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The art of the clickbait headline, and how the Independent won the Internet

Gareth Cartman

There used to be a time when nobody really read the Independent, apart from the odd Liberal Democrat.

Today, though, that’s a quite different story. They’re everywhere. For instance:

That’s quite clever. News + Cat = Clicks.

As many of the comments indicate, the Independent really has “got” this Internet thing, and its results are telling. Of all newspapers, at the back end of last year, The Independent was the one website that really gained ground. They increased traffic by 8% month-on-month to around 30 million unique visits.

Not bad.

It’s some way behind the Daily Mail which, much as sane people tend to disagree with its content, is still the most-visited newspaper website in the world. Indeed, it’s the Daily Mail that has led the way in defining exactly what success is in the online newspaper market:

  • lots of clicks = lots of impressions
  • lots of impressions = lots of advertising revenue

So what makes people click? How’s about this?

Go on, I bet you’re tempted, aren’t you? They got your attention with the first word, and they kept you reading the headline. They probably had you re-reading the headline just to make sure you understood it. And by then, you’ve probably clicked on it.

I sincerely believe that the clickbait headline is an art form of our times. Not a very high art form, but still an art form. The clickbait headline has subverted the old form of headline for the internet age, and it usually contains the words Kim and Kardashian.

In the future, historians will look back on this era either as the moment when everything changed, or a very weird blip.

At some point last year, the Independent quickly realised that it had to compete in this rather shouty, clickbaity online space. Which gives us the following:

These are not really headlines, in the true sense of the word. We come to expect a headline to summarise what we’re going to read, and to be gramatically correct. Today, they’re almost the start of a conversation. A large proportion of the Independent’s clickbait headlines are actually questions - again, a favourite trick of the Daily Mail (e.g. “Will Immigrants All Give Us Diseases?)

I made that one up. I think.

But the Independent has understood the nature of today’s distracted Internet user - who is looking for just that: distraction.

The ideal clickbait headline:

  • arouses your curiosity (e.g. with a question)
  • stirs your emotions (e.g. starting with “Now” - “Now Immigrants Will Steal Your Jobs AND Your Benefits”)
  • makes you read it twice (e.g. below)

Amber Horsburgh calls it the “Curiosity Gap”:

Curiosity gap = [rare, awesome or unique things] + [desirable outcome]

This is particularly relevant to sites such as Upworthy or Buzzfeed, who have perfected the art of clickbait headlines in a slightly different space. Effectively, it’s these guys that the Daily Mail and the Independent are trying to ape with their headlines. Upworthy may have lost 46% of their traffic through Facebook, but they’ve perfected the art of the clickable headline through rigorous A/B testing.

Upworthy love to play on their readers’ emotions. The curiosity gap here is huge:

Your emotions will be stirred by the “Food Stamp Fraud Dragon” - and no doubt your curiosity too - what on earth is a Food Stamp Fraud Dragon? Sounds awful. Awesome, even.

If you’re a regular Upworthy reader, you’ll no doubt know who Jon Stewart is - and you’ll know that the outcome of you watching this video is that you’ll laugh, because it’s “hilarious”.

This is classic Upworthy. And it’s not even their own content!

For our UK-based newspapers, the desirable outcome is often disgust, fury, anger (e.g. most of the Daily Mail’s EU or immigrant stories), fear (Now Even Breathing Gives You Cancer), and distraction (see above). Alain de Botton might have a point...

How to write your own clickbait headline

So you’re tired with blogging the same old way? Want to try a bit of clickbait? It doesn’t matter what you’ve written about, you can do it too.

Think about what, in your story, is unique or “awe-inspiring”. Let’s say, for instance, that you sell paving slabs. For you, paving slabs are unique or awe-inspiring, and if your audience is into paving slabs, they’ll no doubt agree.

Secondly, think about what emotion you want from your readers. It’s the combination of the two that makes a clickbait headline - you can have one without the other, and they may attract clicks from interested readers, but the two together are dynamite.

Are you trying to make them laugh? Then your headline could be:

OMG! You’ll never BELIEVE the colour of these paving slabs

Are you trying to make your readers really angry? Then your headline could be:

Now immigrants are stealing Taylor Swift’s paving slabs, trying to sell them on Ebay

Or are you trying to simply arouse curiosity? In which case, you could write:

Are these paving slabs just too dangerous?

Finally, remember that you’re not really writing for your readers, you’re writing for their social connections. You’re writing a headline that will get shared, and the more clickbaity it is, the more people will be attracted to it.

We are operating in a different space now. The headline has almost become the content - there are entire websites devoted to reporting on Daily Mail headlines. We’re operating in a more social environment, where newspapers derive a large chunk of their traffic from social media. The constant stream of messaging, content, advertising & news can be overwhelming, so the clickbait headline needs to compete with all of that.

I wouldn’t recommend we all start using clickbait headlines tomorrow, but mind the Curiosity Gap - it might just get you a few more clicks.