Studies have shown that 6 out of 10 people will share headlines on social media without reading the article

Clickbait and the damage done

Clickbait is the tactic of teasing users with intriguing ads or posts of your content to entice them to click-through and read. Generally the website hosting the link earns revenue from advertisers or an advertising network for each click[1].  Hence the more clicks the more revenue. With more platforms allocating space towards paid advertising (cost per impressions), the incentive to increase the quantity of web traffic has never been greater.

Clickbait is not a new phenomenon.  It has been around in one form or another for centuries.  P.T. Barnum wrote of it in his 1880 book 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[2]”

Clickbait works because it appeals to our curiosity and our emotions[3].  We are by nature curious creatures  fueled on emotion who cannot resist clicking through to find out the answer posed by the headline.  Our rational minds tell us we are wasting our time and the headline is simply sensationalist, however our curiosity often overrides our rational mind.  Ten minutes and six clicks and multiple pages later, we are still none the wiser as to the answer.

Apart from the time we have wasted and mild feelings of frustration, is there any damage for companies using clickbait as a means to drive traffic and encourage clients and potential clients to click on our ads?

The potential danger with clickbait for companies is they risk losing the confidence and trust of clients. Gregory Golinski, head of SEO at, says that “Clickbait is tricking people into consuming content by making them believe it will be better than what it really is”[4].  In other words, it is a broken promise; you promise something to your customers but fail to fulfil your part by creating useful, quality content. A clearcase example of bad business practice. 

The overuse of clickbait also gives the impression a company has not taken the time to really understand the needs and interests of their clients but is using a one size fits all strategy to try and boost engagement rather than meet the needs of their customers.

The skill and discipline for companies is to create great headlines and follow through with great content that creates authentic value.  In other words, to appeal to a customer’s curiosity and then satisfy the curiosity on the next click.

Companies need to treat their customers as intelligent and smart particularly when it comes to building trust and loyalty in the marketing world.

Apart from losing the trust and confidence of clients, the other harm with clickbait is its correlation with fake news.  As mentioned clickbait appeals to our curiosity and emotions.  The headlines used in clickbait aim to arouse the emotions of readers who then share the headlines on social media.  Share something often enough and it begins to assume an air of fact. 

Studies have shown that 6 out of 10 people will share headlines on social media without reading the article[5].  When headlines designed to generate emotions get shared without the person first checking the facts, fake news is spread and repeated. This practice of sharing content without reading it is not only done at an individual level, but by many brands retweeting or resharing content due to a perceived perception that ''we need to post reguarly'' which is an incorrect appraoach. 

It is not just companies who have a responsibility to use clickbait carefully and ethically, customers and clients also have a responsibility to educate themselves about clickbait, so they are not drawn into reacting emotionally and potentially spreading incorrect or irrelevant media.

How do we identify clickbait?  Sometimes it is difficult to know the difference between clickbait and a legitimate headline, however there are usually a few common elements in clickbait content.  Clickbait tends to use vague headlines and emotive images that allow a person’s imagination to run wild.  Clickbait will also use shock and outrage as a means to grab people’s attention as well as numbered lists[6].  Another way of identifying clickbait is headlines tell you how to feel rather than allowing you to come up with your own reaction.[7]

Given we know the characteristics of clickbait it is for organisations to create ethical bait, to ensure headlines are as clear and succinct as possible, with minimal use of the shock tactic and that clients and customers are allowed the dignity of their own responses.

A challenging, creative, skilled task, yet necessary if companies are to avoid the damage and rather build confidence, trust and advocacy with customers.