Watchbait Me Now
Why do creators insist on "tricking" users into viewing their content?
As I’m publishing this on April 1, I feel obliged to mention that this post contains no April Fools’ jokes whatsoever.
Welcome to Edition No. 10 of my weekly digital strategy newsletter, providing practical analysis of the latest in the world of content creation.
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I. News: Good News from Google for (Local) Publishers
II. Analysis: What’s the Deal with Watchbait and Clickbait?
III. Tip: How Do you Create ‘Goals’ in GA4? (Spoiler: You Don’t)
GOOD NEWS FROM GOOGLE FOR (LOCAL) PUBLISHERS
In an effort to fight misinformation, Google announced new initiatives that will help users find trustworthy sources in search results.
“We’re introducing a way to help you identify stories that have been frequently cited by other news organizations, giving you a simple way to find the most helpful or relevant information for a news story.”
The nature of working for a hyperlocal news outlet is that you’re either the only one covering the majority of what happens in your coverage area, or your competition is a larger outlet that occasionally parachutes in for the “bigger” stories.
So when you break something – i.e. you’re the first to report it – that goes viral, what often happens is regional and national outlets drop in like vultures and steal the spotlight, and in the process, omit important details and bungle the facts.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with regional and national news outlets, except when they ride the coattails of a local reporter who’s been working night and day to report something that is then sliced into 100 different pieces, misconstrued and in the worse cases, without ever crediting the original source.
STUDY: FACEBOOK INTEREST TARGETING ISN’T VERY ACCURATE
From NC State researchers:
“For example, if you posted something about how much you dislike green cheese, the algorithm Facebook uses to infer your interests would likely notice that you shared something about green cheese,” says Aafaq Sabir, lead author of a paper on the work and a Ph.D. student at NC State. “But Facebook’s algorithm wouldn’t register the context of your post: that you do not like green cheese. As a result, you may start getting targeted ads for green cheese.”
They conducted two experiments. The first was based on 14 accounts they created, for which “33.22% of the inferred interests were inaccurate or irrelevant.”
In a second study of 146 participants, that number dropped slightly to 29.3 percent, though “most” of the users were “unaware of the availability of Facebook’s ad preference manager, interest inference process, and even interest explanations.”
This is bad for Meta because it erodes marketers’ trust in how effective their ads will be on its platforms.
(This comes at the same time as news that Meta paid a Republican firm to tarnish TikTok’s reputation by seeding fear in the American public.)
YES, YOU SHOULD USE (RELEVANT) HASHTAGS ON INSTAGRAM
Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri made waves with this comment on his Instagram account a couple weeks ago:
“…in general, no, I wouldn’t try to think of hashtags as a way to get more distribution.”
This goes directly against Instagram’s documentation. From a post titled “Breaking Down How Instagram Search Works”: “Use relevant keywords and hashtags in captions. For a post to be found in Search, put keywords and hashtags in the caption, not the comments.”
After Mosseri’s comment, people freaked out about whether to continue using hashtags, which was an overblown panic in and of itself.
So Wednesday, someone asked him about this during an AMA in his Stories. First off, I love how he opens the response:
I’m not trying to make fun of Mosseri, but he’s doing an AMA on his personal account, so people can ask him questions, and the question itself says “you,” and he begins with “I’m not sure who you’re speaking to but…”
(To be fair, I don’t believe he ever said the exact words “hashtags on Instagram don’t matter.”)
He then said, “I’m not saying hashtags don’t matter, I’m saying they’re not going to meaningfully change the amount of reach you get when you post.”
Perhaps that’s true in the algorithmic main feed, but Instagram’s official blog makes it clear that hashtags can make your post more visible in search results (emphasis mine): “…we use information from accounts, hashtags and places — called signals — to rank your search results.”
It appears Mosseri simply misspoke, and is stuck in the uncomfortable position of not wanting to admit he made a mistake while also trying not to further contradict his company’s documentation.
Is a hashtag going to make your post go viral? Probably almost definitely not. Could more people see your post because they search for a hashtag included in your post’s caption? Of course.
But if your post isn’t high-quality to begin with, you can put a million hashtags and probably not increase your reach, because it’s just one of many signals. But if you’re creating good content and using relevant hashtags, you probably increase your posts’ chances of being discovered by users who don’t otherwise follow you.
SHORTS DON’T HELP YOU WITH YPP ELIGIBILITY
In order to qualify for the YouTube Partner Program, your channel needs at least 4,000 hours of publicly watched video in the last 12 months.
The company recently confirmed that watch time on Shorts – YouTube’s version of TikToks – does not help you qualify.
What’s the benefit of qualifying for the YouTube Partner Program? “The YouTube Partner Program (YPP) gives creators greater access to YouTube resources and monetization features. It also allows revenue sharing from ads being served on your content.”
In other words, it’s how people make money on YouTube.
Shorts do, however, have a separate creator fund of $100 million.
UPDATES & TESTS
Update: New messaging features:
Send silent messages. In case you’re afraid you might wake someone up with a 2 a.m. notification ping (#TeamNotificationsAlwaysOnSilentAnyway)
Send 30-second song previews via Apple, Amazon and Spotify
Reply to DMs from your Feed, without leaving your Feed (so you don’t lose your spot)
Click the above link for the full list of features.
Test: A Feed format that’s very similar to TikTok:
Update: Creator analytics, post analytics, the ability to highlight your LinkedIn newsletter on your profile, and more.
The hope is that these tools will make it more likely for users to create original content on the platform.
Test: May be adding a watch history tool. The test screenshotted by Twitter user @hammodoh1 indicates that you would be able to view your history for seven days, as well as wipe it clean.
This would be useful if you saw a video in your For You feed, couldn’t remember whose account it was, and wanted to come back to it later.
Update: Search chips would allow users to further refine results after performing a search.
Test: A collaborate feature, very much like Instagram’s. “You can only invite people who have a public account and who follow you back.”
Brand partnerships would benefit from this, as would journalists collaborating on stories. This could also be a great way for larger accounts to amplify the reach of a smaller account by lending them their platform on a per-tweet basis.
This isn’t completely revolutionary, as you can obviously tag someone in a tweet now, but it would assure both accounts show up in each other’s feeds as a native tweet.
Why is There So Much Watchbait and Clickbait?
Meta announced last week a long overdue war on “watchbait,” which they define as “using tactics like withholding key information, sensationalizing content, or misleading viewers about the true nature of the video.”
In other words, clickbait for videos.
I caved last week and clicked on a Facebook video promising a “huge surprise” (paraphrasing) a soldier received from his wife upon returning from war. Two things were clear from the first few seconds: 1) the surprise was that she was “pregnant” and 2) everything was staged.
The video lasted at least 8 minutes if I remember correctly, and every time the “wife” was about to reveal the surprise, something happened to interrupt the moment – a tactic to prolong watch time.
Officially, Meta gives three algorithm factors that most affect what shows up in your Feed: 1) who posted it 2) type of content 3) interactions with the post.
Of those three, the third is the one over which we have the most control. Although in its details on No. 2 Facebook says “We prioritize the type of content you interact with most frequently, whether it's photos, videos, or links you favor,” anyone with an Instagram account may find that hard to believe.
As Shira Ovide pointed out in the NYT On Tech newsletter a few weeks ago, “Facebook Will Make You Love Reels.” (Paywall.) Essentially she points out that Meta is desperate not to lose its younger audience, believes Reels (their TikTok copycat) is the way to retain them, and will “[shove them] into our eye holes.”
If it’s true that Meta is going to serve us Reels on Instagram and Facebook whether we like it or not, and we also have no control over “who posted” the content (factor No. 1), that leaves us with interactions as the one big-bucket area where we still have a voice.
Why create clickbait/watchbait?
Meta isn’t the only platform subject to clickbait/watchbait* We see it on Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. Even homepages of news outlets, in order to keep you on their website/app longer.
*From now on I’m going to say watchbait when referring to video, clickbait when referring to articles/non-video content, and CWB when referring to both
CWB creators have multiple objectives, and the primary one is never to inform the user in good faith. If that were the case, the content would deliver on what its title promised.
The endgame for creating any content, in the majority of cases, is to earn money – directly or indirectly – and CWB can contribute in various ways:
The watchbait is the product
Whether it’s via shared ad revenue, which YouTube does best, or via a fund pool, the more views a creator racks up, the more money they receive.
The watchbait promotes a product
If you’re already seeing the video in your feed (either as an ad, suggested content, in Explore, on the FYP), you didn’t have to tap in order to view. So the watchbait in this case would be in the caption, or via text overlay after you have already “opened” the video. e.g. “I never slept so well until I tried this product!”
And the video itself features something you can buy directly on the platform, such as in Reels or on TikTok.
The CWB takes you to an owned platform, where you’re served ads
If the creator can entice you to visit their site, their ad impressions will increase, and so will their revenue. Since impressions are typically worth pennies or fractions of pennies, they need a lot of conversions to make a significant amount of money. (This is why so many news organizations have begun staking their survival on subscriptions instead of ads.)
The watchbait is content marketing
The creator wants to expose you to their “brand” (a broadly defined term in this case). A win for them would be that you follow their account after watching the video. Maybe even visit their website or app. The goal is to build trust so that you eventually buy a product or subscription from them directly, so they can pocket 100 percent of the profit instead of sharing it with TikTok or Pinterest, for example.
So if the end goal is one of those four (or more) KPIs, why do creators and brands rely on such an all-or-nothing tactic?
You either accomplish your goal, or your content is ignored, or worse, your account is muted or denounced:
If your brand is unknown to the user, you have one shot, in most cases, to draw them in or lose them forever.
I believe that the only reason someone would build their social media strategy around CWB tactics is because they don’t believe their content is good enough on its own, so they resort to tricking people.
Think about your favorite news sources and creators. Do you follow them because every time they post something, you have no idea what you’re going to see when tapping through, or do you follow them because you like their content and it consistently delivers on your expectations?
Every time you interact with a post in your Feed – on any algorithmic social media platform – you’re casting a vote. Every click, comment, like, share etc. is an indication that you want to see more from that particular account and/or similar content.
The best way to vote “against” content that comes across your Feed, then – understanding that every platform has its nuances – is to hide, mute or denounce it (the latter only in good faith, as you could do unintended damage to someone’s account standing). A lesser but still effective tactic would be to ignore it altogether.
Even spending time with the post visible on your screen – without clicking through or interacting in any other way – can be an indication that you like what you see, thus opening the door to more similar content.
It’s encouraging that Facebook and other platforms would take steps to penalize watchbait so that it’s kept out of our Feed in the first place. But the real power is in the masses, who vote with their taps and their time.
The best cure for watchbait, then, is to not watch at all.
Can you think of other watchbait and clickbait objectives? Share them in the comments.
Where are ‘Goals’ in Google Analytics 4?
If Goals are an integral part of your Universal Analytics setup, you’ll be wondering where you can find them in Google Analytics 4.
Well, you can’t. Goals don’t exist in Google Analytics 4. But Conversions do. And Conversions in GA4 are the equivalent of Goals in UA.
And while there are many ways to set up a Goal in UA, setting up a Conversion in GA4 – at least the act of “turning on” a Conversion – is much simpler.
To create a Conversion in GA4, you simply mark any event(s) of your choosing as Conversions in the Configure > Events dashboard:
You can also “pre-create” conversion Events in the Configure > Conversions dashboard. This is basically a way of “reserving” an event so that as soon as it’s created, it starts collecting conversion data.
If you’re wondering how to create Events in GA4, that’s a more complicated topic. Next week I’ll include a link to a blog post explaining exactly how to do so.
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That’s certainly not always the case. See: the NY Times or the Washington Post, for example.
In fact, the algorithms Meta, Google and others employ are much more complicated than these three factors, but it’s a way for Meta to explain their algorithm in layman’s terms without making every detail public.
These are great places to discover posts you wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not bashing algorithmic recommendations. Simply those who try to take advantage of them with low-quality content.