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Six Weird Secrets Your Business Can Learn From Clickbait (Number Six Will Make You Jump For Joy)

Clickbait is ridiculously effective at drawing in readers to blogs and news sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. But what can the rest of us learn from this most unexpected phenomenon?

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Clickbait is ridiculously effective at drawing in readers to blogs and news sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. But what can the rest of us learn from this most unexpected phenomenon?

Opinions

Six Weird Secrets Your Business Can Learn From Clickbait (Number Six Will Make You Jump For Joy)

Clickbait is ridiculously effective at drawing in readers to blogs and news sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. But what can the rest of us learn from this most unexpected phenomenon?

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The chances are you’re feeling it right now. You knew my headline was manipulating your basest instincts to want to learn secrets, you were probably even resenting me a bit for pulling such a cheap stunt, but dammit you wanted to click anyway.

These pesky headlines, unleashed on the world by sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, have spread everywhere in the last couple of years. As a writer, I love them. I love their outrageousness.

I love that the best of them are simultaneously stupid and profound (‘The reason your fridge door is magnetic is pretty horrifying’). I love that even as they’re manipulating you, they’re essentially smiling and saying ‘hey, look how I’m manipulating you!’.

And I love the fact that they’ve got everyone talking about how writing affects us as readers.

Businesses can learn a lot about language from them. And, well, because this is an article about clickbait, we have to do this as a listicle, don’t we?

1. Words are emotional

The lure of clickbait is universal. We simply cannot help being drawn in. That’s because as readers we’re primed to look for stories, for human interest, for gossip and secrets. Now, I’m not saying businesses should start writing everything as clickbait (would you trust an annual report that started ‘The five weird reasons our share price tanked this year: number four will appall you!’?).

But for many businesses, even just acknowledging that all writing elicits an emotional reaction would be a start. Because usually the emotional reaction they’re eliciting is boredom. Or frustration. Or indifference.

Blimey, even baby steps like writing about yourself in the first person instead of the third would be a start for some companies. (‘We’d like to tell you about our new product’, rather than ‘Widget Corp would like to tell you…’)

2. Words can make you distinctive

Buzzfeed has become mega famous – and mega copied – because of the style of its headlines. There are other brands which are well-known for the way they write too: Innocent drinks (silly), First Direct (smart), Virgin (cocky), O2 (simple). Your business could do the same by defining its tone of voice. And the brilliant thing is that you can then use it everywhere – from your homepage to your terms and conditions.

3. Small words can have big effects

The most startling fact about clickbait is just how astonishingly effective they are. When Buzzfeed experimented with rewriting ‘normal’ headlines, they found that they weren’t just a few per cent or even a few hundred percent more effective. They were off-the-scale, slam dunk, in a different stratosphere effective. (It’s common for them to attract more than 10m unique users every day.)

At The Writer, we find this effect all the time. A few weeks ago we rewrote some mandatory regulation letters for a client to send out to their customers. They told us that based on previous experience, a 5 per cent response rate would be a success.

Our letters got a 46 per cent response rate. Another client of ours realised they’d saved over £6 million on call centre handling times just by shortening and simplifying one single script their advisors read out. Another halved calls from confused customers by making their website clearer.

I’m giving these examples not to say ‘hey, look what great work we did’ – but that in every case, our clients had massively under-estimated what difference changing their words could make.

4. We need to talk about language more

I love the fact that clickbait has got many more people talking about how language works. If only more people in companies talked more to each other about their own writing. Usually, they don’t. Often, marketing and legal are in a stand-off over some bit of writing that’s stuck in sign-off hell.

Or else comms teams feel they’re operating under the shadow of a regulator who ‘makes us say things a certain way’.

We spend a fair bit of time at The Writer being a sort of linguistic marriage guidance counsellor – bringing teams together to help them negotiate about a bit of writing. And almost every time, we find that both sides want the same thing – it’s just that they haven’t got an agreed way of talking about language.

Here’s a massively helpful tip: when talking about a bit of writing, divide up your thoughts into ‘content: what you say’, and ‘tone: how you say it’. You’ll then be most of the way towards avoiding confusion.

5. Words that work are hard to write

We all know this. We know it most of all at 2am when we’re still struggling to find the right words for that damn PowerPoint slide. Yet, like hangovers or childbirth, we seem to quickly forget. Upworthy know it takes time to get a great headline.

That’s why they make all their writers write 20 headlines for each article. The first lot will be obvious, then they’ll start to get better, but it’s only when you’re at 18, 19 and 20 that you’ll start coming up with something fresh. Writing well is hard. There are no shortcuts. Give yourself and your teams proper time – or it’ll show.

6. But everyone can do this

A glance at the hashtag ‘clickbaitbooks’ (where people are rewriting the titles of famous works of literature as clickbait headlines) will give you some idea of just how many people have brilliantly mastered the art of clickbait. (This boy had a letter delivered by owl. What was in it shocked his family and changed his life forever.)

The same can be true of all writing.

And what with email, Word, PowerPoint, blogs and social media all making up a big chunk of our working lives, everyone’s a writer now. Yet most businesses don’t teach people how to get better at this essential skill, which is bonkers, because it doesn’t take much.

We run lots of workshops for our clients, who find they can transform the way they write after just a few hours in one of our sessions.

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Six Weird Secrets Your Business Can Learn From Clickbait (Number Six Will Make You Jump For Joy)

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