What You Can Learn from Clickbait

People who write clickbait, designed to trick you, are the worst. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something your can learn from clickbait — it is, after all, designed to get you to read something which is what you want. What can you learn from clickbait that won’t make you feel like a jerk in the morning?


I loathe every clickbait headline I see. I know, for example, that the “weird easy trick” promised by some headline in my Facebook feed will neither be weird, easy, or do what it tells me it will do. When I see “She did x,y,and z, but what happened next…I couldn’t stop crying,” I’m reasonably certain that there’s no “I” there — that this isn’t from someone’s blog but is, instead, the output from some factory site where every page is covered with ads. I’m also confident that when I get to picture #13 of “Great pictures of a,b,c, #13 will blow your mind,” my mind will not be blown.

The Urban Dictionary defines click bait as, “An eye-catching link on a website which encourages people to read on. It is often paid for by the advertiser (‘Paid’ click bait) or generates income based on the number of clicks.” These people are manipulating me, not for my good, but for their profit. That’s part of the reason they infuriate me.

The real reason I have such a visceral reaction is driven by the complete lack of respect these sites show for my intelligence. Their assumption is that I will not only fall for these teasers, but that I will continue to do so even though the information behind the link won’t live up to it’s advertisement.

But, as much as I hate those links, I literally despise the ones that use my family or people who risk their lives to protect me to generate revenue: “Click if you love your daughter with all your heart”, “Click to show these soldiers how much you appreciate their sacrifice.” Not one of my clicks goes to or has anything to do with my children or the soldiers/firefighters/police officers that the originating site is exploiting. Here, it’s the lack of respect for what is genuinely important in our lives (and the willingness to exploit that for gain) that drives me crazy.

And yet…They Work

These clickbait headlines obviously work or they wouldn’t keep turning up. My personal suspicion, is that the success of clickbait like these examples reflects how many people join the Internet every day. Constant exposure to these headlines will, sooner or later, make readers jaded and, eventually, cause readers to stop clicking on the links. But, everyday more readers come online and see these headlines for the first time.

Nor are the writers creating these headlines stupid. HootSuite has an interesting article on the science of clickbait which points out that great clickbait creates a “curiosity gap” that causes the user to follow the link. But Hootsuite also points out that the content at the other end of the link has to satisfies that curiosity.  Thinking about it, it’s not clickbait that I hate. It’s when a title fails to satisfy my curiosity gap that I’m outraged.

Writing Headlines

Clickbait leads us to some lessons that can be applied, when you want to get people to read your content. The key issue is that you’re probably writing for the same audience over and over again. If you attempt to trick those people, they’ll figure it out soon enough and stop reading your emails (or any other document you send them). Your readers will recognize that you don’t respect their intelligence and give up on your documents.

On the other hand, you’ve probably come to know those readers very well — you know what matters to them and, as a result, what your readers care about (interestingly, the etymology of “curiosity” is akin to “cura,” the root word for “care”). If you respect what your readers value and give your readers what they care about, they’ll come to value what you send them.

This allows you, when creating a subject line for an email or a title for some longer document, to write headlines your readers will care about. If you can identity what matters to your readers in your document and then put that in your headline you’ll create a “curiosity gap” that won’t disappoint your readers. By drawing the headline from the document, you’re guaranteeing that you’ll deliver what your headline promises. The trick here is to tailor your headline to describe the value to the reader rather than just summarizing the content of your document.

And the reverse is true: If you realize that there’s nothing of value in your document for your reader, you can craft your headline to say that, too. Your readers are every bit as busy as you are and appreciate the opportunity to not read a document as much as they value reading something that matters to them.

For example, you might have to send out, as an attachment to an email, a status report each week on your current project. The subject line for that email can be “Status Report” which certainly summarizes the content but, is no help to your reader in deciding if they want to read it. If, in fact, there’s nothing new to report, a better subject line would be “Status Report: Meeting Targets, No Known Issues.”

On the other hand, if there are problems, the title “Status Report: Issues with Meeting Next Milestone” will probably get your readers interested in reading your report. You may not classify “Issues with Meeting Next Milestone” as creating a ‘curiosity gap’ but I’d certainly be interested in what the issues are in meeting the next project milestone. And if you then delivered on that headline by telling me what the issues are, I’d think you were a great communicator.

Curiosity Gap Below

There’s a very simple message here: First, write your document. Then, based on what matters to your reader, craft your document title or email subject. To put it another way, write the most important thing (the part that will get your reader to read your document) last.

There’s more to it than that, of course. You have to create content that readers can understand (we talk about that in Learning Tree’s Business Writing course)…but now, at least, you got the audience to read your document. Everything begins there.

By the way, HootSuite also had a list of clickbait titles for great books — #5 will blow you away.

Type to search blog.learningtree.com

Do you mean "" ?

Sorry, no results were found for your query.

Please check your spelling and try your search again.