Last week, we discussed Shaggy Dog Stories–meandering missives that never find their points. This week, we look at the most nefarious form of Shaggy Dog Story: clickbait

The sole purpose of clickbait is to generate website traffic. Clickbait headlines are “effective” in that goal because they:

  1. appeal to our core human needs
  2. on topics that we find necessary
  3. while using storytelling techniques to make ’em all work together.


Human Needs

Maslow identified our human needs in his famous hierarchy:

  1. Physiological: We need life-sustaining things like food, water, and health
  2. Safety: We must have safety from life’s dangers
  3. Social Belonging: We need to feel as a part of a group and to be loved
  4. Esteem: We need recognition, status, and respect of others
  5. Self-actualization:  We build upon the previous four to be the best that we can be.



 Humans care about these topics:

  1. money
  2. food
  3. new/better
  4. health
  5. vanity
  6. the lives of others


Storytelling Techniques

Clickbait writers apply storytelling techniques to these needs and topics:

  1. Fear/FOMO: Things that we are afraid of…including missing out on a good thing
  2. Rubbernecking: Our insatiable need to look at the things that we should be looking away from
  3. Schadenfreude:  Sometimes we get pleasure from the misfortune of others
  4. Comeuppance: We love it when Karma comes around
  5. The Cliffhanger: Someone is in danger and we want to know their fate
  6. Experts: People with the credentials to validate over-the-top statements


Here are some clickbait examples and how they use human needs, topics, and techniques. (Click the image to open a higher resolution version)

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with using need, topic, and technique to write a great headline. The question comes down to intent. Are the headline writers serving themselves or the audience? S
torytellers have empathy for their audiences while clickbait writers have disdain for them. Storytellers deliver on the promise of their headlines while clickbait writers grease the skids to their next Shaggy Dog story


Photo Credit: C.M. Bell, photographer. Garrett, Wm. dog. , 1894. [between February and February 1901] Photograph.