One Writer Explored the Marketing Science Behind Clickbait. You’ll Never Believe What She Found Out.

Marguerite McNeal
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways

  • Desperate for attention, marketers and publishers alike resort to quick-hit emotional headlines to generate clicks—whether or not they actually have something meaningful to say.

  • Measuring the right metrics will eventually lead to a more democratic content environment, not more Kim Kardashian headlines.

  • If brands care about engaging their audiences, they’ll focus more energy on creating content that gets the right people to click and engage with the story, ultimately boosting brand affinity. 


​Ever wonder how you get from a news story about Gas prices to an ‘epic’ choreographed wedding party dance video to BuzzFeed’s “Who Is Your Game of Thrones Soulmate” quiz? The Internet can feel like a giant rabbit hole, and odds are that clickbait plays a role.

Audience attention is a zero-sum game, as major media outlets well know and content marketers have quickly discovered. There’s simply not enough time to sift through the seemingly infinite number of news stories, branded articles, videos, podcasts, tweets, Instagram posts and e-mails that inundate our digital lives. Desperate for attention, marketers and publishers alike resort to quick-hit emotional headlines to generate clicks—whether or not they actually have something meaningful to say. But while clicks, indicated by metrics like page views and cost-per-impression, have become the standard measurement for content performance, brands are learning that a misleading click can do more harm than good. It’s what happens after the click that counts. 

“When people really connect with a piece, it’s [more likely] to change their minds,” says Daniel Mintz, head of data and analytics at New York-based Upworthy, a content curation site with a mission to find the most “irresistibly shareable” content on the Web. “That’s true whether you’re trying to help the developing world access clean water or to take a look at a new brand’s product.” While Upworthy is known as an aggregation site that only culls content with catchy headlines and potential to go viral, the company is among several new-media heavyweights pushing marketers to measure attention, not just clicks.

What Is Clic​kbait?

Clickbait is so prevalent on the Internet that Merriam-Webster officially added the word to its dictionary in 2015, defining it as: “Something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.” In other words, “Clickbait is when a headline makes a promise that the content can’t back up,” says Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, a New York-based attention measurement and monetization company. 

Content marketers employ clickbait tactics in various ways: through sponsored posts on sites like BuzzFeed and Mashable, in e-mail subject lines and on Facebook. But generating a click and getting potential customers to engage with content are two different things. “Any headline that gets the right people to click and read the content on the other side of that link is called a damn good headline,” Haile says. That’s easier said than done: Two-thirds of people who click on sponsored content leave within 15 seconds or less, according to Chartbeat’s research. 

A click that leads customers to read another story is more valuable than one that leads to an underwhelming story that consumers immediately leave. According to Mintz, all clicks aren’t created equal. “When all you’re measuring is clicks, it encourages publishers to cater to the lowest-common denominator: ‘Get people to click and your work is done.’ But we know that engagement and attention matter a lot,” he says.

Tall Tal​es

Storytelling by its very nature encourages sensationalism and attention-grabbing tactics. A fisherman describing a recent catch lures in listeners by embellishing the details of his fight with a yellowfin. Without the “wow” factor, audiences will move on for one simple reason: People pay attention to only the most compelling stories. 

The Internet didn’t invent clickbait-style publishing. When Hearst and Pulitzer vied for newspaper audiences in the late 19th century, Pulitzer’s New York World increased readership by including a comic that featured a character called “Yellow Dugan Kid.” Thus, the era of “yellow journalism” was born, and the papers continued to add comics, colorful headlines and sensational stories to attract more readers.

The media industry recently paid homage to Vinnie Musetto, who wrote the infamous New York Post headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” in 1983, which many credit as one of the first audacious headlines that spurred modern-day clickbait. Juxtapose that with The New York Times’ no-frills headline: “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held.” 

A new era of succinct, bold, absurd headlines helped pave the way for today’s content marketers who face constant pressure from advertisers and CMOs to generate views and shares on social media, experts say. There’s more content than ever before, and audience attention spans have hit an all-time low. A recent Microsoft study found that, largely thanks to smartphones, the average human attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish. The span dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015. (Scientists believe goldfish have nine-second attention spans.) 

The Psychology of Clickb​ait

There’s a psychological reason that clickbait tactics work. Humans have an insatiable appetite to indulge their curiosity. According to the information gap theory of curiosity, developed by George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, people feel a gap between what they know and what they want to know. It’s a mental itch that we feel compelled to scratch—a catchy headline makes it nearly impossible to avoid clicking. Consider the success of this example: A YouTube video entitled “Zach Wahls Speaks About Family,” has received about 1 million views. When introduced the same video with the headline, “Two Lesbians Raised a Baby and This Is What They Got,” it generated 17 million views. As more brands get into the content marketing game, they’re creating their own information gap headlines and e-mail subject lines. 

“There’s little doubt in my mind that incomplete, sensational headlines drive more traffic than headlines written to deliver concise, descriptive synopses of the stories they link to,” says Daniel Marquard, an engineer and growth hacker who founded Web marketing firm Netidy. “The bottom line: Clickbait works—for now, at least.”

But what works for getting clicks doesn’t necessarily work for eliciting a meaningful response from audiences. It’s an important distinction. “Clickbait tactics are generally employed by brands whose websites rely on pay-per-click ad revenue. These brands, favoring quantity over quality, are motivated to drive as much organic traffic to their stories as possible, regardless of content quality,” Marquard says.

While ad revenue might be the end goal for some media companies, content marketers publish stories to engage potential customers. Their aim is to boost brand awareness and draw audiences into the funnel, and a cheap click that doesn’t deliver on its promise won’t keep a customer around for long. Instead, it leads to high bounce rates and leaves a bad taste in consumers’ mouths. “A headline and a piece of content should work together to bring people in and deliver a payoff that readers like, read and come back to the site for more of. That’s how you build a loyal audience and a strong content brand,” Chartbeat’s Haile says. 

Myopic M​etrics

If any factor is to blame for the prevalence of clickbait, it’s the media and marketing industry’s addiction to clicks and page views. The current reliance on cost-per-impression or cost-per-thousand impressions gives marketers one detail: whether people clicked on a link. 

“The hole the media world has dug itself into is when it asks a metric to measure more than it was intended to measure, and we end up with false success—or worse, following success metrics that are actually damaging our brand,” Haile says. “There’s no one silver-bullet metric that tells all publishers if their content is doing its job or not.” Marketers should start paying more attention to post-click engagement, he says. Did readers make it to the end? Did they click on another story? Did they share it on social media? 

Chartbeat’s Web analytics platform gives users real-time data on how their content is performing. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the service enables the kind of metric-driven newsroom that has perpetuated clickbait tactics. Haile argues that measuring the right metrics will eventually lead to a more democratic content environment, not more Kim Kardashian headlines. He’s leading the crusade for the “attention Web,” encouraging publishers and content marketers to loosen their grips on clicks and track metrics that determine if people are actually reading their content. Last year, Chartbeat became the first analytics company certified by the Media Ratings Council to measure reader attention. The council determines what metrics can be used as currency for advertising sales in the U.S.

Haile is in good company. YouTube, Medium and Upworthy have all begun placing emphasis on stories that garner attention, not simply clicks. YouTube tracks time watched; Medium measures total time spent reading; and Upworthy tracks “attention minutes,” which measure reader engagement with individual articles and Upworthy’s overall site. The sites use different factors to come up with these insights, such as how much the reader’s mouse moves, how long the browser tab has been open, and how much of a video viewers watch. 

Upworthy made the shift in focus from page views to consumer attention in 2014 and publicly released its code for measuring attention minutes. Early on, the company learned that attention minutes were higher for users who came from another page on its site, and it found a correlation between its readers’ attention and their propensity to share content. 

Measuring Emotional En​​gagement

While Upworthy and other new media ventures measure how audiences engage with content, academics are studying the why. Marco Guerini, a researcher in computational linguistics at Italian tech research firm FBK-Irst, co-authored the March 2015 study, “Deep Feelings: A Massive Cross-Lingual Study on the Relation Between Emotions and Virality,” which explores the correlation between viral content and the emotions it evokes. Guerini used a common psychology scale for measuring emotion called the valence-arousal-dominance (VAD) model. Valence is a positive or negative association; arousal levels are high or low; and dominance refers to how much control people have over the emotion. The researchers studied emotional reactions to content on English- and Italian-language news sites and found that emotions alone don’t generate virality. Rather, the content’s viral potential depends on how the emotion fit into the VAD model. 

Guerini found that pieces of content generated more comments when they were associated with high-arousal emotions like anger, but people were more likely to share posts with high-dominance emotions, such as inspiration. 

This kind of research will lead marketers to focus on more than just clicks, Guerini says. 

“Understanding why people react to certain content can set us free from specific words or expressions when writing a headline,” he says. “Understanding that emotions are a powerful driver to action can lead to a whole new field of advertising opportunities.” 

Those emotions include feelings of distaste. When brands manipulate customers with misleading headlines, people feel burned and lose trust in the brand. According to Marquard, nowhere is this more evident than in the comments section on news articles. “With a traditionally worded headline, there’s a reasonable expectation that at least some users will reply with their thoughts on the story, but when sensational or incomplete headlines bring users to stories that underwhelm them, reactions can be scathing,” he says.

Insights Into Comp​elling Content

According to Haile, content marketers don’t have to choose between page views and their end goals. “Traffic to an article and engagement [with] the content aren’t mutually exclusive. A writer shouldn’t be sacrificing one for the other,” he says, adding that content marketers need to adjust how they think about their audiences. Rather than considering your audience merely as visitors to your site, think of them as readers, he says. “Your goal is not simply to get more and more visitors, chasing any and all traffic you can get. It’s to get them to read your article, to stay to read another, and to come back for more great content another day.”

The distinction between a good headline and clickbait can be a blurry one, but it’s a line worth toeing carefully. If brands care about engaging their audiences, they’ll focus more energy on creating content that gets the right people to click and engage with the story, ultimately boosting brand affinity. In any case, the content takes precedence over the headline or social media post. As Mintz puts it, “The first step is to produce content that people actually want to engage with. Entice them into reading that, and they’ll thank you.” 

​Facebook’s Clickbait Crackdown

In August 2014, Facebook announced changes to its algorithm that governs what content people see in their newsfeeds. The move came in response to users’ major grievances about how much viral junk flooded their pages. Facebook said its algorithm will take into account how much time users spend reading a story they’ve clicked on and whether they comment on or share the article. The social media giant said that 80% of people surveyed “preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through.” 

The Facebook newsfeed changes came shortly after satirical media outlet The Onion launched ClickHole, a site that mocks clickbait and is intended to convey the shallow nature of content that is shared on social media, in addition to the rise of the Twitter feed @SavedYouAClick, which is devoted to “saving you from clickbait” and has nearly 200,000 followers.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Marketing Insights​.


Author Bio:

Marguerite McNeal
Marguerite McNeal is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She can be reached at
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Joyce Reyes
October 19, 2015

Very interesting read! Familiar with the term, but had no idea what it was exactly. This article clarified the differences between Clickbait and a Catchy Headline. Helped me focus the do's and don'ts to avoid frustrating readers with unsatisfying content that doesn't deliver the headline promise. Joyce Reyes, Marketing Director

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