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The Current State Of Clickbait – And Why Digital Marketers Should Avoid It.

Anyone who spends any amount of time on the internet nowadays will recognise clickbait – whether they call it by its ‘real’ name or not.

Clickbait as a term has become derogatory; it’s considered the lowest form of advertising you see on the web, using cheap psychological ploys to feed its Pay-Per-Click model. Clickbait itself encompasses a wide range of media, with varying degrees of legitimacy. 

At the more reputable end sits the likes of Buzzfeed, although some would make the argument that they shouldn’t fall into the same category as some of the cheaper examples to come later. The difference with Buzzfeed is that they don’t use the headline to create the ‘anticipation gap’ (e.g. you won’t believe what X does next…) but instead just straight up tells you what you’re about to see: ‘18 slightly odd things people who are cold do.’ Or, they issue a challenge to the potential reader: ‘Just try not to laugh at these incredibad holiday family photos’, or ‘Try not to ugly cry while taking this TV finale quiz, we dare you.’

Buzzfeed are trying to claw their way into more straight news, but there are still some teething problems stemming from their origins as a PPC-based advertising platform; most recently they caused controversy by breaking the story of Trump’s supposed *ahem* ‘shower’ incident, with seemingly little to back their claim. If it was a stunt designed to break into mainstream news reporting, it worked; CNN ran with the story, and promptly suffered the backlash caused by lack of sourcing on Buzzfeed’s end.

This is where we get to the meat of the problem between digital marketing and clickbait. Internet users have wised up to ‘anticipation gap’ tactics, as the sites which the user is taken to maximise their click potential by making the user click through a listicle slide by slide, with each loading a fresh batch of banner and pop-up ads until it’s absolutely not worth the effort of getting through the whole article. 

This is a consequence of ‘web literacy’- as the internet-browsing segment of the population grows larger and larger, spending more and more time online, people get better and better at appraising the worth of links that are presented to them. Coupled with increased awareness regarding internet browsing safety, web designers and marketers must work together to ensure the retention of a legitimate look and feel, in order to gain the user’s trust. Here is an example of what I mean- 

Judging entirely from presentation, which would you click if you had to click one?


The challenge facing digital marketers from this realisation is how to overcome the user’s ability to make snap judgements on whether or not what they’re looking at is legit; because for many people, any link that looks like it might unleash a wave of pop-up ads will be steered clear of at all costs.

(Patient Zero – The internet’s first banner ad. Not much has changed since the mid noughties…)

A quick brose through a clickbait-based twitter feed or a look through the paid suggestions at the bottom of a site or blog will expose some trends. The biggest one is without doubt teasing nudity or sex (‘sex sells’-the least original line in advertising to describe the least original sales technique), which is linked to another favourite – scandal, or shock factor. The problem with this is that people wise up to it; and as web-literacy becomes more widespread, people will stop falling for these tricks. But then again, maybe I’m wrong, and we’re all just a bunch of animals who can’t resist clicking on anything that suggests we might get some nudity. 

Just as the shift towards app usage rather than PC-based browsing saw the demise of the banner ad, the evolution of the way in which content is consumed online could see the end of clickbait; at least the crudest examples. In the meantime, digital marketers should use this as an opportunity to create ads that are legitimised by the fact that they don’t look anything like clickbait, establishing a certain degree of trust from the off. 

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