Why Is The Internet Overrun With Clickbait?

Early in my career, I was analyzing some digital campaign data across multiple clients, trying to glean an insight or two we could put into a best practices document.  With the help of my boss, I found it.

At the time, Click Through Rate was king and most advertisers were treating digital like a direct response medium.  I found that when we looked at a series of ads with the same offer, but different creative visuals, we might see an ad getting 3X the CTR of the campaign average.  But that wasn’t the eye-opener.  The actionable insight was that keeping all other variables the same, media environment mattered more than the creative visual – your best-performing media environment would be producing a 10X lift over the campaign average.  This held true over a large number of direct response campaigns.

It taught me that it made sense to steer optimization efforts toward finding better media partners, rather than toward refreshing creative.  Of course, we would do both, but the efforts in media paid more handsome dividends than the efforts in creative.

Another big takeaway was how these lifts compared to those in direct mail.  My boss, a traditional DR veteran, told me that lifts in response between direct mail lists were nowhere near as pronounced as what we were seeing when looking at the digital campaign data.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when piloting a small content marketing test for a client.  We saw some wicked variances in performance based solely on one thing – headline writing.

That is, we syndicated many different pieces of content to a wide variety of websites, and we started with a single headline for each.  We ended up in a much different place.

I have an undergrad degree in journalism, I’ve been a business journalist for over 15 years, and I’ve worked at newspapers and even started my own.  So I like to think I’m a decent headline writer.  I wrote the original headlines for a handful of content pieces and watched the numbers roll in.

Some pieces bombed.  Others did well.  On the suggestion of our sales rep, we decided to test multiple headlines for each content piece.  So we wrote 10-12 new headlines for each piece and tested them in isolation.  Some of those headlines were typical of what a newspaper editor might write after reading the content.  Others were deliberately controversial or, in some cases, playing to fear or uncertainty.  You might even say they were starting to skirt the “clickbait” line.

So everything else was kept the same – the visual, the content, the media environments and everything else.  We just ran different headlines.  Sure enough, the provocative headlines outperformed campaign averages.  Big time.  As in 15X lift.

We like to make fun of done-to-death lines like “You’ll never guess what happens next…” or “You’ve been doing [X] wrong your whole life…”  We might even wonder out loud how many people actually click on such things.  Perhaps we shouldn’t make fun.

If a content marketer can increase traffic to their content by 15 times, simply by hiring a copywriter to spend a few hours to come up with some new headlines to test, you can bet they’ll do it all day.  You might consider it, too.

You might also think about why some of these lines seem to be cluttering up the Internet lately as they turn into dreaded clichés.  It’s because they work, and they work very well.

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.