The Psychology of Clickbait
May 5, 2017 — TrackFive

The Psychology of Clickbait

We’ve all fallen victim to the clickbait game. I mean, don’t you want to find out what your inner potato is? It might sound stupid, but for websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, using clickbait headlines has become a way of life – and there’s a reason why.

What Exactly is Clickbait?

When is the last time you scrolled through your feed on social media and it wasn’t full of strange, yet questionably intriguing links? You just HAVE to find out what character you are on F.R.I.E.N.D.S., and you might die of curiosity if you don’t find out how that adorable koala managed to cross a busy street and live. This, my friends, is clickbait.

Clickbait has become so habitual that Merriam-Webster added the term to their dictionary in 2015. It’s defined as:

“Something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”

Essentially, the headline is misleading and the content does not deliver. The marketing idea was that any headline that gets people to click is a quality headline. This is quickly becoming old news, as quality content is becoming more important to retain consumers. But yet, clickbait is still everywhere.

Why are Marketers using Clickbait?

With all of the fake news, propaganda, and “alternative facts,” people can’t tell what’s real and worth their time without actually clicking. It’s also more difficult for marketers to gain attention from their audience. So, they resort to emotional, quick-hit headlines that draw attention even if the content isn’t meaningful.

This is great for brands that use page views and cost-per-impression metrics to judge content performance. But, if you want to keep your audience’s attention, these are the wrong metrics to focus on. Using clickbait can result in higher bounce rates, lower engagement rates, and low credibility for your brand overall. Marketers are realizing this and quickly learning that misleading clicks can do more harm than good. So why are brands still using clickbait tactics?

Because it still works – for now.

The Psychology of Clickbait

Most people are well aware of clickbait and know that clicking on that link to find out the dumbest things celebrities have done will probably be disappointing, but they still do it. Why? There’s a psychological reason behind it. Humans are undeniably curious, and there’s an information gap. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, developed the information gap theory of curiosity. It’s the idea that people feel a gap between what they know and what they want to know.

Even when you scroll past a link that you know is clickbait, you’ll still be wondering what in the world the answer is. It’s just human nature, and we can’t help it. Curiosity is a mental appetite that we keep feeding but is never fully satisfied. So, as long as humans are curious, clickbait will still work at least to some extent.

The Future of Clickbait

While clickbait still draws in clicks right now, the popularity is likely to decrease in the future. Facebook made changes to its algorithm in 2014 to better control the content people see in their feeds. Users were complaining about how much viral junk with no real engaging content was all over their page, so the site reacted. The algorithm takes more control of the content seen by taking looking at much time users spend on the link they click and if they share/comment on the post.

With changes to social media platforms, marketers are changing their efforts as well. Not only to have their articles actually show up on social media, but to really engage their readers and focus on the right metrics. While having a great headline is still important, quality content is what keeps consumers coming back for more and will build trust in your brand.

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