Fact: All online publishers want readers to click their links and engage with their content, whether it's organic or paid. The reasons are simple. Content is being created or shared for readers to genuinely absorb, enjoy, and learn from. And content links drive valuable clicks or impressions-based revenue.
In theory, these are two simple digital strategies. The first is based more on long-term objectives, while the second is a shorter-term game -- but when balanced correctly and guided by ethics, both click drivers can achieve great success.
In practice, publishers face an almighty hurdle: appealing to "goldfish" attention spans in an overcrowded digital landscape. Given the fierce competition, it's tempting for publishers and content creators to tilt the scales toward provocative, irresistible, eye-grabbing headline and image links that drive traffic. Enter the world of "click bait."
Click bait is loved by some and loathed by others. While it's generally used as a pejorative term, many sites have built their entire business model around pushing out baity tabloid-style links that garner millions of views and shares.
The controversial strategy has attracted thoughtful opinions on both sides of the ethical fence. Last year, Steve Hind, a Sydney-based strategy consultant, wrote an op-ed for The Guardian -- "In defense of click bait" -- hailing the practice as a win-win for publishers (who get clicks) and readers (who are rewarded for their curiosity). (One could argue, of course, that the "reward" is wholly dependent upon the quality of the actual content beneath the headline hook.)
Joel Achenbach, a veteran Washington Post journalist recently took a different slant in his piece, "The Shroud of Turin, pseudoscience, and journalism." His basic rule when it comes to click bait journalism? "The clicks don't count if the story is wrong."
So, as a publisher, what are the risks of using click bait? Readers may tolerate a certain level of made-you-look headlines, and this naturally depends largely on the style, focus, and tone of a site. Evidence certainly indicates that people are clicking these types of links, however, over-use of and dependence on this short-term game can seriously undermine longer-term reader trust and loyalty. While clicks are important, user metrics such as page views-per-visit, bounce rate, and referral traffic also affect the bottom line.
Click bait is largely successful (meaning, it drives clicks) because it appeals to people's most basic desires and instincts. While the line between compelling content and sensationalized click bait can become blurry, there are some solid guidelines to follow to avoid crossing over into click bait territory.
Avoid using fear tactics or extreme messagingUnless you can prove the world economy is collapsing or eating a certain food will kill you, don't tout it as news. In the event of serious content or a share-worthy event, provide facts, concrete explanations, and cited sources to back it up.
Don't be salacious or sexually provocative when it's irrelevantScantily clad women and risqué headlines are one of the most common forms of click bait. For Victoria's Secret, content with women in lingerie is appropriate because it's brand relevant. However, linking to a slideshow of "10 Hottest Kate Upton Photos" after an article on the debt ceiling crosses the click-bait line.
Don't abuse or misuse "breaking news" headlinesIt's also important to reserve the "breaking news" link for actual newsworthy content. That said, when you do create or share serious and important news -- especially stories that involve death and tragedy -- avoid click-bait-style headlines at all costs. Sure, you may get a short-term lift in traffic, but your reputation as a publisher may take a long-term dive.
The bottom line is content should always meet or exceed expectations that the content link promotes or promises. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting to create compelling headlines and images that pique reader curiosity and a desire to read on. After all, the most reputable news outlets do it all the time, and it's a fundamental component of good journalism. However, as you create and share content, take time to ask yourself whether it's valuable, relevant, useful, and accurate. Steer clear of the click-bait zone, and remain on the "clean" side of the marketing fence.
Neil Mody is the CEO of nRelate.
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