Why advertisers should avoid clickbait in the post-truth era

Do truth and authenticity still appeal to consumers who have grown accustomed to clickbait and false promises?

‘Post truth’ is a term that has become synonymous with 2016. From politics and the rise of real-time fact-checking sites to verify claims made in the US presidential election, to social media and clickbait culture that lures people in without always having the goods to back it up.

Digital Spy editor-in-chief Julian Linley believes this shift towards post truth poses a significant problem for brands.

Speaking at the Festival of Marketing, which took place on 5 to 6 October, he said: “It’s complicated as currently advertisers reward numbers, not engagement. Page views are valued more than the depth of engagement. That’s the opposite of the way that it should be because you can easily engage millions of people with clickbait content, but it’s really hard to then make people stay there for any length of time.”

In his opinion, authentic and engaging content is far more rewarding for advertisers than sensationalised clickbait.

“I think about the way I feel when I consume that [sensationalised] content and I don’t feel very good about myself afterwards. I’m not sure I want my consumer to feel that way about my brand and as an advertiser I’m not sure I would want my brand to sit alongside that content,” he added.

READ MORE: The top takeaways from L’ Oreal, Amnesty and Digital Spy at Festival of Marketing

Although clickbait may play into the need to serve programmatic targets by virtue of the fact it generates more page views, meaning a greater number of ads are served, Linley advised brands to look long term.

“I would prefer to see advertisers taking a risk and spending more money on engagement than page views because people believe the content they consume, as they’re spending more time with it.”

Views versus engagement

Bauer Media digital creative director Hannah Rouch acknowledges that while views will always be an important metric, brands need to focus on deeper engagement to make a difference.

“If you’re looking for scale, Google is great, but not for that same level of connection and insight. If an advertiser comes to a publisher, we’re perfectly positioned to create a deep connection with the audience.

“Brands need to look at why they want to work with a publisher and use different metrics because of it. Authentic content invites the audience in and creates a lasting relationship.”

Despite the fact the golden rule of journalism is finding a killer headline to hook the readers’ attention, Rouch says content producers should think twice before crossing the line into clickbait. Instead, she believes all content – whether useful, inspiring or entertaining – has to prioritise engagement.

“If the headline is there just to get a click, then it can lead to destination disappointment and a lack of trust.”

Hannah Rouch, digital creative director, Bauer Media

“We are very much focused on the user and audience insight to keep our readers front of mind. We couple that with our editorial instinct to capture their interest without misleading them and delivering on what we promise. If the headline is there just to get a click, it can lead to destination disappointment and a lack of trust,” she adds.

Chief marketing officer at Archant publishing group, Will Hattam, sees the brand-damaging implications associated with chasing page views.

“Intentionally deceiving your audience for the sake of a page view not only damages the website itself, but also damages the trust and relationships that advertisers have built up with the media,” he says.

Aiming to attract a large, loyal, local audience, Archant has found that time spent per article positively correlates with the number of repeat visits. However, Hattam believes there is no single metric to define the success of a piece of content.

“Rather than exclusively reporting on the number of page views a piece of content receives, publishers are frequently building their own engagement metrics in order to support their content strategies.

“These engagement metrics can cover a variety of factors and allow publishers to focus on what matters most to them, whether that be dwell time, social shares or number of ad impressions served.”

Sharing economy

At BuzzFeed, shares are a far more valuable measure of success than clicks or impressions, explains chief marketing and creative officer Frank Cooper.

“If you think about it, the reason authenticity is important is people trust people who are true to themselves. Similarly, people trust things that are shared by their friends and family, so to me that has so much more value for a publisher than a view.

“For a brand it’s particularly important. Two-thirds of purchases are made of things recommended by friends and family. So the share is one of the most valuable [measures] for a piece of content, much more than a view and certainly much more than an impression.”

Since the start of 2015, BuzzFeed has doubled its UK editorial team, contributing to a global team of 200 reporters in 11 countries, producing 600 pieces of content a day. Moving beyond the listicles that made the site’s name, BuzzFeed now offers a mixture of news, videos, longer form content and in-depth investigations.

This editorial mix is designed to cater for BuzzFeed’s 75% millennial audience (34% male, 66% female). The global network receives over seven billion monthly content views, while the UK site receives more than 12 million unique monthly views. During the past 28 days, 111 million people globally visited its UK Facebook page.

Speaking at BuzzFeed UK’s Digital Upfront event (17 October) UK editor-in-chief Janine Gibson explained that readers trust BuzzFeed because her reporters relate to them and what they care about.

“It can take 200 years to build up trust in a brand or it can be something you do by being in the place, listening every day and reporting in an honest and faithful way. It feels organic, so they trust us,” she said.

Cooper agrees that the tone of voice has to be authentic, unvarnished and empathetic to engage people, compared with clickbait which tricks the audience with a false promise.

Talking to Marketing Week, he said: “We want to integrate our content into experiences that people want. Does it feel organic on our platform, does it add value to the user experience, is it worth their time?

“When you think about clickbait, it’s bait. You’re attracting people under a certain premise and once they get there you give them something else. You’re tricking the audience and we never want to be in that situation.”

Think smarter, work faster

Liam Harrington Unilad
Liam Harrington, CEO at Unilad thinks clickbait can lead the reader to refreshing and rewarding content.

With close to 20 million likes on Facebook, Unilad has taken content on social media to the next level in a bid to reach as many people as fast as possible. Content lives and dies on the news feed says CEO and co-founder Liam Harrington, who told an audience at DigitasLBi NewFront event (14 October) that if a post does not gain the right traction within the first two minutes, it is pulled.

Standing out on the news feed is the aim of the game, a reason why Harrington is happy with clickbait as long as it is done right and leads the reader to refreshing and rewarding content.

Talking to Marketing Week, he said: “I usually say if the content you’re leading them into is not benefitting their life in any way and they’re not gaining anything from that content, then you’re lying to them. If you’re doing the whole ‘you’ll never believe what happens next…’ and nothing happens, that’s a massive cock up on your behalf and it won’t benefit you in terms of engagement.

“That will be backtracked through the social systems and they will see that someone has gone onto your website and come off straight away, and that will affect where you sit on the timeline.”

READ MORE: Unilad CEO: Marketers will lose younger audiences unless they ‘stop being so stubborn’

Harrington does not underestimate his audience, who can see through what he calls “the bullshit”. Therefore content producers need to be very clear about exactly why they are publishing an article.

“You need clicks to keep the business going, but you also need the journalistic integrity to say ‘I’m putting up this piece of content about Katie Price so I can engage an audience and I can then throw something authentic at them and they’ll read that as well’.”

Unilad head of partnerships Matt Ford sees the need for content producers to work smarter with advertisers and emphasise their user engagement. “Whether they engage for 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds or 120 seconds – you go to an advertiser and say we have an engaged audience, who do you want to serve your ads to?

“The brief could be display or programmatic, but it might actually be better for us to create a video for them and post that to our Facebook page because it’s going to drive a million views, rather than buying X million impressions on our website, which will deliver X clicks.”

As ad units become more compelling, the emphasis is on ensuring the content can compete in terms of creativity and engagement, says Harrington.

“In-article video ads are great, but they’re very risky because you could be scrolling down reading and then suddenly you see a bit of creative you like and you watch that advert and don’t read the rest of the article.”

Instead, Harrington sees the need to find a middle ground between clicks and figures, arguing that he would walk away from any advertiser who forces Unilad to run an advert that takes the user away from his site.

Content and the ‘post-truth’ age

Post-Brexit, Mashable UK editor Anne-Marie Tomchak says Britain has entered an era of post-truth politics where ideas and emotions are stronger than fact, which is a real challenge for content producers.

“One of the biggest challenges for publishers and broadcasters is this idea of accuracy, verification and fact,” said Tomchak, speaking at DigitasLBi NewFront.

“There is massive pressure on content creators to get content out there, but there is also a growing need for slower, more reflective and considered content our readers will crave. There is pressure to say something better and original while you do that, otherwise it just becomes a cesspool of meaningless, unidentifiable content.”

Huffington Post UK editor-in-chief Stephen Hull acknowledges the inherent responsibility of news to be properly researched and true, or very quickly journalists risk alienating readers.

“For the industry, clickbait is essentially content which serves no purpose other than to grow any audience at any cost.”

Stephen Hull, editor-in-chief, Huffington Post UK

“Consumers are super savvy and know more than ever what they want from content. They can see through clickbait behaviour instantly,” he says.

“Our mission is to inspire and empower readers, as well as inform and entertain them. Producing stories that don’t achieve this mission doesn’t make sense. For the industry, clickbait is essentially content which serves no purpose other than to grow any audience at any cost.”

Huffington Post’s editorial team aims to set the agenda by covering topics readers care about in responsible, thoughtful and thought-provoking ways, which is why the publication attracts more than 12 million unique users in the UK and more than 180 million globally each month.

“We would never jeopardise the trust our audiences put in our editorial – that comes first and it’s not for sale. Quality journalism is central to our culture, especially with the rise of the ‘post-fact’ era that we have seen in a number of recent political campaigns at home and abroad.”

As clickbait becomes dated and disappointing, advertisers that want to retain brand credibility will need to think twice about chasing clicks and views, opting instead to work with content producers who offer deep engagement.

The brand view on clickbait and engagement

Neil Costello, head of marketing at mobile-only Atom Bank, believes the way a brand defines its KPIs makes a big difference to whether it is attracted to clickbait content.

“If you’re looking for brand awareness as a metric, the only way is scale and if you’re at an organisation where that is a KPI, it can be tempting to go down the clickbait route,” he says.

“Sensationalism will still exist and some brands will be drawn to it, but clickbait is getting old and it fails to live up to the hype.”

Instead, Costello firmly believes consumers care about truth and authenticity, which is why Atom Bank uses its marketing to drive engagement.

“We are more concerned about the authenticity of content and we don’t want to rely on clickbait channels to build trust in our brand. It can be brand damaging and erode trust, especially as consumers often associate clickbait-heavy sites with malware and scams.

“Instead, we are focused on retention and storytelling, and we know attracting more followers is not necessarily the answer. It’s all about building engagement and trust.”

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