Let's talk about clickbait

Archive photo. Original image source.
Archive photo. Original image source.

A few weeks ago, I got this feedback from a longtime reader who was concerned about Offbeat Empire posting a lot of "archival material with clickbait headlines."

She's not wrong! Offbeat Bride and Offbeat Home & Life each publish two or three new blog posts a day, and then from 11am – 8pm PST, their respective Facebook pages are a steady stream of links to archival posts.

Whether or not the titles on these posts are clickbait is a little subjective. I think of clickbait as manipulative and forcing your hand (ie "This bride got left at the altar — YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHAT SHE DID NEXT"), but the truth of publishing is that a huge portion of a publisher's job is what's known as content marketing. How do you make sure that people who are interested in your content A) see it and B) are interested enough in it to click through to read it? People do NOT want to leave Facebook, so it's a significant challenge. More about this: Every Major Website Clickbaits, But Not as Much as You’d Assume.

Hooky, click-worthy titles are a critically important part of my editors' jobs. Why, just this morning I had an editor retitle "DIY wedding invitations: the design software that gets the job done" to "10 design programs to use for your DIY wedding invitations (including 5 FREE ones!)." Titles and lead images are workshopped heavily behind the scenes — content marketing is important editorial work, and I push my staff pretty hard to make sure that each post has an image that translates well to social media thumbnailing, and a title that's compelling and click-worthy.

Interestingly, while the term "clickbait" is new, the concept of writing hooky titles to sell content is very, very old. What do you think magazine covers are for? Clickbait is the digital version of EXTRA EXTRA READ ALL ABOUT IT, and it's as old as print media.

clickbait trend

I also think the word clickbait has gotten a lot of media attention recently, and everyone wants to talk about it. I'm noting a sharp uptick in Facebook commenters wanting to workshop our post titles. In our current information economy, readers are so soaked in media all day every day that they're generally more savvy and more vocal about what they think works, and what they don't like.

This is great, although can sometimes exhaust my editors… after one recent round of "commenter would like to suggest a better post title," an editor sighed "These are all nice ideas, but I don't come to where you work and knock the dick out of YOUR mouth." Hilariously, when we ran a more literal title recently, we even got feedback that it sucked because it gave away too much of the post's story. HA! There's no winning.

But getting back on topic, yes: my editors write and share posts with titles that hopefully interest readers and lead them to want to read more. Is that clickbait, or content marketing? Where do you draw the line? Where should WE draw the line?

  1. I 100% draw the line at "you won't believe what happens next!" and "It started as a [thing], but what it turned into BLEW MY MIND!" My line is drawn so staunchly that I actually REFUSE to read any articles
    that utilize those titles. I just wait until either someone shares the story with a less gross title, or Google and find a different article. If you can't not insult my intelligence with sophomoric click bait bullshit, I can't give you my page views.

    But going negative to intrigue doesn't bug me. Like today's bride title, which was actually written by the bride herself: "Why I don't really care about my wedding." But my favorite click bait title I've ever written was "Why I'm never taking my dog to the vet again." Mwahahahahaha.

    46 agree
  2. Also, I'm kind of bummed that you didn't title this "We talk about a clickbait, and you won't believe what one of my editors said!"

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    • #1: You just workshopped my title on a post about workshopping titles. META INCEPTION!

      #2: That's totally the title when you share the post on Bride & Home's FB pages later, right!?

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        • And that's the title I clicked through on Twitter. #suckeredin #totallyfellforit #gotwhatIexpectedthough

          The majority of the content I produce for my (very small) program is pretty much not gross click-bait titles, and I refuse to share content (even when related) if the gross click-bait title shows up when I send it through Buffer.

          I agree with dootsiebug below – the title has GOT to be related to the article. I hate the type of article that is like "Creepy behavior exhibited – It;s not why you think" and then when you click through, the subtitle is also misleading "so creepy, more creeepy, why?" and then it's like "non-creepy, non-stalkery behavior, totally legit and consensual partnership activity." – not saying you guys do this, that's just my line.

          In my content world (animal advocacy) there are a LOT of these click bait titles, especially around the topic of pitbulls, and I don't think it actually helps the cause at all.

          6 agree
  3. One guideline I think editors should at least consider is whether the headline is making the article kind of a letdown. I know a few websites that I won't click to anymore because I know the thing will not be half as cool as the title sounds. And if you're talking about the thing as if it's totally mind-blowingly amazing omg wtf bbq, at least make sure it's kind of cool.

    33 agree
  4. When I see what I consider clickbait, YOU WONT BELIEVE WHAT I DO NEXT!

    I refuse to click. Nope. And I've never thought that's what OBB was doing.

    14 agree
  5. The titles on offbeat empire articles always draw from the content don't they? Afterall you prefer to allow people to self-identify so you wouldn't title a wedding: 'Super hot plus size couple, with a klingon ceremony', unless the couple wrote those words in their description.

    So I imagine you guys work hard to make up, interesting, yet respectful post titles. And if there's something offensive for the readers or the author, you'll change it immediately.
    In short, I've never considered OBE titles to be clickbait. What they describe is always in the articles, so they're true. I'm always disappointed in the photos though – there's never enough 😉

    5 agree
  6. I dunno, I kind of consider 'clickbait' to be stuff that just wants you to click on the page, reducing the viewer/reader to just a set of eyes that generates advertising revenue, without caring much about the actual content.

    I never feel that way about Offbeat content, regardless of how it's titled – the quality of posts is high. Getting people to click through to the content is just part of the game, and writing snappy and compelling titles is important for catching people's attention. I see nothing wrong with it as long as it's backed up by interesting content!

    That said, my main argument against the 'typical' clickbait titles (containing things like "You won't believe what happens next!" or "At 2:20, it blew my mind!") is the negative backlash effect – we now associate these kinds of things with marketer manipulation and fluff content, so those unfamiliar with the quality of your content might be scared away. The trick is to find something compelling and different that won't get lost in a sea of Buzzfeed links… easier said than done. 🙂

    1 agrees
  7. I have to agree with most of ya'll. I can't stand the "and you won't believe what happened next" "and it's so supper amazing wtf bbq you must click now." BS.
    I hate it when the title/description tells you NOTHING about the content. Anything that tells me what I'm about to get into doesn't fall into the click bait category for me. Also, I will bounce off the site really quickly if it is a slideshow or some other set up that requires me to click though just so you can count all my clicks.

    2 agree
  8. Well, when it comes to OBE content, I think, as a fairly longtime reader, that I can usually expect what's coming next. Like, if I see a title I can be a pretty good judge of whether or not the article is going to be interesting to me. This, I think, is the good side of "content marketing" – it's making me interested, but letting me have control (or feel like I have control) over whether or not I read content that's interesting to me. I'll admit I've hit some repeat articles because of a catchy title and I'll either reread the article (if it's particularly prescient and maybe offers some perspective I forgot about) or close the tab again once I notice. NBD.

    I also know that OBB especially is more of a "guilty pleasure" for me – I've been married for two years and really don't need the wedding advice any more (and even OBH is only so relevant since I am in a somewhat temporary living situation and a lot of the info doesn't apply). I click because I want to read something that's vaguely interesting but not necessarily something that makes me upset or gets me too deep into a thought process (after all, I'm on Facebook to procrastinate from real work, duh!) I think OBE is very honest about filling that niche for a lot of people so I really don't mind it. There are far worse offenders.

    3 agree
  9. As long as you're not doing, "First half of sentence, question mark? End of sentence." We cool.

    6 agree
  10. I think your titles are totally fine! The ones that annoy me are the ones that are obnoxiously and shamelessly manipulative… stuff like "You won't believe what happened!" (don't tell me what I'll believe, you're not my real mom!) or "This guy saw a penguin that was sad so he did THIS"…. stuff that sounds like that old "one weird trick invented by a mom" ads. My biggest pet peeve is the unnecessary use of first person commentary on list post titles, though – stuff like "27 Heartwrenching Pictures of Anuses- Number 17 Made Me Cry!"

    No it fucking didn't, you're just being a manipulative turd.

    I've never been bothered by any of the offbeat titles though – I think there's a happy balance between "boring, overly informative title" and "super vague manipulative title meant to trick you into clicking". I want to be able to look at the title and see if I want to read it or not at first glance, without feeling like I have to click through just to find out what the subject matter is. For instance I can look at OH right now and see that I can probably skip the one on raspberry bushes (since I don't have any) but should check out the one about being a vampire in the sun, since it clearly pertains to pasty-ass people like myself 😉

    11 agree
  11. Just don't tell me you have "ONE WEIRD TRICK…".
    Even if you're a housekeeper or a 54-year-old grandma, I don't wanna know.
    Keep your own dicks in your own mouth, is what I'm saying.

    3 agree

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