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When does popular content become clickbait?

Writing this, I was often distracted by tempting clickbait headlines that I knew I mustn’t click on! Or I might go down a rabbit hole that would lead to misleading, sensationalist or simply fake news stories. 

This is why clickbait's a problem. As Sarah Kemp, vice president external communications and marketing at vehicle financing platform Moove says: “Clickbait does not have a positive place in PR. Despite its ability to increase awareness, there are serious implications when it comes to trust. If a reader clicks on a story and feels misled, they are unlikely to trust future headlines relating to the brand in question. This creates a 'boy who cried wolf' scenario, whereby readers do not trust, which in turn has a negative impact on reputation. As PR professionals, we all know how hard a reputation is to build, and how quickly it can be shattered.”

However, not all attention-grabbing headlines lead to discreditable stories. Here PRs describe how to create popular features with cracking headlines that get noticed for all the right reasons.

Keep on with the good work!

Lesley Pert, senior account director at integrated marketing agency tigerbond: “The word clickbait is shrouded in negative connotations - sensationalism, exaggeration, fake news - so if you’re purposely using this tactic for engagement, your strategy is flawed. First impressions count, so don’t irritate your audience.

“Consider also that directing your audience to web pages that are irrelevant or low quality will increase bounce rate and reduce engagement metrics for a website. The result? A poorer experience in Google’s eyes and potential diminishing of SEO ranking positions.

“I’ve seen the term ‘good clickbait’ used to describe attention-grabbing headlines and engaging copy. That’s not new - it’s what good PRs and journalists have been doing for years - so if you’re using the word clickbait to describe good content, it’s time to ditch it from your vocabulary. Keep the focus on producing brilliant copy and that’s all you need.”

Think creatively

Zach Cutler, co-founder and CEO of the fully accessible PR technology platform Propel PRM: “A popular feature becomes clickbait when it’s been overpitched, overused, and there’s no real substance to it beyond getting journalists to open an email or get a click on a link that’s 99% fluff. To prevent this, PR creators need a deep understanding of their organisation's industry and its challenges to write interesting content that truly adds to the conversation. They should be able to think creatively or use genAI tools to come up with good, factual headlines that interest and intrigue the right kinds of readers for whatever their campaign is looking for. Writing clickbait is a great way to diminish the credibility of whatever organisation a PR represents as it portrays them as not being a serious player in their industry. As communications professionals, it’s our job to add to the corpus of knowledge in the world, not increase the amount of fluff.” 

Avoid sensationalism

Beth Turner, head of PR at PR agency ilk Agency: "It can be tempting as PRs to issue a clickbait story to journalists, in the hope it will pique journalist interest and persuade them to read it.

"But clickbait PR is unprofessional, misleading and lazy. Our role is to pitch relevant, accurate stories to journalists in a clear and concise way. Our content should speak for itself without the need for clickbait titles that differ to the actual story you're pitching. Doing this can damage PRs’ relationships with journalists and lead to a lack of trust, meaning they are more likely to ignore your pitches in the future.

"That's not to say there aren't ways you can incorporate clickbait tactics into 'good' PR, though. A curiosity-piquing email subject line can entice journalists to read your content - if the story does relate to the title. Avoid sensationalism and ensure the story you’re telling is related to your pitch.”

Imagine your dream headline

Claudia Jones, senior account executive at PR agency Words + Pixels: "As the way people consume news has moved online, with more and more regional newspapers struggling to stay afloat, it’s no surprise that headlines are becoming increasingly sensationalist to grab a reader's attention in a crowded market. 

Whilst clickbait suggests a headline that doesn’t deliver its promise to the reader, there is a lot we can learn from the articles journalists are writing to drive eyeballs and SEO clout in mainstream media titles. However, when it comes to brand activations and campaigns, we need to be mindful of their reputation and that the headlines we’re looking to generate not only drive the clicks, but live up to the expectations when it comes to the content. 

I always find it helpful to start any media activation by researching and imagining a dream headline, and then working backwards."

Be accurate

Lauren Richardson, senior account executive at agency Marketing Signals: “Headlines are very important for getting people to read your content and whilst you do need to make them interesting, you should avoid misleading people. If you’re regularly using clickbait as a tactic, especially in PR, you risk losing trust if you’re continually providing visitors with content that fails to live up to its promises. And if you use it with your subject lines to get journalists to open your emails - this can actually damage your reputation and relationship with them, making it less likely for them to read your emails in future. 

“The main problem with clickbait is that if you’re having to use it to draw people in - the content is usually far less exciting or valuable than what you’ve promised with the headline. If the content was interesting and engaging enough - you wouldn’t have to mislead people to encourage views. Personally, I do avoid using it where possible, and instead work on crafting engaging, SEO-friendly and accurate headlines that genuinely reflect the content underneath.”

Not all clickbait is bad

Leanne Coppock, PR consultant at freelance agency Search etc.: “Clickbait has become an integral part of driving engagement for online newspaper publishers, whether for better or worse. Clickbait is best employed when the headline itself is true to the story it leads to. For journalists and PRs it is so important to not feed into fake news creation, there is a moral line between using headlines to create interest whilst staying honest, to creating a headline that misrepresents the wider content to entice readers to engage.

“Journalists in 2023 are under increasing pressure to create content which engages audiences which can lead to some outlets taking more creative licence with clickbait then others. I believe if correctly used click bait doesn’t have to be a bad thing necessarily. A compelling headline which sums up what a story is going to tell you can be useful to readers to decide if they want to spend the time reading a piece of content. As long as clickbait isn’t used to further harmful perceptions of minority groups, push stereotypes or create misinformation then it can be a helpful thing for both the publisher and the reader.”

Maybe not all clickbait is to be avoided, but it is still better to resist those horribly tempting headlines and instead read interesting articles that actually inform. There are plenty to choose from at PRmoment here!

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