Or “Sometimes, You Need to Clarify and Expand on a Point You Made That The Press Latched On To About ‘Scale’ for Digital Ads”.
Or perhaps best, "(linkbait)"
I love linkbait. I just used it a little bit on you. You see, this little ramble will not actually be about peeing in pools. Or at least, it will be very little about peeing in pools.
Matt Cutts described the concept of linkbait in 2006 relative to SEO but it represents something so much bigger than a tactic for search. In fact, I think it may foundational to marketing on the internet. At least the “distractive” type of internet marketing.
I would define linkbaiting as using any kind of tactic you use to redirect someone somewhere else on the internet - very quickly. What makes linkbaiting so fascinating is that it’s typically done in very small spaces - like Twitter. It’s a 40 character headline like “BILL COSBY SMOKED WEED WITH MILEY CYRUS?”. At its very best, it’s headline writing for the web. It takes the bicycle of mind and forces a sharp left turn. At it’s worst, it’s deceptive and feels like bait and switch (Although your penalty for being deceived is typically only that you have to use the back button. It’s a low-risk exercise and mostly harmless).
Linkbait has manifested some of the most creative tactics the internet has ever seen. It’s more most beautiful and simple manifestation being the legendary “CLICK HERE”, the clla-to-action from which all Internet Marketing springs. But it’s glorious in all its manifestations from Reddit titles, Dancing People in Mortgage Ads, Punch the Monkey for a free iPad, and FATLAB pranks. And while text-dominant platforms like Twitter and Reddit seem to have made linkbait tactics new and fresh again, linkbaiting comes from a much earlier era. Old nerds used linkbait. Linkbait sprung from boards. Like boards in 1992. That’s Pre-AOL for sure. If I wanted people to read and react to my thread on a Usenet group, the title had to be good. The title had to be short. But if I went too far and made it sensational, I’d get called out for it. This is exactly what would happen on Reddit today. It’s a fine line. And that line is fun to study and try to model. Especially when ads, and therefore money, are involved. This article is about that line. And when you really break it down, AdWords and Facebook advertisers also draw heavily on the science of the linkbait. Linkbaiting and its “lines” suddenly look like a science behind a billion dollar business.
Obviously spammers study this line. Many a Nigerian Prince know this line. Content marketers also study the line. Buzzfeed could be said to have mastered it. As an aside, I would go on record and say that a huge portion of Buzzfeed’s revenue comes from the idea of link-baiting, as manifested in their “can’t ignore” headlines. If they ever become bad at writing those, their revenues will plummet. And if you have ever seen Jonah Peretti talk about Mormons, Mullets and Maniacs, you know their success in the attention-catching business is no happy accident. This guy used to measure the success of his “cultural research” projects by his ability to end up on Good Morning America for them.
As stated above, linkbait’s lines are fascinating to look at it for me as some who thinks about advertising. It is a quantifiable science that not only gives us a defined and measurable input in the link-bait text headline, It gives us defined and measurable outputs in the click rate and the success rate. Success is custom to everyone but generally speaking in the content business it is defined simply: you want people hanging out and seeing ads, and maybe also talking about the content to friends who will come and see ads.
If your linkbait isn’t compelling, you don’t see clicks. If your bait is compelling but too good to be true, your success rate sucks. Multiply these together for a constant number. Then divide that constant by your cost of building the things you need for the whole process. Maybe you bought some space for your link, maybe you piad someone to write it, you certainly built or used a website, and perhaps something else.
Here’s the equation:
I say all this about linkbait because I was involved in a little linkbait incident last week. Let me first say that I don’t really mind when a quote of mine gets spun a little bit in the name of linkbait (but just a little bit). In fact, it’s interesting to me to see what happens next. While I was at OMMA Native, we got into a discussion about how we can scale “native ads”. I said a few things and I want to clarify each one:
The article is called “Screw Scale”. I did not say this. Scale is important. How we think about scale in an age where scale can be just as effectively created by peer-to-peer models as it can by classic media reach is important though. And when ad platform technologies start talking scale, I get nervous. I get nervous about standardization in the name of scale. I get nervous about things becoming “lowest-common denominator” formats and content in the name of scale.
“Scale-chasing” is what we did with online display. Scale gave us standard formats. Networks told us to pepper ads everywhere in the name of scale. And that scale was a driving factor in making 99.9% of us ignore those things today. Banners crossed the “line” by not even getting the click (remember, that’s a part of our equation above). I have a terribly hard time believing that the 0.1% click through rate isn’t actually made up of a “errant click” rate but that’s another post. by putting ads everywhere, you are driving down the “click rate” by increasing the “see” rate. When you do that, you “pee in the pool” for everyone. I did say that. Sorry Mom.
I made this chart about the interaction rates that I have seen for brands in my career. It’s generalized and nowhere near scientific, in part to help protect the innocent, but it makes an important point.
If you want to flame me because your native ad program got a 6% engagement rate, so be it. Better said, I think “scale” is already smoothing that native number out for the industry (I almost put it in at 1%).
For “native”, or really “content” and the other new types of possibilities brands have to reach people, let’s make sure we focus on the success part of that equation above. And to do that, I think we have to go deep (which is another thing I did say). Rich media looks like a hero on the second chart probably because it required customization. It was a “deep” tactic that was hard to scale. Because they were often unique to a site or a small set of sites. They cost more, sure. They took more time, sure. But they worked better. And as far as indicting a “young media buyer”, I sorta said that but it’s not a sweeping indictment of media people - it’s an indictment of how they sometimes value media. because it can be easy to buy on the end of the value equation described above. When you do that, it’ll always look cheaper to go for “scale” but what you end up buying is a bunch of errant clicks.
With that, I propose a toast to link-baiting and to the right kind of scale in content and native advertising.