Does clickbait work in the B2B world?

Most of our clients are B2B companies with content marketing strategies that increasingly involve blogs, LinkedIn posts, social media, and other informal channels. So, as one would expect, our writers and designers increasingly need to adapt their style to convey a more conversational tone.

Generally, writing in a relaxed style is a welcome relief. The ability to use devices like writing in the first or second person and posing questions to readers allows us to be more creative and let personality shine through.

But then this happened: a client asked me to write [gulp] a “clickbaity” article title. Then another asked for “click candy.” While I understand the desire to stand out, by definition clickbait either overpromises or misrepresents the actual content readers find when they click through.

Do our clients’ readers really want clickbait? Is getting that click worth the consequences of this intellectual bait-and-switch? I believe that the answer to both questions is no.

This is your brain on clickbait
Perhaps titles such as “The sketchy double life of your CMO” and “You won’t believe what analytics and the Kardashians have in common!” and “Leverage these five weird tricks to disruption-proof your HR practice” are not yet the norm—but judging by clickbait’s growing prominence among paid content providers, we could be headed that direction.

This strategy, however, is likely to backfire. According to a recent blog post by Meghana Bhatt, a PhD in behavioral and neuroeconomics, the physiological repercussions of sensational titles (clickbait) can be severe:

“The same neural systems that respond immediately to those promises learn over time. If the perceived promise of a thumbnail or the headline associated with it, isn’t met—the associated stimuli, be it the text, the image, or simply the location on the page, will lose some of their predictive value. This occurs at a biological level.”

So when you continually write titles that don’t deliver, you condition the readers’ brains to ignore you.

What not to do: The B2C approach
So if you can’t sensationalize headlines, how can you attract readers and their clicks? First, it’s critical to understand that, unlike B2C firms, you’re not just looking for clicks. You’re looking for the right people to click.

As our founder Scott Leff wrote, many B2C companies use content to get clicks and cram as many leads as possible into the sales funnel—but a consultancy or accounting firm uses content to build its brand and position its people as thought leaders.

B2B companies should aim for a more narrowcast approach where they’re looking to appeal to a smaller group of qualified leads and then impress them once they’re there. In this type of setting, the fastest way to lose readers—and the credibility that can take years to build but seconds to destroy—is a clickbaity title that doesn’t deliver on its promise.

The power of titles that deliver
I’m sorry to report that if you work for a B2B company aiming to create thought leadership, headline analyzer tools that measure emotion and power are probably not for you.

There is, however, some decent advice available online for writing catchy B2B headlines and blog titles. In short, the most important part of writing a good B2B title is accuracy. Even subtle disparities between an emphasis of a headline and the content that follows can damage credibility and turn people off.

When research recently led me to AOL Finance, for example, I fell for what turned out to be clickbait: “Three popular companies that consumers hate the most.” The companies in question turned out to be the big three credit reporting agencies, which are neither popular nor the companies that consumers hate “the most.” (I should note that AOL made the subtle deceit a little more obvious by using a different, more accurate headline on the article itself: “Three powerful companies that make consumers hopping mad.”)

Yes, strong, active language is a must for any headline. But any sophisticated business reader would react poorly to such tactics.

What to do instead? A benefit statement seems to be the most popular way to grab a busy B2B reader’s attention. Think “Making data analytics work for you instead of the other way around.”

Gimmicks such as question headlines (“Can business schools propel women to the C-suite?”) and numbered lists (“The top 10 ways to attract and retain great talent”) may work in some circumstances, but should be used sparingly.

B2B titles are still art, not science
It is surprisingly difficult to find hard data on which title constructs actually work best. The bottom line is that if your goal is to support business development and retention and build your company’s reputation, you absolutely do not want to get lumped in with clickbait.

When your credibility is at stake, accuracy trumps sex appeal every time.

Heather Ploog

Heather is the managing partner of Leff. Her background in business coupled with her experience in editing and user-created content has given her a unique skill set and advanced insight into both the management and editorial fields. She enjoys expounding in the Leff blog on the business writing tactics that bring clarity to complex ideas and make your content distinctive.

1 Comment

  • Kathy Willhoite says:

    I agree 100%, Heather. If you ever run across some detailed, practical headline-writing info for B2B, please send it my way. Same goes for subject-line writing, though A-B testing of subject lines is easier than of headlines. Thanks. –Kathy

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