Clickbait is like fast food for journalism. It makes a lot of good promises, but it doesn’t really deliver. Clickbait is a title (or a link) that draws attention and entices the reader to follow through and read or view the story by overselling or misleading. It’s not a teaser — clickbait implies an element of dishonesty (often, in the title) that does not accurately reflect the content being published.
The problem propagates extensively through social media. We’ve all seen it in one form or another — the “You won’t believe” stories, the “Shocking facts” articles, the “How to become a billionaire with this one simple trick” guides; the title to this article is also a play on clickbait (but it’s meant to be ironic so please don’t throw rocks). But what actually makes clickbait, and how do social media posts draw readers in?
To analyze this, a team of researchers led by Anna-Katharina Jung, of the University of Duisburg-Essen looked at 4,000 Facebook posts by news organizations. They used posts from 10 media outlets — 5 of the “hard” press, and 5 tabloids. The team selected outlets that are focused on written text and not outlets that use videos and audio very much. The samples were representative for the “normal” daily journalism sites, Jung tells ZME Science.
In the past few years, misinformation has grown to be a bigger and bigger problem. Arguably, a part of this is owed to how we consume information. Gone are the days when everyone would just check a publisher’s website and read all the articles — now, a lot of information goes through social media.
“The media landscape is changing since the last decades,” says Jung. “People are consuming news often through social media and not any longer through the websites of the outlets. However, the media outlets are facing the need to generate traffic to their sites to sell advertising space and generate income. That someone clicks on their sites is part of their business model.”
Basically, publishers want people to click on social media posts and get to their site. But you only have a title, a thumbnail image, and a brief description, so getting users to click isn’t exactly easy. In the early days of social media, when publishers realized this, it was like the Wild West — for many publishers, everything was allowed. They started misleading the audience more and more, promising things and not delivering.
“Traffic generating techniques like clickbait do collide with the journalistic code of conduct, which asks for transparency, independence, minimization of harm etc.” says Jung. “This struggle sparked our interest.”
“Another thing we were interested in was the possibility to use certain clickbait features for a positive cause, the so-called digital nudging — which means that clickbait features are used to make people interested in harder news that are important for society, which is a moral obligation of journalists to make people aware of certain things.”
Several studies looked into the effect of clickbait on click-through rates, but there have been fewer studies in the context of social media specifically.
Their analysis revealed somewhat surprising trends. For starters, unusual punctuation in the headline was associated with up to 2.5 times more reactions, shares, and comments. But in the post text, it was associated with a decrease in shares. Furthermore, questions in the headlines or text did not seem to increase interaction. Longer headlines were associated with fewer comments but had little effect on the shares. Negative wording in posts was found to lead to more comments, but for headlines, positive tone increased comments.
But perhaps most surprisingly, common clickbait phrases in headlines (like this will blow your mind) seemed to lead to fewer, not more, interactions. The researchers interpret this as readers wising up to the strategy.
“One of the surprising findings was that typical clickbait phrases in the headline of a text had a negative effect on all the three engagement dimensions. I think a reason for that could be, that this is the most obvious click bait technique and that readers are fed up with this strategy. They often enough realized that their expectations were not met after they clicked on such a headline.”
Clickbait strategies aren’t going away anytime soon. At most, they will change and adapt, but in the end, publishers will do their best to draw in readers. But this doesn’t need to be a fight, and it doesn’t need to be a problem, the researchers conclude. We can use clickbait strategies for good, and to draw readers to articles that actually deliver.
“We argue that using certain features of clickbait to nudge the reading of some articles does not need to be morally reprehensible. If this is used for topics that are important and not to mislead the reader it can be a win-win situation. It is in the hand of the editors to not only trigger the attention with this technique but also to meet the exceptions by delivering good quality content.”
Journal Reference: Jung A-K, Stieglitz S, Kissmer T, Mirbabaie M, Kroll T (2022) Click me…! The influence of clickbait on user engagement in social media and the role of digital nudging. PLoS ONE 17(6): e0266743. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266743.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.