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What is clickbait?

Have you ever clicked on an article or a video online simply because the title header promised spectacular content? Were you left disappointed because the reality was less interesting or relevant than you had expected? Then the clickbaiting technique worked on you. Clickbaiting is a method used by publishers (and above all marketers) that involves deploying leading and sensational phrases as click-through headings in order to increase traffic and advertising revenue for companies.

Clickbait: definition and aims

The term clickbaiting refers to the use of suggestive and enticing headlines and descriptions to convince people to click on an online article. These headlines and descriptions, known as clickbait, are most commonly used on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There are certain stylistic devices used here, like announcing incredible or unexpected new discoveries or developments. The idea is to make the article irresistible by exploiting the reader through shock, excitement, humor, or curiosity. The most common use of this online journalism is on blogs, news pages, or online magazines, as these pages are measured by click rate and need traffic to be as high as possible in order to sell ad space.

Clickbait as an online portal

Clickbait is usually created by using an exaggerated title and/or a sensational description. This is designed to spark what’s known as the ‘curiosity gap’: a tantalizing pause when the reader simply has to find out more to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. In order to fully achieve this, publishers give the reader little snippets of information to arouse their curiosity. The only way for a reader to bridge the curiosity or ‘knowledge gap’ is to click on the link and read the full story. In the world of TV and theatre, a similar technique is used: this is known as creating a ‘cliffhanger’. This term is commonplace across many art forms and comes as expected from the literal experience of cliffhanging, with the idea being to leave the viewer or reader clinging on to find out what happens in the end. The only way to beat this is to keep reading or watching.

Clickbait: built on empty promises

Clickbaiting is present in practically all forms of online journalism and even in printed news, too. Some of the most famous sources include sites like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, but there are also many spam sites that utilize this strategy, often by peddling false information about health, nutrition, and medical breakthroughs. Typically, the content reached by clicking on this clickbait includes listicles (articles comprising lists like ‘the top 10 ways to lose weight fast’), image galleries, and videos. But clickbait has proven so successful that even respectable news outlets like the BBC have resorted to using language like ‘you’ll never believe what’s happened in…’ etc. on their social media pages to entice readers to visit their homepage. Topics that tend to work best are usually ones with an emotional attachment, like heartfelt stories about children or animals, medical information and miracle cures, or even sexually suggestive images. Usually, the reality waiting in the article isn’t quite as spectacular or interesting as the reader expected or the clickbait promised.

Criticisms of clickbaiting

Clickbaiting is often heavily criticized in the media world, with serious and respected journalists generally trying to distance themselves from the tactics involved. The typical criticisms of clickbait are that online journalists who use clickbaiting as a technique only want to arouse interest and curiosity for their readership in order to generate clicks and improve ad revenue. As such, their articles are often poorly researched, offer no real value to readers, don’t offer any helpful information, and in some cases are actually entirely made up. But unfortunately, readers don’t realize this until it’s too late. Critics of clickbaiting point to the manipulative approach, taking issue with the fact that the number of clicks is clearly more important than the informative content.

What does clickbait usually look like?

Most internet users can recognize clickbait at first glance nowadays, because the same keywords and expressions tend to crop up. Every element – from structure, to tone, to choice of language – is carefully constructed to achieve the maximum emotional reaction from the user. Some discuss contentious topics, particularly groups of people or celebrities who polarize opinion, while others tackle general topics that almost everyone has an opinion on. Every message is made excessively emotional, with similar buzzwords being used across all forms. Strong adjectives or even superlatives, cliffhangers, internet slang like ‘wow’ or ‘lol’, and of course lots of call-to-action formulations dominate social media channels that employ clickbaiting strategies.

Typical, concrete examples of clickbait tend to look a little like this:

  • [Insert title] is something you simply can’t miss out on!
  • The 10 best XY. Number 6 will make you cry
  • This story is unbelievable!
  • You’ll never guess what happens next!
  • The biggest/best/most unbelievable...
  • This woman went for a walk, when suddenly this happened
  • OMG! This video is crazy!
  • SHOCK! What this man has discovered will make you scream!
  • She was just your everyday teacher, until this happened
  • Doctors don’t want you to know this 1 miracle tip to weight loss

So how does clickbaiting affect online marketing?

The topic of clickbaiting is being discussed more and more. Unfortunately, this is usually because certain spam sites and portals consistently overstep the mark, reaping severe criticism from the world of online media. Announcements about miracle cures have led to elderly people being tricked into buying incorrect medicine, while falsified information about celebrities that include a name and a photo are considered invasions of privacy and public slander. In some cases, readers have even been presented with images of a handful of celebrities with taglines like ‘one of these celebrities has died’ or ‘guess which of these four celebrities has cancer’. It’s for these reasons that clickbaiting is so frowned upon – it toys with the emotions of users and warps the truth in order to trick the general public for the sake of increasing personal gain. Other complaints are that it’s annoying, distracting, unnecessary, and that it’s a bad influence for children.

But there are of course some positive aspects to clickbaiting that have made it such a phenomenon of modern online communication. From a marketing perspective, clickbait is certainly an interesting topic, particularly since it’s focused on the monetization of websites on the whole. For readers who run online blogs and wish to earn money from them, the most important thing is to generate clicks. The more clicks and therefore website traffic that you can generate, the higher price you can put on ad space featured on your blog. And it’s been proven that sites using clickbait tactics tend to have very high click rates, so the technique clearly does work. It’s the lack of real quality on the site at the end that is so heavily criticized, so if you can ensure that you provide quality content on your blog and try to avoid lies and rumors in your clickbait titles, you may be able to avoid criticism, too.

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