Why clickbait works

Clickbait. One of the most annoying thing we often have to deal with, at least if you realise what it really is. Merriam-Webster defines clickbait as “online material (such as headlines) designed to make readers want to click on hyperlinks especially when the links lead to content of dubious value or interest”. Like this the websites generate a lot of ad revenue, especially if people stay and read another article or two where new ads will be shown.

We generally see these headlines in forms such as “You won’t believe what happened next” or “We’ve been doing this wrong for years” or “15 reasons you should (…)”. All equally infuriating because we know the article is not going to be very interesting, but we still feel the need to click. But why do we? A lot of people have tried to explain why clickbait works, but although they do name some good reasons I feel like none of them really gets to the point of how these reasons actually convince us to click. So that’s what I’ll try to do here.

Why we want to click

Instead of explaining this by starting at the actual traits of clickbait (the cause) we’re going to start by looking at the actual clicking (the effect). From there we’ll work back until we encounter the way clickbait works and also other ways to get to this effect. In this case the first question we have to ask ourselves is: Why would I click a link, or, why would I read a certain article?

I think we can distinguish two general reasons to do so. We either have high expectations of the article’s content, or we feel the urge to learn more about the specific subject mentioned in the headline. Of course one article can cause both feelings, which would be great, but the two can also appear apart from each other. Sometimes we want to read an article just because we think it will be a good read, even though we don’t necessarily feel the need to know more. Sometimes we want to read an article just because of the urge to know more, even though we know it’s not going to be great. Alright, there we have step one. Let’s move on by assessing what drives these two reasons.

Why we have expectations of the article

Expectations are formed by what we already know. But how can we already know stuff about the article if we haven’t read it yet? It’s actually quite simple. First of all it’s possible that a friend or family member recommended the article, either directly by telling you about it or indirectly because they liked or shared it on Facebook. If this person thinks it’s good, it must be.

Apart from someone telling us what to expect, the information surrounding the link may help us. The headline itself will of course show the subject, and it can also tell us things like how lengthy the article will be – for example by showing that it will be a list of 15 things. This gives us insight in how long it will take us to read the article and enables us to make a decision based on how much time we want to spend. 75 things? Maybe later. Only 5? Let’s go.

Another piece of information the link shows us is the website on which it is posted. Our previous experience with this website will create some expectations. Is it a Buzzfeed article? I might just skip it because I know it’s just a pile of nonsense. Or, if I’m in a different mood: I might just read it because I know it’s just a pile of nonsense. All of these expectations together are used to make a rational decision, which we generally like better than making an emotional one. But sometimes we still give in.

Why we feel the urge to learn more

The other reason for us to click, the urge to learn more, causes that emotional decision. Sometimes the urge is so big that we set rationality aside and just click even though we don’t have high expectations. One reason for this could be that we are simply very interested in this subject. It doesn’t really matter what’s in the article, you just want to know more. Next to that, the headline can provoke a lot of curiosity, something that we will need to satisfy. You never thought about this thing before, but now you need to know or you will feel like you’re missing out.

Curiosity is often caused by questions that are raised in or because of the headline. The headline also claims to provide an answer, so we follow the link to satisfy our need. Even in this article the headline and all the subheadings have that quality (only a little bit on purpose). Curiosity can also be increased by adding emotional value to the headline. The more extreme the emotion, the stronger we feel the need to know. These emotions can be both positive and negative. “These puppies are the cutest thing ever” and “Your racist grandfather was right all along” could both cause you to click. Even scepticism will have an effect: when an article claims that you won’t believe something, you may actually click to prove that you do.

TL;DR: Why clickbait works

In the flowchart below I combined all of the points I made before. This gives us a schematic overview of what happens before we click. Facebook advertising uses some of these points, such as showing that your friends like a page (recommendations) or showing just the subjects that may interest you. Clickbait also uses several of these points, which I made pink for your convenience. To summarise: the clickbait headline could mention that it is a list of things so we know what to expect and it provokes curiosity by raising questions and adding emotional value.

Factors that contribute to clicking. Traits of clickbait are pink.

Clickbait headlines are an easy way to get readers to click, because it works on several levels and touches basic human drives. Still, there’s a lot of other ways you can decide whether or not to read something. Like this you can guard yourself against that urge to click. So next time you see the headline “12 reasons why cats are ABSOLUTELY disgusting, you won’t believe #11!”, be aware of that you are being tricked and ask yourself: do I really need to know?

PS: If you really need to know but still don’t want to click, you can always tag Stop Clickbait (there’s also a Dutch version). They will find the answer for you and post it on their page in about one sentence. I love it.


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