How to avoid the clickbait trap – but still be noticed

How to avoid the clickbait trap – but still be noticed

At a time when there’s more online content than ever and a constant battle for eyeballs, clickbait is a fact of life. But between all the BuzzFeed hate and the alarming phenomenon that is fake news, an important distinction has been lost: not everything that compels you to click on it is clickbait.

The problem is that ‘clickbait’ has become a catch-all term for anything that’s working hard for your attention. In our rush to condemn anything with ‘top 10 tips’ in the headline, we’re forgetting that the media has been crafting clever headlines since day dot.

And here’s the thing – the fact that a headline is clever does not mean it’s dishonest. The best headlines are those that wow, shock, or intrigue you, and then actually deliver a story that’s worthy of all the fuss.

In science, the best-performing stories are always those big discoveries: the world firsts, the record-breakers, those once-in-a-lifetime events that make a researcher’s career. These stories sell themselves, but they’re rare. It’s everything in-between that’s jostling for a moment in the news cycle.

We’ve discussed in a previous edition the art of crafting a gripping headline.

It’s all about the golden trio:

  1. It’s emotional – it makes the reader feel something.
  2. It’s useful – it offers practical tips and advice.
  3. It’s dynamic – it promises something different from your average news story.

Master these three as part of your content strategy, and you’re guaranteed to draw in audiences.

But how do you create content that commands attention without looking like an Upworthy clone?

1. Convince yourself first that your story is worthy of everyone else’s time.

This rule is simple – if you’re not excited about the story, and if you don’t want to talk about it with your family and friends at the end of the day, then you shouldn’t be running it.

Of course, for anyone other than the media, that’s easier said than done because you don’t necessarily get to choose which research you’ll cover on any given day. You’re always going to get those stories that make you work just that little bit harder to tease out the ‘who cares?’ element.

It’s an exercise in finding the impact, so you may need to work more closely with your researchers to figure out why the average person (or member of your key audiences) would want to read about it.

If you don’t find the care factor, and you’re constantly publishing for publishing’s sake, audiences will learn to avoid you, because your content is not relevant or interesting to them. Audiences can go anywhere for their science news – don’t give them a reason to ignore yours.

Sometimes this means taking a more creative approach.

For example, you’ve got an uninspiring new species of cricket to write about, and you know your audience isn’t going to be particularly interested in it. Try something different – do some research and come up with a handful of weird new insects that have been discovered in recent months and announce your cricket as part of top 5 or top 10 story:

These 5 new insects reveal that nature is still full of secrets
These 10 incredible insects prove we’ve hit a new ‘age of discovery’

2. Never be dishonest or misleading, but don’t bog your headline down in details.

Everyone is on high alert over fake news these days, and for good reason. People are looking for transparency in the media and will walk if they’re not feeling it.

This means your headline has to share enough information with your readers to avoid the kind of ambiguity that can mislead or disappoint, while also leaving something big on the table to drive them to click.

And you’ve only got so many words.

This tug-of-war is further compounded by the fact that online news outlets have abandoned traditional ‘headlinese’ for actual sentence structure in their headlines, which means you need to stuff more words than ever before in a tight space.

This is where your ‘common sense meter’ comes into play. You can’t always guarantee 100% clarity in every headline, but you need to be able to defend the veracity and intended meaning of it.

True clickbait publications will be aware of ambiguous language being used in certain headlines and run with it, because getting people to click through only to be disappointed is better than them not clicking through at all.

If you want to avoid the clickbait trap, it means never making a claim – or giving the impression that you’re making a claim – that isn’t backed up by the facts in the story.

Which brings us to the words you use.

3. Use clever language to convey a lot with a little.

Here’s an example of how the use of language comes into play:

World-first artificial enzymes suggest life doesn’t need DNA or RNA

The word ‘suggest’ instantly flags to the readers that this is not definitive, that there is still a question mark. The key here is that we’re communicating that this is the beginning of the story, and that’s intriguing and exciting in itself, even if further research is still needed to confirm it.

Theoretical physicists suggest there’s a portal linking the Standard Model to dark physics

Again, it’s the beginning of something – a new idea has emerged, and these physicists might be on to something. But we’re not saying that they have done anything definitive just yet.

Watch what happens if you replace ‘suggest’ with ‘says’.

Theoretical physicists say there’s a portal linking the Standard Model to dark physics

The entire meaning of the story has shifted. It becomes misleading because ‘saying’ something is necessarily more definitive than ‘suggesting’ something.

Here’s another example. A hint is a clue, a suggestion, an inkling – not a fact:

Rumours fly as physicists hint at the first ever observations of gravitational waves

New map of dark matter spanning 10 million galaxies hints at a flaw in our physics

Science is full of maybes. It’s very difficult to prove something definitely in science, which is the whole point. Your headlines will often need to convey this uncertainty, without filling readers with so much doubt that they wonder why anyone’s writing (and reading) about it.

Have a look at these examples, which feel so on-the-fence and wishy-washy, they don’t give readers much of a reason to click through:

On-again, off-again relationships might be toxic for mental health

Soy diets might increase women’s bone strength

Listening to data could be the best way to track salmon migration

In the same vein, with the exception of ‘explainer’ content, questions as headlines are almost always a bad idea, because if you have to ask the question, it means you’re not going to be giving your readers any answers:

Could the Neolithic Revolution offer evidence of best ways to adapt to climate change?

Could omega-3 fatty acids help prevent miscarriages?

4. Use metrics to determine which topics and headlines perform best.

No one can know your audience better than you, but you’ve got to take the time to learn what they respond to.

This includes tracking Google Analytics data for each story, both in real time as soon as it’s published, and again in a week and a month to see how readership has progressed. Once you start looking at the best and worst performing stories, you’ll be able to pull out trends that will inform how you write your headlines and content in the future.

Universities and research institutes don’t typically write content that engages broad audiences because, for so long, they’ve been publishing for publishing’s sake, rather than taking the media’s approach to writing content that people actually want to read. If you decide to shake things up and try something new, you need to be aware of how your audiences are responding to it – both positively and negatively.

This means tackling responses on social media and deciding when to adjust what you’re doing.

This can be tricky, because it can be tempting to revert back to writing dull headlines that no one wants to read if you receive negative feedback. You need to be confident enough in your editorial standards that you don’t have to shift what you do as a knee-jerk reaction to someone on the internet.

Come up with a strategy within your organisation that allows you to take in and learn from negative feedback, without yo-yoing unnecessarily. If you’re following the rules discussed in this guide, you will have reason to stand by the content you’re producing.