3 Things to Keep in Mind When Clicking on a Story

Figure out if you can trust publications, sources, reporters and more

Journalist holding a clipboard, text bubble over his head being cut with scissors by a hand
Clickbait isn't everything. There needs to be more of a follow up when vetting content.
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Editor’s note: Industry consultant Shelly Palmer is taking his popular newsletter and turning it into an Adweek article once per week in an ongoing column titled “Think About This.”

The need to amass the largest, highest quality (classified and categorized to achieve your specific goals) audience is not reserved for for-profit media outlets. The job of all content is to be seen, and anyone who creates content—which is now everyone—is in a never-ending battle for everyone else’s attention.

Whether it’s because of schadenfreude, morbid curiosity or simple human nature, the journalistic trope “If it bleeds, it leads” never disappoints. Disaster stories always gather a bigger audience than fair and balanced who, what, where, when, why reporting. And because anyone who creates content—which, again, is now everyone—is in a never-ending battle for everyone else’s attention, understanding not just which outlet, but which reporter, is a trusted source becomes an object lesson in media literacy.

From the reader’s point of view, there is a dramatic misalignment of incentives and outcomes, as media-buying and planning tools don’t do a very good job of qualitative content differentiation. Quality has never been a measure of popularity, and popularity has certainly never been a measure of quality. So, while the media industry writ large will argue the point that a click is a click is a click, a media buyer’s spreadsheet only cares about the number—impression, pageview, etc.—not the accuracy of the story.

Whether it’s because of schadenfreude, morbid curiosity or simple human nature, the journalistic trope “If it bleeds, it leads” never disappoints.

So what’s real and what’s fake? As we are all victims of clickbait and sensationalist headlines, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some techniques that are commonly used to get your attention. These three journalistic practices should make you question the veracity every piece of content you consume.

Clickbait is everything

For content to be consumed, it needs to be clicked. That means we’re training everyone to craft the most clickable, sensationalist, irresistible headlines possible.

It’s easy to write a clickbait title. Pick a subject then add some keywords from time-tested clickbait: amazing, announcing, bargain, challenge, compare, easy, hurry, improvement, introducing, magic, miracle, offer, quick, remarkable, revolutionary, sensational, startling, suddenly, wanted. For example: “Warning: New Cookie Law Means 92% of All Websites Are Now Illegal, Including Yours.”

Want to really have some clickbait fun? Hold a listicle headline contest in your office. Start with a crazy example like “9 Ways to Bounce a Quarter Off Kim Kardashian’s Butt,” and see where it goes. The results will make you laugh—until you realize that they are all super-valid and would probably do better than the titles you usually post.

Pit readers against one another

Got a great clickbait title? Excellent! Now, split your audience in half and pit them against one another. Are you with us or against us? This technique all but guarantees you will win the Twitter war your article is sure to start.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pick an issue guaranteed to enrage your opposition.
  2. Figure out how to make the issue truly binary, no matter how nuanced or subtle it is. You’re with us or against us.
  3. Craft a barrage of strategically related antifragile messages (marketers, pay attention here).
  4. Keep the chaos going. Brand safety? We don’t need no stinkin’ brand safety! More tweets, more related enraging issues. More, more, more. Keep repeating the first four steps.
  5. Enjoy the increase in followers, virality and the size of the community of like-minded people that has self-assembled around you.

Blanket your readers in comfort

Now that you’ve drawn readers in with a clickbait title and pitted them against one another, blanket them in the comfort of the information they want to hear. It doesn’t take a five-paragraph essay; you can do it in 300–450 words.

  1. State your thesis in the topic sentence (make sure it has your clickbait keywords in it).
  2. Reinforce your main point with a supporting sentence that confirms your readers’ bias.
  3. Add a few more supporting sentences crafted to bounce around the echo chamber you’ve created or tapped into.
  4. Profit from your effort.

The better you are at fitting your content to the ethos, pathos and logos of an echo chamber, the more successful you will be. It’s worse for the world but way better for your bottom line.

What about trust and truth?

In the age of algorithms, if keywords match the bucket a mathematical model has put you in, you’re going to be offered that content. The algorithms do nothing to check the facts or the accuracy of the content. In a world where news, opinions and commentary are routinely mixed, how would you even approach the issue? Notwithstanding big tech and the government’s efforts, this is unlikely to change in all but the most obvious cases.

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