About five years ago, I studied the now-lost art of copywriting. One chapter in one book in particular always stuck with me: the author discussed an engineering magazine (you know, magazine that publishes engineering studies and results) and how nobody would read it. People would receive it and wouldn’t even open it. To make things clear, this was a specialized magazine sent to all engineers who had obtained a certain title, hence a very serious, technical and scientifically-oriented magazine.
The author discussed ways to increase the readership, i.e. the number of people who would actually open it read it. After all, that magazine made its money from advertisers and if readers don’t actually read it, well, advertisers are going to pull the plug. The solution these brilliant minds came to?
It was a stunning discovery at the time. But can you imagine how silly it actually looked? Instead of, let’s say, titles like this:
- A new application for iron-based composite in the field of ionized particles
- A metallurgical method to improve recovery of silver particles by 0.3%
- New construction methods based on a dynamic structure
You would now have titles like this:
- BREAKING: this new material will revolutionize science forever
- You won’t believe what this mom on welfare discovered! Engineers hate her!
- One weird trick to improve your building structural integrity.
Can you imagine how silly that looked? The author was honest enough to admit he copied the cheap popularize cosmo-like magazines you can buy at a store.
The shocking result?
The readership of the magazine exploded. The percentage of people who actually read the magazine (as measured by surveys) went from something like 5% to over 50%. Suddenly, the magazine was one of the most highly-read of its kind. I could go on to explain how they went from boring pics of building and different alloys to sexy women (no jokes) and stunning explosions, magma, big robots and other visually-enticing elements that actually had nothing to do with anything in the magazine, but I think you get the drift; in their own words, they made the magazine less “boring.”
Of course, I hope that, by now, you can see the problem with that approach: while they may have made the magazine less “boring,” they also made it stupid. What used to be a premium medium to publish scientific results ended up being a cheap popular magazine willing to do almost anything to get more people to actually read it. Gone were the long, complex articles and the big mathematical formulas you’d have to spend a day studying to understand them. Gone were the new researches, essays and studies in the field of mechanical engineering: it was all “this new composite will be in every person’s house within two years.” Of course, everyone wants to know what this new composite that’s going to be in everyone’s house will be, so everyone goes to read the story to satisfy their curiosity, but by then, you realize this “new composite that’s going to be in everyone’s house in two years” is neither new, nor going to be in 99.9999% of houses within 15 years.
There’s nothing worse than clicking on an interesting title and then getting a mediocre story
It’s the worst feeling in the world, perhaps aside from waking one morning and realizing Hilary Clinton is going to be next US President. You realize that you knew it was going to be clickbait but that, yeah, you clicked it anyway. These guys got you, again. You couldn’t resist and you know it.
Today, it doesn’t matter if stories are read anymore: it’s all about loading ads. As soon as you click the title, well, you just loaded the ads. Who cares if you like the articles or not. Actually, that’s not entirely true: after clickbait, there’s the “sharebait” part because these people want you to share the stories to everyone so that even more people will be lured by the clickbait. You know, the “this story is going viral!!!” which strikes the “I want to be the first to talk about this so I’ll look cool in front of my friends” part in you.
The worst part of it today is that if you don’t use clickbaiting, nobody will read your articles. Time is limited and most people only have a set amount devoted to reading, if any. Between the “A careful analysis and deconstruction of modern engineering principles” and “10 ways to improve your building stability – NUMBER SIX WILL SHOCK YOU!” what do you think 99% of people will choose? So far, on this website, I have tried to resist using clickbait titles, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. For instance, “I was wrong. Technical Analysis is God’s gift to humanity” does has a semblance of clickbait in it.
Yet, there is something different about my articles
They have content
There’s nothing wrong having a title, “This new treatment will revolutionize cancer treatment forever” if the article in question is actually about a treatment that will revolutionize cancer treatment forever. But 99 times out of 100, the article will discuss something that is either 10 year old, not revolutionary at all or only apply to one type of cancer and around 5 people per year.
But getting readers – and the ad money that comes with it – is addicting. When you have a big day and 10,000,000+ viewers and you make over $10,000 in advertising revenue, you only think about one thing: getting another of these days. And if you got that “big day” from a clickbait title, which is overwhelmingly likely, chances are you’ll be tempted to make another “clickbait article.” And then another. And then another. They built an entire company (Buzzfeed, no I won’t link to them) on clickbaiting. And it works.
Today, almost every single serious website is filled to the brim with them. In fact, it has become so difficult to get valuable information and news that I’ve simply given up on it. I know that no matter where I look, safe perhaps for Reuters or Aljazeera, I will find the exact same thing: stupid garbage masqueraded as news. Take this for instance, from WalStreet Journal:
These are the top five stories on Wall Street Journal’s website right now. 2 have absolutely nothing to do with the stock market or finance in general, one is a thinly disguised ad, one has a title that is so unrelated to the actual content (the Apple one) that it’s almost funny and the last one does mention a “critical” report that is actually everything but critical.
Overall, the internet is really starting to depress me. It’s up to a point where I will find an article titled “Evil racist cop who already shot and murdered ten black people who were all Ph.D. candidates murders a litter of puppies in cold blood in front of a class of fourth graders while doing nazi salutes won’t be charged, gets off scott free” and the article will actually discuss the new Super Mario game and how it was influenced by the Aztecs.
I can’t be the only one tired of this garbage, am I? The whole inspiration for this article actually came from point 5 on the list, which you can read here.