Clickbait - I can't believe I've said this!

Let’s start the New Year with something exciting - a question from a reader of this blog! Actually not really a question but more of a topic suggestion, he writes “One about clickbait and how dishonourable it’s use is? Such as claiming you’re broke, when you’re not. Or claiming you’re sinking in a lock, when in fact you’re going down in a lock as per usual.”


I’ll get the confessions out of the way nice and early; Have I used clickbait titles and clickbait thumbnails to try and get views? Absolutely yes. Hands up. Guilty as charged. I know that makes some people a bit cross (they let me know so in the comments) and I’m going to try to convince you that clickbait isn’t always such a bad thing. But first let’s define what exactly we’re talking about.


A quick Google search gives this definition of clickbait: “content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page” - which sounds reasonable enough, there’s a lot of content on the internet and in order for that content to be seen it’s natural that it would have to compete for our attention. But as we’re about to find out, there’s clickbait, and then there’s bad clickbait.


I don’t think it was always this way. Maybe ten or twenty years ago the internet was more about forums and chatrooms and blog pages, which acted like funnels directing the user to content on certain topics; if you were interested in politics you might have ‘hungout’ in certain politics forums and read politics blogs. Content was contained and categorised and internet users could ‘surf the web’ and explore their interests and choose what they wanted to see more of. If you were a blogger or video-maker in those early days of the internet you might not have had to worry so much about attention-grabbing titles because your audience was already there anyway, or at least they knew how to find you, or were trying to find you.


The internet has changed since then, and now users don’t really ‘surf’, they sit, while platforms like Youtube parade endless options in front of them. Somewhere along the line The Algorithm was born and it learned to read our minds and found it can keep our attentions for longer if it shows us more than just what we think we’re interested in. Enter clickbait. Because now, content creators aren’t speaking directly to a dedicated audience, they’re competing for attention on platforms which constantly offer up endless alternatives.


Imagine walking past a theatre and reading the sign in lights which says “One Night Only: A Lecture on the Science of Space Travel” and you say to your friend “I quite like science and space travel, I’m going to attend that lecture” to which your friend replies “I’m not into that, I like musicals, so I’m going to pop to the cinema and watch Singing in the Rain”… That’s how the internet used to work.


Now imagine the same street but this time all the venue owners have passed the responsibility of gaining audience attention on to the performers themselves, so now instead of signs in lights, everyone’s running around waving their arms and saying “come and watch my show - You’ll never guess what happens in the end!” Another one promises to tell you the “7 signs of ageing”. Gene Kelly’s dancing around with an umbrella trying his best. Before you know it you’re sat in a building (a theatre, cinema, circus? - they all look alike these days) watching what sounded like an educational film about spaceships, but which turns out to be a man eating his way through a mountain of hotdogs. Welcome to the internet, and to your first experience of ‘bad clickbait’.


Bad clickbait happens when the content doesn’t fulfil the promise of its title and thumbnail. It’s bad when a video called “7 Signs of Ageing” doesn’t tell you what the 7 signs are, or when a video pretends to be a news report shock story about a “narrowboat sinking in a lock” and turns out to be a 20 minute vlog about some narrowboaters going down a lock as per usual.


In my time as an attention-seeking YouTuber, I’ve made mistakes with clickbait. An early foray into the dark art of marketing a video involved a thumbnail image of myself pumping water out of our boat with the text “FLOODING our boat!” written across it, accompanied by the title “BAILING OUT and bolting on: Finishing touches to our narrowboat” I think we were hoping the capital letters would make it stand out, and the drama of a possible flood would make people keen to watch the video and find out what happened. Unsurprisingly the video performed poorly. No one was impressed by the capital letters, and no one was fooled by our incredibly transparent attempt at sensationalism. We got much fewer views on that video than any other around that time, which we usually just called normal descriptive stuff like “Boat renovation Project: Painting our narrowboat”.


Making effective clickbait is trickier than one might first imagine. How do you get people’s attention when there’s so much stuff out there, and you’ve only got a fraction of a second to catch their eye as they scroll through endless options? How do you convince people that amongst all the other videos they could click on, yours is the one? Sensationalism doesn’t always work. Probably because people are dubious about it in the first place, and it doesn’t often ring true. A better title for that video might have been “our boat keeps filling with water” - it’s closer to the truth of what happens in the video, and it also invites genuine curiosity; Why does the boat keep filling with water? It’s less obvious but it’s still clickbait because it’s withholding some information - “where is the water coming from?” we want the viewer to wonder. If we took a step closer to the truth and called the video “the stopcock on our water tank broke so we had to bail the water out”, it leaves less room for intrigue and so might not get as many views. Ironically for such a thinly veiled attempt at clickbait, a thumbnail with the text “FLOODING our boat” and a title which goes on to say “BAILING OUT…” also leaves little to the imagination, because the title offers the resolution to the problem in the thumbnail; flooded boat, bailed out. The viewer can imagine exactly what they’re going to see in that video, but not in a way that makes it seem exciting. I imagine the boat’s going to get a bit flooded and then Vic will bail it out - I think I’ve got the gist of it, I’ll give it a miss.


Clickbait can also backfire on you even if you’re good at it, because a well-baited click is only half the battle. Fishermen know this. Even once they’ve taken the bait, an audience can just as easily click away and that matters for two major reasons:

1 - The Algorithm. The algorithm sees everything, and if it notices that viewers tend to click on your video but stop watching after a short time, it will reckon that it mustn’t be a very good video, and it will stop showing it to people. YouTube only wants to show people videos it thinks will keep their attention. Videos that get attention but then quickly lose it are just as bad (if not worse) than videos which never got noticed in the first place.

2 - The Human. People don’t like feeling duped, and if they click on your video and it turns out not to be what was promised, not only will they stop watching but they might also feel manipulated and start to mistrust you. If your channel is mainly dashcam footage compilation videos or something like that, viewer trust might not be first on your list of priorities, but if it’s mainly vlog-style content then viewer trust is important. So there’s a balance to strike; if you’re reckless with clickbait you run the risk of losing your audience, but if you’re too cautious you may never be noticed.


As clickbait becomes more commonplace, there’s an assumption of understanding which becomes part of the culture of YouTube. A viewer learns to take thumbnails and titles with a pinch of salt, and a content creator expects such discretion from the viewer, and hopes to be granted leeway in the occasional use of a little clickbait. In this spirit we made a video called “Leaving narrowboats behind” - the crucial information withheld by that title was how long for.

A more accurate version would have read “Leaving narrowboats behind… for a few weeks while we travel around Europe”. It got a few ‘clickbait!’ comments, but one reason I don’t feel too bad about it is because I think it falls within the boundaries of expectation; every vlogger eventually starts to pull a few of these little tricks, and everyone knows the game; we don’t expect viewers to take such a title at face value any more. The important thing is that the video behind it is worth the hype, and I was excited to make that video, which kickstarted a series of travel videos that I made daily, still some of my proudest videos. So I thought it was worth the trick to encourage people to watch something I was so excited to make. If a few people felt a little sore at being suckered into watching that first video, for those who stayed, I hoped the joy with which we shared our experiences and emotions with the camera aught to have made up for any hard feelings.


The most effective clickbait I’ve managed so far was on a video called “the true cost of our narrowboat dream”. The thumbnail is a picture of us standing outside our boat with me holding a cardboard sign reading “We’re Broke” (possibly a little overdramatic in hindsight). The problem with making vlogs is that their primary content is your real life, and the thing about real life is you never know what’s going to happen and sometimes nothing does happen, which means you often don’t know what to call your vlog, which means there’s a lot of weeks when the best thing you can come up with is “A narrowboat vlog about curtains” or “A week in the life of…”

It helps if you can know what you’re video’s going to be about, because it gives you a better chance of being able to market it properly. In the case of the “We’re Broke” video, I had for some time been feeling that our vlogs were lacking any narrative structure, when it had dawned on me that we were about to have very little money. Some payments were soon to come out of our account and leave us with about £27 in total. Even for narrowboat life this was a financially interesting situation, but it occurred to me that it might also be a good story. The premise being, can we spend our £27 on ingredients and make enough profit with our cafe boat?


 Around this time we’d been interviewed by a few radio and newspaper people (it was the end of a long pandemic and the media were getting desperate) and I noticed the story they wanted from us was always the same; you quit your jobs and left the rat race for a simple life afloat, and it’s beautiful - right? It was as though they’d already printed the headline and just needed a few bits from us to write the article. When I knew we were going to make a video about our financial story, I wondered if we could find a way to market the video which fit with the narrative being told by the media; Something that touched on this idea of a group of people living in an unusual circumstance, but instead of the rose-tinted, aren’t-we-all-jealous version the media were obsessed with, I wanted to portray a different side. I had an image in my head I’d seen of an American family stood in rags outside their farmhouse during the dust bowl times. I wanted to make a thumbnail which looked a bit like that; a family stood in their situation, posing for the camera in a way that suggests an innocent obedience to a media savvy photographer. We took the photo on a winter’s day when the canal had frozen over and the boat was all frosty. It looked like a harsh landscape to live in, and the thumbnail image as a whole had the look of a magazine feature photograph. Joanna came up with the title and it seemed like the perfect combination; the text in the thumbnail “We’re broke” and the title “The true cost of our narrowboat dream” is a good one-two punch to knock the conventional media story off it’s balance and get the viewers attention.


It’s our most viewed video by far (around 630k views at the time of writing) and I’m pleased with what I think was a reasonable crack at a narrative lead video and a decent bit of marketing. The comments section saw a lot of discussion (and a little anger) at the naivety of a couple of work-shy dimwits destined for the breadline. Others admired the attempt at making a small business work. But no one shouted “clickbait!” (Or at least not many did) even though it’s probably our most clickbaity video in terms of seeking attention from as wide an audience as possible.


The intention with a video like this, is to pique people’s curiosity with a tabloid friendly title and thumbnail, and then once they’re in the door show them who you really are and hope they like it, while somehow also satisfying the curiosity that got them there in the first place. Despite this video being our best performer, if we think a little deeper about that thumbnail, title and video combination, we can imagine it’s possible that viewer engagement still suffers some of the negative impacts of bad clickbait; the type of clickbait which leads viewers to question if the video’s content really matches the depiction of it’s thumbnail and title. A complete stranger coming to it might have thought it really was a magazine show, the type which adopts a journalistic approach and profiles people living alternative lifestyles or on the fringes of society. The word “our” in the title suggests the people in the thumbnail are the same people who made the video (i.e. a vlog-style video) but it’s possible that the content still took people by surprise. To fix this, we could re-title the video something closer to the narrative content. What about “We’re broke. Can we turn £27 into profit?” - that might have been a good one. The thumbnail could have been me in the foreground holding a five pound note and making a worried face with the cafe boat in the background and customers lining up outside, ready to let the commerce commence. It better helps a viewer imagine what they’re going to get from that video; a couple challenging themselves to turn their last money into profit, so when they click on it and someone starts saying “we’ve only got £27 and now I’m going to go out and buy ingredients so we can bake cakes and …” they feel ready to enjoy the story they were expecting to get.


Alright, so what about the old thumbnail and title, “we’re broke - the true cost of our narrowboat dream”? It’s too good just to throw away, so maybe we could make a new video which better fulfils the brief that title-thumbnail combo gives us. Here’s where I get stuck. I don’t know what that video is. It sounds like a negative one in which dour faced boaters recount horror stories of ripoff boatyards and expensive mistakes, but that’s not a video I fancy making, and not what I think our regular viewers would expect from us. I want viewers come away feeling positive about what they’ve just watched, and that’s more important to me than avoiding the disappointment of people who clicked on a video because they thought they might actually see a family becoming destitute.


We all harbour a morbid curiosity, we’re all drawn to stories of disaster and dereliction. If you don’t believe me just look at our best performing videos: We’re Broke, Our Boat Attacked by Vandals, Scared off our Mooring, etc… They all sound like disaster stories, even though they’re not. The trick is to tempt people into clicking with the promise of some juicy scandal, but then pleasantly surprise them with lighthearted entertainment.


As a video creator, if you feel like your work has value to offer a viewer, then you can’t be too scared of trying out a little clickbait. You might have a brilliant video, but a potential viewer doesn’t know that any more than a passing fish knows that the fisherman up there is a good honest gentleman. The fish will make its decision based on the bait, and the viewer on your title and thumbnail. You’ve got to give people a reason to discover your work, but you don’t have to go overboard with it. It’s clickbait, not clickbaithooklineandsinker. As a fellow YouTube viewer, I ask your forgiveness for any clickbait misdemeanours I may have made in the past, or that I’m about to make in the future. Marketing a video is a complicated art form, and I still have much to learn, and many more mistakes ahead of me I’m sure.


Thanks if you made it to the end of this blog - I didn’t realise I had this much to say about clickbait but I’ve loved writing this. If you ever have any questions or topics you’d like me to write about please let me know, either in the comments or by email. Until then, go steady and may the clickbait be juicy and well justified.

Back to blog


I hope you follow up on your idea of reviewing public transport especially around market towns and the weirdness of public planning as you mentioned in your last video. We spend ages trying to work out bus routes to get somewhere interesting with our bus passes. As for interpretation of rail routes and ticketing, been living next to a line for 2 years and still can’t work out the best use of service!


The “broke” one is what got my attention after Cruising the Cur was ending and I am so glad you did it. I have enjoyed binge watching and was so glad when you decided to do the cook book. I have bought a set of mugs which I LOVE and this time getting tea towels. I am so worried about what you are going to do this year but hope you have fun….and film it!

PS wish you were here

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