The term ‘clickbait’ is getting a lot of prominence at the moment. It’s little wonder, when the likes of Buzzfeed are attracting 10m unique users each and every day. An Econsultancy blog post recently talked about the subject of clickbaiting at great length, making some very worthwhile and valid points.


The post talked about constructing a heading to intrigue, which in turn generates click shares, which in turn increases its reach. It also highlighted how many publishers of this ilk are arguably focused on quantity, rather than quality. All of this is correct, but there is one point that seems to be missed from this debate about ‘clickbait’.

Before we start, let’s just clear up what people mean when they use the term ‘clickbait’. Typically, these are the headlines that fill your social media feed, usually in the guise of “This assortment of gifs will literally blow your mind”. It’s the typical ‘list’ format article that has massively grown in prominence in recent years, with leading headlines that are designed, purely and simply, to generate intrigue.

But is this actually ‘clickbait’, or is it just good writing?

We’ve been here before.

Clever headlines are nothing new. The printed media has had more than a century head-start on the likes of Buzzfeed. From its very first edition, which led with “Good Morning! Yes, it’s time for a new newspaper”, through to “Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious”, The Sun has always had this down to a fine art. Using catchy headlines, amongst a sea of other publications, to get people to part with their hard-earned is what made it the country's biggest selling daily newspaper.

Another thing that isn’t particularly new is content that is designed, purely and simply, to grab attention. From PR execs to ‘shock jocks’, people have been putting out bold statements for as long as there has been a medium to make them.

So why do we now have this new term? Shouldn’t headlines in The Sun be called “pick-up-and-hand-over-20p-bait”? Is the success of certain publications down to silly headlines, or is there much more to it?

Know your audience inside out.

‘Clickbait’ isn’t what has made Buzzfeed and other traffic-hungry sites successful, but it is a by-product of what makes them successful.

In the aforementioned blog that inspired these thoughts, there is one word that is surprisingly missing. It’s the word “audience”. It’s a word that underpins every single facet of content marketing and, without it, publishers have nothing.

Buzzfeed’s success isn’t down to its ability to make funny lists with clever headlines. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Instead, it is down to its fundamental knowledge about the audience it is trying to attract. It knows exactly who reads its content, what they like, and how they like to get it.


At MIPCOM last year, BuzzFeed president and COO Jon Steinberg said: “We feel strongly that traditional media have given up on young people, and have not made a commitment to tell stories that are interesting for people under 40 or 50 years old.”

He went on to add that an emphasis on SEO “allowed people to write very boring news that was aggregated and unoriginal, and that doesn’t work well on social.

“The most important thing you can do is to think to yourself ‘why would somebody share this content?’ And that’s very high-quality content.”

Buzzfeed doesn’t care about SEO, it cares about virility because that’s what its audience cares about. It knows it has a young audience, one with typically short attention spans, that wants content in an easily digestible format and on a platform that is already a part of their daily lives. The silly headline or the funny gifs aren’t the reason for its success – it’s the understanding of the audience that is.

The Daily Mail is equally adept at this. As far as a comparison of the publication goes, the Mail and Buzzfeed couldn’t be further apart. The audience is different, the political leaning is different, their prominence is different, their article style is different and their core purpose is different.

But the formula is the same. Content that gets to the heart of what their audience wants, content that presses their buttons and content that provokes a reaction. The only difference is that in Buzzfeed’s case, it’s a positive reaction whilst in the Mail’s, it’s usually a negative one.

Clickbait isn’t a convention, it isn't photos of cats with very wordy headlines, it’s just blooming good writing.