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Should You Use Clickbait to Get People to Read Your Stuff?

Couple years ago I wrote a piece called, “How I Built My Business Without a Website.” Right before it was set to publish, the editors changed the headline to “Why You Don’t Need a Website To Build A Successful Business.” 

It’s an objectively better headline. 

It’s also a lie. 

Technically, this is called “clickbait.” It’s a type of headline engineered for clicks over accuracy. Like a “bait and switch,” where you promise one thing, but deliver something else. Which is exactly what their headline did to my piece. 

You click to get the “silver bullet,” but end up with my unglamorous true story of hard work and embarrassing public failure.

I felt conflicted about it and let the editors know and they were like, “Yeah, we don’t really care.” So that was fun. But it did raise my ethical red flag and got me wondering when and how clickbait should be used. 

I shared my conflict in some private groups with other marketers and one guy wrote this:

“Do you want people to read the article or not?” Facebook Comment, August 2017

This is what experts call “a fundamental misunderstanding of how marketing works.” And, since I’m an expert, I’m going to explain why.

Yes, the role of the headline in an ad is to get you to read the first line. All copy is intended to thrust you forward into the text.

But clickbait doesn’t do that. 

To quote the master himself, Eugene Schwartz, on page 15 of his seminal book Breakthrough Advertising, “It’s the copywriter’s job to force the prospect to read his client’s full story – not just a skimmed version of it.” 

Clickbait does the opposite as evidenced by all of you routinely emailing me about how no one reads anymore. And your persistent (unfounded) arguments for short form copy

Where do you think the myth of the shortened attention span came from? FROM CLICKBAIT.

You can only drink out of a firehose of hype and sensationalism for so long before you go, “meh, I get the gist.” It’s literally the opposite of what a headline is supposed to be designed to do. 

Headline: Sentence engineered to entice you to read

Clickbait: Headline engineered to entice you to click

When you bait-and-switch your audience too often, they get acclimated to it and stop paying attention, stop trusting you, and stop reading your shit. Which is exactly what’s happened.

Anyway, I made the good sense decision to engage with the troll and here’s what he said: 

"You're like thousands of writer's before you - you hate the headline."
“You’re like thousands of writer’s before you – you hate the headline.” Facebook Comment, August 2017

We’re going to ignore his “not an art project” jab and skip to the more pressing issue: defending my honor.

I freaking LOVE headlines. 

Anyone who’s taken my workshop or had the misfortune of hearing me speak publicly knows I am truly madly deeply in love with headlines. I love headlines the way Steve Carell loves lamp.

I make my students fall in love with them and my husband endure lectures on them. I battle it out publicly with Hillary on them. I’ve studied headlines for years, which is why I can state unequivocally: 

You don’t have to be deceptive with your headline for it to work. 

It’s not ethically ambiguous. It’s not ambiguous at all. Don’t lie. Don’t consciously mislead. You want your headline to work: tell the truth. 

Ogilvy said that the most effective headlines “promise the reader a benefit.” If that benefit turns out to be false, how exactly are you going to sell more of your product?

Yes, yes, I hear you, “But Margo, everyone knows you have to exaggerate your claims.” Nope. No, you don’t. Make better shit or find a better claim. Again, if you’re resorting to lies the market is going to catch up with you.

Put another way:

In a seller’s market, you can lie. In a buyer’s market, you can’t pull that shit.


Thanks to the internet, we’re in a buyer’s market from now until the end of time. Caveat Venditor FTW. 

(Ok I have no idea if it’s till the end of time and would love to hear an argument on how we might head back to caveat emptor, please and thank you. But for now, it’s #caveatvenditorforlyfe).

You can try and lie and deceive and “trick people into reading your stuff,” but as we’ve now learned, you can only trick us into clicking you cannot trick us into reading

If you want conversions, sales, or any kind of success with your marketing, appeal to those who read and buy things, not those who click, skim, and bail.  

Ok so, back to the main question: is it ok to use clickbait?

I mean, I guess if you want to make people dumber and angrier and you don’t care about sales, then yes, go for it. 

If you want to compel them to take action and trust you, then no. Grow a pair of ovaries and do the hard work of writing and testing headlines that tell the truth.

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