10 Aug 2016
Don't let clickbait cat write your headlines

Don’t Let Your Content Be A Casualty Of The War On Clickbait

I have on more than one occasion been heartily guffawing at a delightful satire of clickbait headlines in my Facebook feed only to realise that the post isn’t from The Reductress (The Onion of women’s magazines), but an actual article from XOJane.

When reality out-satires satire you know that something has to give. And it has, with Facebook announcing an algorithm last week that rates headlines according to their use of typical clickbait phrases such as “and what happened next was priceless”, gifting offenders with a lower organic reach in news feeds.

Of course, the pantingly hyperbolic writing has been on the wall for some time. Facebook has long been battling clickbait. Changes in 2014 filtered out stories that readers clicked on and then bounced straight back out of again, presumably because what happened next didn’t shock them, at least not satisfactorily.

Whether it was this, or that readers were, in general, wiser to the hollow promise of clickbait, is up for debate but things did change. Viral sites like Upworthy, once described as “the fastest growing media site of all time“, experienced a dramatic drop in traffic. This is probably demonstrated by the fact that you just thought “Oh man, remember when Upworthy was a thing?” and clicked on the link to see if it still exists.

Last year, Mamamia announced a strategic shift away from clickbait because it no longer worked. Research backed the move up, with a report from email data solutions provider ReturnPath finding that clickbait phrases such as “won’t believe” or “what you need to know” in subject lines of email marketing campaigns had lower than average open rates.

So What Does This Mean For Your Content Strategy?

Unless you routinely publish blogs entitled “1 Man Installed A New Network Solution And What Happened Next Will SHOCK You!” these changes shouldn’t make too much difference to your content strategy. I mean, we all learned that tricks-for-clicks are at best a temporary strategy after Google changed its algorithms to value quality content a few years back, right?

But it is a reminder of how much currency truth carries in the bid to get your content noticed in a world where 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook alone each month. The disconnect between what is promised and what is delivered is what will (eventually) kill clickbait just as the pulling-off-my-thumb illusion loses its appeal (spoiler alert) once you figure out I’m just using my other thumb.


In its strictest sense, a clickbait headline follows the formula of creating a mystery and promising to solve it once you click through. The reason we hate it is that clicking through reveals that the headline either exaggerated the significance of the claim or withheld information that would have provided more context. We then start clicking on links with the sort of resigned weariness that Charlie Brown approached kicking a football held by Lucy, which is not a feeling you want to generate in a potential customer.

To demonstrate how infuriated people have become by the phenomenon, there’s even a cottage industry in spoiler Twitter accounts such as @SavedYouAClick that exist to spare you the inevitable let down.

There’s A Difference Between Clickable And Clickbait

You can still create a headline that’s enticing, without ridiculous exaggeration. Someone who clicks on a link with an intriguing headline is not likely to hang around long enough to do whatever it is you want them to do if you’ve just demonstrated they can’t rely on you.

Say what you want about sites like BuzzFeed, often namechecked as everything that’s wrong with modern media, but it generally does what it says on the packaging. If they publish a headline A Cat Got Her Head Stuck In A Grate And It’s Iconic So Sad And Funny At The Same Time you can quibble about whether the use of “iconic” is correct, but you can’t claim you didn’t know what you were getting into. Your content should take the same approach, albeit in less detail.

Won’t Somebody Think Of The Listicles?

Speaking of BuzzFeed, one of the questions the Facebook changes have raised is whether you should still be writing listicles. Facebook is not revealing exactly how it filters out content on the grounds that it would basically serve as a how-to guide for getting around the restrictions. But as far as its guidelines go, listicles don’t appear to be in crosshairs. Its concern is whether the headline informs and sets appropriate expectations.

Listicles are an easily skimmable way to deliver information for a time-poor audience. They are no less a valid style choice than putting subheads on a long-form article. Unless you are routinely saddling them with headlines like “19 Things You Need To Know About Data Backup Before You Die”, there’s no reason not to do listicles. Of course, audiences vary, so you could always split-test the same content in listicle and non-listicle form to see what works best.

The rules around clickbait may have changed, but the rules around your content remain the same. It needs to be entertaining and establish usefulness by telling your audience something they need to know.

Sign up to our daily Max Minute newsletter for your tech news in 60 seconds:

Leave a Comment