Is Clickbait Fundraising Evil? The Answer May Shock You!
Actually, I'd never heard about clickbait until people started complaining about it. It'll be the ruination of journalism, they said … misleading and manipulative … shallow and shameful...
The assault was relentless. If it's possible to have compassion for a copywriting technique, that's what I was feeling for clickbait.
So, here I am, standing up for the underdog. Clickbait, as you know, is a way of writing headlines and subject lines that uses unexpected or ironic juxtapositions to get your attention and compel you to click on the article (or open the envelope) to learn more.
There are many clickbait formulas. The headline above is one kind: Ask a question that connects things that don't normally go together … like clickbait and fundraising. Then offer a nonanswer that implies the reader is in for a big surprise.
Another is to make a fairly banal statement, then undermine it with a second shorter sentence: The night was calm and still. Or was it? You can also summarize a story, then tease the reader to find out more: A Woman Brought a Bucket of Paint to an African Village. You Won't Believe What Happened Next.
You get the idea. There are a million variations.
From a fundraising standpoint, it seems to me like nothing more than a way to write better teasers. As copywriters in the nonprofit world, we're always looking for more effective ways to get attention so we can deliver an emotional message and persuade a donor or prospect to give.
But while the clickbait style has positive potential, it also has a lot of haters. They point to sleazy advertisers that use it to mislead consumers with photos of an attractive person with a headline like, "New sleeping pill is taking CVS by storm."
But the problem with clickbait is not the bait. It's the switch. There are plenty of writers who use clickbait to get noticed. They promise you something interesting — and then they deliver on their promise:
For writers trying to draw attention to an organization's important work, this can be a clever way of getting people to read, feel and give. As Anil Dash, co-founder and CEO of ThinkUp, points out, "Writing evocative headlines is a good thing if it gets people to see content of substance."
The fact that some writers use clickbait for devious purposes doesn't make the technique itself bad, any more than a pickpocket makes fingers bad.
As fundraisers we're obliged to use our powers for good. So if we can adopt and adapt a technique to make our teasers more teasing, the result just might be more opened packages. More gifts to nonprofits. And maybe little corners of the world made better.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.