A Guy Gets Fed Up With Outrageous Clickbait Headlines… You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next!

Dear Advertisers and Publishers,

We need to talk.

Over the last year or two, the degree to which you have pushed the limits of hyperbole in the name of “social sharing” and CTR is truly incredible. However, it’s time to bring it to an end.

Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, UpWorthy, Outbrain, Taboola… I’m looking at you.

The technology and insight that is feeding these content strategies is impressive to say the least.

The insight teams that many of these publishers have built, the processes in place, and the optimisation of these sensational headlines to create content that will deliver on any number of KPIs (from shares, likes and CTR) is truly impressive. As far as advertising effectiveness goes, I tip my hat to you!

The fact that there are now self-optimising tools that will display links to other articles that are contextually relevant, targeted on demographics and behaviours, and that will learn and overtime display the most “successful” variant with the perfect assembly of over-the-top adjectives whilst creating a true sense of suspense is genuinely no small feat.

I am 100% on board with all of the above in theory, but I’m begging you to do better.

The headlines have seriously got to go. It’s like a cheap parlour trick to get a user to click on something and it’s gotten to the point that it makes me feel a bit sick every time I see one. I’m writing this plea because I believe most of you are better than this and we’ve now surpassed the “diminishing marginal returns” stage of the conversation.

Forget about EdgeRank, Earned media value, and something as simplistic as CTR for a moment – and think about your long term credibility as a publisher. In some instances these headlines may actually begin to erode the the brand value of the publisher.

Yesterday was the first time in my life that I saw a “news” article shared in my feed that I really wanted to read but refused to click it because of the headline. Do I want to see “26 Majestic Dogs Who Totally Redefine Perfection”? You bet I do. But you know what else would work, a trusted source of cute images with a link to “26 Adorable Dog Photos”.

Headlines like these need to stop, the user backlash is coming. Just look at some of these headlines and the “leading” stories in the native advertising space.*




Boston Marathon


buzzfeed are you kidding me

Users everywhere – please think twice before clicking on these headlines.

Whether or not you’re aware, you are teaching our machine overlords (yes they actually learn) that we like this sort of thing. The next time you see an article that you really think looks interesting but has an absurd headline, please do your part and don’t click on it. Avoid the self-fulfilling trap.

The more clicks these outrageous headlines get, the more they will fill your social media feed… and before you know it, your whole life will become the sidebar of shame.



The good news is, that because many of these editorial teams and the technology and advertising providers are so advanced, they will learn from the decay in effectiveness with hyperbolic headlines. Heck, there are regular updates about what keywords drive the most engagement, so they’re obviously examining what works and what doesn’t.

If users lose interest and stop clicking through and sharing this sort of drivel, the algorithms and teams will learn and get better – which is great news for us all.

If we consider the decay in effectiveness of “traditional” display campaigns we can think of these headlines as the the annoying blinking banners to the new native advertising/owned and earned landscape.

The technology and the publisher strategies are there to move on from this and users will eventually develop a sort of “banner blindness” to hyperbole and hopefully  the response will be more intelligent targeting rather than “higher impact” headlines.

That is… if we can stop ourselves from clicking on those darned adorable puppies in spite of the outrageous call to action.

As always (but I’ll say it again), the thoughts above are my own and do not represent the views of my employer or anyone else. This is my personal blog.

*Hat-tip to @BrentHodgson for sharing this one


  1. Sam i totally agree with you, i myself tend to never click these kind of links, although on the inside i am dying to see the content. But nowadays all these links tend to seem like bait, and i dislike the idea of being a fish in one giant pond.
    Thumbs up for your post, hope your voice reaches everyone!

    • Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no issue at all with the contextual side and think platforms like Outbrain and other native opportunities are positively brilliant – I’m a big advocate for the opportunities they create for advertisers.

      I do, however, think that the clickbait side of the equation will have a limited lifespan and it will call publisher credibility into consideration if it carries on the direction it is currently moving.

  2. Dear god THANK YOU for writing this. I was on the cusp of doing it but I think you did it more justice.

    I think a key point is that at the start the titles were mysterious and the content was awesome! Now more and more I’m seeing mysterious click bait titles that just lead to disappointing content. As more people catch on more and more terrible content is hiding behind clever clickbait.

    I honestly do think though that even without being told to stop clicking people are going to hit a wall of clickbait fatigue and it will all disappear as quickly as it arrived.

    If not then I’m never telling anyone what my job is again for fear of being bottled in the pub.

  3. Yeah, I’m getting really sick of the headlines that don’t say anything. Especially when you know it heads to a “landing page” where you have to click a second time to get to the article. Or the waste of time “slide shows” where one slide is a picture, and the next is text.

    If I really want to see the article, I don’t click on it, I just search for it on google. I actually cringe when I see ……paid.outbrain.com…..on my status bar in the browser.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Terms & Conditions