Facebook Stands Up To Clickbait, Day 2: The Media Responds

CEO of Major Facebook Publisher: 'This Is a Big Change for All Publishers'

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The media industry responded predictably to an announcement from Facebook Thursday that articles using so-called "clickbait" headline tropes will get lower billing in the social giant's all-important News Feed product, which publishers rely on for sweet, sweet referral traffic. (Sponsored posts will not be affected by Facebook's efforts to target clickbait, a spokeswoman confirmed.)

There was hand-wringing, there was snarkiness and there were plenty of reports that poked fun by using some of the clickbait tactics being targeted by Facebook. Newsweek, for example, went with "You won't BELIEVE what Facebook is trying to do!"

But how big of a deal is the announcement? How big of a problem is clickbait, really, in 2016? And how will the new rules change the way publishers operate? Ad Age got answers via email from some of the media companies that have made their names by becoming ubiquitous in many people's Facebook feeds.

Joe Speiser, CEO, LittleThings: "This is a big change for all publishers, both big and small, across all categories. There isn't a publisher out there who hasn't used sensational headlines to drive clicks. Overall, we believe this update will have a significant impact on smaller publishers that have not made large investments in their editorial and creative teams."

"I feel that LittleThings is well positioned to continue to serve Facebook's phenomenal audience with our well-received feel-good, inspirational storytelling. A handful of [LittleThings] headlines utilized a curiosity gap to intrigue users and drive increased engagement. Moving forward, we'll be spending more time optimizing and reviewing headlines in an effort to continue as a leading Facebook publisher."

Peter Koechley, co-founder, Upworthy: "Sounds like very big deal for clickbait publishers; luckily, Upworthy shifted away from clickbait in early 2015 -- I even apologized for our role in its rise -- so we don't expect it to have a big impact on us. We'll continue what we've been doing for the last couple years: creating really engaging stories that our readers choose to spend time with and share with their friends. And, at the same time, we'll keep our eyes out for any clickbait that sneaks in -- because we care about the trust of our readers, not the latest algorithm change."

"Most quality publishers have found a good balance between interestingness and directness. The upshot is: media headlines have actually gotten much more compelling in recent years, to the benefit of readers and journalists, whose most important stories are reaching more people than ever before."

Shaul Olmert, CEO, PlayBuzz: "Since publishers make money per impression, they'll sometimes do anything to generate more impressions. But, in essence, advertisers are looking for a count of views by users who are actually engaged. Clickbait f*cking sucks and it's time to do something about it. Many publishers commonly accept choosing the metric of clicks over more important metrics such as engagement and interactivity. Enough is enough -- it's time to align editorial with modern content consumption habits."

Scott DeLong, founder, ViralNova, who left in 2015: "Time will tell how it truly affects publishers, but I think it's a pretty big deal. In 2013, when Upworthy and ViralNova started using headlines with that extra curiosity factor, it worked well to get a higher [click-through-rate] but, more importantly, the content actually delivered (hence the incredibly high share rates). Like anything that explodes quickly, imitators came out of the woodwork and, with that, actual quality has continuously diminished for 3 years. What's now universally known as 'clickbait' has become less of an editorial strategy and more of a complete gaming of the system. This has become an obvious problem for Facebook, and they seem to be rightfully addressing it now."

Emerson Spartz, CEO, Dose: "While it's reasonable for people to complain about 'clickbait' (i.e. stories that don't deliver on the promise of the headline) and for Facebook to address those complaints, some headline structures that are legitimately successful at engaging people risk getting weeded out. Here's what I'm curious about: Is Facebook claiming it knows better than you what kind of stories you want to consume? Is the Facebook algorithm now doing more than giving extra circulation to high-performing content -- is it going so far as to decide what you should read and see? That would call into question Facebook's claim that it is solely a platform and not a curator of content."

"Dose has spent the past few months shifting our focus from viral news, where we got our start, toward a different flavor of high quality storytelling. Although we began the transition long before this Facebook announcement, it nonetheless comes as welcome reinforcement that we're both thinking in the same direction."

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