Is journalism under attack from killer clickbait magnet headlines?

Anyone with young kids has magnet words stuck to their fridge. Sometimes the kids even use them to make sentences.

It appears they are also being used to create headlines. The only difference is the children’s version takes more work.

Anyone who has looked at a news website’s Taboola or Outbrain section has seen headlines such as:

3 incredibly explicit ads that would be banned today

In traditional journalism, headlines like these break all sorts of rules. Notably, the use of a number at the beginning and the word ‘incredibly’.

The rules have changed.

Magnet headlines are simply sensationalised strings of words in which you fill in the gaps. Incidentally, they are also given this description because they pull in clicks.

Here you have:

  1. The secret [insert word] is simply to [insert word]
  2. The revolutionary new [insert word] the world’s [insert word] use
  3. [insert number] secret [insert word] that will [insert word] now!

As if by magic they become…

  1. The secret to becoming a millionaire is simply to use the right words
  2. The revolutionary new fighting techniques the world’s toughest cops use
  3. 21 secret power tools that will build up your business, free up your time and put more money in your pocket now!

Recyclable journalism.

Headlines have a job to do

Traditionally, print headlines had two jobs to do. Draw in the reader and, more importantly, fit the space.

The latter meant the challenge was to explain as much about the story in the most economical way. Additional issues were created with line breaks and impartiality.

This way of working still largely holds true. But it is under threat.

Headlines evolved in this way because (usually) the reader had already invested in a copy of the publication in question. The fight for their attention wasn’t so great.

Not just to tell the story

With many blogs built around a pay-per-click model, the headline is there to get that click. Whether it represents the story or not is largely irrelevant.

Again going back to traditional rules, the use of a question mark in the headline (such as the one at the top of this piece) would not be used. Why? Because invariably it can be answered with a no.

In Ryan Holiday’s excellent book Trust Me, I’m Lying, the former director of communications for American Apparel explains how question marks are used to push stories that are untrue.

He quotes Gawker founder Nick Denton:

“You set up the mystery and explain it after the link. Some analysis shows a question brings twice the response of an emphatic exclamation point.”

Holiday goes on to add:

“When you take away the question mark, it usually turns their headline into a lie. The reason bloggers like to use them is because it lets them get away with a false statement that no one can criticise.”

Back to the question

So is traditional journalism under attack from killer clickbait headlines? No, not really. And not while there is print journalism.

Yet, rather like the moon pulls the tides, there is evidence that journalism is being affected as more traffic comes in via external channels.

Content marketing that needs to go out there and fight for clicks may well need to be more clickbaity. If you’re not getting traffic this may be why.

But, if you’re a quality brand with a good audience who are willingly visiting your site, you don’t need to go down that route.

It depends on the reader, of course. If they grow to expect ‘insert word’ headlines, maybe the headline should be…

Reader attacked by killer clickbait magnet headlines. Note the lack of a question mark.

Is journalism under attack from killer clickbait magnet headlines? is part of Content24, the blog for London content marketing agency FirstWord.