Newsflash: Clickbait Beats Real News

So much for making an honest buck the old fashioned way. Teenagers in Macedonia have cashed in on the Trump craze by creating sensationalist but false news articles and then sharing them virally on social media. By all accounts, this was a lucrative arrangement, with some top performers grossing $10,000 per month from AdSense revenue.

From the perspective of the educated elite, it can be disheartening that people are dumber than before, so much so that they believe what they read. For these people, the more outrageous the news, the more clicks and donations are generated. Real news by contrast just doesn’t have the same appeal.

However, on this site here we are politically agnostic. So what’s the take home message from the success of fake news? Sensationalism sells (by generating clicks and eyeballs, and get shared virally due to the outrage they generate). In contrast, bland and boring rarely gets one very far. You know what else sells? Sex. Just take a look at the average Yahoo news article. A cursory glance at the sidebar shows the following ads:

  • She Hid the Truth Until This Photo Appeared (black/white photo of a half naked actress)
  • She Didn’t Notice And The Fans Began to Cheer (photo of skimpy female sports player on the ground)
  • McKayla Maroney is Completely Unrecognizeable Today (photo of young gymnast smiling)
  • United Airlines Furious After Crew Revealed This (flattering angle shot of smiling flight attendant, emphasizing her smile, figures, and tights)
  • Jim Cramer: Homeowners Must Move Fast On Rebate (photo of a shrugging Jim Cramer)
  • It May Be the End of Social Security (RIP tombstone of Social Security)
  • Federal “Mortgage Payback” Goes Into Effect Today (businessman in a suit)

The overriding theme is: how to make easy money, pictures of skimpy women, and threats of easy money being taken away. Empirically, this is what the audience is interested in. Does this erode trust in institutions and authority? Are businesses promoting bad behaviour by appealing to base instincts, or are they simply catering to their customers? You decide.

Regardless of your opinion on the ethics of this type of advertising, the conclusion that we may draw here is that targeted sensationalist messaging can really enhance revenue. As the successful fake news sites can attest, this can be a self-contained business idea in itself. For example, if you’re unscrupulous, you can start a website (for very low cost) aimed at exposing the truth behind prescription drugs and how natural remedies are so much better. Then write fake news articles with studies showing how ___ vitamin beats a common prescription drug for ___ common diagnosis. You can throw in there a few snippets or quotes from prestigious doctors. Then add another article about how there is a mainstream medical conspiracy trying to cover up these cheap cures. Then advertise with sensationalist message on Yahoo (so desperate for revenue they are that they can’t afford to cut off clickbait, unlike Google and Facebook).

Shifting gears, if we want to be a bit more ethical, we can still adopt this style of marketing but still maintain our integrity by posting well-researched articles grounded in reality. Look at the most successful personal finance bloggers and travel bloggers out there today:

  • Young Adventuress – young attractive female living life of leisure
  • Mr Money Mustache – outrageous claims of financial independence early
  • Legal Nomads – young attractive female living life of leisure
  • Nomadic Matt – I live a leisurely life of travel at a young age, and you can too

All of them employ clickbait tactics in some aspect. The female bloggers may not realize it, but the fact that they are young attractive females contributes significantly to their readership.

The technique is yours. Whether you use it for good or ill is up to you.

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