Honest Headlines, Superlative Snippets and Titillating Titles: What can we Learn from Upworthy and Clickbait?
Copyblogger claims that 80% of people read the headline of a post but only 20% will read the rest. Marketing legend David Ogilvy tells us that 5 times as many people read the headline than the rest of the copy. ‘When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar.’ As these authoritative stats suggest, headlines deserve a lot of love and attention. They shouldn’t be treated as ‘the cherry on top’ as Jeff Goines puts it, but as the actual ice-cream sundae. But how should we approach titles in this quickly changing online world? When SEO was at the forefront of online marketing, lifeless, keyword-ridden headlines were sadly the norm and by far the most successful. Sam Parker of the Guardian tells us that during this phase when optimisation was key, in the event of a celebrity death, he had to include both the words ‘dead and ‘dies’ in his article titles, anticipating the phrases that would be typed into Google. The headline: ‘Michael Jackson Dies: Singer Found Dead At Home’ is not only uninspiring and clunky but somewhat baffling. The current trend is to produce emotional or ‘superlative’ headlines that include a curiosity gap. These work very well on social media, a place where users are comfortable and need to be thoroughly tempted in order to click away. These sensationalist snippets are designed to compete with messages from friends and updates from ‘liked’ Pages (such as bands, brands or celebrities), so really need to grab the audience’s attention. We call these ‘clickbait.’
Clickbait and superlatives
The purpose of clickbait, simply and obviously, is to get the highest number of clicks/impression. Because of this aim, more often than not, the content in question does not live up to expectation. Where best to start but an example? This post has been doing the rounds on Facebook over the last week or two and perfectly illustrates this idea. On Youtube the video is simply titled: ‘Harlem Elvis.’ An uninspiring and uninformative description. When viral-content site and clickbait experts, Inspire More, got their hands on it, they promoted it with the comparatively awe-inspiring phrase: This Guy Lives Like He Spends $84,600 Every Day. How He Does It Will Impress You. I, like many (the video has nearly 800,000 views), instantly watched, rubbing my hands together with glee while mentally designing my Beverly Hills mansion. One swimming pool or two? Sadly for us all, the video simply shows a man telling us we should live life to the full. This is a fluffy idea that I’ve always been aware of and certainly wouldn’t have clicked on. This content doesn’t fulfil the headline’s promise and this betrayal to the viewers is summed up beautifully by the top Youtube comment:
What a waste of $64 dollars.
This is the problem with click-bait titles. They promise such amazement, such value and such interest that they VERY rarely live up to the hype. When ever I click on this type of stuff, 80% of the time I feel unfulfilled by the pitiful content that I’ve been tricked (yes, tricked) into consuming.
Fuelled by social media, the number of viral content sites has increased exponentially over the last half decade or so. Sites like Buzzfeed and Cracked at least produce their own articles but many are curation sites that simply source content from elsewhere before wrapping it up in a clicktastic package, so intriguing and inspiring that we cannot help but press our mouse button. Upworthy are the undisputed kings of the clickbait headline. This is the content-curation behemoth that brought you such titillating titles as: Why’s This Kid Throwing Coins? The Reason May Or May Not Blow Your Mind, But Something Does Blow Up Mind is fine but unimpressed. I Honestly Didn’t Think A Video About Birds Would Make Me Cry. I Was Wrong. Ten Bucks Says You Can’t Make It To The End Without Tearing Up Ten bucks please. Is Sugar The Original Gateway Drug? What It’s Doing To Our Brains Is Pretty Wild No, no it’s not (to both sentences). Want more? The Upworthy Generator puts an endless supply of sensationalist snippets at your fingertips.
Clickbait headlines for the win?
In the online world in general and certainly with regards to digital marketing, we are currently at the height of ‘The Social Age,’ ‘The Age Of Sharing.‘ A titillating title, a seductive snippet and a curious photo are the only tools that Upworthy needs to lure Facebook’s unsuspecting users on to their site, and rocket their total visits into the stratosphere. In fact, the site does it so well that it is currently the third-most-shared publisher on the Internet. And it doesn’t even create its own content! The graph of likes below shows just how ahead they are in the social game. Being a curation site, rather than a magazine or brand, does offer you the luxury of only posting the most appealing stories you can find. This has undoubtedly played a part in their success. There are other similar curation sites, however, that are left eating Upworthy dust. The key is their headlines. 25 prospective headlines must be assembled for every article that is published. According to CEO Eli Parisner: The ethos behind the 25 headlines is you can have the best piece of content and make the best point ever. But if no one looks at it, the article is a waste. A good headline can be the difference between 1,000 people and 1,000,000 people reading something. These are then discussed, narrowed down and tested vigorously. This idea is demonstrated by the below graphic from Kissmetrics:
The Problems with Clickbait Headlines
The majority of internet-savvy people have wised up to these headlines. So much so, in fact, that their misleading and sensationalist qualities have become the target for satire and derision. The mission statement of Downworthy, a Chrome app, is to translate the Upworthy-esque bullshit found online. On the homepage it gives a taster of what’s to come. Just a few examples of their bullshit-to-truth translator: ‘Literally’ becomes ‘Figuratively,’ ‘Priceless,’ ‘Mind Blowing,’ and ‘Incredible’ all become ‘Painfully Ordinary,’ ‘Will Blow Your Mind’ becomes ‘Might Perhaps Entertain You Mildly For A Moment’ and so on… This Funny or Die Article replaces movie titles with Upworthy-style headlines while this Kotaku article does the same with video games. And there are plenty more where they came from, and not all of them so playful. The Internet is wising up!
What can we learn from this approach?
While these headlines are currently generating unprecedented amounts of traffic, are they really a viable marketing technique? The purpose of viral content sites is purely to attract as many visitors as possible through clickbait, links, sharing and many other methods. They are not trying to build a classy brand or become industry authorities and this allows them a degree of ‘trashiness.’ CNN’s attempt at an upworthy headline was met with serious backlash – understandably. For those of you who missed it:
Pretty shocking, right? That is the problem with these types of headlines. They have a cheap and unprofessional feel to them, a school-playground tinge. People’s growing despair and exasperation at these headlines means that, as in the instance of CNN, they can actually harm those who use them. Without the content to back up your header’s claim, a lot of your readers will be left feeling cheated. Successful headlines have to be honest. To keep your audience happy (in my mind, the single most important aim), your title has to accurately indicate what’s to come. As I’ve mentioned before, the world of online marketing is one that quickly changes and evolves. There have been a number of optimisation fads and marketing tactics (keyword stuffing, buying links, comment spamming) that have fallen out of favour because they are underhand, offer no real value and, perhaps most importantly, are irritating to the average internet user. In my eyes, the Upworthy headline is very much the shady link-building tactic of today. It is a marketing-type trend that is in the process of passing. So how do you write valuable and evergreen headlines? The process, sadly, is more of an art than a science. There are numerous things to keep in mind. I have trawled the web and Amazon bookshelves for the best tips on how to write the perfect headline; but, as this particular piece has already gone on too long, I will distil down the juiciest nuggets of advice and information, mix in a measurement of my own mind, and prepare Part 2 for next month’s newsletter, so make sure you sign up. Check out my presentation on how to write clickable titles.