Bait and switch: winning the war on clickbait

January 8th, 2018

Facebook’s latest algorithm change targets cheap grabs at engagement

‘Like this if you’re an Aries’. ‘Tag a mate who this reminds you of’. ‘Share with 10 friends for a chance to win’. These are all staples (with variations) that we’re well used to seeing.

It’s a simple enough Facebook strategy. The more engagement your page receives, the more prominent your posts become, the better your brand visibility.

But that’s about to change. Facebook has announced the latest tweak to its ever-mutating algorithm.

New rules will see such posts, dubbed ‘engagement bait’, demoted down users’ news feeds. Whether posted by individuals or by businesses, Facebook will punish such social media content in a bid to attract what it calls “more authentic engagement”.

In other words, that massive social media activity you’ve been jealously seeing from other brands? It’s cheating.

False engagement

This latest move is part of the same drive that has seen Facebook crack down on clickbait.

In May 2017, the company put through an update that reduced the presence of stories from sources that continually posted headlines withholding or exaggerating information. Fair enough, you might say. Too little too late, you might add.

But what’s interesting is how quickly the tide has turned against such techniques.

Five years ago, the strategy of teasing people into clicks through tantalising headlines would be seen as smart digital-first thinking. Where BuzzFeed led, many others followed. Now, however, it’s an irritation and undermines a brand’s entire content output.

Which begs the question: what’s next? What will be the next social strategy that is cast aside as off-limits and cheap?

What to avoid

  1. LinkedIn inspiring stories. Typically they start on some variation of ‘Two years ago I lost my job.’ Always double-spaced, always self-promoting, never as inspiring as they promise to be. Let’s call them sentiment bait.
  2. Twitter posts starting with ‘THREAD’. The character limitations have already been doubled, so if you need 24 tweets to talk about a topic, the content probably shouldn’t be on Twitter.
  3. Cat memes for the sake of cat memes. That is, sticking a standard internet trope on to your brand’s content because that’s what the internet is supposedly all about. It looks desperate and – worse – achingly out of touch.

How to avoid it

Figuring out the tone and references that best engage an audience on the right platform can be a bit of a minefield. But there are ways of making sure you’re ahead of the game.

  1. Keep your ear to the ground. If you want to make sure your social posts cut through the noise, you need to listen to all of it. If you’re not deeply familiar with the tropes, trends and topics of your chosen platform then you risk exposing your brand as a social novice.
  2. An editor is not enough. Any successful content campaign will have a skilled editor at the helm. But that job description is no longer wide enough. An editor is now a content strategist, writer and project manager with a solid grounding in insight and SEO. (And if they’re not, they need some training.)
  3. Judge a book by its cover. It’s a sad-but-true fact that the necessity to be more descriptive with headlines means we have lost the art of the pun headline, at least on digital platforms anyway. Your headline should be succinct, descriptive and with just enough intrigue to entice people into clicking… but without flouting Facebook’s new clickbait regulations, of course.

It would be nice to consider the content engagement race as that of the hare versus the tortoise. Steady, informative content eventually winning out over the quick dash of engagement-snaring tactics.

More accurately, those quick-win tactics can’t be entirely ignored. Stretching the analogy accordingly, you need the agility of the hare combined with the solid reliability of the tortoise.

But for now, Facebook’s attempts to create a more authentic environment can be welcomed as a small win for authentic, informative content. Comment ‘yes’ if you agree.

James Sullivan, Deputy Editor, Progressive Content

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