There’s one secret ingredient that makes every clickbait headline work … No, there isn’t, but you got curious, didn’t you?

That’s why we’ll address one of the working mechanisms behind successful, and sometimes deceitful, blog titles, YouTube descriptions and social media captions. In this article, we’ll explore what a clickbait article is, how it works and how you, as an educated citizen of the web, can cope with it.

What Is Clickbait?

In case you’ve heard the term clickbait but couldn’t quite put your finger on it, here’s what it usually means. As you scroll through search engine results and social media sites, content creators around the world try to capture your attention. Imagine them, if you will, on a digital fishing expedition where they cast their blog post into the vast ocean of the internet, armed with nothing but a compelling headline as their bait.

Now, the writers know you’ve been all over the web. You’ve seen things. So some of them throw in sensational headlines — some shinier than a disco ball. They promise excitement, drama and maybe even the secret to unlocking the true meaning of cat memes. You can’t resist the allure, so you take the bait — and click. 

But just like in fishing, there’s a nasty twist. Instead of finding a treasure trove of insightful information, you end up with disappointing and dull content. The “urgent tips” become the most predictable 101 clichés. The catastrophe “you’ll never guess” is standard procedure in Sunday’s football game. It’s like being promised a five-course seafood feast and ending up with a soggy fish stick.

That’s a clickbait title in a nutshell. The term refers to online content that’s designed to capture the viewer’s interest, typically by using an attention-grabbing headline. That catchy title is the reason why you’re left behind feeling tricked, which makes for a horrible user experience.

The clickbait tactic has been around for a while, but its prevalence has increased with the rise of digital marketing and social media platforms. In the early days of the internet, clickbait often took the form of misleading banner ads or a sensationalized headline in an email marketing campaign. Now, with advertisers trying to generate clicks for advertising revenue, it’s become more widespread and sophisticated.

Why (and When) Do Clickbait Headlines Work?

So, we know we don’t like it; we understand there’s no substance behind it. Why do we keep clicking anyway? Aren’t we smart enough to … not click?

Sadly, that question almost answers itself. Those attention-grabbing titles work because they tickle that ever-present itch of curiosity we all have. If you’re intelligent, you’re curious about the world. Hence, you click. Granted, it doesn’t make you feel clever when you’ve fallen for misleading clickbait, but because we all keep believing in that mysterious treasure chest daring us to open it, we keep clicking.

Now, you may think you’re safe because you don’t care about the latest developments in quantum chromodynamics. Fair enough, but a sensationalist headline comes in many flavors to account for that. Quite often, it tugs at our heartstrings or stirs up our emotions. It could promise you laughter, tears, anger or sheer amazement — either way, an emotional rollercoaster that’s hard to resist.

Other times, a headline may offer us instant gratification. Perhaps it’s a fix to a problem you didn’t even know you had. Like a sailor yearning for land after an endless voyage, you crave something — now. Usually, these articles are about achieving something without the pain we all associate with it. Lose weight without dieting, get a job without an application … promises that are tough to beat, and why would you want to go through the hassle if you can avoid it? This makes these headlines irresistible.

If all else fails, those online fishermen can still rely on your fear of missing out or FOMO. You may think you’re at peace with yourself and the world. Maybe you even have a good grasp of events in your industry. But when a headline suggests that everyone’s talking about a groundbreaking, scandalous or downright unbelievable event, what do you do? You can’t help yourself; you’ll want to be in on the conversation. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be an expert, right?

The magnetic mix with which clickbait draws us in doesn’t come in one flavor, and it doesn’t just work because we keep falling for it. Quite the opposite. It works because we want to improve ourselves, learn about others and fix our problems. So if it’s ever happened to you, don’t feel bad. At least you can rest assured it only worked because you’re a smart cookie. Instead of getting annoyed by it, let’s flip the script and see if we can dig deep into the positive core of clickbait to apply its principles to content marketing.

Clickbait: The Pros and Cons in Content Marketing

Knowing what we just mentioned, why would anyone ever want to include clickbait in their content marketing? Wouldn’t that only drive customers away?

Well, yes and no. You may object to fishing, but you probably won’t mind hanging some cables on a hook in your garage. A digital hook isn’t any different. So, what can we learn from those clickbaity headlines?

On the pro side, clickbait allows you to:

  • Grab readers’ attention quickly.
  • Increase website traffic and engagement.
  • Generate more leads by attracting larger audiences.
  • Go viral with shareable content.

That doesn’t sound too bad, right? How do we get that without our headlines leaving a bad taste in readers’ mouths?

  • Don’t mislead your audience: There’s nothing wrong with promising a solution if you actually have one, but your excitement about it may lead your clients to consider it as overpromising. Make sure you ask for feedback and always deliver what you promise.
  • Prioritize quality content: Quality research and personal experience win the game, especially since Google keeps pushing E-E-A-T requirements. You’ll know when you’ve rushed a deadline. Try to avoid it, and soon you’ll be known for consistent quality.
  • Resist the temptation of short-term success: Once you’ve drafted a few headlines, creating clickbait becomes easy, if not addicting. The occasional clickbait may not harm you. Still, put yourself in the shoes of your readers and imagine how your content would make you feel. 
  • Learn from readers’ reactions: The times they are a-changin’, and so are your customers’ tastes. What seems acceptable to you may already look fishy to them. Watch closely as your competitors adapt and your audience’s preferences change to fine-tune your strategy.
  • Observe your SEO stats: Click-through and bounce rates can give you deep insight into ways readers interact with your content. Learn from the occasional misstep and right your wrong if you notice that your customers felt tricked by one of your headlines.

Always remember that you’re not just trying to sell products; you’re (hopefully) engaging with your clients, learning from them as you move forward. Your company might use self-deprecating humor in clickbait titles to create a light-hearted and relatable tone. For instance, a software company could publish a title like, “Wait Til You See Our New Feature: Finally, Something We Got Right!”

Even a brand with a more serious tone might employ clickbait to promote the occasional limited-time offer or special discount. In all cases, the key is to use clickbait sparingly, ensuring that it enhances rather than detracts from the user experience. 

If you’re being funny, ensure your brand is consistent, so customers know what to expect. But no matter your branding choices, be honest and transparent and strive to create content behind your headline that’s as helpful, entertaining and valuable as possible.

Is Clickbait Content the Death of Journalism?

These days, the lines between journalist, marketer and influencer can be blurry. That’s why it’s even more important for all of us to be careful when dipping our toes into clickbaity headlines. It’s true that customers don’t expect investigative journalism from their favorite brands, but they doubtlessly look at a world shaped by their content.

Whether you run a giant corporation or a niche industry blog doesn’t matter. If you put enough effort into your content production, you’ve got power in your hands. That could be the power to inspire and educate, or the power to mislead those who might not read the full article.

One recent example of the damage done by clickbait and fake news is a Swiss-based oil-trading company that fell victim to entire campaigns of fake online content. If you follow the news, you’ll certainly remember the most prominent cases of fake news or deep fake headlines, like a deep fake of the Pope in a puffy coat. While those kinds of headlines can be entertaining to some, it’s clear to see the potential damage they can cause, which is why Google has already announced the launch of an anti-misinformation campaign in several EU countries.

So clearly, there’s an enormous temptation to simply upload a bunch of fake news and leverage the attention you can so easily attract. However, you should always remember that, over time, these campaigns will erode trust. Not just in your brand, but in online content in general. 

7 Clickbait Examples That Do and Don’t Work (and Why)

While we wouldn’t want to turn the temptation dial to 100 by bombarding you with all the clickbait under the sun, we believe it’s good to see the mechanism behind clickbait in action. So let’s look at some examples:

  1. These Are the Things Restaurant Servers Notice About You Right Away When You’re Dining Out: Sites like BuzzFeed understand working FOMO into a headline with nuance, and in this case, they give you a taste of waiters’ inside knowledge.
  2. He Got Caught Speeding Then This Happened: Leaving a gap in the story, whether it’s the “one ingredient” or an “industry secret,” is a classic way of luring us in. Crispy Facts intentionally opens with speeding. We just have to know if he gets pulled over or has an accident. 
  3. “Nicest Judge in the World” Reveals the $300 Case That Pushed Him To Rule With Compassion: Upworthy combines several strategies. They hint at the “point of no return” while emphasizing the judge’s compassion. And if that wasn’t enough to tug at your heartstrings, the subheading shares that his father’s disappointment in his first judgment “crumbled” him.
  4. This is the Worst Car I’ve Ever Reviewed: YouTubers like MKBHD clearly understand the importance of a headline. This one works because it attracts two target audiences. First, it pulls in auto news aficionados. And then, it entices those in the market for a car who don’t want to buy the wrong one.
  5. How To Make It Through Valentine’s Day Without a Valentine: While it certainly does provide valuable information, wikiHow likes to attract users with the template, “How To Do X if You Don’t Have Y.” It shows you’re already aware of the problems your readers encounter and have baked them into your solution.
  6. You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next: These words have been used so often, they even made it into the Urban Dictionary as the prime example of clickbait. We probably don’t have to explain it, as this is as much FOMO as you’ll ever see.
  7. Don’t Start Investing Until You’ve Accomplished These 2 Things, Says CFP: Remember how much you enjoyed being told not to do something as a child? CNBC revives that feeling, giving you the voice of reason through an authoritative certified expert.

Now, you’ll notice that we’ve linked to some reasonably reputable sources. The reason is that drafting a somewhat clickbaity headline is part of being an online creator, be that on YouTube, social media or a website. And that actually brings us to the clickbait headlines that “don’t work” because they usually flop for two reasons.

Either the one headline you encounter just doesn’t push your buttons or it’s bad copywriting. Certainly, you may look at some of our examples and think you wouldn’t have fallen for them. That illustrates the fine balance we’ve walked throughout this post. You may perceive a headline clickbait, but when the article actually delivers value, you might reconsider and just regard it as a bit cheeky. But now you’ll know that someone’s using clickbait on you, although that may only make it slightly better.

Your best path moving forward is to educate yourself about headline formats and establish thorough research routines for your content production. After all, nobody can blame you if they’ve actually learned more, and if you don’t spread any fake information and base your article on extensive investigation, even the occasional sales-y headline can’t hurt.

Florian Fuehren is a Content Writer at Brafton in Germany. Before becoming one of Brafton's first German writers, Florian has worked as a ghostwriter, editor, and lecturer. When he's not brooding over puns for the SaaS or Web3 niche, he likes to go jogging or maltreat his drum kit.