Lessons to Be Learned From Clickbait: #4 Will Blow Your Mind

This article originally appeared on Inside Higher Education’s Call-to-Action blog on March 14, 2017.

When recounting the epic story of online communication, most higher ed marketers would regard clickbait as the villain.

The term clickbait conjures up images of vapid, jarring headlines that tease you enough to click yet ultimately lack substance or leave expectations unfulfilled. And luckily, consumers are more privy to clickbait tactics than ever before. Still, promises of things that will “shock you,” “blow your mind,” or “leave you in tears” continue to lure many an unsuspecting eye.

The power of clickbait speaks to some profound underlying truths about what people want and need when entering the realm of digital communication. Whether searching for something specific or aimlessly wandering social media platforms, digital audiences habitually and naturally seek the special, the profound and the transformative. And clickbait embodies this truth in ways that higher ed marketers should take note of.

1. The term “clickbait” speaks to a need to build trust.
In a medium in which clicks equal money, many marketers got really good at writing headlines that elicited a click from even the most reluctant of viewer. The problem was, however, that those headlines would often lead to sites and pages that left the audience disappointed. As those sites and pages raked in the dough, audiences began to catch wind of their nefarious ways. Thus, as this Atlantic article notes, most people now equate the term “clickbait” with a slight of hand, misdirection and lying.

The good news that is that this reveals something profound for higher ed marketers: audiences want to trust you. And to earn the audience’s trust, it’s highly important to ensure that the content teased in a headline and/or social caption should always accurately preview the content they can expect to see. Your headline’s job is to set expectations, and your content’s job is to then fulfill those expectations. Otherwise, you’ll either be ignored or marked with a scarlet C for clickbait.

2. Headlines actually influence how a message is interpreted and recalled.
Headlines don’t just capture attention, they shape the way you experience the content that follows. The past ten years or so have been abundant with psychological studies revealing keen insights into human cognition. Arguably, one of the most pertinent findings to marketers and content creators is the concept of priming. According to Robert Cialdini, in his book Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, “What we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next.” Thus, headlines prime the reader for what’s to come.

Priming helps explain the intense backlash against clickbait content. As this New Yorker author states, “By drawing attention to certain details or facts, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in your head. By its choice of phrasing, a headline can influence your mindset as you read so that you later recall details that coincide with what you were expecting.” Yet content that does not activate knowledge that correlates with the content that follows manages to quickly disappoint expectations. Another reason to take great pains to craft a good headline—you’re not only capturing attention, but also shaping the reader’s experience and recall.

3. Clickbait plays to the hidden audience: search engines.
Ah, Google. The noun-turned-verb juggernaut of cyberspace. Despite its colossal prominence, Google is the audience that most higher ed marketers ignore. Yes, I’m talking about SEO.

Google, and other search engines, are essentially the algorithmic manifestation of human judgment—they determine what people want to see. Search engines are charged with crawling the entirety of the internet (take a second with that—the entirety of the internet) and determining what is relevant to a specific user searching for a specific thing at a specific time. Oh, at lightning speed. And clickbait content is often highly optimized to make the first page of search results and thus rule the SEO game.

In order to appeal to the widest audience possible, higher ed must start doing SEO better. SEO runs much deeper than simply including the right keywords into your headlines and posts—the Venn diagram of SEO encompasses technical site structure, content and social. So if you have dead links on your site, aren’t creating quality content, aren’t using choice keywords, and aren’t doing social well, you’re ignoring SEO at your peril.

4. Clickbait demonstrates that attention is currency.
Many have embraced that we now live in an attention economy, a marketplace in which the true currency is a person’s time, their eyes. Terms like “visual real estate” acknowledge the simple truth that the “resource” of attention is finite and scarce in the digital space. And it takes a lot to capture someone’s attention, and oftentimes the determinations are made in mere milliseconds after being exposed to an ad or post (a phenomenon referred to officially as affective primacy.) Thus, directing attention to something is viewed by the audience as an investment of sorts. And if attention is an investment, clickbait is petty theft.

While clickbait often draws attention quickly, modern-day consumers are swift to spot the larceny. There’s no denying that clickbait knows how to hustle and plays the attention economy to its advantage. So if you’re creating good content, you better play the headline game. Your message cannot be received, absorbed and acted upon unless you first capture attention, and the competition in an attention economy is fierce. To ignore this vital step of conscious headline and caption crafting is to ensure your digital inconsequence.

5. The backlash against clickbait proves that you must not only capture attentionyou must also keep it.
With the downfalls of clickbait articulated, it's time to talk about quality content. For years, digital best practice dictated that online content must respond to the short attention spans of digital audiences with short-form content. Yet recent developments have shown that long-form content is on the rise for marketers, and the answer lies again in the notion of the attention economy. If attention is currency, investors are looking for quality content that fulfills expectations in a compelling way. This isn’t true of all types of content (landing pages on college or university websites are a place to keep content brief, for example), but any piece with a storytelling element can play nicely to long-form content. If it’s good, long-form content creates a trustworthy, compelling interaction with your audience and helps you in the SEO game.   

For all its villainy, clickbait has a lot to teach us. Our audiences want to be surprised, they want to be compelled, and they ultimately want to trust us with their precious time and attention. Keep that contract, and you’re poised to be the hero. Fall short and find yourself in the company of the blacklisted.

Danielle Caldwell is the Content Marketing Manager at Helix Education