Clickbait doesn’t work
People feel manipulated by clickbait headlines, so they like the content less and are 31.2% - 48% less likely to share it.
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A few years ago, BuzzFeed became a synonym for viral content. It also used some of the most clickbaity headlines out there.
So we came to associate clickbait headlines with viral content.
But a leaked internal report showed that - in reality - about three-quarters of BuzzFeed’s traffic from between 2011 and 2014 was paid (Facebook Ads), not acquired organically.
Still, the belief remains among many marketers that clickbait headlines can be good and lead to content virality.
So what’s really going on?
This new study analyzed 19,386 online articles to find out.
Previous insight: 4.3 stars sells more than 4.9 stars (100+ more insights here)
Articles with clickbait headlines are much less likely to be shared
Impacted metrics: Organic reach
Channels: Content | Social media
For: B2C. Can be tested for B2B
Research date: January 2022
If you want content to be shared and liked, avoid using clickbait headlines (e.g. “The Scary New Science That Shows Milk Is Bad For You”).
People will feel manipulated and will be less likely to share them.
Clickbait headlines may still work if your main goal is clicks, rather than organic reach or building trust.
Clickbait headlines tend to omit key information. For example, the same news article could be titled as:
Clickbait: “You won’t believe whom Donald Trump appointed as senior White House adviser”
Not clickbait: “Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner appointed as senior White House adviser”
This study finds that, on average, articles with clickbait headlines are shared much less online than ones with non-clickbait headlines.
An analysis of online article likes and shares on Twitter found that:
Clickbait headlines had 41% fewer likes (329.22 vs 194.27) and 48% fewer retweets (155.65 vs 80.61) on average
Even when using a more conservative data model, retweets were still 31.2% lower (107,07 vs 155.65)
🧠 Why it works
Clickbait headlines omit important information, which makes us want to satisfy our curiosity.
But, by now, most of us know that clickbait headlines are artificial. They’re an obvious attempt by companies to create a curiosity gap to get our attention - even when there shouldn’t be one.
This makes us feel that the company is trying to manipulate us, so we react by distrusting and defying the source, and reject them as not credible or trustworthy.
Since source credibility and trustworthiness are key drivers of word of mouth, we’re less likely to share the clickbait headline.
Sharing and liking of content on social media is only one way of increasing reach. It could be, for example, that clickbait headlines have much higher clickthrough rates and justify using paid channels instead. This was not analyzed in this study.
It’s unclear what impact clickbait headlines had on the actual reading or viewing of content. This study focused on sharing.
We don’t know how far the negative feeling of distrust towards the source of a clickbait headline spreads. If the article is a content marketing piece from a brand, does it impact how people feel towards the entire brand?
🏢 Companies using this
Among the initial sample for the study of 19,386 randomly selected articles from 27 leading online publishers (e.g. Business Insider, BBC), a quarter were rated as clickbait headlines.
A notable example of extreme clickbait was a San Francisco Globe headline that read: “When You Find Out What These Kids Are Jumping Into, Your Jaw Will Drop!”, with the subtitle: “This is unbelievable! I have NEVER seen anything like THIS in my entire life! Wow.” The kids were jumping in a swimming pool.
Some companies may be aware that clickbait reduces sharing, but still use it because they use paid reach or find that it’s an effective way to bring people onto their platform.
⚡ Steps to implement
To avoid making a headline clickbaity, provide key information upfront so that people can decide whether it’s something they’re interested in before having to open the content.
For example, these are headlines of the same content that go from least clickbait to most clickbait:
“After Going Vegan For 10 Weeks, Olivia Petter Reports Better Digestion, More Energy, Clearer Skin”
“After Going Vegan For 10 Weeks, Olivia Petter Reports Health Benefits”
“I Went Vegan For 10 Weeks And This Is What Happened To My Body And Mindset”
“I Went Vegan For 10 Weeks And You Won't Believe What Happened To My Body”
🔍 Study type
Lab experiment and field experiment (analysis of 19,386 articles from 27 online publishers)
Did clickbait crack the code on virality? (January 2022). Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.
Prithwiraj Mukherjee, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
Souvik Dutta, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi
Arnaud De Bruyn, ESSEC Business School
Remember: This is a new scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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