Is Clickbait Really the Problem?

Is there an ethical conflict between journalism and the rise of native ads, or is the only real difference between clickbait and good content what people are willing to share?

Native advertising is a current reality in the digital media world. This new media advertorial content has become de rigeur among digital publications that make millions creating viral content for audiences hungry for information.

But is there an ethical conflict in what some call a bait and switch, or is the only real difference between clickbait and good content what people are willing to share?

According to Emerson Spartz, CEO of Spartz Media, which runs the digital properties and OMG Facts:

You can trick people into clicking a link; you can’t trick them into sharing it.

Spartz argues that most engagement metrics are easy to manipulate, but people will only share what they believe is good content. He defines clickbait as headlines that over-promise on content that doesn’t deliver.

According to Vonetta Logan, TastyTrade correspondent and host of Nailed It!, a show where she breaks down complex business issues, clickbait is even more insidious than poor quality content. In a video about the impact of clickbait on journalism, Logan takes aim at aggregators and the proliferation of advertorial content, calling it a “clickbait and switch.”

[Native ads] trick the reader into thinking they’re actual news. Until you see the fine print in the corner that says ‘Sponsored Content,’ you think you’re reading an actual news article. There needs to be a separation between church and state, between the business and editorial sides of the new media business.

Logan argues that clickbait is confusing audiences who take content at face value and share advertorials they might not share if they knew who was really behind the content. In the same way oil companies funding environmental research should raise red flags, Logan’s video questions the credibility of publications taking money while essentially tricking people into thinking an advertisement is piece of editorial content.

But is it really the responsibility of publications to adhere to the high-minded ideal of journalism? Or are readers responsible for discerning between advertorial and informative, news content?

As The Next Web contributor Mic Wright points out, viral content and clickbait seems to be a resilient product in the commodity news business. Wright acknowledges all of the reasons to hate new media publishers like BuzzFeed with a caveat:

The easy slam in the modern media landscape is to roll your eyes at BuzzFeed and write off the arguably overvalued publisher as a net negative. But that’s a lazy assessment of its influence.

Wright dismisses the assertion that digital media companies aren’t “creating interesting, exciting new ways of doing journalism.” Indeed, the media landscape has always been a tug-o-war between high minded ideals and the business of selling audiences.

And audiences continue to prove themselves happy to gobble up content, whether it’s branded or not. In the end, consumer demand is what will shape the market and both brands and digital publishers will do their best to deliver content that drives traffic, clicks and shares.