding to audience members not being able to comprehend the talent shown, is an example of clickbait.
2. "This app uses the power of karaoke to teach you new languages."
In an article from The New York Post, readers will learn about Beelinguapp, a tool designed for mobile users who want to learn a new language. Similar to Duolingo, the app combines reading and listening, as well as vocal recording, to provide an immersive educational experience for its students.
While most of the title is technically true, the use of the term "karaoke" can be seen as slightly misleading. Karaoke often describes the popular group activity of singing your favorite songs with friends. When I clicked on this article, I was intrigued to know how singing along to Britney Spears' smash hit, "Toxic," would help me learn German, for example.
Although the use of the word "karaoke" can be misleading, the title isn't entirely malicious. The content of the post did, in fact, inform readers about an app that uses karaoke-like tools to learn new languages. This is an example of how clickbait can be used ethically.
3. "Baby Yoda’s official life-size figure is here, and it’s fabulously expensive."
Polygon's article about a viral character is a wonderful example of clickbait. It uses a popular culture reference, Baby Yoda from the "Star Wars" franchise, and is relatable to readers who are fans without giving the big benefit of the article away — the price of the item.
Rather than spoil the big reveal of the article in the headline, this post has readers hooked until the very end to learn the price. This is an example of benign clickbait that hooks readers effectively.
Spoiler alert: The figure costs $375.
4. "30 things that'll basically give you no choice but to stay organized."
BuzzFeed listicles often have vague titles like the example above. From this headline, readers can infer that they'll read 30 items related to organization. Readers desperate for a little organization in their lives will definitely feel compelled to click on this post and see what the article has in store.
Readers will find a shopping list of products that organize items, like tabletop device holders, vacuum storage bags, and drawer dividers. Though the things in the listicle do promote organizational structure, it's almost impossible to guess what the article will contain. Because it's not easy to guess the benefit of the piece from the title, this headline is clickbait.
We've now seen that clickbait can come in a few forms: video content and editorial content. Recently, I've even spotted clickbait subject lines. Another common form of clickbait is through advertisements.
Clickbait is great for raising CTR, so it’s a no-brainer for brands looking for new ways to advertise.
You may have encountered clickbait ads while scrolling through social media, or even have interacted with some. The ads you see are formatted in a similar way to headlines. They can be vague, inspire emotion, relatability, and imply a great benefit from interaction.
For example, this ad from Goodful on Facebook asks viewers a question, implying that they’ll provide the answer in the video:
Clickbait ads are made to bring web browsers to a website or to introduce someone to a brand. For instance, while scrolling through CNN's website, I came across the paid content section. This section had numerous clickbait ads, including this one from Wikibuy:
Once again, because the title infers the uncovering of a useful, secret way to save money, this paid content is considered clickbait.
However, clickbait isn't the only way to earn traffic for your content. You don't have to deceive readers in order to compel them to interact with your content. Let's talk about how to obtain that traffic without using false advertising.
How To Get Traffic Without Using Clickbait
You don't have to use clickbait maliciously. Webpages can still have interesting titles that pull the reader in, which is how clickbait gets its audience. Let's go over a few ways to brainstorm interesting titles that won't deceive readers.
1. Use the most interesting part of your post in the title.
What's the most interesting element of your blog post or web page? Is there a shocking statistic that turns heads? You can use this portion of your article in the title to boost traffic without being misleading.
For instance, let's say you interviewed an industry thought leader for your piece and gathered amazing tips about building an incredible remote work routine. Your title could highlight this by saying, "5 Remote Work Myths Debunked, According to a Marketing Manager."
This title still follows the basic build of clickbait. It hints at valuable content for readers. It also plays to emotions by telling the reader that misconceptions about remote work will be answered.
Most importantly, this title isn't deceptive, it’s informative.
2. Leave your title on a truthful cliffhanger to entice readers.
Like the example above, leaving your title on a truthful cliffhanger is one way to ethically use clickbait to your advantage. Let's say you're writing a roundup of SEO tips. For the title, you could use the most helpful tip to pull readers in. For example:
"Increasing ROI and 10 More Reasons SEO Why Boosts Your Business."
This title communicates to the reader why your post will be valuable to them: It hints at numerous helpful tips and puts the most valuable one at the forefront. More than that, the title doesn't give everything away — it merely hints at the helpful content readers will find within the post.
3. Use emotions in your headline to connect with readers.
Emotions are a way to tap into the interests of your audience. You can either use them deceptively, like with clickbait, or tie them back to the content of your story. Let's illustrate the latter with an example.
Imagine that you're writing a product page for marketing software that automates the duties of marketing professionals. The goal of this software is to make marketers’ jobs easier. For that reason, the title can cater to emotions of relief and ease:
"Email Marketing Can Be Hard. Your Design Shouldn't Have to Be."
Understanding why the audience will find your content helpful is the key to writing a title that relates to emotions. This title highlights how email marketing can be difficult, but automation software will make the process a breeze for marketers.
This way, you're alluding to how your software alleviates some of the challenges email marketers face without being unethical.
4. Be relatable in your heading so you can draw in broad audiences.
One of the ways clickbait titles grab the attention of readers is by using relatable language in the title. Consider a title such as, "Only Sales Professionals Will Understand This." This title will immediately draw the attention of those in sales.
Additionally, relatable titles are more shareable. If one sales professional clicks on that post and thinks of their team while reading, they might be compelled to share the post with their colleagues. That way, this post is organically getting more attention without having to sacrifice value or intent.
Sometimes, I get clickbaited and find an awesome surprise, like an entertaining article that provides functional advice about organizing. Other times, I feel slightly misled and let down by clickbait. When deciding how to use clickbait in your content, think about what will delight your readers.
Clickbait can be fun as much as it can be deceptive. If you plan out how you use it, you don't have to worry about your credibility being at stake every time you come up with a title. How do you plan to use clickbait to drive traffic?