You’ll Be Shocked by How Much Content Marketing Can Learn from Clickbait

As a person who used to write clickbait for money, I am well aware of its problems, the hate it gets, and the issues it poses for those who write seriously. I also know that it works. 

Merriam Webster defines clickbait 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.” The idea of dubious value is obvious – lies, of course, or a link that takes you to a slideshow that’s overcome with ads and no actual content. As far as dubious interest, I don’t think that’s a fair claim – but I digress.

There is an innate challenge within clickbait: how do you overcome the stigma enough to get people to care and how do you get people to care enough to click? These are the same questions we have to pose when creating content for the digital era. Gone are the days of sending a catalog in the mail; now, if you want someone to engage with your writing, they have to want it enough to take action. 

I’m not advocating that we all start writing clickbait. In fact, there are several reasons websites should not engage in this practice. However, clickbait works, even when readers know it’s clickbait.  There are elements of clickbait that work for a reason, and those elements can be used elsewhere. You might be surprised how much content writers can take from the craft of clickbait.


Five Things Content Marketing Can Learn From Clickbait

1.Rethink the Relationship Between Clickbait and Content Marketing

First, you have to rethink your idea of what clickbait is and consider- what exactly are the traits that make clickbait? We all want our links to be clicked on – that’s why we spend so much time doing keyword research and using search engine optimization. While it might be tempting to claim that it’s a phenomenon that comes from the rise of online journalism, clickbait is much older than one might think. Its origins can be traced back to the mid-1800s with yellow journalism. 

This concept rose to prominence with Joseph Pulitzer (of the famous Pulitzer Prize) and William Randolph Hearst as they competed for readers during the Spanish-American war, each paper writing more sensational stories to try and hook readers from their competitor. Yellow journalism became synonymous for its major identifying asset – sensationalism and exaggeration. Around the same time, several businesses began distributing magazines and newspapers that were being distributed and sold in order to sell their products – including the still running American Bee Journal and The Locomotive.

So why does this history matter to content marketing writers? The lesson here is that content marketing and clickbait share roots.  Both of these techniques predate the internet and their writing has informed each other for over a century. Clickbait gets a bad rap because it’s modernly associated with online hustlers and greater promises than delivered –  but if you’re actually making solid content that does what promised, getting readers hooked isn’t a bad thing.


2.Learn that Titles Matter for this Psychological Reason

Promising a hilarious or life-altering experience using hyperbole is one way to get clicks – another is to provoke curiosity. Titles like “This Quick-Thinking Teen Did This Clever Thing to Stop a Kidnapper” and “Ballet Company’s Response to Sexist Insult is Hitting a Nerve with Dancers” are not wildly sensational –  but they do provoke interest, offering just enough information and the promise of more. 

Content writers should keep in mind the information gap theory, which comes from social scientist George Loewenstein. Curiosity comes from a gap between “what we know and what we want to know”, Loewenstein explains, and curiosity can be used to our advantage when writing. When the audience exists in that in-between gap, there is a mental itch that they want to scratch by clicking the link.  That curiosity can also be targeted depending on the keywords – dancers may be more interested in the latter headline, while parents, the former. That’s why really vague clickbait (Ex: “Avoid this Skincare Product!”) doesn’t work as well as those that offer some leading information (Ex: “Dermatologists Say This Common Item Will Ruin Your Skin”)

When it comes to content marketing, consider the titles seriously. They’re not just a way to add SEO into the keyword – they’re the first thing a reader sees. They should be catchy, informative enough, and if possible work of the information gap theory to lure a reader in to read the page.

3.Count Off 

People like numbers and listicles, because they 

  1. Make things more readable, therefore easier to engage with.
  2. Help quantify the length of the story and give the reader insight into how much attention they actually have to offer to read it.
  3. Numbers stand out in headlines, especially odd numbers.
  4. The spatial organization makes our brains happy.
  5. They eliminate the paradox of choice – presenting the illusion of certainty and containment – which is relaxing, if just for a moment.
  6. Therefore, we can take from this that layout matters when writing – and quantifying information into bite-sized pieces can keep your reader on the page longer.

4.Remember the Basics

You probably learned about the rhetorical triangle back in high school, but it’s at the forefront of clickbait – and it should be a constant consideration when working on content marketing. As a refresher they are:

  1. Logos – an appeal to reason within the text, or using logic to make your point
  2. Ethos – an appeal to the writer’s character, or using personal credibility / the role of the writer to make your point
  3. Pathos – an appeal to emotions within the text, or using sympathetic images / the role of the audience to make your point

One of the reasons clickbait is especially effective (and easy to parody) is its use of pathos. For example, a headline like “Baby Goat and Chicken Cuddle” is not nearly as effective as “Adorable Baby Goat Makes a Surprising Best Friend” which appeals directly to the reader’s emotions and the information gap. 

With other forms of writing, you may (understandably) veer away from these basic three. While you don’t want to veer so far into logos or pathos that you begin using logical fallacies or over-sensationalism, you don’t have to be afraid to utilize the rhetorical triangle in your own writing either. 

5.Watch Your Tone

In clickbait titles, the second person POV is king. The direct address is an immediate draw to many because it automatically brings the reader into the text. However, within the writing itself, you may be able to spot a carefully done perspective switch.

 Note that in this article, when there is a ‘good’ thing, I use the second person “you” but a ‘bad’ thing becomes the third person. For example, in the second paragraph, I wrote, “…clickbait is much older than one might think.” You don’t want to accuse your audience of anything they might associate with negatively or claim they may not know something they already do, so the POV switches. 

A light, conversational tone is also a key takeaway when looking at how content writing can apply the clickiness of clickbait to their work. Not only does a causal tone make for a greater word count, but it also can build a pseudo-repertoire between the reader and writer, keeping them reading longer and more often. 

How CLickbait and Online Optimism Can Help You With Content Marketing

No matter the style of writing, if it’s done well and with genuine care, there should be a long-term return for a website. Readers will subscribe to a newsletter, re-visit the site, and continue to read the articles if they like how the writers sound and if they feel the information gap itch being scratched. And of course, depending on the algorithm of the week, that info can pop up over and over again on social media, leading to more clicks, leading to the content coming up more, making a very profitable 


At the end of the day, clickbait is achieving what we’re all trying to get: it’s getting hits. And that’s worth learning from. If you’re interested in how all forms of writing influence one another, consider learning more from Online Optimism’s Specialist Program. Our Specialist Program is a great way to get an introduction into the world of digital marketing and gain a deeper understanding of the nuance of clickbait.