Wednesday, November 23, 2016

5 Reasons Donald Trump is Literally The Devil! (An Introduction to Clickbait)

No one likes clickbait. Yet, despite how much we profess to hate it, it is everywhere. Clickbait jams our social media feeds, blows up our phones, and in the case of posts like this one, decorates our favorite blogs. Why? Why can't blogs, websites, Youtube channels, and the rest of the media just give us the information we need instead of trying to fish hook us with garbage? Why is clickbait so endemic to our modern, technological news stream?

You're really not going to like the answer.
Well, firstly, you should know that clickbait is not new by any stretch of the imagination. According to Cracked, newspapers in the U.S. have been using clickbait style headlines and listicles since at least the year 1908. None of those articles won awards, though, which is why we tend to forget they existed. The same way there was a ton of crappy music released over the past several decades, but we forget about it because the classic hits are the only ones that get played on the radio.

Why do we, as authors, use clickbait? The answer is pretty simple; because readers keep clicking it.

Yeah, I didn't want to believe that either. It's why for the first several years I operated as a blogger I didn't advertise in the title that I had numbered lists in some of my posts. Nor did I use titles that were specifically meant to act as a hook. I stated what the post was about in a clear, concise manner, and I trusted readers to click-through if that was what they were looking for.

Then, in the interest of experimenting with style, I wrote a post titled The 5 RPG Characters We Should Stop Playing. I'm used to my posts getting a few hundred hits on average, and maybe 3k-5k for really popular posts. That post got over 30k hits in a weekend. Upon further investigation, I realized it was because the title hit just the right degree of outrage, and it promised a comprehensive list, which are the two things you need for people to blow up the comments section, and share it with all their friends (either because they love it, or hate it).

I kept experimenting, and the results kept coming in. Articles that I wrote with titles like 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins, and the follow-up 5 Tips For Playing Better Barbarians, consistently get more traffic than articles that don't use the standard "clickbait" format. And when you find a tool that gets results, you use it. Even if you don't particularly care for it, and you wish you had a different way to keep your numbers climbing. Because otherwise, your bills don't get paid.

What Makes "Good" Clickbait?

While the idea of "good" clickbait might be an oxymoron to a lot of readers, there are dos and don'ts when it comes to using this particular format to get more readers to see what it is you're talking about. Amanda Mannen and T.L. Bodine lay out the basics in My Job Churning Out The Garbage Behind Clickbait Titles, but a lot of the high points could stand to be reiterated.

If you're going to polish a turd, make it shine.
The first ingredient of functional clickbait is some kind of strong, visceral target. Take the title of this piece. Trump is a polarizing figure. People who hate him would click that title just to see what sorts of terrible things he's done, and people who support him would click it to see what new incidents they'll need to defend him against. In both circumstances, you have a topic that's likely to draw a lot of eyes, and which bypasses intellectual curiosity entirely to get at something deeper, and more primal.

The next thing you need is a title that implies something. It's why so many pieces of clickbait have titles like "5 Things That Could Kill You Before You Drink Your Coffee," typically with an addition in parentheses like (Number Three Will Shock You!). You're making your reader a promise that if they click your link, you are going to shock and amaze them. Or outrage them, as the case might be. You don't tell them how, in the same way old-style magic posters didn't tell the audience the full run-down of the act. They simply promised to amaze, and that was enough to get people to walk into the theater.

Lastly, you should have a number. It sounds like such a little thing, but people love lists. If you tell someone you've uncovered a celebrity scandal, that may or may not get them to click your link. But if you tell them you've put together a list of the top ten celebrity scandals, well, that is something quantifiable. That intrigues the brain, and even if you're an expert on the subject being discussed, you still want to know which incidents made the list. And if you're making a list, then you should really shoot for a top five, if not a top ten. Sometimes you can get away with three, but readers like divisions of five, for some reason.

If You Deliver, They'll Keep Coming Back

One of the biggest compliments I've received on one of my pieces was, "Clickbait title, but the article delivers." Which is another way of saying, "This sounded like bullshit, but I read it, and everything seemed pretty legit to me."

That is a difficult reaction to get, but if you can manage it you will find your readership growing in fairly short order. Because even if your titles are sometimes a little heavy on the vitriol, or you have to stretch your numbers to make the list, people still value quality. Even if your quality is pressed into a clickbait format, readers are going to pay attention to the things you do. If you don't believe it, just look at the following Matthew Santoro has over on YouTube. Seriously, if clickbait didn't work, none of us would dedicate this amount of time and effort to it.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully you enjoyed it, and you now have a little more insight regarding why there's so much clickbait online. If you'd like to help support me in all my endeavors, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All I ask is $1 a month, and there's some sweet swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

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