You Won’t Believe What Happens When People Turn Into Clickbait Zombies

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We’re all slowly being suffocated online. It’s not a super secret NSA protocol or Anonymous. We’re doing it to ourselves.  Marketers are to blame. Newspapers are to blame. Teenage girls are to blame. Most of all, our human brains are to blame.

The clickbait apocalypse is here.

Online content now fully commoditized. You can’t differentiate yourself by “having a blog” or “writing informational content” anymore. It’s cheap and easy to set up a blog. It’s cheap and easy to hire freelance writers. The days of separating yourself from the rest of the pack by simply creating content are long gone.

A classic example: over 10,000 people have already written the “Beginner’s Guide To SEO.”

Even if you wrote a wonderful guide, there is so much noise in the marketplace that it has become extremely difficult to stand out from the 10,000 other people who proclaim to be experts. Good luck trying to break into that content vertical unless your name rhymes with Stand Mishkin.

For better or worse, publishers have discovered that the easiest and most efficient way to separate yourself from the pack isn’t to create better content or seek out new ideas. It’s to frame and present your content in the best way possible. It’s turning everybody into clickbait zombies.

Don’t get me wrong, you can still find writers online who are crafting wonderful and original pieces. But they are in the minority. The most popular sites on the web rarely write original pieces anymore. They just curate the content and drive visitors through clickbait.

Take look at the most successful content producers online right now.

Huffington Post

Upworthy

Buzzfeed

Mashable

Ahh…great content. The content curation models showcased above have a simple formula. Find interesting/controversial content. Write eye-catching headline that evokes an emotional response. Profit.

And nothing says Pulitzer like a list of 20 GIFs and a catchy title.

Why Justin Bieber’s new haircut is a game-changer

Newspapers have long tried to engineer perfect headlines that maximize attention. If it bleeds it leads, the old saying goes. Toying with human emotions of shock, anger and fear are staples of the publishing world.

The principles are the same for the web, but there is no ‘code’ of ethics to protect people from becoming deceitful or overly sensational when writing headlines. Newspapers — for better or worse — are pillars of community and held to a higher standard. A website, on the other hand, is just…a website.

While clickbait principles have been practiced for many decades, they’ve become even more important thanks to the golden calf of online content — impressions. With advertising driving most revenue models, impressions are king. People are willing to write utter crap to get them.

With such a strong focus on impressions, few people care about what happens when somebody actually lands on a page (unless they are clicking on an ad of course). This makes the headline far more valuable than the actual content. If you can get the eyeballs to your page, then the task is done.

You become what you measure. If impressions are most important, then you will do everything in your power to maximize eyeballs. It makes sense to focus on publishing a ton of low-quality clickbait-type articles instead of investing a lot of time into one original piece that isn’t guaranteed to work.

The Internet is the most powerful communication tool the world has ever seen and our best publications are spending their time creating slideshows about Justin Bieber’s haircut and compiling “Saved By The Bell” GIFs because we value impressions more than anything else.

A shocking secret about clickbait you aren’t supposed to know

It’s sad to see lowest common denominator-type content do so well, but we only have ourselves to blame. Attention spans are lower than they’ve ever been. With so much going on in both the physical and digital realms, people have less time to devote to everything they are doing. Nearly a ¼ of all website visits are less than 4 seconds. We love to consume crap content.

The rise in mobile browsing has only exacerbated our dwindling attention spans. We’ll spend the 30 seconds waiting in line browsing through Twitter, skimming tweets and photos. We’ll check Facebook during a timeout or commercial break. We interact with the web more frequently than ever, but also give less of our attention..

Clickbait is exactly what our brains are currently designed to consume. We want shock. We want awe. We want sex. We want humor. And we prefer it nicely packaged in a short and sweet format that we can quickly read from any device.

Part of the reason we are clickbait zombies is because we’re all pre-programmed to create it. Social media and Web 2.0 have transformed the masses from simple consumers to creator-consumer hybrids.

Most Internet users in 2014 find themselves wishing for more retweets, likes and karma. We’re judged and rewarded for creating easy-to-share content that evokes emotion. We’re publishing selfies, opinions and hashtags as quickly as we can. Social media allows us to have a “hard number” of how well-like we are in the form of Likes, followers, friends and shares.

We don’t just consume clickbait. We constantly create it.

A company invests in clickbait…and you’ll never guess what happens next

While our brains are slaves to clickbait now, that isn’t always going to be the case.

Change happens in an insanely fast cycle on the web. As rapidly as we’ve descended into clickbait zombies, we’ll likely begin getting our fix from some other form of content marketing. I won’t say that it’s not a good idea for marketers to invest in content pieces engineered specifically to be click & sharebait pieces — it’s clear that those tactics can still work. For every failed “Ultimate Guide,” there’s a list of memes out there attracting shares and link on autopilot.

Part of the reason change happens so quickly is that marketers love to take a good thing and run it into the ground. We used to be able to buy links or drop in some anchor-text rich comments. There’s a recurring trend in Internet marketing of something working well for the early movers, the tactic gaining mass appeal and then ending up on the scrapheap of tactics that users become immune to or that Google takes action against.

The same fate likely awaits clickbait. How long will 14 Images That Only 90’s Kids Will Understand carry with it so much emotion that people can’t resist clicking. Like all marketing channels, eventually clickbait will become another noisy marketing gimmick. Consumers become desensitized.

This underlying chess game is one of the reasons I love Internet marketing so much. You can follow trends as they come and go and still do pretty well for yourself. But the people who are doing the best work are always at least a step ahead. Upworthy, for example, is crushing it with clickbait right now because they were first to figure it out. If you try to start an Upworthy clone today, you’ll have plenty of company and a crowded space greeting you at the door.

Content marketing should be one of your most resource-intensive channels. It takes time to write a really good piece of content. It takes money to pay talented writers and marketers.

Make sure your investment is going to have lasting impact. Using a few tactics from clickbait-type marketing is fine, but relying on it for your whole visitor acquisition strategy is dangerous.

As marketers, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions before making clickbait a key cog in content strategy:

  • Are lists, GIFS, memes and slideshows still going to be the best way to attract qualified visitors in three years? Five years? Or will we all finally be immune to the noise at that point?
  • Do I want my brand to be known as the best compiler of GIFs in my industry? Or do I want to provide information that is entertaining, but also informative and providing lasting value?
  • Has clickbait already achieved maturity? Or is it a technique that is going to be more valuable in the future?

Now is a great time for content marketers to double-down on content that has a lasting impact and isn’t reliant on clickbait to earn merit. Write more longform pieces. Spend 8 hours writing a blog post instead of 30 minutes. Take a risk and write something totally different.  Try creating a video or interactive page. Write something that people might not agree with. Stop following what everybody says works and start discovering new tactics on your own.

Use clickbait as an item in your toolbox, but don’t become another clickbait zombie, a brainless slave to impressions.

  • Ryan Rhoades

    Standing ovation. Thank you.