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Monday, June 8, 2015

Kill clickbait.



Before I went freelance, I spent ten years working for a major news site. It wasn't a perfect job, but it was comfortable. I had health insurance, I had a 9-to-5, I got to do at least some level of original writing, and I learned skills I would use elsewhere.

Then one day, about a year and a half ago, our managing editor took the editorial department (which consisted of me and a guy who worked from home) out to Red Robin for lunch to explain some ... changes that were coming.

I'd sensed what was about to happen. He'd e-mailed me an article about how amazing Upworthy is. Generally when he e-mailed me about how amazing something was, that was his prelude to asking me to replicate it. And that was indeed what was on the table: according to him, our company was dying (dying!!!) and only editorial could save it. How could we save it? Changing to suit the times. First off, no more original content. No time for that. No, our time would be spent on the AP news feed figuring out how to repackage existing stories in a more BuzzFeed-y way. Those headlines. You know.

Our job was no longer to make good, family-friendly, solid content. It was now to get people to click.

This was the beginning of the end for me at this company. I had to write one 'What ______ Are You?' personality quiz a week and get people to take it. I had to change my writing style and sensationalize our content (bear in mind our demographic was mainly parents of school-aged kids up until this point). I would get e-mails from my manager telling me to 'make things go viral.'

I turned in my two weeks' notice not long after. There were multiple reasons, sure -- lack of raises, lack of advancement, the fact that I was being offered much more interesting jobs -- but this was what kicked it off.

Now it's nearly a year after I left my day job, and every time I check my Facebook (which is a lot, as I run social media for two conventions), I'm knee deep in things I won't believe. Sure, it irks me because it's a reminder of what I left behind, but it's bad in so many ways. It's poor writing. It's poor business sense. It's poor marketing. And it's getting us accustomed to it.

The vague headline is not as much of an art as my former boss wanted us to think. It's high school tactics. It's your mopiest friend sitting on the other end of the sofa sighing and making sad eyes at you every few seconds until you just give in and ask what's wrong. Anyone can do that, as evidenced by how easy the phenomenon is to parody. I almost used a clickbait-y headline on this blog entry but I wasn't feeling the irony that hard this morning.

Does it work? Well, yeah. Of course it does, in a sort of exasperated way. You click because you feel defeated. Your mom's three friends from the beauty parlour seem to think it's darling or emotional or funny, and the curiosity is annoying, so you click. Inevitably, you can totally believe what happens next. But they got your click, so who cares?

Here's the main issue: via clickbait, many companies believe they can do away with the concept of demographic. Up until my former employer changed tactics, we were all about finding things that would sit well with our loyal demographic. Things that they'd come back to daily, want more of, subscribe to. The first thing that happened when they switched tracks was they stopped caring about that demographic. Why cultivate a loyal readership when you could confuse total strangers into clicking?

It's working now, sure, but that's not sustainable. Think of the last clickbait-y link you followed. Did you bookmark that site? Do you visit it daily or weekly now to see what else they've got? Hell, do you remember what site you visited? (There are decent odds said clickbait-y headline was on a site you already frequent, in which case you have my sympathies.)

Contrary to what many people think, we have not evolved past the need for devoted readers and demographic. That will never change. Fans are important. Fans are the ones who will keep coming back, who will direct friends to you, and who (since these companies are all about the clicks) are more likely to turn off AdBlock for you because they want you to have money.

One more time for the people in the back: just about everyone uses AdBlock, and the only time it ever gets turned off by anyone is when they find a site they love and are loyal to.

So, to recap so far: it's lazy writing, it works in large part because it's annoying, it ignores and discards the reliable base a demographic builds up, and it could potentially be harming your CPM. Irritatingly, while this is a recipe for disaster in the long run, people are still reaping benefits now, so they're not going to stop until the benefits stop.

This wouldn't be so awful if it was only limited to sites that specialise in blippy news stories about puppy hugs and what farmers find in caves. But, as evidenced by my job fiasco, it's trickling into other places; legitimate news sources. Fan news sources that already have a demographic (I caught a Doctor Who news site pulling this recently). Because some guy at the top is going to decide that it's a good idea.

Meanwhile, sites with coherent news pieces whose headlines are actually structured the way we learned in school are still doing gangbusters. Because if your content is sound enough, telling people what it is will actually bring them to it. Not only that -- Google picks it up faster and places it higher in search results.

Social media spread is still possible, -- it just takes work and some research. There are whole studies done on when and where to post your content for the widest reach. It's a thing I learned in my work with (Re)Generation Who, and I use it everywhere from major convention news to getting people to notice a friend's fundraiser.

The sad fact of the matter is, the only reason this is so widespread is because numbers are up. It won't stop until numbers are down. There are sites like ClickHole and Saved You a Click doing God's work on this, but we are a long way from seeing the end of this.

What can you do? Well, one, don't click. You are a drop in the bucket, but it's a start.

Two, don't post clickbait articles. I know it's an inspiring bit of sunshine for the morning to see a Rottweiler puppy not mauling a child, but there are other places to go for that sort of thing that don't perpetuate juvenile practices.

Three, if you are a blogger or journalist, do not adopt these practices. Don't perpetuate them. Please don't. I know it's tempting. Maybe you have a manager breathing down your neck to do it. But it's not sustainable, it's not professional, and it's straight-up dumb.

Or you could be like me and shout at the sky about it. Whatever works.