It's all clickbait, and it always was

By: Rob Corbidge, 30 March 2023

Retro computer mouse attached to a fishing rod, stormy water

Producing popular content for your audience is the name of the game, so does that mean clickbait is a meaningless term?

Clickbait – A derogatory term for online content produced to attract clicks, often through catchy and sometimes misleading headlines

Tip: Many news organisations quietly welcome clickbait. But when delighting editors with clickbait, ensure you do not call your work clickbait.

The above insight masterfully defining the true nature of clickbait was the work of William Turvill of the UK Press Gazette and he's entirely correct. All the truth about much maligned clickbait is there in that pithy and honest definition, in an article filled with similar insight and much humour.

It's a source of great amusement at the higher levels of GPP, people I have worked with for a very long time and who now consider me their captive journalist and commentator, that my single greatest achievement in digital traffic generation was a story headlined "Stalin's Ape Army". 

Do you want to know more? Of course you do!

It was concerning a plan hatched by the aforementioned moustachioed Georgian strongman to crossbreed humans and apes to create an army of blindly-obedient super beings. It was a nailed-on lead story the moment my regular freelance journalist in Moscow stopped talking about the latest dull Kremlin comings and goings and said "Oh, there is this story in a Russian science magazine which might interest you...".

How could it not? Stalin, simian supersoldiers, and a plan for world domination are a match made in heaven! Those right there are some of the finest clickbait materials ever minted, which if combined produce that rarest of all things: the story you'd have to be dead not to read. 

And so it was. It got squillions of clicks, was followed up by other outlets and got them probably even more. My freelance colleague gained a few extra bylines and few extra payments to boot.

Shameless clickbaitery in action. 

My man in Moscow was - and still is - a highly skilled and very knowledgeable war crimes reporter. That's his specialisation. Guess what? "Stalin's Ape Army" paid for some serious work he wanted to do, and it also raised his profile as a journalist who whatever his professional specialisation simply "knew a good story", which made it easier to push some of his more challenging work.

Clickbait takes many forms in our digital world. It was with little surprise that I learned that YouTube's outrageously successful Mr Beast employs a six person thumbnail team. Those thumbnails? Bait.

In the worst form, clickbait is formulaic - such as the advertorials found at the bottom of many sites - which is where it can become wearisome. Once a particular clickbait format formula is unlocked it will inevitably become overused and end up disappointing the audience.

Such format formulas were until fairly recently in common use to increase the stickiness of weaker content. Happily, they are less common now.

Yet outside of such chicanery, clickbait is also the thing you are interested in. If aquariums are your thing for example, then content highlighting a new low maintenance filter could be your clickbait. It is down to the content to convince you of its worth, not the headline or thumbnail - they are just the carnival barker. 

So the snobbishness around clickbait comes from the audiences' impression that there has been an intention to mislead. Sometimes there is. However, if someone keeps going back to a site that gives them misleading content and a disappointed feeling, there is a simple fix for that: don't go.

It's all clickbait and it always was, even when it was in Cuneiform. Publishers are involved in the creation of things to interest people, and must find a way to get them interested. There's no shame in that. Bait away Stalin!