Just Say No to Clickbait: 10 Content Marketing Tricks People Hate

All Graphics By Lynn Langmade

Content Marketing Tactics to Avoid

Sleazy Content Marketing and Why We Hate It

Content marketing covers a lot of ground—everything online is technically content. When you add the "marketing" aspect, most people feel like they should be holding on to their wallet a little tighter. Yet so much content now serves a dual purpose, not only to inform, but also to incentivize buying. Smart marketers over the last two decades figured out that great content actually sells and the content marketing discipline was born. But as well all know, marketing and advertising aren’t well-regarded by the public—according to Gallup poll data, the American public trusts marketing less than it does pharmaceuticals. And they trust them even less now that they know most of the content they come into contact with online has been created with an ulterior motive. Is it any wonder that the majority of the public now greets content with a skeptical eye?

In this climate, building trust is critical not only to developing an audience, but also if you hope to monetize that audience in the future. As Chris Brogan pointed out in his seminal work, Trust Agents, trust matters more online than it does offline and it takes longer to build online. You can read more of Brogan’s thinking about online trust in my “2016 Summer (Speed) Reading List”, where I summarize the major ideas from this work. The more you can do to “humanize” your content, the better. The best content marketing uses radical transparency to humanize content in order to build trust. According to Brogan, Trust Agents are “non-sales oriented, non high-pressure marketers” who use “the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business.” The more people get to know you and the more people see you’re actually trying to help them—rather than sell, scam, or annoy them—the more they will trust you.  And the more trust you build with your viewer, the more likely they will be to return to your site, subscribe to your content, and buy your service or product. Therefore, you need to see “quality” content as essential to your brand and your business model. Cutting corners or using quick tricks and sleazy content marketing tactics like clickbait will ultimately cost you a lot more money than it will save you.

Beyond the importance of the need to build trust is the fact that quality content is one of the three top ranking signals for Google. The Panda update to Google’s algorithm in 2011 essentially lowers the rank of "low-quality sites" or "thin sites” in order to return higher-quality sites near the top of the search results. As I wrote recently in my “25 SEO Tips” post,  prior to Panda companies who employed content farms or sham “guest blog” programs were able to game the system by posting tons of pages/posts on topics by outsourcing content to cheap copywriters and content hacks. Although these sites had a lot of shallow content on various topics, they used on-page SEO tactics to rank highly for topics despite the fact the articles were short, low quality, and did not provide value. Panda fixed all that. However, Google continues to refine its algorithm to reward high-quality content and penalize low-quality content sites. Panda is updated frequently, and in May of 2015, Google announced an ambiguous “Quality Update”—now known as the “Phantom” update—impacting “quality signals” in its core algorithm. But you don’t need to know the specific details of the Phantom update to know that quality content matters now more than ever for your blog and site. Scraped content or low-quality, guest blog posts could spell your doom.

Sure some people believe everything they read online, but a large percentage of people will figure out a scam, and they'll be, well, ticked off when they figure out you’ve been less than honest, truthful, or ethical with them. The bottom line is that there are a lot of content marketing tricks that work, but aren't ethical. Obviously, no one would ever do anything unethical if it didn't work, but that doesn’t mean you should do something unethical. I’ll say it again: just because something works, doesn’t mean you should do it. It’s tempting to employ some of the tactics below, but you should resist the temptation. Some of the tactics we'll discuss in this list are common practice or very popular. But if the majority of your audience hates it, you need to strongly reconsider whether it's worth the effort in the long run.

10 Content Marketing Tricks Readers Hate

  1. ClickbaitClickbait is prevalent and very effective. What is clickbait? Generally, clickbait is defined as “content, especially a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page.” Sites that use clickbait often don't care about the user experience because they're making revenue from clicks onto the site, thus the name. But viewers hate it, and the practice is sleazy. If your headline doesn't pay off in the copy, your readers feel like they wasted their time. If return viewers are important to you, this technique probably won't be a great idea in the long run. Why? Because the clickbait will bring in traffic, but your bounce rate will skyrocket when they immediately click out of the “fake” content and leave your site, which will provide a signal to Google that your page has low quality content. Your site will likely be hit with a penalty.

  2. Thin Content.  What is thin content? Thin content is the practice of loading up your site or blog with incredibly shallow or low-quality content. By shallow, Google is being literal, as in there is no physical depth to it. This is usually a result of being new to content marketing. You likely won’t even realize you’re engaging in “thin content” until you suddenly discover that Google has assigned you a “manual penalty,” which means a “human” at Google has actually reviewed your site and determined that the content is very shallow or low-quality. Such content violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. I want to be clear here. I am not talking about a single short post, especially a post that is introducing or announcing a larger long-form asset like a guide or an infographic. I’m talking about many posts that lack depth and provide zero value. While these posts/pages don’t fall under the category of clickbait or bait and switch, they are usually the result of black hat SEO tactics, the kind that Panda update was created to root out and destroy – such as content farms and guest blogging schemes. Google provides a very clear list of pages that qualify as “thin content”: (1) Automatically generated content; (2) Thin affiliate pages; (3) Content from other sources, such as scraped content or low-quality guest blog posts; and (4) Doorway pages. Users come to your site to find valuable information; by not providing valuable content or especially trying to game the system by creating a bunch of shallow content, you will frustrate your visitor and incur the wrath of Google. Do yourself a favor. No matter how tempting it is to create a bunch of valueless, shallow content, resist the temptation and go for fewer, but higher-quality posts.

  3. Fluff Content. I’ve consciously separated fluff from thin content. Fluff content is less likely to be penalized by Google because it doesn’t fit the criteria I outlined above and isn’t easy to define. The best way to define it may be by defining what it’s not. You can read my lengthy definition of content marketing here, where I explain what valuable content is.  It’s not about length. Fluff can be short, but it can also be 5000-words long. In a nutshell, fluff is bad content, not because it’s especially shallow or low-quality by traditional criteria, but because it doesn’t provide any real value to the viewer. Fluff is usually the result of being a novice when it comes to developing content. Developing quality content that provides value is difficult and takes time to learn. Not every piece of content on your site will be Pulitzer Prize-worthy. It's difficult to create a large body of quality content, especially if you’re just starting out, don’t have a large content team, or flying solo. But even a few terrible articles can hurt your readership. You have to think about it this way. Most people don’t access your site or blog through the home page. Often, the only impression they get of your site is the content they’ve found through an organic search on Google. In other words, they enter in through the backdoor, not the front door. This means they likely won’t see all the other amazing content on your site, unless you give them a reason to keep looking further. So you need to think about each page/post as the first and possibly last impression of your site. It’s almost impossible to recover from a bad first impression in the content game. Do your best to think of each piece of content you write as the only one your viewer will ever read. Your job is to make it useful, helpful, and/or valuable every time. It's better to concentrate on quality rather than quantity if you want a loyal following and want to remain penalty-free.
  4. Pop-Ups. Pop-ups can be useful for both the viewer and site owner if done effectively. However, too many pop-ups annoy people. If you use them, make sure they're easy to close and they don’t block the content your visitor came to view. If you're using one for an opt-in, make sure your viewer can exit without including their email information. 

  5. Slide Shows. This goes along with clickbait because it's fairly common for sites that make money from page views to use this tactic. The article is split into multiple screens with an image and a few sentences on each screen. Viewers click through each screen to read the article. People hate this. When you see these articles linked on social media, look at the comments. They will be full of people breathing fire about how terrible the content is and what a time waste it was. You'll also find at least one comment summarizing the real content of the article so no one else has to click through the mess.

  6. Misleading Images. Your images need to complement and/or support your content. For instance, if you have an article about "Celebrities Who Cheated Death" and the cover slide includes a photo of a particular celebrity, then that celebrity needs to be included in your article, or it's misleading. Case closed. This practice will frustrate and annoy your users and they will likely never return to your site.

  7. Sneaky Opt-Ins and/or Subscriptions. There's nothing wrong with having an opt-in pop-up so viewers can become a member of your subscribers list. However, it's pretty shady if you sell that list or add your subscribers to all sorts of lists that are not associated with the offer without their knowledge. Users expect a certain degree of privacy when they provide their contact information. Selling their private information is not only a massive breach of trust, but in some cases it may even be illegal. As an added bonus, make sure to have a clear privacy policy and place a link near your opt-in subscriber form.

  8. Bait and Switch Offers. If you're offering a sale or any giveaway, make sure it's not misleading. For example, if you have a contest running with a car as a giveaway, but the car is actually only a 3-month lease or the contestant has to purchase an expensive product to be eligible for the giveaway, make sure you clearly outline the details of the giveaway not only in the contest rules, but also in the advertising promoting the contest. Obviously, people don't like deals unless they are actually deals, but people hate scams that masquerade as deals. Always be honest about what you’re offering and don’t try to mislead people. If you’re running the offer or contest on a specific social media channel like Facebook or Pinterest, you will also need to ensure you follow the specific rules and guidelines of those networks or you could find yourself in legal trouble later on.

  9. Webinars as Sales Pitch. Free webinars can be an excellent sales tool if you're offering great content. If you deliver a webinar that gives your audience no legitimate value, they will not be happy about it. Infomercials masked as webinars really upset the people who wasted their time waiting for the value that wasn't there.

  10. Poorly Executed Video. Video offers fantastic conversion rates, so it's absolutely worth the time to develop video content. However, poorly executed videos, can have the opposite impact. 75% of people surveyed said they'd leave a video within 4 minutes if the quality was poor and look for the content or similar elsewhere. 

  11. *Bonus*: Hard or Sleazy Sales. Um, I saved this for last because, well, I just have a lot to say about it. Many sites and blogs simply do not understand the purpose of content marketing. They think it’s just another way of selling to people. I cannot tell you how many battles I’ve had to fight as a content marketing leader in companies I work for to try to get leadership to remove overtly commercial content from the site and blog. If I had to sum up content marketing in a single phrase, it would be that you have to give before you get. You need to give people value—lots of it—before they are willing to give you anything: their contact info or their money. People hate any sales pitch that either tries to ply them with guilt or rush them to purchase. No one likes to feel strong-armed into doing anything. This rule applies to your blog, website copy, webinars, large assets, or your marketing campaigns. Anything you identify as “content.” The whole point of content marketing is that if you’re doing it correctly, you won’t ever have to “sell” anything. Your content speaks for you continuously by helping to solve a viewer’s problem or educating or inspiring them. Today’s viewer doesn’t need to be sold; they need to be helped. If you help them, I guarantee they will return the favor ;)

In most cases, the content that people hate mirrors the communications that irritate them in the real world. No one likes to be lied to—it insults their intelligence. No one likes to be guilted or pressured into something. And no one wants to have content they came for buried under advertisements. Anytime you have to question the ethics of your content, it's a good indication that you're not serving your audience. 

Did I miss a sleazy content marketing trick in this list? I'd love it if you shared your list with me in the comments :) 

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