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Clickbait Content: Is It Good or Bad?

Welcome to the clickbait debate.

Credited to Jay Geiger, who first wrote about it in 2006, the term “clickbait” earned a place in The Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 with this definition:

“(on the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.”

Taken for its denotative meaning, clickbait does what all content marketers want – it entices the audience to click on the headline and consume their content.

So why does clickbait show up on lists, including Facebook’s, of content marketing mistakes or practices to avoid?

David Ambrogio, SEO and content strategist at Online Optimism, offers a definition that touches on what the word clickbait connotes for many people – “any content with sensationalist headlines used to encourage clicks or drive ad revenue.”

The problem with clickbait, says Gregory Golinski, head of digital marketing at, is that it’s a one-sided deal with your audience. “Clickbait is tricking people into consuming your content by making them believe it will be better than what it really is. You take something from your audience without fulfilling your part of the deal: creating useful, quality content.”

Clickbait takes from the audience w/out fulfilling your end of the deal. Gregory Golinski of @YPSUK Click To Tweet

But clickbait doesn’t have to live up (or down) to those negative connotations, others say.

Can clickbait be good?

“Clickbait isn’t necessarily bad,” says Andrew Selepak, a professor at the University of Florida. “While we often view clickbait negatively because it is associated with fake news and online hucksters, if your company has a solid product that can actually help consumers, getting people to your site by hook or crook isn’t such a bad thing.”

He offers P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” label as an example of pre-internet clickbait: “While it is debatable that P.T. Barnum truly had the greatest show on earth, his clickbait advertising did get people to come see his show, and what they saw was entertaining.”

Even if it wasn’t the greatest show on earth, P.T. Barnum still entertained his audience. @aselepak Click To Tweet

P.T. Barnum knew well that it was good business to make sure customers got what they expected. As he wrote in 1880’s The Art of Money Getting:

You may advertise a spurious article and induce many people to call and buy it once, but they will denounce you as an imposter and swindler, and your business will gradually die out and leave you poor.

Spurious articles to attract customers? That’s the clickbait content of the 19th century (and likely since the invention of the printing press).

Clickbait creates the curiosity gap

Patsy Nearkhou of Talkative UK offers two categories of clickbait titles – the spectacular and the mysterious.

A spectacular headline would be: Marketers Tried These 6 Insane Influencer Hacks … You Won’t Believe the Results! As Patsy explains, the headline is peppered with grandiose statements, directly addresses the reader, and contains several superlatives.

A mysterious headline might be: The One Word I Promised to Stop Using in 2018. It isn’t shouty but deliberately ambiguous.

“The continuous theme across all clickbait titles is that they appeal to the reader’s curiosity … they appeal to the same psychological process,” Patsy says. “They work because people are naturally curious creatures so it’s irrelevant whether they use grandiose or subtle tactics.”

Neil Patel believes clickbait gets a bad rap. “When done correctly, it’s one of the best ways to get people to take notice and give you their most precious asset: attention,” he writes.

Clickbait gets a bad rap. Done well, it’s one of the best ways to get attention for your #content. @NeilPatel. Click To Tweet

Steve Kurniawan, content specialist and growth strategist at Nine Peaks Media, agrees. “Humans are curious in nature, especially for topics we already are interested in,” he says. “The key to a successful clickbait title is proper understanding of your audience – their behaviors, needs, issues, the things they love, and so on.

“Then you can deliver a clickbait title to address this behavior or need.”

Are clicks the goal?

Marketers and content creators seeking to avoid clickbait-type content should try to provide all essential information in the headline or summary, says John Sammon, CEO of Sixth City Marketing. “Someone can read it and get the information they need without having to click on the article or keep reading.”

His advice works well for brands seeking to be expert resources or have their content be the featured snippet on the Google search results page. But what if the goal is to get people to visit your website (i.e., click), what can you do?

The trick is to write a killer headline & follow through w/ an equally good article. @eman_zabi Click To Tweet

Neil has pointed to an academic study of 69,907 news article headlines that revealed that the most powerful headlines – the ones that receive the most clicks – are polarizing.

Eman Zabi, copywriter and brand strategist at The Scribesmith, says the trick is to write a killer headline with a hook and follow through with an equally good article. She suggests writing at least 10 headlines and then picking the best one. If you’re stuck, use headline formulas. Run them through CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer to narrow down to the best.

“Don’t be afraid to have a little fun with the headlines. Clear beats clever, but there’s no reason you can’t pull off both,” she says.

Angelo Frisina, CEO of Sunlight Media, notes how BuzzFeed rapidly grew to a top-50 site in the United States largely due to its clever, attention-grabbing headlines. “Some would classify that as clickbait, I say it’s optimizing titles for high click-through rates,” he says.

Angelo offers some BuzzFeed-like headlines for marketers to use for their own content:

  • 25 ___ That Will Change the Way You ___
  • I Tried ___. And Even I Was Surprised About What Happened Next
  • This ___ Makes ___ 10x Better
  • Here Are 11 ___ That ____. And They’re Backed by Science
  • Use These 20 Simple Hacks for More ____. #5 Is Awesome
  • When You Learn About ___ You’ll Never ____ Again

“The ability to use it creatively and effectively is the key to success,” he says with a cautionary note. “Overuse will bring little to no positive results.”

Why clickbait won’t (and maybe shouldn’t) disappear

Derek Gleason, content lead of CXL, says content platforms like Google, YouTube, and Facebook are set up to encourage clickbait-type headlines.

Google, YouTube, and Facebook are set up to encourage clickbait. @derek_gleason Click To Tweet

Think about a search page. Marketers want their headlines to stand out in the crowd to encourage searchers to click and connect with their content. But you don’t have to implement sensationalistic practices to get this result.

For example, if you create an industry guide, a straightforward label title may not be enough to get noticed. “You may need to start dropping words like ‘ultimate’ into your title so that your link seems better than those offering simple ‘guides,’” Derek says.

Brands measuring #content success by clicks & shares exacerbate the use of clickbait. @derek_gleason‏ Click To Tweet

Searchers also tend to click on the most current information available. Derek offers the example of a hypothetical article called Blogging Best Practices in 2013. Each subsequent year, you update a couple links and screenshots in the post and change the date in the headline.

“The change of title suggests a more dramatic change in content value than what’s really there,” Derek says. “The only reason (to include) a date at all is that (you) think it will boost click-through rates.”

Content platforms aren’t the only ones that reward clickbait. Brands that measure content success by clicks and shares exacerbate its use. It’s a perverse incentive system that pays no mind to whether clickbait achieves long-term company goals. In other words, it ‘works’ in their tiny fiefdom,” Derek says.

“Clickbait has one motivation – to entice users to click on a link/video by using highly engaging headlines and thumbnails, says Matt Slaymaker of Folsom Creative. “Good clickbait is when your thumbnail and headline are provocative and enticing, yet true to the content of the article or video.”

He offers an example of YouTube sensation Mike Korzenmba who produces multiple NBA-related videos every week for his 1.3 million subscribers. This one, 7 Stories to Prove Michael Jordon was NOT Human, has generated 8 million views and interestingly, multiple comments about how it’s “the most clickbaity YouTube channel that isn’t clickbait”

It boils down to one thing

No matter where you fall in the clickbait debate, we all likely can agree on the resulting principle: Create the bait – great, accurate headlines that entice people to click – and, when they click, don’t disappoint them – have content deliver on the promise.

And that’s what I call clickworthy. What about you?

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute