6 reasons you always fall for click-bait (and the secret formulas publishers won’t want you to see)


Sometimes we can’t help ourselves. Even if we have no interest in the subject, we find ourselves clicking irresistible links. But what is it that makes headlines from sites like Buzzfeed so compelling?

Unless you spend your whole time online on Pinterest and YouTube, chances are you’ll have noticed a big change in the way stories are told recently. In fact, you may even have noticed many of the world’s biggest online titles beginning to write headlines that don’t just sound the same, but are becoming harder to ignore. Welcome to the dark art of click-baiting.

Headlines do the heavy lifting.

Clever headline writing is nothing new. Newspapers and advertising copywriters have been crafting them for decades to sell papers and push product. But what’s changing is the role of a headline and it’s having a big effect on the content.

Newspaper headlines pretty much exist to relay information. Succinct, accurate and usually a complete unambiguous thought, they summarise the most compelling facts of a story in less characters than a tweet. And while there’s a bit of variation between infotainment tabloids and ‘serious’ reporting, both should help you navigate content and get a feel for the day’s news at a glance. And the front page? That’s reserved for the one headline of the day with the power to create most impact, whether its the most important story, or simply the most sensational. The information it reveals should be so compelling, you feel the need to buy the paper and read on.

Advertising headlines work differently. By their nature ads are intrusive stowaways lurking amidst bona fide content. If there’s body copy, there’s usually a slim-chance it will be read unless the headline gives you reason to do so. That’s why ad headlines have to work harder. They either join forces with the visuals to express an idea (usually leading to a sales message) or more traditionally, tell the whole story in as few words as possible. This has become especially true of banner ads, particularly on mobiles where you have just a few pixels to get the message across on a tiny screen. If there’s a big story to be told, it’s saved for the landing page – where you end up when you click on the ad.

sniffle sniffle

So what’s click-bait?

In a nutshell, click-bait is a headline written in such a compelling way that you almost feel powerless to resist clicking, and often sharing it. The space between editorial and advert is becoming a grey area as brands use content creation more and more to spread their message. Overtly or otherwise.

The absolute masters of click-bait are sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy and The Huffington Post. They make their money from advertising placed on their pages, revenue often determined by the number of people that see an ad. Your eyeballs are a goldmine. So it’s in their interest to drive as much traffic to those pages as possible, through making stories tempting and share-worthy. SEO (search engine optimisation) changes all the time, and with the current trend to rate shares over tags, a carefully constructed, irresistible headline is essential.

The art and science of temptation.

Here are a three successfully proven headline techniques that use mystery and surprise in different ways to encourage clicks.

 1. Culture-jacking

 “X things Y can teach you about Z”

Where Z is something worth knowing

Where X is a number

Numbers are useful. Their precision is a promise to be fulfilled. A low number suggests simplicity and information that’s easy to absorb. A high number suggests authority and definitive coverage. It’s better to keep numbers lowish. 50 facts get tiring, especially when scrolling on a mobile.

Where Y is a cultural touchpoint

How can you instantly pique someone’s interest and race up the search results? Piggyback on something popular. This is often where the real creativity lies. Make a link too tenuous and people see straight through it, get it right, with a good balance of fact, surprise and comedy and you’re onto a winner.


2. Visualisation

A nifty content formula by web psychologist Nathalie Hai

A nifty content formula by web psychologist Nathalie Hai

This formula, created by ‘web-psychologist’ Nathalie Nahai (who has a great presentation on persuasive content here) uses similar buttons to the above, with the number, promise and keyword, but instead of cheaply hooking into a cultural reference, it creates intrigue via  surprising visualisation and engaging adjectives.

How an article on 'Egg Boiling Tips' would be rewritten using this formula.

How an article on ‘Egg Boiling Tips’ would be rewritten using this formula.


(Based on the above formula, the second headline would work better if it was ‘8 adorable things scruffy meerkats can teach us about love’)

3. Because feels

The last of my three formula examples does away the numbers (which can be tiring if used in every headline on a site) and wheels in emotions. According to Forbes, Upworthy’s writers come up with 25 headline options for each story, before pilot testing the top 4. The headline that gets the most clicks, goes live for reals. As you can imagine, after months of doing this, they’ve built up quite an understanding of what works.

Apparently, Upworthy’s formula for a winning headline is:

Outrage + Uplift + Mystery = Clicks

Which is essentially ‘make a statement to stir an emotion, turn it up to 11 and throw in a cliffhanger.’ It works a treat.

After cancer took his wife, this father does something incredible to make sure his daughter never forgets mom.

The above is a beautifully touching story. You can see how Blog Distractify have tinkered with the headline to pull in more eyeballs. The original title (as seen in the url) looks like it was ‘dad-and-daughter-recreate-old-photos-from-deceased-mother’. Seemingly following Upworthy’s formula, the new one is much more compelling.

 Here’s one of Upworthy’s most shared headlines from their first year:

Upworthy's biggest story of 2012

Upworthy’s biggest story of 2012

Outrage – Bully Calls News Anchor Fat

Uplift – News Anchor Destroys Him On Live TV

Mystery – What did she say?

With this formula, you’re intrigued, feel slightly uncomfortable, but promised a satisfying pay-off, after all, we all like an underdog.

That’s how to write click-bait. But why do you click?

The obvious reasons to click on a link are because you’re interested in the subject and the element of mystery in the set-up. But look a little deeper and there are some subconscious reasons too.

Ask any good door-to-door salesman and they’ll tell you about some of the buttons they have been trained to push to lead you to a purchase. These same basic marketing buttons can easily be applied to click-bait headlines.

So finally, here they are, 6 reasons why you click.

1. Fear

From assuaging genuine fear (3 ways to survive an earthquake) to curing FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out,  (Dermatologists hate her for this one weird trick, The 10 most shocking celebrity instagrams of 2013 ), fear is a powerful motivator for action. Faced with the prospect of risk, embarrassment or unnecessary loss, where’s the harm in a quick click?

2. Guilt

Whether it’s something you do that you know you shouldn’t, or something you know you ought to be doing, pushing the guilt button is a sneaky way to trigger an emotional response from a perceived failing. Used evilly, it can also plant a seed or concern that you may never have had. (“Does this make me a bad mother?”, “Eating this delicious donut will make me less attractive.”)

3. Love

The strongest motivator of all, and often lurking behind all the others, love drives action. Whether it’s something you do for the love of someone else, or something to make you feel good about yourself, tapping into your passions and people you care about gets results.

4. Pride

We all like to think we’re pretty decent human beings. Our pride is our feeling of pleasure or satisfaction in ourselves and our achievements. So a powerful way to generate a response is to question someone’s pride, forcing them to act in order to maintain it. In terms of information, the simplest way is to present information that someone feels they ought to know, but do not.

5. Greed

This is the easiest sell of all when it comes to marketing. The promise of something for nothing or the chance to get rich quick is often too good an opportunity to miss, even for the skeptics.

6. Belonging

This is closely linked to FOMO, but as a social species, we want to feel close to people. Sharing knowledge, memes and stories connects us, whether online or at the water cooler. Missing them can make us feel more isolated. Much like a salesman will use the idea of people behaving like sheep (keeping up with Jones’) to sell a product, click-baiters can reward us by making us feel part of a community (Like! Share!) all to their own eyeballing ends.

The 35 naughtiest dogs on the planet. You’ll laugh so hard when you see what they did!

Still compelled to click?

So there you have it. A by no means exhaustive look at some of the ways writers get you to click, and some of the reasons you do. Fess up. How many of the above headlines did you click on?

There’s nothing wrong with click-bait per se, but in trading editorial standards for eyeballs, there’s a danger it will lead to the dumbing down of mainstream media.

The demotion of facts in favour of tricks is captured brilliantly in this parody.

A clever illustration of clickbaitising from XKCD.com

A clever illustration of clickbaitising from XKCD.com

Spoilers sweetie.

Spoilers sweetie.

You can save yourself the dilemma of deciding whether to click by following one of these great ‘click-bait spoilers’ on Twitter @HuffPoSpoilers and @MammaMiaSpoilers

Now you know some of the tricks to click-bait writing, maybe you can use some of them yourself and play the experts at their own game.

Why exclamation marks are not your friend.


Danger ahead. I’ll let you in on a little secret. One of the biggest giveaways that a client has written their own copy, without hiring a copywriter, is the over-use of exclamation marks.

The world’s most over-used punctuation mark has a lot to answer for. In a fraction of a second, it has the power to turn even the most delicately worded prose into a pantomime horse. It’s right up there with CAPS LOCK and alphanumeric truncation (h8ers gonna h8) for a spot in room 101. In the printing world, an exclamation mark is often referred to as a ‘screamer’, ‘gasper’, ‘bang’, ‘slammer’ or ‘startler’ – ie: something to be used sparingly, and for dramatic effect, where warranted. Over-use is tiring and annoying at best and shows lack of control. (Apple even has a specific section in their distributer rulebook about avoiding their use.) There’s even a word for excessive use of exclamation marks: ‘bangorreah’. But try telling that to writers on social media, where the mere whiff of a competition is excuse enough to crack open a whole can of exclamation marks! Take a look at this list of contests currently on NineMSN’s homepage. Among other things, you could win a cheese plate. A CHEESE PLATE! I might forgive them for using one on a prize worth a cool million dollars, but a cheese plate

Win a cheese plate!

NineMSN love their exclamation marks.

Exclamation marks give the impression of an over-excited child. And in marketing copy, they often just aren’t needed. If a statement’s flat, no amount of exclamation marks are going to liven it up, they’re just going to make it look ridiculous. If it’s already exciting, why would you need to sign-post it? Exclamation marks are distracting. And while excitement will always be subjective, no brand should lose their shit over a cheese plate. Have a look at the next Lost Dog, School Fete, Yard Sale or Fresh Lemonade sign you see. Chances are it will be festooned with exclamation marks, most likely some clip-art and quite possibly a smattering of comic sans. These are not the communications tools of professional marketers.  F Scott Fitzgerald once said “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. If that rule applies to everyday brands, it should go double for premium ones.  I spotted this advertising billboard for Swiss Miltary Hanowa watches at the weekend. Image The Flagship Chrono looks like a nice watch. Admittedly, it’s not in the same league as Rolex, Omega or even Tag Heur, but if Hanowa want to at least pretend to play in that space, that exclamation mark is a huge no-no, especially for their flagship watch. The words leading up to it are strange too. I assume the line ‘ALWAYS ON TARGET!’ is used to suggest a sense of dynamism, accuracy and weaponry, all stuff blokes love. But whatever the disconnect between the words, image and message (what’s it targeting?) that exclamation mark shoots the soaring metaphor dead mid-air. It’s a scream of shock, as if being on target is something you wouldn’t expect from the brand. It starts you wondering about the surprise itself and makes you completely forget to read the body copy (a list of bullet points). A time and place for exclamation marks.  So now I’ve had a whinge about the bad use of exclamation marks, it’s time I said a few words on the good. If you know what you’re bringing to a communications piece by using an exclamation mark, it can be a useful gizmo. Exclamation marks can be a simple way to add a touch of personality to a brand name. Air France’s new regional subsidy Hop! uses an exclamation mark not only in the name, but as a very effective graphic device on its destination price lock-ups, acting as a clever nod to flight paths. ImageImage Hop! captures the excitement of flying, in a playful fashion. Similarly classic fragrance Joop! and Yahoo! Both benefit from the quirkiness the exclamation mark brings. The surprise is delivered by the brand itself, not a clunky message it’s trying to express. It can be tricky to get right in sentence copy and headlines, but the best use of an exclamation mark is, oddly enough, the one it was designed for. Trusty Wikipedia tells me it was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century to show emphasis, and is well-known for appearing alongside words like ‘bang’ to increase their potency. Boom! Bang! Boo! A boo without one would surely sound sarcastic? I may sound a little down on the shriekish bang, but I use it myself from time to time. My unofficial rules are to think about adding it to a script and imagining the difference it would make to the way the words are read out. Which tends to mean, I end up saving it for expressions like Ta-Da! Wahooo! Or Yippeee! And by the time a brand is playful and brave enough to be sporting these kinds of words in its vocabulary, chances are they won’t be needing cheap exclamation marks anyway. Image