Clickbait Culture

Clickbait Culture

In a few short years, digital content standards have shifted dramatically. I recall back in the early 2000s, things were just starting to turn. At that time, there was still the expectation that most articles be fairly well-sourced, and thoroughly edited. But that swiftly changed.

Now in 2019, the majority of online news articles include a shocking or otherwise attention-grabbing headline. Publishers do this to entice the reader to click on a link and read more. Whether or not that article actually follows through with the headline’s promise, is another story (And surprise, surprise… it’s not the story you clicked on).

The following article explores why clickbait culture is even a thing, and other vital factors to this catchy copywriting approach.


One of the main reasons digital advertising is so powerful, is the data. Performance metrics such as clicks, views, shares, and conversions drive most online marketing strategies these days.

The obvious reason is more traffic = more potential customers reading your content, which leads to more subscribers, increased brand loyalty, and other valuable actions. But, the deeper reason is that more traffic = more monetization of your content.

In advertising, ‘monetization’ is the process of selling digital ad space on popular content, such as articles, videos and news feeds.

In order to be considered ‘popular’, a piece of content must have significant traffic volume (measured in views, clicks, shares, etc.) This puts additional pressure on marketing teams to draft eye-catching headlines in order to generate the engagement volume.

Having a bunch of eyeballs on your content is valuable for an advertiser. The more attention on your article or video, means more impressions on their ad. That’s where monetization comes in.

As with physical ad space (e.g.: a billboard or a magazine ad), online advertising sales are based on impressions. The higher your traffic stream, or the more you have a sought-after segment’s attention, the bigger price tag on that ad real-estate.

In-app advertising proves highly productive for some brands. (Source: AppsBuilder)

Sensationalism Sells

To capitalize on the “more traffic = more ad revenue” model, marketers are working feverishly behind the keyboard to capture attention. By fine-tuning a headline, articles can (at a minimum) activate curiosity, or (at most) trigger FOMO.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a commonly held worry that’s exacerbated by social media use. Read more in my recent blog post

There is no longer a commitment that article content will actually match its headline.

Titles can sound so exciting and mysterious that they activate a central part of our human brain: the amygdala (the part of the brain that coordinates emotional response). This also engages our unconscious, habitual mind by automatically recalling past memories and chaining related thoughts together.

For more on habitual consumer behavior, read my recent blog post: Humans are Hardwired to Form Habits.

Scroll down the “Celebrity News” results page on Google, and you’ll see nothing but clickbait:

A snapshot of Google Celebrity News articles shows click-seeking language on nearly every headline.

Once (and even before) the user actually clicks, instantly that is logged in the analytics, and later used to sell ad space at premium rates.

But a hyped-up headline will backfire, if it doesn’t deliver.

The promise to share valuable information, without actually following through on the pledge, can leave readers with a bad taste in their mouth, and lasting negative recognition with your brand.

Quality control… what’s that?

I’m continually baffled when I come across an article with typos in the opening paragraph, or sometimes even the headline itself (Gasp!). As someone who takes pride in crafting the right copy, errors like that drive me nuts. (And ‘Yes’, I gave this article a few extra rounds of proofreading because of this statement 😉

In order to keep up with the insatiable appetite of the modern consumer, brands vying for attention have tons of pressure to remain relevant. This burden forces them to churn out content at a rapid pace.

The 24-hour news cycle is causing digital content standards for grammar and punctuation to change.

In copywriting, capitalization is now based on what looks the best, rather than what is grammatically correct.

This fast-paced approach to publishing requires a shorter process. One step some consider skip-able is proofreading. But, eliminating quality checkpoints inherently produces errors, and blatant errors will instantly slam your credibility.

However as copywriters, we should hold sacred the expectation that spelling be correct and grammar be fairly accurate.

I say ‘fairly accurate’ grammar, because the beauty of having such styling flexibility, is the room for cleverness and wit to shine through.

3 Reasons ‘Numbering’ Is So Popular

  1. We thrive on ‘at-a-glance’ material, especially when feeling pressed for time.
  2. If we get a sense of the time required upfront, we’re more inclined to read (if time permits).
  3. We are inundated with info, so we’re naturally drawn to bite-sized pieces.

Medium leverages this consumer behavior in a creative way. By displaying the approximate read time on their articles, they help visitors decide if they want to commit or not. And for many on-the-go readers, the likelihood they’ll click increases if it fits within their time window.

Protecting consumer rights

Globally, some oversight is happening, but is it enough? Recently, the Chinese government, along with societal pressure, shutdown a content empire due to fraudulent posts.

Also, in 2018, European leaders enacted the groundbreaking General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which protects the privacy of online consumer data, including what is stored and how online behavioral data is reused.

Strict rules like the GDPR, are helping reign in what can now be considered the new wild wild west of advertising.

The European Union (EU) introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to protect the privacy rights of online consumers.

Each country’s reaction has some to do with cultural norms. In the U.S., internet oversight and standards are much less formed, so the verdict is still out on how this online world will be regulated.

‘To click or not to click’

We are bombarded with content and offers these days. Depending on our internet habits, it’s not unlikely that we choose “click or don’t click” on hundreds, potentially thousands of content offers a day.

When factoring in a fear of missing out (something many of us feel related to online content offers), it’s a difficult quandary we find ourselves in: ‘to click or not to click?’

Taking the bait or not is often determined by how crafty the headline writer was before they clicked “publish”.

Do you recall some clickbait you recently encountered? Share your experiences below. I’d love to hear from you!

Featured Image by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *