How to Cut Through Clickbait Headlines: 6 Techniques from a Real Writer

How to Cut Through Clickbait Headlines: 6 Techniques from a Real Writer

Today on the Write Blog, we have a guest blog by staff expert writer Randi.
The whole point of content marketing is to add value to people’s lives.
Instead of shouting “buy this!” over and over, content lets you inform, educate, and entertain your audience.
That’s why content marketing generates 3x more leads than traditional marketing but costs 62% less.
That’s also why clickbait headlines are such a problem: They chip away at an organization’s authority and trustworthiness. In other words, the complete opposite of what you want your content marketing to accomplish.
At the same time, your headline is what gets people to click and actually read your content.
Us writers must constantly walk a fine line between engaging headlines and sensational clickbait headlines. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy or simple.
BUT, over the years I’ve spent writing for Express Writers and running an indie news website, I have developed some techniques to optimize headlines for engagement while steering clear of baseless sensationalism. Let’s get into what those are so you can steer clear in these perilous online times, too.
How to cut through clickbait headlines

6 Techniques from a Real Writer to Cut Through Clickbait Headlines

What Are Clickbait Headlines?

1. Shy Away from Superlatives

2. Only Link to Credible Sources

3. Don’t “Forget” Key Facts

4. Make Sure Your Copy Lives Up to the Headline

5. Lay off the CAPS LOCK and !s

6. Only Cover Topics in Your Wheelhouse

Clickbait headlines chip away your organization’s trustworthiness. In other words, the complete *opposite* of what you want your content marketing to accomplish. Learn how to avoid clickbait content via an @ExpWriters top writer, Randi 🔥 Click To Tweet

What Are Clickbait Headlines, Anyway?

Ask five people what clickbait is, and you’ll get five different definitions. Here’s a snapshot of what I consider clickbait headlines:

  • Intentionally misleading
  • Leave out key facts that would change the message of the article
  • Sensationalize otherwise mundane content
  • Don’t match the content inside the article
  • Fear monger or exploit tragedies

Clickbait headlines are: 1) Intentionally misleading. 2) Factually incomplete. 3) Sensational. 4) Mismatched with the content in the article. 5) Fear-mongering or exploitative. ❌ Click To Tweet
Even some of the most reputable mainstream outlets are guilty of running clickbait headlines occasionally.
A study by researchers from the University of Mississippi and University of Oklahoma revealed that over 47% of mainstream digital news articles qualify as clickbait. They found clickbait among the likes of The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Hey, it happens.
But relying on clickbait is like taking a Motrin for a broken arm: It’s not a sustainable solution. Here’s why.

  • Clickbait headlines aren’t targeted or personalized.
  • They skyrocket your bounce rate.
  • Clickbait shatters your credibility and authority.
  • Google will kill your rankings if you publish clickbait.
  • Facebook could ban or even remove your page for routinely sharing clickbait.

Relying on clickbait is like taking a Motrin for a broken arm: It’s not a sustainable solution. Why? 1) Clickbait isn't targeted or personalized. 2) It skyrockets your bounce rate. Learn more: Click To Tweet
clickbait headline example

Source: Reddit

People don’t like clickbait headlines because they insult their intelligence.
Clickbait also reduces individual people to insignificant clicks. 84% of people say the key to winning their business is treating them like a human being – not just another number.
Clickbait does the opposite of that.
Here’s a bit of good news: A large majority of all marketers already prioritize fact checking.
92% of marketers fact-check content

Source: Content Marketing Institute

6 Strategies to Avoid Clickbait Headlines and Focus on Facts

Yes, you CAN write engaging, intriguing, and interesting headlines without resorting to clickbait.
6 techniques to avoid clickbait headlines
What can you do to cut through clickbait headlines? ✂ EW writer @randinord shares 6 key strategies to start using right now for better results: Click To Tweet

1. Shy Away from Superlatives

“Lose 15 Pounds in a Week – Guaranteed”
“The Best Phone You’ll Ever Use”
It’s tough to use superlatives – especially in your headlines – without exaggerating or bending the truth.
Sure, pepper them into your writing where you can add context. But your headlines? Not a great idea.
Resist the urge to use superlatives and swap them out for power words instead. Power words help you write emotionally charged headlines with a lower risk of misleading your readers.
What are power words, you ask? Jon Morrow at Smart Blogger sums it up pretty nicely:

Power words are persuasive, descriptive words that trigger a positive or negative emotional response. They can make us feel scared, encouraged, aroused, angry, greedy, safe, or curious. Authors, copywriters, and content marketers use “power words” to spice up their content and compel audiences to take action.

Here’s a handy list of power words courtesy of CoSchedule:
power words for writing emotional headlines

2. Only Link to Credible Sources

There’s a reason fact checkers and researchers make upwards of $20 an hour – it’s a tedious and time-consuming job.
It’s also one reason skilled copywriters charge what seems like so much for their work. Copywriters have to double as fact checkers to make sure the content they produce is accurate.
Avoid clickbait headlines by fact-checking
In the eyes of Google, linking to websites with a low Alexa score is important for rankings. A low Alexa score tells you a website is popular.
HOWEVER, popular ≠ credible.
For example, neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer has a low Alexa ranking of about 58k at the time of writing this. (Y I K E S) Still, you’d want to avoid linking to The Daily Stormer in your content at all costs because it would decimate your reputation.
Any time you mention a statistic (which you should do often), you should link to the original source. Sometimes an original source won’t have a low Alexa ranking. That’s fine.
It gets funky because what qualifies as “credible” isn’t easy to pin down.
Reuters, for example, is generally considered a super credible source. However, Reuters also likes to base entire articles around quotes from anonymous sources.
I wouldn’t call that credible. Would you?
It all boils down to being mindful about who and what you’re linking to.

3. Don’t “Forget” Key Facts

Sometimes clickbait headlines aren’t about what they do say but rather what they don’t say.
“You Won’t Believe What Doctors are Saying about COVID-19”
Probably nothing interesting or useful.
“Use This One Trick to Fix Your Eyesight”
Let me guess: eat carrots?
clickbait headline on Vice

Source: Vice

Uh, promise of what? The real kicker: This Vice article is less than 200 words. A big nothing burger designed for social media shares based on the headline alone.
Mirror clickbait headline example

Source: Mirror

Just. Y I K E S.
Avoiding clickbait headlines gets tricky though.
On one hand, you want to intrigue your readers. On the other hand, you don’t want to literally bait them into clicking a link.
Sometimes, leaving a single word out of your headline is enough to change the entire meaning. The word “reportedly” goes a long way when you’re dealing with unproven claims or speculation, for instance.
I like to pick out one staggering or enticing fact from my writing and let it speak for itself as a headline.
Avoiding clickbait headlines
Hot tip to avoid clickbait headlines, #3 : @randinord says adding the word 'reportedly' helps clarify meaning when you’re dealing with unproven claims or speculation. Click To Tweet

4. Make Sure Your Copy Lives Up to the Headline’s Promise

The ultimate clickbait headlines are just completely misleading.
These guys take one – true – fact completely out of context or spin it for shock value in the headline.
Anytime I see a headline about “outrage” on social media, I click the link and discover the entire article is based around a tweet with less than a dozen reactions.
Not exactly outrage, huh?
But it’s not just news outlets writing misleading headlines. Plenty of professional blogs write misleading headlines too just to earn a few clicks.
Your headline is a promise.
As Nielsen Norman Group says,

Any broken promise, large or small, chips away at trust and credibility. The words in a link label make a strong suggestion about the page that is being linked to. The destination page should fulfill what the anchor text promises.

This means we must do our best to avoid exaggerating our headlines.
The best writers know how to make seemingly mundane topics interesting without resorting to sensationalism.

5. Lay Off the CAPS LOCK and !!!s

Writing in ALL CAPS comes off as aggressive.
Email service providers generally flag subject lines in all caps as spam. We should assume that Google and Facebook frown upon them too.
But it isn’t enough to simply avoid typing the entire headline in caps. You should also avoid using caps lock to add emphasis to certain words.
Daily Mail is a big fan of choosing random words to emphasize with all caps.
This Jezebel writer even compiled some of the “best” ones into an entire article:
Daily Mail clickbait headlines with caps
Likewise, it’s also important to steer clear of exclamation points.
Instead, use descriptive words to trigger emotions and emphasize different concepts in your headlines.
Adjectives and power words are your friends.
Hot tip to avoid clickbait headlines, #5 : @randinord says Lay off the CAPS and !!! - Instead, use descriptive words to trigger emotions and emphasize concepts. Think adjectives & power words. Click To Tweet

6. Only Cover Topics in Your Wheelhouse

If you run a business selling HVAC services, you wouldn’t publish a blog post about weight loss, right?
Of course not. It wouldn’t make any sense.
But topic choice is also important for avoiding clickbait headlines.
For example, everyone is publishing content on coronavirus right now. How you relate it to your brand makes all the difference.
An HVAC business might want to publish an article about what they’re doing to help customers during the pandemic. It might also be a smart idea to publish a blog post about tips for keeping indoor air quality healthy.
Every organization is an expert on certain topics. Others? Not so much.
Step too far outside your topic wheelhouse and people will start to wonder about your intentions.
“Are they just publishing this content to cash in on the traffic?”
“Do they really know much about this topic?”
No matter how hot or trendy a topic may seem, it’s not worth writing about if it doesn’t fit into your expertise.

Need More Info on How to Write Headlines?

Check out Julia’s YouTube video: How To Write a Headline that Earn More Clicks & ReadsDitch the Annoying Clickbait Headlines for Quality Content
Are you having an aha moment where you just realized you might have been running clickbait headlines?
Don’t beat yourself up.
Dust your blog off and move on.
Just focus on the needs and mind of your audience. Once you do that, writing interesting yet authentic headlines gets a lot easier.
Need well-researched content with engaging non-clickbait headlines? Check out the Content Shop for expert industry content.
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