Last week's issue of Bloomberg Businessweek ran a groundbreaking story that weather.com no longer focuses on weather, and that their traffic went through the roof after they started writing "clickbait" à la Upworthy. Who knew?
Clickbait is a controversial term that's hard to define. One person's clickbait is another person's headline-of-the-year. Usually, you know it when you see it: "You Won't BELIEVE What This Vet Did To This Homeless Man!" or "20 OUTRAGEOUS Things This Kid Did. #5 Is Hilarious! LOL!"
I've been guilty of crappy headlines, some of which I genuinely regret (the hed on this article about radar software upgrades still makes me want to punch myself), but the king of the terrible, misleading headlines goes to weather.com by a landslide. Even when we have a crappy headline anywhere in the Gawker Media blogosphere, visitors get to read the lead paragraph for more information before clicking the article:
The same goes for other popular weather sites such as the Capital Weather Gang*, where readers can read a short blurb before clicking the article. Most news websites, however, just offer a short headline for your consumption. Some stories need no fluffing—"Second Texas Nurse Catches Ebola," for example—but others, especially non-news stories, need a zingy headline to force your curious finger.
*(Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute to the CWG.)
Weather.com is one of those organizations. They have no lede or summary to go along with their articles. They've got to force you to click somehow, and they try to scare you into giving them traffic. Friday's sampling on weather.com is actually more reasonable than normal, with a full two of their nine top stories being about the weather. However, the big headlines withhold information or are just misleading:
- This Is Rarely Ever Seen
- Close Call with a Comet Soon
- Abandoned and Left to ROT
- Fracking Caused Hundreds of These
- You Won't Believe These Places are Real!
We rarely see two hurricanes approach Bermuda in one week, a comet will approach Mars, a Belgian castle was left to rot, fracking caused earthquakes in Ohio, and yes, those places are real.
Today, three of their nine top stories are about the weather—one of the irrelevant stories is about Mark Zuckerberg buying up $100 million worth of land in Hawaii (titled "Oh, Zuckerberg...").
Much to the chagrin of weather purists, this tangential focus on weather and ridiculous headlines are wildly successful tactics. Weather.com's traffic nearly doubled after they turned into "Upworthy: Weather Edition," as New Republic puts it.
The entire basis of the Businessweek article is that The Weather Channel is proud of the fact that it's on the verge of turning into a WINO (Weather In Name Only). Executives don't seem to mind, either, as long as its everything-but-the-weather tactic rakes in the dough. David Kenny, CEO of The Weather Company, tweeted out a link to the article several times.
The less-weather-more-fluff technique also goes for the network's reality programming. TWC's president seemed to confirm on Twitter that they renewed Fat Guys in the Woods for a second season after I mentioned the show during a multi-tweet rant about the network airing reality shows instead of the weather.
When you look at it from a business perspective, it's not a bad idea. Quiet weather isn't sexy—over the past month, The Vane's traffic has taken a huge hit because we stick strictly to the weather, which has been decidedly lacking in drama and excitement lately. It's tough to gussy up and sell a sunny sky.
For as much as people complain about it, the numbers don't lie: they love to read outrageous, irrelevant stories. The Weather Channel hedged its bets and figured that it's more financially lucrative to alienate its base than stick to the weather and hope for the best. Weather.com is your grandma's Upworthy, and you won't BELIEVE how hard they're laughing all the way to the bank.