Earning the click
A philosophy for people who hate clickbait
One of the interesting side effects of coaching creators is that I'm frequently made aware of things that are second nature to me, but not for other people. A lot of that is’s fault in particular. That dude is constantly pointing out things I do easily and intuitively and take for granted. 😤
Anyhow, part of my goal in this hundred day series is to make more of this stuff legible. To share the underlying assumptions and strategies and techniques that drive my entire approach to 1,000 true fans.
And today, I wanna share how I think about earning clicks from social media and such. A decent chunk of Ungated's traffic comes from posting links to my writing on twitter, and I definitely have a somewhat strategic and subtle way of thinking about this.
A constellation of curiosity cues
The biggest thing I have to impart is that headlines are not as important as everyone makes them out to be.
If you spend any time in marketing or creator circles, you will hear people obsessing over headlines as if they're the singular holy grail of traffic. The result is that people usually try to do way too much with their headlines, which often leads straight into the territory of cringey clickbait nonsense. I've been there and done that myself.
My approach today, by contrast, is to consider the entire ecosystem of variables under which someone might encounter a link, and treat each of those variables as part of a larger whole.
So yes, you've got the headline, which is important, but you've also got the image, a description/excerpt, and the social post itself. Each of these pieces has a role to play, and when you view them holistically, it takes so much pressure off headlines. You can make each one subtler and less pushy, because collectively, they add up to something compelling that induces enough curiosity to earn the click.
For example, check out this one tweet, which drove several thousand pageviews to my website in the days after I posted it. That outcome is by no means normal for links I post, but it def happens from time to time.
Ok, so using this one post as an example, lemme break down how I'm thinking about each component.
Back when I was writing for Unnamed Filmmaking Blog, we went overboard on the long clickbait headlines. Which is probably why I have so much distaste for it these days, and why I almost always go short and oblique and subtle. Maybe that's just a personal preference, but I think there's something here worth exploring.
Consider these two possibilities for what I could have titled this essay.
how writing in lowercase unblocked my authentic creativity
I don't know about you, but I know which of those I'd rather click on. Hell, that's a worthwhile lesson in itself. Trust yourself enough to go with the thing that would make YOU genuinely intrigued to click, rather than what all the marketing experts say you should do. That alone will give you a leg up and stand out from the crowd.
Anyhow, the first headline is a pretty traditional one. It's the kind of thing I would have written in the old days. It's not clickbait, but to me it feels like it's actively trying to make creative people who feel blocked care enough to click. It's being super literal and straightforward, basically giving away the entire point of the article, in hopes that it'll lead to the click. That's fine, but were I to come across that headline in the wild, it wouldn't excite me very much.
The second headline, by contrast, has a certain nonchalance to it. A punchy panache. A cool calm confidence. It says so much while saying very little. It induces substantially more curiosity than the first one. That word "magic" has an energetic charge to it. It plants some questions in the mind of the reader. What could he possibly mean by magic? What does that have to do with writing in lowercase? What's going on here? Tell me more, Hardy!
There's another subtle thing I'm getting at here which is super important, but difficult to talk about. When creators are in a state of neediness, or when they're desperate for the traffic/attention, it's generally apparent and subtly off-putting to everyone who encounters their work. We can all tell when someone's trying to play the game of hijacking human attention because they need it to validate themselves and their efforts. And when we have that intuitive or subconscious sense that we're being played by a needy person, it puts our guard up. We're less likely to engage with them.
On the flip side, the person who doesn't need the traffic, or the attention, or the money, is more likely to attract those things. Their energy, and the way the show up in the world, helps induce a state of openness in the people who encounter them.
This is a subtle and metaphysical thing, but it's real. Non-attachment makes you a more compelling creator and marketer. How to get to that place, and make the move from attached to non-attached, is way outside of the scope of this piece. But I wanted to plant the seed anyway, because it is absolutely part of this equation of earning attention and clicks. Giving fewer fucks is a genuine superpower.
Photos and Visuals
Honestly, when it comes to earning clicks from social media, the visual you choose is more important than the headline, excerpt, or social post copy. The image is the thing that initially stops people in their tracks and gets their attention. You can have the best headline and supporting copy imaginable, but in an environment where people are endlessly scrolling, that alone isn't enough. It's captivating and differentiated visuals that create the initial spark of attention, thus opening up the opportunity for your copy to do its work.
If I could give one piece of advice here, it would be STOP USING BORING AS FUCK STOCK IMAGES IMMEDIATELY. Nothing does a greater disservice to thoughtful piece of writing than slapping a generic stock photo on it. In years past, we didn't have a ton of options here, but in an era of Midjourney and Stable Diffusion and Dall-e, there's no excuse not to play around with generating bespoke and thematically-relevant images. It feels like table stakes for standing out in the world to come.
The legendary copywriter Joe Sugarman has this great metaphor of creating a "slippery slide" with your writing. The idea is that the one job of the headline is to get people excited to read the subhead. The job of the subhead is to create excitement for the first sentence. And so on and so on, until people have slipped and slid all the way through your copy to the end.
I use this heuristic in a lot of my writing, but it's also how I approach the post excerpt or subhead. If the headline is kind of short and oblique, perhaps hinting at bigger questions and curiosities, the subhead makes those questions and themes more legible and clear. It says, "ok, here's what this piece is really about." So if there's a place to be literal and straightforward, this is it.
Personally, I also like to be playful and cheeky in this realm as well. In the lowercase magic essay, I went overboard with alliteration because I find alliteration delightful. Like before, these types of choices where you're just having fun and being creative matter for conveying that sense of non-attachment. The person who's just having a bit of playful fun usually prevails over the one who's taking everything Very Seriously.
The social post
Lastly, you'll notice the social post for that lowercase magic essay isn't special in any way. It's literally "hey, i wrote a thing. here's what it's about." And that lil post—combined with the image, the headline, and description—was enough to send this post rocketing around my corner of the internet and drive a good deal of traffic.
The "secret" that makes this social post work is that I'm just talking the same way I normally talk amongst my twitter homies. I'm not using Fancy Marketing Language to try to signal that this is an important thing. Instead, it's a natural extension of what I'm already doing on social media, which is having fun with my friends and sharing cool stuff.
Obviously this requires some knowledge of your social ecosystem and the cultural norms. If you're surrounded by people who are using traditional marketing language, and that's how you normally operate, then it probably makes sense to do something more traditional. But my corner of twitter isn't like that. It's cozy and informal and fun. We don't take ourselves too seriously. So that's the energy I bring to everything I post, even if the work is fairly serious.
Ok, so that's all the thoughts I've got for now. This was truly the most stream of consciousness and imperfect of my daily posts so far, so hopefully it’s somewhat sensible and useful lol.
Rob's Daily Invitation
If I ever make a course on lowercase shitposting, it will be included in The Frontier. The best way to peer pressure me into making that course is to join The Frontier and then organize some kind of strike amongst the other members. Are you up for the task?
This is gold… I love this idea of posting your ideas from a place of authentic fun and being non-attached to the outcome… just posting your ideas out there and seeing what sticks.
I’ve always thought this idea of the headline being the most important thing, false and unauthentic. When you write as though talking to your homie friend, it not only becomes easier to write, but your personality shines, and that is what attracts people to you.
Rob, please do write a post on "How to make the move from attached to non-attached” as I need more guidance on this and I’m sure others will do as well.
Happy to be of service haha!