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Over the past year or two, sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy have introduced a new type of content marketing to the masses.

Lovingly referred to as clickbait, it has so thoroughly revolutionised the way content is shared that there are rumours Facebook has tried to ban it.

So why do people have such a love/hate relationship with these entertaining articles? And what can marketeers learn from clickbait marketing?

By now, most of us should be familiar with the term 'clickbait', but for the benefit of those who aren't, these are the sort of headlines you'll see on clickbait articles:

This guy went to hug an elephant. What happens next will blow your mind

These facts about childbirth will change the way you look at life FOREVER

What this little kid can do with a bongo drum will make you sob uncontrollably until you burst

Hopefully those made-up examples will have you rolling your eyes and realising just how full of clickbait your Facebook feed has become.

If you've not yet encountered one, consider yourself lucky and make the most of it!

Sites like Buzzfeed have turned clickbaiting into an art form. According to figures by Quantcast, Buzzfeed alone regularly attracts more than 10m unique users in a single day. 

So as you can see, it looks like the art of clickbaiting is here to stay and I'm sure a lot of marketeers are now pondering "how can I get in on the action?"

So here is my list of things we can all learn from the success of clickbaiting. I can't promise it will make you sob, or cause your brain to explode, but hopefully it'll give you some tips you can follow in your own marketing, even if you don't have the clout of Buzzfeed!

Your headline is everything

Frankly, the content of most clickbait articles is secondary to the headline, a fact which makes much more sense when you realise the purpose of clickbait.

Unlike more traditional forms of digital marketing, the aim of sites like Buzzfeed isn't to sell you a product or service, to push an opinion or a view. Their purpose is to generate page views, which in turn generates ad revenue.

When you realise this, the way Buzzfeed et al write headlines suddenly makes a lot more sense. Gone are the traditional rules of headline writing. These aren't short, snappy, witty or clever.

They tell you exactly what you're about to see, with just enough of a tease at the end to intrigue you into clicking.

They spread like melted butter

The way most clickbait sites work is designed to maximise on the setup of social networking sites. Namely, the ability to view other users' activity.

If the conditions are right, you don't even need to click 'Like' or 'Share' for everyone in your feed to know that you are reading one of these articles, just the activity of clicking the link will have increased their visibility to your network.

So even without realising it, you're helping them to spread. Either because your click means they appear more prominently in the feed, or because their Facebook setup means your visit to their site is shared in your friends' feeds.

Here for a good time, not a long time

In most forms of digital marketing, we're told that our content has to serve a long-term goal. It's either got to be engaging for the reader (to sell a product or keep people on your site for longer), to attract SEO traffic and rankings (where 'mature' content is often rewarded) or to convey complex information.

Clickbait articles don't have any of these aims. You can see just by looking at them that SEO certainly isn't a priority.

Nobody at Buzzfeed is sat in a meeting room pondering: "How can we get more traffic from people searching for stories about toddlers who can play the bongos?" No, the only aim of a clickbait article is to get you on to their site, at which point they need you to read as many other pieces as possible.

You can see further evidence for this when you read one of these articles. Often the largest part of the non-article space on the page is given up to "If you liked this, you might also like..." links - and judging by the time people are spending on these sites, it's a tactic that works.

People are gullible

It's sad but true. When it comes to clicking links online, most of us (myself included) are very gullible.

I've lost count of the number of times that I've seen a Buzzfeed article headline in my Facebook timeline, known full well that it's likely to be nonsense but STILL find myself clicking the link to find out "what happens next" for myself.

If you're hoping to emulate the success of clickbait sites with your own content, it's worth bearing this in mind!

Size definitely isn't everything

Unlike this post, most clickbait articles are surprisingly brief, often just two or three hundred words or less, and very reliant on images and video. 

This 'Buzzfeed minus gifs' tumblr illustrates this point perfectly: 

Some of the most successful pieces are barely any longer than their headline, with a short introductory paragraph and a small conclusion once you've finished sobbing/laughing/exploding. We're certainly not talking War and Peace here.

Content attribution isn't important, apparently

As a content creator myself, it drives me demented that these sites get away with what they do, under the guise of 'content aggregation'.

After all, the majority of the most popular clickbait pieces are actually brief descriptions of somebody else's content, followed by the content itself, cut-n-pasted wholesale with a tiny attribution link at the very end.

As unethical as this might seem, a lot of content creators take the view that even a small exposure increase that these pieces can give you is probably more beneficial than they'd like to admit.

I'm certainly not advocating stealing other people's content mind you, but if you attribute it properly (providing a link to the source material, taking care to identify the author) most people probably won't mind the exposure.

Quantity beats quality

Unlike most traditional websites, newspapers or blogs, most clickbait sites get the majority of their traffic from individual stories, as opposed to the homepage or news feed.

Because of this, and the tenuous connection it forms with readers (there's very little brand loyalty when it comes to these aggregators!) they need to spend a lot of time and energy keeping up the churn.

Sites like Buzzfeed can pump out literally hundreds of stories each day, with huge teams of content 'creators' employed to churn out mind-blowing volumes.

A lot of these content creators are measured on the traffic they generate, so it's in their interest to throw as much sh!t at the wall as they can.

In conclusion... 

As a slightly more traditional marketer, I'm certainly not suggesting we should all start rewriting our onsite content to reflect the traits seen here, after all, unless your aims are exactly the same as these sites (i.e. high traffic, low engagement) they undoubtedly won't work for you.

But there are certainly a few tips most marketers could take away from this list which could improve SOME aspect of their content.

Plus, chances are even if you aren't engaging in any of these tactics, clickbait sites will be affecting you in some way, most often by quashing your own visibility on social sites. So knowing what you are dealing with is half the battle.

Henry Elliss

Published 25 February, 2014 by Henry Elliss

Henry Elliss is a senior strategist at Good Relations and contributor at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or via his own parenting blog.

18 more posts from this author

Comments (14)

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Matthew Henton

Matthew Henton, Marketing Director at 31DOVER

One sector of digital marketing that can certainly learn from this type of headline writing is email. Crafting an intriguing subject line that stands out in a cluttered inbox can make enough difference to the open rate (and subsequent success metrics) to deliver an email campaign win.

over 2 years ago



A good time, not a long time....

Great usage of these lyrics. But boy, it does bring us back!

over 2 years ago


Nick Stamoulis

You make a great point about click-bait being the short term game. Some of it might be "evergreen" but it isn't particularly in-depth or super educational. It's fun, it's clever, it gets people's attention for a few minutes but it short enough that they are happy to move onto another post.

over 2 years ago

Laura Phillips

Laura Phillips, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

I'm exactly the same! I know it's rubbish but the bait gets me every time! Since the rise of BuzzFeed I've been a bit more flagrant with my blog post titles; cheapened them a little if you will. By adding words I usually steer away from like 'amazing', 'free' etc I've actually increased my visits without losing quality.

over 2 years ago


David Kepley

And knowing is half the battle! So the question becomes how do you take that shock headline tease and apply it to content? I guess that also means creating content that applies to popular searches within the audience you are trying to build. Good thoughts!

over 2 years ago

Henry Elliss

Henry Elliss, Digital Marketing Director at Tamar

Thanks for the feedback, guys! And Laura - I'm really interested to hear more about how the teaser words have affected your traffic!

over 2 years ago

Neale Gilhooley

Neale Gilhooley, MD at Evolution Design Ltd

I often feel like screaming at Facebook friends please don't share this awful content... hilarious, made me cry, best ever .... any emotional string that can be tugged. and lots of my FB friends work in marketing, as I cover in my hilarious funny emotional article on my blog
http://www.edinburghdesignconsultancy.co.uk ;)

over 2 years ago


Dominic Brenton

How long before Google penalises these sites out of existence Panda-style? Content farming was exactly the phrase that sprang to my mind on reading this; these articles sound a bit like those narcotics grown under heat lamps in the loft that police delight in discovering!

over 2 years ago

Henry Elliss

Henry Elliss, Digital Marketing Director at Tamar

Dominic - whilst that sounds ominous, the point is that would barely affect these guys. The majority of their traffic comes from sharing and social votes, so a Google penalty probably wouldn't even make a dent in their traffic.

over 2 years ago


D Mckillop, Director at DMC Media

> Dominic - whilst that sounds ominous, the point is that would barely affect these guys.

Exactly, it's not as if people are doing searches on Google for this rubbish. Nobody sets out looking for these articles, they just get suckered into clicking on the annoyingly 'intriguing' headlines.

over 2 years ago

Maebellyne Ventura

Maebellyne Ventura, Digital Marketing at Wealthport AG

Has anyone seen examples of companies using this tactic to drive traffic to their blogs?

over 2 years ago


Celso de Sá, Teacher / Web Developer at Solopreneur

Very clever well written article!
I've got clickbaited (isn't it a verb already?).
Anyway I liked to have been clickbaited and this headline plus the depth of this article could possibly be the next step on Content Marketing.

almost 2 years ago


David Altham, Paver at Paving solutions

Ok so that explains what to do once u have the page/site up and running. But I'm looking at starting a click bait page and have no idea how to get it from nothing - to a functioning click bait page. Can anyone help?

6 months ago


Ellen Bowers, Marketing Associate at Lucidica

The word clickbait has just been added to the OED which show how much it is now a part of every day lives. I think the discussion on what can be categorised as clickbait and what isn't is really interesting.
Here's an article on why people use clickbait that you may find interesting; http://www.lucidica.com/blog/r...

18 days ago

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