Chasing the Clickbait Dragon: 3 Ways to Avoid Design for Addiction

Meghan Gardner is head of operations and strategy at Alipes, where she helps clients avoid being—and creating—clickbait. She’d love to talk shop if you want to drop her a line:

Ever wonder whether you are creating an audience of addicts or an audience of loyalists? And does it matter? I think so.

And I’ll be the first to admit: this isn’t our idea. A clever writer named Michelle Manafy gets full credit for introducing this idea in a recent edition of the Nieman Lab newsletter, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her insights.

Manafy’s analysis centers on the fundamental question of design philosophy vs. customer relationship cultivation. While “addictive” design, the kind that makes people sit at slot machines for days or scroll through social media feeds for hours, pulls people in and keeps them in their seats.

But it doesn’t necessarily translate to building an engaged audience of people who believe in, trust, and continue to buy the things your brand is selling. Here’s why: addicts can’t stop even when they want to—and at the risk of sounding like an under qualified addiction expert, they often want to.

Addicts consume against their will—or at least against their better judgment. Audiences experience by choice. In an age where digital programs are measured by user behavior like clicks and shares, it matters whether your users are compelled to merely click on a shiny object or actually engage with your brand’s offering.

Of course, it’s hard to tell whether a user is engaging if we’re still just measuring clicks, which is why analytics have gotten more sophisticated. But it’s important to consider when you’re designing KPIs and assessing measurement tools.

This is especially true when you think about where results get reported, and how they help secure additional investment in digital programs. Senior leadership, to whom we and our clients report results regularly, may have no idea what “clickbait” is. But they can spot a loyal customer a mile away.

Here’s the thing: addicts seem easy to keep—just feed them what Manafy calls “digital nicotine” and they are hooked. But audiences are fickle. They are easily distracted by new ideas and messages that make it hard for your brand to keep them engaged.

So the onus is on us, as digital strategists, to figure out how to make a brand’s story fresh and engaging, every single time it is told. I’m up for the challenge.