The Nouvelle Vague

Link bait

‘What I learnt about these headlines shocked me to my core. Here’s what you need to know.’

Link-bait. We’ve all fallen victim to it at some point. Those links that are deliberately vague, yet subtly claim that they will somehow change our lives if we act on them. They leave us hanging and make us feel compelled to learn more – because as humans we just can’t help but be curious.

What makes it link-bait?

Link-bait is a term for links to content that are in some way deliberately provocative. I define link-bait as link copy that has been purposely written to target and exploit our natural curiosity. It’s a tease – often deliberately vague, whilst simultaneously claiming to offer great value to the reader. It is the opposite of the pursuit of clarity, often cited as a usability best practice, where the user knows what to expect when clicking a link.

As well as being deliberately vague, link-bait often employs devices such as:

  • Outlandish claims about the emotional power of the content (…if you don’t cry when you read this, then you’re not human).
  • Implying that something wholly unexpected happened (…and what happened next blew my mind).
  • Lists with attention focused on a particular item (25 examples of awesome cats. Number 7 is my favourite – WOW!).
  • A two-part narrative (this seemingly unimportant event happened. But actually, it was completely life-changing).
  • Implying that your current view of the world will be challenged by what you read (hint: it’s not what you think).
  • That the content is somehow unmissable, thus triggering our ‘fear of missing out’ (here’s what you need to know…).
  • Use of timeliness to instill a sense of urgency in the reader (…and we don’t have long to stop them).

Curiosity killed the @

By exploiting our natural weakness for curiosity and our desire to get answers, click-bait gets our attention, which means it’s fast becoming the de facto language for publishers on social media. On spaces like Facebook, where attention spans are short and the desire for content to get noticed (and shared) is high, feeds have become flooded with link-bait.

Whereas tabloid newspapers learnt that headlines such as ‘FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER’ sells copies of The Sun, it seems that publishers on Facebook (Upworthy, Huffington Post, Sumofus, Buzzfeed, Viral Nova et al) have found that ‘I can’t believe what this celebrity did. You won’t either. (Hint: it’s not what you think)’ works for them.

But why do we find these vague links so hard to resist?

Feeding our dopamine

As a species, it’s our inherent curiosity that’s taken us from cave dwellers to landing on the moon and exploring the depths of the oceans. Dopamine in our brains causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search – it’s a chemical that compels us be curious. Dopamine has been the key to our evolutionary success, keeping us motivated to explore our world, learn and survive. It’s this same chemical that means that we can’t resist the dangling carrot of click-bait.

Dopamine has made us a species addicted to seeking information, so grazing Facebook and finding intriguing links, which we can quickly consume, share, and forget about, is the perfect dopamine-enhanced experience. Dopamine is so motivating, and clicking links is so easy, that often we’d rather click and know what a link is about, even if we are already pretty certain that it doesn’t interest us.

Our dopamine system is further stimulated by unpredictability, so giving a vague description of what the link is about sends our brains into dopamine overdrive. Brain scan research shows that our brains are more stimulated by anticipating a reward than actually receiving a reward. When we see link-bait we get a big dopamine hit trying to guess what it is, and quickly move on and forget about it having clicked and learnt what the link was actually for. Add to this an emotional hook (‘This shocked me to my core’, ‘If you don’t cry when you read this, then you’re not human’, etc.), and we can’t help clicking.

It’s no wonder that for a lot of publishers, being vague is now seen as a key part of their formula for creating the perfect viral content.

Crying wolf

Link-bait gets clicks. Because of this, it’s becoming more and more prevalent, particularly on social media feeds such as Facebook. To get noticed, publishers are making more and more outlandish claims about the power of their content. It feels like a race to the bottom, but no matter how driven by dopamine we might be, as consumers, we aren’t stupid. If clicking that link doesn’t give us value, we will stop clicking. Often mocked content publishers Upworthy point out that although they optimise their headlines to the nth degree, it’s the quality of the content that is the real key to their success – people just really like it. After all, the real success of content marketing is getting shares, not just clicks. Yes, we might click to see what the story is actually about, but we will only share if it’s great content.

For me it seems a shame; great content shouldn’t have to rely on cheap tricks to get noticed. ‘Vaguebooking’, an intentionally vague Facebook update that is used to get attention, is regarded as a social media faux pas, purely because it is annoying. In the same way, this vague style of copywriting has an air of cheap desperation about it. It’s worth noting that, to my knowledge, this strategy hasn’t been employed by any ‘quality’ publishers such as the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph and so on. Maybe it does suit Buzzfeed’s latest list of funny cats, or a trashy opinion piece on the Huffington Post – but does it suit your brand? How you communicate plays a big role in how users perceive your brand.

In the long run, I don’t see the current trend for link-bait as being sustainable, because once the technique reaches critical mass and every publisher is doing it, publishers will no doubt move on from link-bait in order to get noticed again. Perhaps publishers will simply have made too many claims on how amazing their content is, and consumers will stop believing it and clicking. Ultimately, link-bait is just one way to ensnare our interest for a brief moment, in a world where attention spans are forever getting shorter.

Whatever happens, great content will always be shared and enjoyed. In the meantime, look out for those vague links in your Facebook feed, and see which ones get your dopamine levels buzzing.

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