A friend of mine tried an experiment with his news website. For two weeks, he wrote the most salacious headlines he could think of for stories. He filled his stream with not just the daily news, but the most tabloid, click-bait material he could find. Guess what happened? His traffic exploded.
It’s as close as I can find to a universal truth. Everybody hates click-bait headlines. But, yes, every one of us has clicked on one. And if you feel icky afterwards, you know you’ll probably fall for one again and maybe even share some on social media yourself.
For years I ran TV newsrooms. Whenever I was asked how to increase ratings, I would say some version of this:
“I guarantee you I can increase ratings tonight. There are all sorts of things we can do. But you’ll hate me tomorrow, because the audience may get fooled once, but it will damage the brand and you’ll pay the price over the long haul.”
It’s better to build a strong, credible brand and then add some special sauce on top of it to spike at key times… as long it plays to your brands.
It’s the same thing we tell advertisers. You need to establish a baseline about your business. The first time they go looking for you, you want them to know your name already and associate quality. Then, you want to spike the advertising in key times. For example, a landscaping business might brand themselves all year round, but put together specials for different peak seasons… or off-season if need be.
That’s the same strategy a team of researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Business proposed when they analyzed billions of recommendations produced by Outbrain (a content recommendation agent found on thousands of credible websites, often displaying click-bait stories).
They got permission to tinker with Outbrain’s algorithms on a major media website and then compared the recommendations that accounted for engagement vs. just clickability. In other words, don’t just count the click, but count what they do after the click.
What the team found was the content that had higher engagement led to more engagement. In other words, clicks begat clicks. The longer time they spent on the article, the more likely they were to comment, share it, click on something else on the website, or come back to the website again. The more click-bait style articles got a “one and done” and no residual benefit. When the “good articles” were measured, they showed an overall higher percentage of clicks and benefits vs. the click bait.
They cite “traffic traps” – high click-through rates, but low engagement – as a “hidden source of trouble.” It may attract clicks, but visitors are turned off by what they find and leave… with a bad impression. That, they say, can cause long-lasting damage to readership.
Niche opportunities, which appeal to smaller crowds, but get deep engagement can also add value.
So, what’s the answer?
So even if you need to spike the numbers, the clickbait style may not work. It might push your numbers up in the short-term, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as you stop, the traffic goes away.
Be careful about too much click-bait traffic. It can damage your brand. It goes right back to my analogy. I can get you traffic right now – let’s post swimsuit model pictures! – but it will hurt you tomorrow with the people you care most about: regular visitors. And that’s where the money is – deep relationships with a dedicated audience.