If you read any blogs about marketing (like this post: https://neilpatel.com/blog/why-clickbait-works/), they will focus on how to get people into a funnel of behavior that will eventually lead them to buying your product or giving you their email address. At the same time they will legitimize some behaviors that they know and we know as users to be bad.
One example is clickbait, based on hijacking the readers psychology into a strong cognitive dissonance and curiosity that they are inclined to read more and click, even though they don’t in fact have much interest in the topic at hand. This is because as humans we walk around the world while trying to make sense of things. If clickbait existed fifty thousand years ago and said “there are three animals behind this bush, number two may eat you”, we couldn’t possibly walk away or continue with what we were doing without making sure we have the information to know what exactly our environment is like.
The reason behind this trick is that there is a bait and switch or the content is light on information so the title (by far the most read by visitors), is not only hiding information but giving you a promise that the information is within reach.
Let’s compare these titles
“Ramifications of prolonged sitting for salary workers in Japan: a longitudinal study”
“Sitting at work may be killing you”
“Changing this one behavior may help you live longer”
The first example is an academic title. If you go through a PhD program you will be asked to write titles that are less than 12 words and describe as much as possible all the unique features of your study so it’s easy to find. The goal here is not to draw attention to your work above others, but to save time for people looking for specific information. In fact if research articles were titled like clickbait articles it would extend the work to look for literature significantly.
The second example is using a technique of using sensational language. It’s still giving you some information but because the language used is so strong you are more inclined to find out how exactly it’s going to do that. The strong language suggests that this may indeed be important for your survival as a human being, and pass on this information at your own peril. Only to find out when you go to the article that the evidence is thin and the killing, if at all, is likely happening over decades and may not really be important compared to other things that may actually kill you.
The third article is the main method of clickbait, it’s the bait part of the equation, which is promising a significant bit of information but not revealing anything about it. Which one behavior can help you live longer? It’s hard to not click on this even if you know that it’s a clickbait title because your brain is wired to not leave questions like this hanging in order to protect you from danger.
Is clickbait itself a bad thing? There is some research on this that shows it actually does not erode trust in the way we would expect, at least in relation to politics and media (1). But there is also some evidence to show people react negatively to clickbait, rating the credibility of the source lower if the title is designed as a clickbait (2).
This behavior is prevalent because marketers believe that it impacts a very important metric, the “click through rate” (CTR). CTR is the main unit of value for marketing. Whether you want to sell courses or ask people to join a movement, they need to find you first and CTR is the metric that will tell you what messages makes people click the link that will bring them to you. There is research to indicate that is works, clickbait articles lead to a statistically significant increase in CTR (3). This may in turn translate to very large gains in revenue for the people who run websites or sell things. This is why marketing gurus like Neil Patel will tell you to suck it up and use them.
On the other side of the equation however are left users who are facing a large number of clickbait content in their web browsing experience. While one vendor is concerned with their own gain, we as users face many vendors throughout our interactions online.
While there are user experience professionals for individual companies, nobody is in charge of our overall user experience online. We won’t have a single product or set of rules regarding online behavior. But this leads to experiences that hurt every content provider or content seller online as well.
Are you familiar with websites you go to for reading an article and it’s hard to follow the text because of all the ads sprinkled strategically to distract you from reading? Do you often see website popups that tell you not to leave with the cheap trick of sensing when your mouse is moving away from their page?
At some point we the product people need to have a sit down with the marketing people and come to an understanding about what CTR is worth and what it isn’t. I believe the best way to get customers is to provide value and all the other methods we use from clickbait to littering page with ads are cheap tricks. These are making the entire web experience worst for users and this unhappiness is leading to an uphill battle with our users.
We are still struggling however to monetize online experiences. Do we want a gated internet that is clean and well designed but you need to pay a monthly fee for every single page you visit? That is also hardly the solution. But the web is constantly evolving, and while we acknowledge the usefulness of ads and the marketing tactics it generates, we need to also acknowledge the costs that this will bring for building products for the web.