Lorraine Forrest-Turner

10 headlines we just can’t resist – even when we know we’re being duped

11 Jun / by: Lorraine Forrest-Turner

(Or how to write successful clickbait)

The video David Cameron didn’t want you to see. Five so called health foods you should never eat. What people really mean when they say nice things. This dad gave his 2 year old son a pair of scissors: you won’t believe what happened next.

They’re everywhere. Those ‘less than accurate’ headlines aimed at generating clicks and/or advertising revenue by appealing to our sense of curiosity. But why? Surely most sensible people see them for what they are and just ignore them, don’t they?

Not so. Love them or loathe them, it seems there’s no end in sight for the ‘You won’t believe just how gullible some people can be’ headline. Why? Because they work.

Here a click, there a click, everywhere a click click

While credit is given to the likes of Upworthy and Buzzfeed as the originators of clickbait, it has actually been around a very long time. Newspapers and admen have used the power of curiosity to attract our attention for decades.

What is new is the proliferation.

Clickbait is now so common even ‘respectable organisations’ are using them on their websites and social media pages, and in emailers.

The Telegraph online recently ran a story entitled Top tips for clean perfect teeth (some might surprise you) and BBC News online ran Can’t cook? The secret skills you never knew you had.

Even sites such as ClickHole that purports to be a parody of clickbait sites has resorted to similar techniques in their emailers.

Why clickbait still works

Like all forms of advertising, not all clickbait works for all of us all the time.

But few of us can ignore those that seem to speak just to us – especially when we’re killing time travelling, avoiding whatever difficult task we’re supposed to be doing or rewarding ourselves for getting through our emails before lunch.

According to Sydney based copywriter John Kerswell it all comes down to six basic emotions: fear, guilt love, pride, greed and belonging.

The fear factor

The fear factor works at two levels – genuine fear of what is happening/might happen and the equally potent fear of missing out. As John Kerswell says: “Faced with the prospect of risk, embarrassment or unnecessary loss, where’s the harm in a quick click?”

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Tinged with guilt

Whether it’s buying something you shouldn’t be, not doing something you should or looking for absolution for something you did in the past, guilt is a strong trigger in all of us. Pushed to its strongest, it can even make us feel guilty about things we have no reason to feel guilty for!

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For the love of click

Some say love is the strongest motivator or all. It drives action and makes us do things we don’t even want to do. Good persuasive writers know that tapping into people’s passions for their loved ones, pets, homes, jobs or self-satisfaction gets results.

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Pride before the fall

Come on, be honest, who doesn’t like to feel good about themselves? That feeling of pleasure or satisfaction in our achievements is a powerful drug at the best of times but, interestingly, the more successful we become, the more reassurance we seem to need. These headlines use an irresistible mix of pride and self-doubt to make you ‘just check that’s not me’.

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I know it’s greed but…

I just have to have it. Greed is an easy sell because you’re always talking to the converted. The pull of ‘I know I don’t need it but, hell, I deserve it’ is pretty alluring, even when you know you should leave it alone.

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We belong together

The need to belong to a group is a powerful pull. Whether it’s a shared love of a football team, band, breed of dog, clothes designer or cause, you want to ensure you remain part of the scene and up to date on the latest fashion, trend or meme. Like, share, comment, the important thing is to let everyone know you’re there and you care!

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Is all clickbait bad?

Facebook recently announced it would crack down on clickbait by monitoring how long people spend reading news articles (the view being that people spend a very short time reading clickbait articles) and prioritising articles shown in a link format, as opposed to those with links in the photo caption.

But perhaps that had more to do with Facebook not wanting to lose people from the site than it had to do with purging it of clickbait.

The fact that so many reputable organisations are resorting to clickbait leads us to believe that it can’t all be bad. Few companies would risk damaging their long term reputation/business for a few viral videos and a couple of hundred thousand ‘Likes’ on Facebook.

There has to be (commercial) benefits. So what are they?

Advertising revenue

The obvious one is advertising revenue. Sites such as Buzzfeed, Upworthy and The Huffington Post make their money from advertising placed on their pages – revenue often determined by the number of people who see those ads. It’s in their interest to drive as much traffic as possible to those pages and they do that by making stories share-worthy.


Then there’s SEO. The search engines continually change their algorithms and the current trend is to rate shares over tags. The more visits a site gets, the more valuable it becomes in Google’s eyes so the higher it goes in the page rankings. An enticing headline in an emailer or on a social media site is just what the SEO doctor ordered.

Leading to more worthy content

Even for long-established media outlets, it’s no longer enough to produce good content; they have to ensure that the maximum number of people see it.

In his article In Defence of Clickbait, Guardian writer Steve Hind cites a playful Buzzfeed story on only six people signing up to Obamacare on the first day. While, it used humorous images to reel people in, the bottom of the article linked to a more serious piece of reporting.

Steve Hind believes that if clickbait can be harnessed to drive views (and earnings), then why not? He feels that it’s good to run some clickbait content to subsidise the less popular but more important stories.

No sign of letting up

So whether you think it’s just a bit of fun, a key feature of your organisation’s sales strategy or the most dangerous marketing tool since Max Clifford, clickbait is very much alive, well and in for the long haul.


Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

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Lorraine is a trainer for the PRCA
Lorraine is a trainer for the PRCA
Lorraine is a member of the Professional Copywriters' Network
Lorraine is a trainer for Big Fish Training