Clickbait headlines are sensationalized or exaggerated titles.
You can find clickbait on blog posts, in article titles, and most plentifully on social media. In fact, Facebook faced down the rise of clickbait in its 2017 algorithm update. “People tell us they don’t like stories that are misleading, sensational, or spammy,” say the app’s engineers. “That includes clickbait headlines that are designed to get attention and lure visitors into clicking on a link.”
But a headline’s job is to get attention, right? If the reader doesn’t get beyond the headline, then they won’t read the piece. Online, that means a headline’s role is to get the click.
So, you’d think that clickbait headlines would get respect. They achieve the desired result: traffic. Any self-respecting blogger or digital content writer wants to get clicks to a website. I know I do.
But there’s a problem with clickbait that goes beyond the ability to drive traffic. Clickbait headlines get the click … but in a sneaky way.
For instance, a clickbait headline shouts out an Amazing solution to your lifelong problem. Once you click and you arrive at the site, you must wade through 47 slides to find that the answer is eating a banana a day or changing your car’s motor oil every 5,000 miles — answers that you knew all along. If you’re like me, you grind your teeth in frustration.
At issue here is not the need to get the reader to click. Rather, it’s what clickbait leads to: a page that has little consequence. Clickbait headlines lure you into wasting your time on low-quality content.
Two of the most devious types of clickbait headlines are polar opposites of each other. One entices you with too little information. The other, too much.
Here is an example of a clickbait template that gives too little information.
“[Person] was going to [action], but what you see next will shock you …”
Anyone could write that headline by filling in the blanks. Try it. How about this: “This [preschooler] was going to [pick up her crayons], but what you see next will shock you …”
If you’re a parent of a preschooler, won’t you want to know what happened to this poor, unsuspecting toddler? You want to avoid the shock that will surely follow when your child grabs his Crayolas. So you click.
“When you leave crucial information out of a headline, it forces the reader to click your link to learn that information,” says social media expert Laura Roeder. Too little information forces a reader’s hand. In contrast, a good headline can be enticing yet stand alone as a complete thought.
Rather than too little information, other clickbait headlines rely on exaggerated claims. They sound irresistibly juicy, “like digital junk food for your brain,” says SaaS content marketing strategist Zoe Devitto.
You read, “See the shocking discovery in your own refrigerator that lets users shed 6 pounds a week!” Of course, you want to know what it is. So you click through, only to find out that the headlined item is celery. If you eat only celery, along with exercising 30 minutes a day and taking a multivitamin, you too can lose 6 pounds this week.
This points to the biological reason readers move their mouse to the click position when they read a sensationalized headline. It has to do with dopamine, the brain’s reward chemical. A clickbait headline promises an intriguing piece of information or a shocking outcome or an outrageous benefit. Your inner synapses cannot help but salivate. That minute tidbit of dopamine surges. So you click.
And you are disappointed. The content is weak. And that’s one big reason that content writers lose credibility with their readers.
Good headlines arouse feelings. You need to choose words for your headline that elicit emotion — words like easy, new, now, save, and the all-encompassing you — to get readers to move beyond the headline to your content. But a good rule in writing, as in life, is to handle both words and human emotions with care.
That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your eye out for these seven terms as you write headlines. They are the guiltiest click baiters. As a self-check, always note the promise you make in your headline — particularly if you use one of these terms. And then be sure to deliver that promise in the content.
More Headline Writing Tips
Content by award-winning content writer and author Kathy Widenhouse, who specializes in writing for nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
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