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You Won’t Believe This! Click Here To Find Out The Truth About Clickbait

Relevant topics Archive, Strategy

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Clickbait is able to increase curiosity, but also feelings of manipulation. This is dependent on whether or not the content lives up to the promise made in the headline.
  • Application:
    Consider using clickbait when the main goal is to increase the amount of clicks, but be aware of the disadvantages for other marketing purposes.
  • Did you click? Clickbait is a strategy for viral journalism, where the hunt on clicks is accelerating. Powerful and emotional words can make your headline irresistibly clickable, as previous research already showed that clickbait headlines were successful in baiting clicks.

    A loyal example of clickbait usage is the website Buzzfeed, where titles are calling on emotions and curiosity by not revealing the conclusion of the article (see figure). This website is known for its rigorous use of analytics and A/B tests, showing that they will be fully aware of the effects that these clickbait headlines have on article clicks.

    But does clickbait also contribute to shares and word-of-mouth or do they elicit a certain level of distrust or disappointment?

    clickbait nnm

    First, let’s start with a definition.

    What is clickbait? Merriam-Webster officially added the word in 2015, defining it as: “Something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.” However, anyone writing content chooses the title such that a reader might be triggered to read the article – I did as well, and there you are :D

    In this way, the essential difference between clickbait and other editorial tactics it the withholding of information: it highlights a critical piece of missing information that readers can only unravel by clicking on the link. Moreover, clickbait titles are designed to elicit emotions such as anger, curiosity, or disgust. Despite the annoying marketing strategy, this may still be effective.

    Did clickbait crack the social media code?

    To investigate the emotional and sharing effects of clickbait, Mukherjee et al. (2022) investigated various levels of clickbait titles and the emotional responses of the readers. Moreover, they dove into the clickbait detection algorithms and compared clickbait titles to Twitter virality.

    What did they find? First the statistics: on average, a clickbait headline was shared almost 50 times less than non-clickbait headlines. Even after correction for confounding variables such as the emotion elicited by the title, the topics discussed and the social media snowball effect (where sharing often increases exponentially). So, while the headline might trigger the reader to open the article, it does not lead to sharing it. How is that?

    Let’s get emotional first.

    The study confirmed that headlines with a high emotional appeal are more likely to be shared than low emotional appeal. And while clickbait titles should be emotional by their definition, the emotional responses to the titles were not super strong. The strongest emotional response to clickbait was found when it was considered a negative appealed title. So while clickbait headlines should be emotional by their definition, they don’t elicit such strong emotions and thereby their lack of virality might be explained.

    But that’s not all…

    Since the emotional content of clickbait titles was not confirmed, the attraction to clickbait must be explained by its other asset: omitted information. The withholding of information creates a gap for curiosity that prompts users to click the headline. And indeed, especially this property was related to the sharing of a headline.

    However, the artificial withholding of information might stir up feelings of being manipulated. Readers strongly associated clickbait with a perception of manipulative intent by the publisher. And this, in turn, caused them to distrust the publisher. This is also called source derogation and it explains how users strategically resist persuasion: when faced with deception, the reader starts to question the trustworthiness of the message or the source. And when this happens to the content of a certain publisher, this consequently reduces the likelihood of sharing the article.

    So, what does this all mean for you?

    As a content creator, it’s important to be knowledgeable about the dos and don’ts of online marketing. As this study shows that on average, clickbait does not increase sharing. Quite the opposite. As a result, it may even work counterproductive, especially when you’re aiming to increase your reach and visibility via social media shares. Of course, when your KPI’s are solely focused on clicks, clickbait might be an interesting venue. But be aware of the possible kickback on your brand's credibility and virality!

    When thinking about suitable titles for your content, try to think about the two most important rules for writing activating copy: make it easy and ask for action. This means that when you want to engage your reader, address them directly to perform the action (i.e., read this article). When you then live up to the promise you made in the headline, the reader will feel satisfied and be more likely to share your article. And that also activates more clicks!

    Take-home points

    • Clickbait does not go viral!
    • Headlines with a high emotional appeal are more likely to be shared than headlines with a low-emotional appeal
    • Clickbait headlines are not strongly related to increased emotional appeals in the headlines
    • Clickbait is a strong predictor of the amount of omitted information in a headline.
    • Consistent with the curiosity gap model developed by (Loewenstein, 1994), the amount of omitted information is, in turn, a predictor of how likely a headline will be shared
    • Clickbait is strongly associated with a perception of manipulation intent
    • Perception of manipulative intent, in turn, causes source derogation
    • Source derogation of the publisher causes a significant drop in the likelihood of sharing its article
  • Reference:

    Mukherjee, P., Dutta, S., & De Bruyn, A. (2022). Did clickbait crack the code on virality?. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 50(3), 482-502.

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      We might assume that it is because of this reason that the publishers of the movie ‘Avengers: Endgame’ communicated the following warning to fans upon the release of their movie: “When you see Endgame in the coming weeks, please don’t spoil it for others, the same way you wouldn’t want it spoiled to you” (Kooser, 2019).

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