It’s tempting to blame the Buzzfeeds and Gawkers of the world on what we know as the clickbait epidemic, that thing where writers craft annoyingly alarmist and vague headlines to coerce readers into clicking on their links and reading their articles. But the trend that has sadly moved from the dredges of the Internet and into direct marketing actually far pre-dates social media and even the World Wide Web.
Fact is, humans have always been wired to want to react to clickbait-like titles, so much so that newspaper editors, way back in the early 1900’s, were already using sensational headlines to convince people to buy their paper instead of the competitor’s rag. Screamers, as they were known back then, dominated the first pages of news sheets, enticing people to pull out their pennies and buy the paper. It’s even rumored that the Spanish-American war was started by needlessly sensational headlines.
Why is clickbait still around?
There’s a reason clickbait has always existed. It’s because it works.
We don’t want it to work. Most of the time we know better than to click on links with vague hyperbolic headlines. And yet, we more often than not, succumb to temptation. At least when we’re scrolling through our Facebook and Twitter feeds. (Less so when we’re reading our emails, but more on that in a bit.) It’s frustrating to be so easily manipulated.
But clickbait still works because, unbeknownst to most, it has actually evolved over the years. 8-10 years ago, the odds of reading something in any way relevant to a headline titled “This woman went to the hospital for an ingrown toenail and you won’t believe what the doctors found!” were close to nil. Today, you’re more likely to be at least a little bit rewarded for your efforts.
Without realizing it, our brains are constantly learning. Every time we click on something and end up disappointed or irritated, we are training our brains to ignore similar links in the future. So it didn’t take long for actual clickbait to start being solidly ignored all around the Internet.
Headline writers had to evolve.
Post titles remained sensational, but the corresponding articles started to be a little more relevant.
It’s safe to assume that clickbait articles published today will be frivolous or silly, but at least nowadays, there’s usually some relevance to the headline and readers will be somewhat rewarded for clicking on the link.
Clickbait evolved from headlines that were consistently misleading or articles that under-delivered on the promises made, to headlines that were simply sensational or oblique in nature. Our expectations evolved in parallel.
So why doesn’t clickbait work as well in email or direct mail?
So, if clickbait has evolved to keep people engaged and clicking, how come studies have shown that clickbait-like subject lines in emails and on direct mail pieces don’t usually work?
Well, that has to do with the delicate inner-workings of the brain.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, no matter what we’re doing, our brains are busy collecting information about everything that is going on around us. We’re constantly internalizing data, processing it, and acting based on what we’ve analyzed. It’s simple heuristics; each experience we have shapes our future reactions or decisions.
When we see a clickbait link online, it’s not delivered in a vacuum. Usually we can see who has published the article, who has shared it, and who has liked it. Subconsciously that helps shape our decision about the outcome of clicking on the link.
When we receive an email with a clickbait-like subject line or a direct mail piece with a clickbait headline on the envelope, unless we have a previous relationship with the sender, those usual mitigating factors aren’t there to help us decide whether or not we should bother clicking or opening.
So we don’t.
Because our past experiences have taught us that more often than not, what we’re seeing is something that won’t be worth our time and effort.
The goal of direct response marketing is to generate an immediate response from consumers. So, in theory, that would mean that clickbait-like headlines and subject lines can be perfect for this form of marketing. The key lies in not forgetting that the Internet has taught us to become increasingly cynical and indifferent.
If you can craft headlines that immediately invoke an emotional reaction that prompts the reader to open your email or your mailer without disappointing them or insulting them when they see the inside contents, then you’ve won the game.
Next time you’re crafting an email, resist the urge to go for the low-hanging, overly clickbait-y subject line. Aim slightly higher and be sure to deliver on the promise. You’ll be rewarded by a higher open rate and much happier prospects or clients.