“You won’t believe what happens next.”
The first time I clicked a link with this phrase in the title, I was mildly disappointed. It was so mildly disappointing that I don’t even remember what happened next. It was surprising, I guess, but I expected something that would shift my perception of the world, like an alien onslaught or Jesus Christ himself descending from the heavens with two bags of chips in one arm and a bowl of mango salsa in the other. I could handle that fleeting disappointment, but then I started seeing the phrase in the sidebars and bottoms of every site. I couldn’t read the news or get updates on the Warriors game without at least one article telling me what I wouldn’t believe, and it got worse. Every page wanted to let me know about the secret of life, or this “crazy new law passed” in whatever state I happened to be in at the time. A humble plant from some far-off place that could burn fat quicker than any diet pill? It’s there, just click the image! Every time I saw one of these deliberately misleading articles in my peripheral, my blood boiled. I began taking enormous offense to these articles; each one was a reminder that someone, somewhere thought that I was a complete idiot.
Underneath the rage felt every time I was faced with a wall of vague, hyperbole-filled article titles, I soon felt a grudging respect. Across the globe, there were an endless sea of fools such as myself who had not yet experienced clickbait and were in for a round of disappointment and irritation. These clicks made money for whoever placed the articles, regardless of what the clicker thought once they got there. It was marketing gold, and that same someone, somewhere, was banking.
The reason why people are so inclined to click on an article that, in hindsight, is a deliberate ploy to garner website views is due to a phenomena called the “curiosity gap”. Titles that fall into the gap give the reader just enough description to pique their interest, but not enough to sate it without clicking on the link. The interest generated by a clickbait title is hard to ignore because the title usually poses a question or idea that readers can relate to. As a result, even a savvy internet-user could be tempted to make that fateful click. The ensuing story frequently fails to live up to the hype, but the damage is done and money is made.
In addition to generating revenue through clicks, the combination of relatable topics and sensationalized headlines increases the probability that your article will be shared through social media, email, and other online roadways. Social media, in particular, proves to be an especially effective method by adding the additional layer of relation formed by knowing the person sharing the article. The second clicker is lulled in, trusting that their friend is sharing something relevant to their interests. The cycle repeats as new clickers are introduced, eventually bringing the article to the level of viral phenomena.
These days, online news sources and social media sites such as BuzzFeed and Facebook have started to crack down on clickbait, but it’s not too late for other websites to get in on it. The impulse to click on a provocatively-titled post is strong, even in an age where people have wised up. Clickbaiting, though of questionable ethic, is still an effective way to garner views and revenue and probably will until the next genius marketing tactic. What comes next? You’ll never believe it.