The day after clickbait

The day after clickbait

Advert by John Caples, 1927.

Advert by John Caples, 1927.

“They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano — But When I Started to Play!”

John Caples wrote this in 1927. That’s almost a century ago. Back then, this was revolutionary. Today, in a way, it still is. It set in motion an era in which storytelling and human emotions became the centrepiece of almost every ad produced. Before that time, ads were, in fact, mere representations of the product on sale, supported by idealistic imagery of people using that product — and showing they were happy with it.

It comes as no surprise that a trend was set. From then on, ads would fiercely yield storytelling in one hand, and appealing to human emotions in the other. Headline after headline after headline was produced, all in a quite similar fashion.

But it got worn out. Marketers used it so much that it lost its magic. Response rates to these types of ads started to decline. Clients subsequently started to ask for new things, and eventually, like petticoats, finger-less gloves, and shoulder pads, it became out of fashion.

If you proposed a headline like that today, well — people would start laughing. Times have changed, and both marketers and the public has moved on.

If you ask me, that’s great. It clears the stage for new insights and refreshing ideas. But it also gives rise to an interesting question that is more relevant today: what will happen ‘the day after’ clickbait?

Clickbait today

When I talk about clickbait, I mean, well — scroll up and down the Medium homepage a few times, and you’ll know what I mean.

Currently, if you read enough posts titled ‘Seven Ways To Get Your Stories Read’, you’ll find out that, for your stories to be read, your titles should conform to a certain format:

  • They use titles that pose a question or propose a solution, like “Why This and That Will Happen” or “How This and That Works” or “I Did Something And Then This Happened”;

  • They use titles that promise a list, such as “12 Things Procrastinators Do” or “Five European Cities To Visit This Year”;

  • They use AP title casing — being capitalisation of principal words, including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters, So Your Title Looks Like This.

Following these steps seems to bring with it the promise that you will get more views of your article. And, quite frankly, this is true. At this moment, this style of headline seems to lure people in to click on your stuff. Hence, clickbait.

But, as with anything that works, the public will eventually grow immune to this style of clickbait, and marketers and writers alike will look for new ways to get their stuff clicked on.

In the fashion world, there are trend watchers who can sort of predict what will come into fashion next season.

In marketing — not so much. But let’s try…

The clickbait of tomorrow is everywhere

First off, things that need clicks to generate revenue will only increase. Not only articles on Medium and ads on Facebook are subject to receiving ‘the clickbait treatment’ — every entity that has value when clicked is.

You can already see this happening on YouTube for example, where vloggers are fighting for clicks . And they deploy quite a range of techniques and styles to get their stuff viewed.

But the power of clickbait expands out even further. Think of new albums and songs on Spotify, popular series and movies on Netflix, Apps on the App Store and even Chrome extensions — they all need clicks.

The clickbait of tomorrow is personal

It made no sense that I was seeing the same headline for an article (or a product ad) as you. This approach assumes that you and I are equally attracted to AP-style capitalised titles, for instance. It also completely neglects the things I clicked before.

Today, I may see different ads to you. But when we both see an ad for the same product, the ads will be the same.

That is where the major change in clickbait will occur. Generic styles will disappear, and people will be shown ads, articles, videos, songs, and Chrome extensions displayed in the way that they are most likely to click them.

In fact, Netflix already does this. It uses an algorithm that determines how to create a thumbnail for a show—so that it’s more likely to interest each individual user.

This will become the norm. At first, only big companies who can afford such algorithms will deploy them. But sooner or later, this will be sold as a SaaS solution where you can simply prime your content by feeding it to a service, and it will take care of the rest. You’ll be able to feed the algorithm keywords and based on each individual user’s data, it will generate titles, thumbnails, and even the relevant reviews that are most likely to make you click.

Clickbait will become invisible

So over the next few years, the currently recognisable style of clickbait will disappear. And it will become harder for users to see what content is genuine, and what content is advertised or sponsored. The things we click will be things we see, and vice versa.

What do you think? Will this become a problem? I’m not sure.

What I do know is that, whenever marketing changes, the public adapts. AdBlocker including features to stop services from personalising clickbait, for instance.

Governments may impose rules—stating that personalised clickbait must be made ‘recognisable’.

And us writers will have a choice to make. To bait, or not to bait?

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