Attention-seeking headlines: effective marketing tool, or annoying copywriting gimmick?
Browsing through Huffington Post a while back, something in a sidebar caught my eye: “The Truth About Where Cinnamon Comes From.” Huh. Were the origins of this beloved spice cloaked in a mystery about to be blown wide open by HuffPo? Intrigued, I clicked.
The shocking answer: cinnamon comes from a tree.
Okay. No harm, no foul, I guess. The article didn’t lie—it answered the question its headline posed. But still, I had to wonder: What’s the life expectancy of the clickbait-headline trend? Are we living in its final days, or has it just begun?
Here’s what I mean. Sites like Upworthy and ViralNova (founded in 2012 and 2013, respectively), which round up share-worthy videos and stories from around the web, regularly crown their posts with headlines like the following:
“This Guy Started With Nothing. What He Had Just 6 Weeks Later Made Me Ridiculously Jealous.”
“Facts About A Totally Unsexy Issue That Ought To Raise Some Eyebrows”
“The Cruel Owner Left This Dog In The Street To Die. I Still Can’t Believe What Happened After That.”
“The Side Effect Of Birth Control No One Talks About”
Each headline sets our curiosity humming, fairly begging us to click. And click we do: Upworthy averages approximately 75,000 Facebook likes per article—12 times more than even its nearest competitor, BuzzFeed. And ViralNova’s global ranking shot to #405 (#285 in the US) a few months shy of its first birthday.
(The “answers” to the headlines above, in order: A domed vacation home in Thailand; marginal income-tax rates; the dog recuperated and took top prize at an alternative dog show; it’s good for the economy.)
In the online world, where everybody wants to get a piece of the clicking (and sharing) action, these teaser-type headlines have proliferated wildly—Upworthy and ViralNova simply occupy the most extreme end of the spectrum. On Business Insider: “11 Outrageously Sexist Ads That Today’s Major Brands Wish You’d Forget.” On HBR: “The Worst Question a Salesperson Can Ask.” In a similar vein, on Vice: “Why Are So Many Social Media Managers Dipshits?” The mind spins. I want to read them all.
Content-marketing site Copyblogger, renowned for showing its readers how to use words to reach audiences, devotes a good chunk of its posts to writing headlines—“ the most important element for getting a blog post read,” according to Jerod Morris. If posts like “How to Write a Magnetic Headline (in Under 15 Minutes)” don’t help you, skip over to “10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work.” You’ll get a crib sheet of templates like “Who Else Wants [blank]?” and “Here Is a Method That Is Helping [blank] to [blank].”
And say you’ve got two variations of one headline: “Pay Attention, Harvard: What This Kid Does With A Packet Of Sugar Will Blow Your Mind” and “Pay Attention, Princeton: What This Kid Does With A Packet Of Sugar Will Blow Your Mind.” Run both for five minutes, see which one gets the most clicks, then switch permanently to that. Sites like Huffington Post are said to employ this kind of A/B testing regularly.
Of course, writing words designed to catch attention—and, ultimately, bring in cash—is hardly new. (How to Win Friends and Influence People was published in 1936. Great title.) It’s called copywriting, and I’m a proud practitioner. But these days, when the effectiveness of your headline can be measured down to the last click, has the art been stripped away? Has headline writing been boiled down to a pure science? And are the irresistible headlines on Upworthy and its ilk the purest expression of that science?
I’m not so sure. While there may be some eternal principles at play when it comes to writing headlines, we humans are a quickly dissatisfied lot, and evidence is mounting that our patience with clickbait headlines is beginning to wear. The problem, of course, is when a gulf opens up between what headlines promise and what they deliver—like a vision of a tropical paradise that vanishes like a mirage once you read past the first paragraph. When the headline proves to be misleading. And when we get inundated with too much of the same thing.
The eye rolls that these headlines inspire seem to be morphing into a full-on backlash, at least if the cynics have anything to say about it. Coder Alison Gianotto created a plug-in called Downworthy, which switches out common clickbait words for more, um, tempered alternatives. So instead of seeing this in your browser: “Nothing Could Prepare Me For What’s Revealed When This Glacier Lake Melts. OMG,” you see this: “Does Anyone Fucking Care About What’s Revealed When This Glacier Lake Melts. No One Cares. At All.”
On a practical level, Facebook announced an update late in 2014, promising to crack down on clickbait (no word yet on its effectiveness).
The masters of satire at The Onion have also found clickbait too tantalizing to resist. Their new site, ClickHole, lampoons the trend with ludicrous personality quizzes (“Looking For A Second Opinion On Which ‘Sex And The City’ Character You Are?”), videos (“Inspiring! People Describe The First Time They Drank Gatorade”) and photo essays (“12 Balloons That Are Eerily Human”). My personal favourite ClickHole entry: “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World.” The article that follows is the full text of Moby Dick.
Even one of clickbait’s founding fathers, ViralNova creator Scott DeLong, had a temporary Frankenstein moment on Twitter, when he regretted the monster he had made. He wrote—and later deleted—this tweet: “I regret my part in facilitating the viral movement. The headlines are officially out of control. Time for me to move on.”
All this to say: we humans are changeable beasts. What works today may not work in the same way two months from now. The tide may already have turned against the clickbaitiest of the clickbait headlines— blessed news to the most easily irritated among us.
As Gianotto told inc.com, “I feel like we have to see a turning point. It's like an arms race. One country arms itself and the other arms itself a little better. As every article headline becomes this bombastic thing, we will grow blind to them.”
She speaks truth, I think. Simply.