How you can retire on £200 a month (or how and why clickbait works)

Fi Shailes

Writeful | Content Writer & Strategist | Writing for B2B (SaaS, finservices, fintech) ✨

If you’ve reached this page from a link, you’ve probably just realised that the following post isn’t going to make you £200 richer.

This blog is really about clickbait. You’ve just experienced clickbait working. Just now. Right in front of your human eyes.

What is it? Where did it come from? Can we even nail why it works down, or is it a bit like trying to work out everything that sits in the Google Analytics bucket marked ‘direct traffic’?

What is it again?


noun. (On the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

Here’s a typical example of some clickbait:


Where did it come from?

It appears to have emerged as a recognised ‘mainstream’ term roughly around 2014.

Since then, it’s picked up a largely negative reputation, and has been associated closely with the whole ‘fake news’ phenomenon.

There’s a multitude of sites which allow ad plug-ins to piggy-back onto the bottom of their native content, or appear as a pop-up as someone scrolls down (just two examples of how it might disturb your browsing experience).

It’s been heavily linked to 1920’s copywriter John Caples, who worked in advertising. He was well-known for creating campaigns with ad copy which pulled you in with a simple (but alluring) statement.

Basically, clickbait and what it stands for, is nothing new – the basic concept has been around in offline advertising for god-knows how long.

Here’s an example of his work. This is an advert for a life insurance company from c.1927:

(Remember that link you clicked on just a minute ago…?)

How does clickbait work?

I’m still trying to work out the definitive answer to this, but there is existing research out there which offers some insight into why we’re so tempted to click on this stuff – from a psychological point of view.

In 2015, the MIT Technology Review published an article called ‘An Emerging Science of Clickbait’.

Here’s the opening line from the article, which sums up the fact that to know how to make clickbait work, is to know some kind of magical formula:

“In the world of internet marketing and clickbait, the secret of virality is analogous to the elixir of life or the alchemy that turns lead into gold. It exists as a kind of Holy Grail that many search for and few, if any, find.”

The article cites some research by a couple of chaps called Marco Guerini and Jacopo Staiano. These guys analysed a bunch of website data collected from two different sites, in an attempt to trace how virality of digital content is linked to the emotions of the viewer.

It’s a very interesting (if a little too academic for the likes of me) piece of research ‘Deep Feelings: A Massive Cross-Lingual Study on the Relation between Emotions and Virality’.

The main headline from their research is that there’s a clear link between virality and particular combinations of the following three aspects of an emotional reaction:

1. Valence (the meaning: as used in psychology, especially in discussing emotions, means the intrinsic attractiveness/”good”-ness (positive valence) or averseness/”bad”-ness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation)

2. Arousal (how much does this stir something up inside of us, which causes us to act?)

3. Dominance (how in control we feel whilst we’re reading the content)

So there’s that – in terms of the ‘how does it work?’ – but from all that I’ve read on the subject to date, it seems we’re still waiting for someone to explain all aspects of it fully.

In the meantime, many have been able to identify trends and patterns the usage of words and the sentence compositions used in clickbait.

Recognise any of these?

“You won’t believe this ________”

“____________will restore your faith in humanity”

“____ reasons why ________”

(…And if you wanted to read more about the most commonly-used types of clickbait headlines, Brad Smith’s excellent blog on the topic is worth a look)

So does clickbait work?

In a word:


And whilst it might have started as something rather clunky-looking; patched onto the bottom, sides and middles of websites, it’s a content-promoting device so effective that sites like Buzzfeed have actually adopted the look and feel of it as a native option for promoting their own ‘related’ content (i.e. rather than it driving traffic out to sites elsewhere).

It’s so effective that Facebook decided to start clamping down on it.

Even if the stats for clickbait clicks go through the roof at Marketing HQ, the quality and value of the content at the end of that link is always what will count most.

Marketers thinking of adopting this practice must ask themselves; is disposable content (typical of what clickbait features) really going to convert visitors in some way, or will they bounce straight off the site, and into a black hole.


6th November 2018


Nice article. I’ve been fascinated by clickbait, how it’s so appealing to consumers, but is dissed by copywriters, for some time. As you say, entire sites like Buzzfeed (or Outbrain) thrive on it. But it also comes down to what you say after the hyperbole that got someone there in the first place. To pull it off you’ve got to be really good, and not many clickbait authors are.

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