IAN GREENLEIGH

Author | Marketer | Speaker

I help companies turn data, ideas and relationships into reach and influence. 

Does this linkbait make my content look good?

Here’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer, courtesy of Quora:

Do headlines matter as much as they used to?

The poster clarifies: “I ask this because it seems people are becoming content aggregates, blindly sharing the content of their trusted brands. What do you think?”

My mind immediately went to the concept of signal versus noise and the increasing difficulty of separating the former from the latter. Hillary Read summed it up:

I would say they matter a lot more than they used to. You have roughly 10 words to hook people, period. Attentions spans and patience have dwindled, and your headline has to stand out in a LOT of volume/chaos to get noticed. No good headline, no readers.

I was about to leave the question alone because Hillary and others had already posted an answer I agreed with. Then I switched tabs to TweetDeck and saw a YouTube video floating down the page within a column, followed a few seconds later by a beautiful photo from another user. Content is reaching us whether or not we engage with it. So I penned my answer:

Yes and no. The only thing that prevents me from offering a solid "yes" is the increasing prevalence of "previewable" content. Take the way videos and images are being natively featured within Twitter and Facebook, for example. If these platforms forced users to click on links to view all media, headlines would be exponentially more important. But users don't rely on the headlines alone, because they don't have to. They get "content clues" like who has liked or shared something, the description, a representative image (if it's a video), and other information. Or, as is the case with Twitter and many images, they see even more than a preview of the image, they see the full image in their stream. The other element of this is a kind of diminishing opportunity cost. If I need to leave the page or experience I'm currently enjoying to consume content that I might have interest in (based on a headline or tweet w/ link), I might decide it's not worth disrupting the experience I'm enjoying. But now that more and more media is viewable within experiences, I don't feel I'm risking anything (except time) by playing it or reading it.

Jesse posted a great follow-up question, excerpted here:

I believe the "content clues" you've mentioned have a growing weight in this "headline equation." If a friend, person, or brand we highly value shares something and the headline is (literally) "A thing" - I feel like we're still going to share it. Factoring in the content clues, we see "A thing" by [person or brand we like] and it has social proof (people sharing and commenting), why would we not click it?

…I was wondering, as you've mentioned the growing development of preview-able content, do you think a headline (such as "A thing") will perform better since we can only rely on the surrounding clues (author and social proof)? Do you think we have more of an urge to click on something click this to put our uncertainty to ease?

Here’s me again:

That's a good question. I think information overload dampens the urge we have to resolve mysteries. I also think hyperbolic "linkbait" / "clickbait" headlines are conditioning audiences to not expect payoffs once they click through. The cliffhanger headline format has been abused to the extent that its effectiveness is at risk. Bottom line is--and I think this is ultimately a good thing for readers and content creators--you have to deliver the goods, up your game, and constantly respond to marketplace needs.

Wikipedia defines linkbait as “any content or feature, within a website, designed specifically to gain attention or encourage others to link to the website.” Lately, the term is also used in reference to bold headlines or posts that drive clicks, visits, and shares.

But I generally use the phrase pejoratively, as in “I can’t believe that linkbait headline tricked me into clicking on this trash.” You know the feeling, right? You expect something from a headline and the content falls far short of what was promised. This kind of linkbait borrows its tactics from tabloids, scare journalism, and other forms of sensationalism. Pick your poison:

Pandering!

Lazily formulaic!

Misleading!

Hyperbolic!

Sensational!

Grossly exaggerated!

Here’s an incredibly stupid (but all too typical) example:

The worst linkbait of all time

The article doesn’t deliver the goods. Half-Life 3 has not been confirmed. Period. But wait!

Here’s what users see if they click “View Summary” right under the tweet:

The worst linkbait of all time, expanded

That’s right: additional content clues, a meatier preview, and a look at the real headline, which, unlike the tweet itself, does not blatantly lie to users.

This is the direction social media is heading: experiencing content in uninterrupted experiences. Twitter’s summary feature is not just a preview of the content it references, but of the direction our media consumption is heading.

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© 2016 Ian Greenleigh