CK Insights

July 31, 2014

Dear Clickbait: Use Your Powers For Good, Not Just Cats


Clickbait gets a lot of flack, and it may deserve it. But it might also be the solution to the news industry’s very serious woes. There are glimpses of hope that clickbait as a field and as an art form is moving in the right direction.

This post was written by Alex DeSimine, one of CK’s summer interns.

In the United States, is the 40th most popular site on the web. It’s the 110th most visited site in the entire world. What is perhaps even more astounding is that more than 30% of Buzzfeed’s traffic comes not from search giant Google, but from Facebook shares. That means common concerns like SEO aren’t as important to the site’s prosperity as producing content twenty-somethings will show their friends on social media. Their articles (or more often, their “listicles”) get shared around Facebook at mind-boggling rates, and the visitors pour in to read about “31 Coffee Stains That Almost Look Like West Virginia” and “17 Guys Who Look Nothing Like Jason Statham.” Both of those are real Buzzfeed titles.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone. In fact, it is common knowledge not only that Buzzfeed is a massive online force, but also exactly how they got to be the giant they are today. And since the advent of the Buzzfeed Age, a surge of sites started to use the very same strategy to increase their own readership. First it was entertainment sites like Upworthy and Thought Catalog, but then even pure news sites (most noted, CNN) caught on and started to use the methodology we’ve all come to know and love(?). We know it as “clickbait,” and it has been pervading our online lives more and more with each passing month.

Clickbait leaves a bad taste in a lot of digital mouths. There are plenty of op-eds out there that bash the practice of luring in an audience of blind link-clickers with the promise of something they can, like, totally relate to. Most times, on the other side of that tempting link there lay a few GIFs and one-liners, and within seconds, the reader is off in search of the next hilarious list to share with their Facebook friends. There are also some people that defend clickbait-y titles, with caveats. Those caveats aren’t usually outrageous either. In fact, most of them boil down to the same thing:

On the other side of that baity link, just have content that matters.

Steve Hind wrote an article in The Guardian called “In defence [sic] of clickbait.” In it, he referenced a Buzzfeed article called “Can you guess the number of people who signed up for Obamacare on day one?” The answer was six, and the article included pictures of a six-stringed guitar, Michael Jordan’s six championship rings, and the six kids in the Brady Bunch, among others. Then, a wonderful thing happened – there was a link prominently displayed at the end of this stream of silly pictures that led to Buzzfeed’s more serious, in-depth coverage of Obamacare. Buzzfeed captured people’s attention, and now that readers were at least marginally invested in the topic, having scrolled through pictures of six-sided dice and Six Flags amusement parks, they were then led to actual, meaningful news.

This is what clickbait should look like – draw people in, give them an appetizer of light fare, then give them weightier information after their appetites have been sufficiently whetted. Hook, line, and sinker. And in the end, readers come out (hopefully) better educated about the world around them. In a digital climate that has traditional news outlets struggling to even stay afloat, this could be the answer to engaging a new generation of people too busy to read the news but with plenty of time to scroll through GIFs of cats in boxes.

Another clickbait juggernaut, Upworthy, prides itself on having worthwhile content despite their cheap title tricks, and they agree that meaningful content should come first. In fact, they’ve just released a new metric they hope to make a standard in the industry called “attention minutes.” It measures time spent on pages instead of clicks, and hopefully will drive analytic praise away from click-through rates and towards what people actually spend time reading and processing. According to Upworthy’s director of business intelligence, Dan Mintz, “This is a pretty conservative and unforgiving metric. It’s a pretty hard metric to game. The way you game it is by serving your users better.” Serving users better translates to providing them with significant material.

All of this sounds like a great direction for the clickbait economy to be moving in. Perhaps in the coming months, clickbait can start to shed its reputation for fluffy content and simply become a tool to connect a busy, blasé generation to useful information. It’ll have to work hard to earn that new reputation, however. It’s certainly earned the reputation it has now, and that may prove to be a tough smudge to wipe out.

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