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Why clickbait works on you (and what can we learn from it?)

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

SEO copywriting services should know the difference between curiosity gap and clickbait

Stock image of the kind of warning sign clickbait titles should come with
Spoilers: number six may not, in fact, shock you

Clickbait headlines are annoying. On the one hand, they're almost always clearly nonsense. On the other...

Gosh darn it. Somehow, you always end up wanting to find out all “18 reasons why your life will never be as good as it used to be”.

But why does clickbait work?

Let's start from the top.

What is clickbait?

Clickbait refers to a snippet of text, headline, and most often a title image combination that compels the reader to click and read that content.

Specifically it means those which do so by taking advantage of something called the 'curiosity gap' (we'll get to that).

You know the type of headlines we're talking about here:

  • “These celebrities have all gotten fat and disgusting! Number six will horrify you...”

  • “This whale and this gymnast got into a truck. You'll never guess what happened next...”

  • “57 varieties of coloured beans you won't believe actually existed!”

Viewed all at once, these kinds of headlines seem ridiculous. But this model for writing intriguing titles is used in a whole lot of places these days.

Despite the general cloud it's usually viewed under, this is the case for one rather depressing reason:

It works.

Why does clickbait work?

Image of woman contemplating the mysteries of clickbait headlines
Do I really need to see 16 terrifying images of dental catastrophes? I think I do.

Clickbait is designed to exploit the aforementioned process in the workings of the human brain called the curiosity gap.

If the headline is worded in just such a way – even if the supposition or implications are outright nonsense – you feel uncomfortable not knowing the answer.

It's kind of similar to how ancient explorers ventured off into the unknown parts of the map labelled 'Here Be Dragons'.

Your brain wants you to bravely venture forth into the kinda obviously known by hitting up that clickbait headline and bridging the curiosity gap.

Weirdly, according to Stanford Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, the reward you get for doing this – a little dopamine hit in your brain – actually comes from the anticipation of there being something interesting in the article rather than reading the interesting fact itself.

Have you ever clicked on one of those “number six will shock you...” headlines and navigated through the horrendous content only to find that number six did not, in fact, do anything of the kind?

That's why you might not have been entirely upset by the process of finding out. It's all in the wind-up. Not the quality of the info hit.

It's also the reason why you'll probably do exactly the same thing next time.

Why is clickbait everywhere all of a sudden?

Image of old-timey couple discussing the merits of clickbait
'Hast thou seen image six in mine article?' - 'No, it is utter tomfoolery. Yet I feel I must peruse it...'

Clickbait headlines are still pretty much everywhere.

Perhaps not so obviously as they were in the 2013-15 period. But still pretty much quietly omnipresent.

Buzzfeed and Upworthy are probably the biggest sources, yet you see headlines that use similar sorts of tricks all over the place.

Their arrival, however, has certainly not been sudden:

Check out advertising from the Mad Men period. Or even before that, in the 1920s and 1930s. There are some great images collected in this history of clickbait article.

You can even look into the rise of Yellow Journalism in the late 1800s and see how that sort of sensationalism has led almost inexorably to where we are now.

(Sidenote: if you do and you then find yourself having a long, hard think about how weird it is that either Pulitzer or Hearst have prizes for journalistic excellence named after them, I believe that to be entirely natural.)

But if you get a little bit more modern (we're talking anywhere in the past fifty years), you will start to swear blind that someone inserted the text into some of those advertising images last week. The language used is almost identical.

Clickbait has been around well before you could actually physically click on anything.

Is clickbait bad?

Clickbait headlines are designed to exploit an emotional reflex in most human brains.

The goal, of course, is to maximise the amount of interaction certain pieces of content get. But wait a second...

As a marketer, business owner, or freelance copywriter charged with creating intriguing headlines, isn't that worryingly close to what we're trying to do anyway?

In short, are we the bad guys?

It's a fine line. But I would argue the defining difference between clickbait and a title that merely offers to bridge the curiosity gap comes down to this:

How much and how quickly the promise of the title is actually fulfilled by the content. Having a subject that has actual value to your reader doesn't hurt either.

For example, imagine a title that promises “This one weird trick will make you irresistible to your preferred type of sexual partner...”.

If the reader doesn't get a very clear answer as to what that “weird trick” is by the end of the article, then that is most assuredly clickbait.

If they get told in the first sentence that the answer is clearly that they should “grow a beard” and it's advertising some kind of beard-based product... well, that's more in the line of a factually questionable article.

It was probably designed to provoke humour. Your reader probably won't remember it as clickbait.

So what can we learn from clickbait? What makes a good headline?

As freelance content writers and general creative types, there are a few ideas we can borrow from the theories behind clickbait to create decent headlines that won't insult our readers:

  1. Aim for emotion – awe, humour, joy and amusement are best. But anger, surprise and empathy have been found to work a lot of the time too. Use power words like “terrible, amazing, lucky, fortune” if you can.

  2. Use urgency - indicating any kind of time limit or using phrases that sound urgent can help spur engagement.

  3. Go for intrigue but respect intelligence – feel free to use words like “secret” or “new” but make sure that is what you're providing.

  4. Ask a question - people's curiosity is always easiest to provoke when you ask a question in your heading.

  5. Answer the question – make sure that you answer that question - and that you do so properly. The quality of your content is king, as always.

Finally, don't rush it. Your headline is important. Take the time to get it right.

You might click on that clickbait. It might work on you. But it's worth remembering you won't respect anyone who has used the tactic on you.


Need some definitely-not-clickbait headlines for your website or blog?

Let's talk. The Maiden Standard has been providing friendly and supportive SEO copywriting services to businesses in Bristol and beyond for over ten years.

Contact me to get a free quote or just to chat about what you need. Zero commitment.


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