Your Online Audience Deserves Better Than a Stream of Clickbait

Cheap, eyeball-grabbing online content is good for traffic, but are traffic numbers really your goal? A new tool from Upworthy suggests that it's time to rethink the online metrics we use.

The internet needed a site like ClickHole.

The troll-tastic site, launched a few weeks ago by The Onion, waves a finger at the constant bait-and-switch that comes with reading content on the internet these days. You know the headlines—the ones that stretch the facts ever so slightly to make the story sound sexier, or that leave certain details out so you’ll click on the link and give the publisher a little ad mojo.

ClickHole has one and only one core belief: All web content deserves to go viral,” the site’s owners state in a tongue-in-cheek FAQ.

Many of the ClickHole stories have been downright fantastic, with headlines clearly meant to mock some of the dumber things showing up on our friends’ Facebook feeds.

Perhaps the best example is the recent story about Jeremy Meeks, a convicted felon whose arrest on weapons charges drew unexpected online attention due to his model-like looks. His story earned this spot-on ClickHole headline: “Are We Setting Unrealistic Standards of Beauty for Our Felons?

But while ClickHole is perhaps the most ambitious parody of the current culture of internet clickbait, it’s far from the first and likely won’t be the last. For example, RebelMouse Content Catalyst Jake Beckman has won a sizable internet fanbase for his single-serving Twitter @SavedYouAClick, which gives you the gist of a clickbaity story without requiring you to leave your Twitter feed. And last week, two Washingtonians were outed as the creators of a Twitter parody of the progressive site, offering a wink at the outlet’s tendency to play up conflict in every story.

Your Attention, Please

Why is online content so ripe for mockery these days? Easy: To a far higher degree than its print predecessors, online publishing is a numbers game, and headlines that leave out part of the story, make an outrageous claim, or try to pull at an emotion drive clicks and shares.

But are clicks really the best way to track content’s reach in the era of social? Ironically, one of the targets of ClickHole‘s wrath, the ethically minded online video site Upworthy, has an answer to that question: Of course not.

Last week, the company open-sourced a new analytics standard it calls “Attention Minutes,” a tool meant to allow site owners to track how long a user is staying on a site and whether they’re actively using it the whole time.

“The result is a fine-grained and unforgiving metric that tells us whether people are really engaged with our content or have moved on to the next thing,” the company writes on its blog.

You may get more hits from that Reddit surge, but they’ll be gone quicker than you can say “subscribe to our newsletter.”

The idea—which can let you know whether users are sticking on a tab or letting it linger in the background—is great, and a bit surprising coming from Upworthy, a company whose data-driven approach to headlines led to a backlash not too long ago. But in its own way, it’s a reminder that traffic isn’t everything. Nor should it be.

Drive Value, Not Traffic

For associations and nonprofits in particular, the growing reliance on content marketing to drum up interest and member engagement might make those traffic numbers seem way more important than they actually are. The problem is, traffic doesn’t represent the full value proposition. It could even backfire with the wrong approach.

Think about it this way: If you send out an email or tweet with a sharply worded headline, of course it’s going to get a lot of clicks. But a click can mean a lot of things. It can mean a wasted 10 seconds where the person on the other end of the equation is bored or grumpy. It can mean the reader was looking for something other than what you actually gave them.

Now, sure, it can also mean your readers are genuinely interested in an issue, but a click doesn’t say that on its own. A hit (or even a unique visitor!) is a limited metric without a good understanding of the mechanics behind it.

When it comes to content strategy, there needs to be an overarching goal beyond traffic. You need to ensure that you’re driving your business goals. You need to dig a step or two deeper to know whether your link is getting attention due to an email blast, a viral surge from Reddit, an organic surge on Facebook, or some solid long-tail traffic from Google. All lead to “traffic,” but each has a different kind of value to your organization. You may get more hits from that Reddit surge, but they’ll be gone quicker than you can say “subscribe to our newsletter.”

Now, Upworthy’s little trick isn’t everything, but it’s a start. It may not be enough to stop clickbait dead in its tracks, but (like my pal Joe Rominiecki recently pointed out using different subject matter) it might be a good wake-up call that metrics mean nothing without context.

And in case you need another one, this ClickHole video should do the trick.

The Onion's new clickbait parody, Clickhole, is not a site you want to emulate. (Clickhole screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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