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By Thomas Baekdal - November 2014

Clickbait is the Greatest Threat To Your Future Success

This week was overflowing with articles about clickbait after Buzzfeed's Editor in Chief posted "Why BuzzFeed Doesn't Do Clickbait: You won't believe this one weird trick." That's a laugh.

This followed a series of articles discussing what clickbait really is and how, in some case, Buzzfeed is right. Articles claiming that it depends on how it is defined.

Buzzfeed is also trying to explain that it's mostly a question of definition:

I scroll around, but when I look at the internet, I feel the same as when I'm walking through Coney Island," Stewart told New York magazine. "It's like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, 'Come on in here and see a three-legged man!' So you walk in and it's a guy with a crutch.

That may be the best definition I've ever heard of what's referred to as "clickbait." But it suggests that Stewart, like many people in the media industry, confuses what we do with true clickbait. We have admittedly (and at times deliberately) not done a great job of explaining why we have always avoided clickbait at BuzzFeed.

I'm sorry, that's completely besides the point. Clickbaiting has nothing to do with how it's defined. Clickbait is an action, not a definition. It's the result of baiting your visitors into acting in a way that they wouldn't have done if they had known what it was about before they clicked.

In other words, clickbait is when your content doesn't live up to its promises.

I will grant Buzzfeed that not all their articles are designed to deceive, but look at this screenshot:

This whole discussion isn't about Buzzfeed at all. It's about how most media sites today are engaging in cheating on their readers. A tactic that does nothing but erode the very trust they so desperately need to make a difference in the future.

Let me give you a few examples of obvious clickbait.

Missing information

The first form of obvious clickbait is when a headline lacks critical information that gives people either the right context or insight to what the article is about, thus forcing people to click to find out. In other words, you are gambling with people's time.

Buzzfeed's "17 Facts You Won't Believe Are True" are a particularly nasty example of that, but we see this in most newspapers as well.

For instance, a while back, I noticed a headline in one of the big newspapers telling me how a bunch of kids had been killed in an accident. As a reader, you automatically want to click on it because maybe it's someone you know.

But when you then open the article, you can read that it happened in... Brazil.

That's pure clickbait. Not only did they trick me into clicking on a link, but they also tricked me into showing interest and feel worried about something that has no relation to me at all.

Don't get me wrong. It's always bad when kids die, but 21,000 kids are killed every single day somewhere in the world. If you want to talk about child deaths, cover that instead of some random car accident.

No new information

Another really bad example of clickbait is when an article promises new information, but no new information is actually provided. We see this all the time in the world of newspapers.

One example: Think about the thousands of articles the media sites are posting hours before an Apple event. They have nothing new to tell because the event hasn't started yet, so they are just exploiting people's desperation for news by telling them nothing they didn't already knew.

But while the inane pre-coverage of an Apple event could be seen like the pre-shows before sport events (which can be quite entertaining), it's much more serious when it comes to more dire events... like during disasters.

Often the world moves a lot slower than what journalists would like, so they just invent new articles even though they have nothing new to report.

I wrote about this in "News as Data and the Future of Newspapers", in which I used the example of a train accident in Spain and how that was covered by a newspaper (in Denmark).

One newspaper wrote 32 articles over the cause of a single week, of which 22% of them contain no new information that had already been reported in a previous article (by the same newspaper).

More to the point, when we break down the actual information contained in these articles, we see how hopelessly crappy it was:

Each vertical line illustrates one article, and the numbers represent how the information changed as they were reported. Noticed how impossible it is for any their readers to get a grasp of what happened. How many people were injured, for instance? One article says 200, the next one 70, then 100, then 140, then 143, then 130, then 140 again, then 131, then 178, then 130 again.

The newspaper is so worried about being the first to report any number they get that they completely forget to provide the all important perspective that their readers expect.

Your role as a newspaper is to keep people informed, not to confuse the hell out of them. After 32 articles, they still haven't got a clue as to what actually happened. Not to forget the 22% of the articles that contained nothing new at all.

This is also a form of clickbait. You promise to keep people informed, but you deliver uninformed noise.

Note: As I wrote in "News as Data and the Future of Newspapers", the way to cover stories like this in the form of data instead of individual articles.

Blatant lies

Another example of the more obvious forms of clickbait is when a publisher blatantly lies to its readers.

Many journalists have discovered that, if they can make their reader think people are saying one thing but then in the article explain that they didn't, they will get a ton of views. And we see this all the time.

The headline will make a statement that is then disproven in the article, but you have no idea that it is not true until you click. And when the journalists are confronted with it, they will simply point to the article as 'proof' they were really telling the truth.

Not only does this taint the reputation of people who should never have been tainted in the first place, they are also pissing on their readers.

Just stop this madness. It's such an appalling tactic.

The scam

Another form of clickbait is the simple scam. It's when a media site will merely copy/paste content from other sites, add a deceptive headline to it, and then capture all the resulting clicks for their own benefit.

This, basically, is the whole business model of sites like Upworthy and pretty much all the other viral sites. Every single thing they do is just one big copy/pasted clickbait.

But some would say, "Wait-a-minute. That's not clickbaiting. It's curated content discovery."

No, it's not. This is 100% about the click.

And sites like these follow a very predictable pattern which we have seen repeated so many times over the past 15 years. For each new era of connection, a new content tactic will emerge that exploits it. It happened with email, on forums, with blogs, using SEO, and now with social.

These sites will discover that magic tactic that brings them a ton of traffic without ever having to do anything themselves, which they will then exploit to the max. But after a while, the services they rely on will change their algorithms to get rid of all this content spam.

Remember Demand Media and their sudden focus on SEO optimized crap articles above anything else? A few years ago, they were the 'Upworthy of new media'. Demand Media is still around, but all their 'fame' has gone.

Remember this?

Back in 2010, companies were falling over themselves to replicate Demand Media's amazing content traffic model. Today? Well... not so much.

This is exactly the same that will happen to the many viral sites that we see today. Their fame will only exist as long as they can get that click. But Facebook is already trying to change its algorithms. And when it does, these viral sites will simply disappear from our radars.

This is the future of all clickbait content sites. They have a very short lifespan.

Note: While Buzzfeed is doing many things similar to Upworthy, they also produce so much in-house content that they are not as much affected by changing 3rd party algorithms. Read more about that in "Thinking about the Future of BuzzFeed".

The social agony

Finally, we have a form of clickbait that is just... sad. It's the form where the content is designed to trick people's minds with content that acts like Cocaine ... or what we call 'social engineering'.

Here is the National Institute on Drug Abuse's definition of Cocaine:

It produces short-term euphoria, energy, and talkativeness in addition to potentially dangerous physical effects like raising heart rate and blood pressure.

With repeated use, cocaine can cause long-term changes in the brain's reward system as well as other brain systems, which may lead to addiction. With repeated use, tolerance to cocaine also often develops; many cocaine abusers report that they seek but fail to achieve as much pleasure as they did from their first exposure. Some users will increase their dose in an attempt to intensify and prolong their high, but this can also increase the risk of adverse psychological or physiological effects.

Does this sound familiar? ...or should I say "You won't believe what happened next?"

Granted, real cocaine is worse than viral content since you can literally die from it. It's pretty hard to die from reading clickbait articles. But the concept is still the same.

It's not just about articles either, we see this in many forms of content. Think about the many forms of in-app purchases in games. It has been proven, on several occasions, to affect your brain the same way as drug addiction. You just can't let go.

The thing about this form of clickbaiting is that it isn't about the headline at all. It's the whole experience of emotions that your brain is forced to endure throughout the session.

The headline itself might be completely accurate, but it's still clickbaiting.

The publishers who are doing this are tricking people into reading an article that nobody would read if they weren't tricked via social engineering. They have created something that people just have to click on.

But, "wait-a-minute," you say again. "Isn't it a good thing to create content that is so compelling that people just have to read it?"

Ahh... there is a difference between content that people have to see because you are tricking them into thinking that, and content that people want to see because they really want to.

Let me illustrate how big this difference is. Here is a video of when Jamie Oliver reached 1 million subscribers on YouTube, and how he then called back some of his many fans:


This is what true great content is about. This is what happens when you create something that is worth following, worth buying, worth reading, worth connecting to, and worth sharing.

There is no social engineering in what Jamie Oliver does. Only a good sense of what his audience wants, a great purpose, an even better product, and the willingness to turn that into amazing content for people to follow.

This is what people want to see.

At the other end of this spectrum, and well into the socially engineered clickbait land, we have articles like Buzzfeed's "17 Facts You Won't Believe Are True", of which the 8th fact is this:

This is not in any way something people want to see... but they designed it so that many people had to see it anyway. And don't even start to suggest that this is the type of content that people prefer because it's popular on social channels.

It's not content. It's a drug. And it only works as long as your tactics can trick people.

This is not the future of media, nor it's a successful long-term path to more traffic. It's just... clickbaiting.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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