A few years ago, a data scientist had a problem. He’d been conducting experiments on human behavior for years, hoping to find the answer to a question that had stumped scientists the world over.

So far, every experiment had predictable results… except one.

No matter how many times he repeated it and adjusted his process, his data for this particular experiment always came back with strange results.

What was this mystery?

To find out, let’s look at what it takes to capture someone’s attention online.

The Science of Clickbait

Almost every blog has a post that explains how to write a perfect blog post. Duct Tape Marketing has a 16-step checklist. Copyblogger has an 11-step infographic. And Buffer has all kinds of data about optimal lengths, sharing times, and everything else.

And you probably opened all of those links just now, because they’re kind of irresistible. They’re guaranteed traffic drivers. And other bloggers know that, which is why they keep writing them and you keep reading them.

But they’re all missing something.

And they leave it out because it’s the one thing you can’t fix with data.

In fact, you can find it by looking at what they include and then asking yourself what’s missing.

Take that first link. The checklist is really just maintenance. It claims to be a checklist for writing a perfect blog post, but if you followed that process, you could literally fill a post with nothing but stray paragraphs from around the web and it would still “pass.” It’s helpful, but it’s purely functional. That’s like saying the secret to writing the perfect book is to make sure it has page numbers.

The second link is a little better, because it gets into the writing itself. It even lays out what it thinks are the ingredients of a compelling story. And it gets bonus points for admitting that all those storytelling techniques are only mercenary tactics to be used to lure readers in. At least they’re being honest about their intentions.

The last link is similar to the checklist, in that it’s based entirely on data. A lot of it is useful — especially because it reveals how readers actually interact with media. We skim. We’re easily bored. Half of you probably skipped this paragraph entirely.

But even all that user data can’t answer the one question you should be asking yourself before you start writing.

To reveal that question, let’s go back to our data scientist.


This Is the Part Where You Hate Me

Remember our experiment with the crazy data?

It doesn’t really exist.

Neither does the scientist.

That whole anecdote was made up. But it got your attention, didn’t it? You were so interested in finding out the answer to the mystery that you didn’t stop to wonder if there was really a mystery at all.

That’s not your fault. Or mine. It’s the fault of the perfect blog structure.

Go back to all three of those links and you’ll see that each one suggests a hook, storytelling, and a payoff. This is what we’ve been conditioned to expect from blog posts now, along with bullet points and bolded sentence fragments for people who don’t have time to read.

Like Pavlovian dogs, we skim through setup-argument-twist-lesson-payoff over and over and over again, without even noticing it.

Pay close attention to the blogs you read and notice how often this exact same structure arises. Then ask yourself how many of those anecdotes were real, or were they just invented to support our clickbait addiction?

Everything that exists needs to be fed. And if you have a blog, you feel obliged to grow it. That means you’re supposed to blog regularly, and often, so that the search engines will reward you with more traffic. It’s a self-perpetuating problem: we all write the same listicles and how-to articles, which creates a glut of content, which we then need data scientists and SEO experts to help us break through.

And all for what?

There’s the real question you should be asking yourself before you create another piece of content to publish into the void:

“Does this need to exist?”

Or, phrased more tangibly:

“Will writing this help people, thrill people, or enlighten people? Or will it just create more white noise that others will have to strain to be heard above?”

Not every book needs to be a masterpiece. Nor does every video, podcast, blog post, or any other piece of media you create. This isn’t about who deserves to create media, or what media deserves to exist.

This is about understanding what you as a creator — and an audience — really need.

If what you make doesn’t matter — to you, or anyone else — why bother?

Why make more content to give the SEO people something to do?

Isn’t there enough distraction already?

Jars image by nicholasjon and Mad Scientist image by Flowtastic, both on Flickr.

Categories: Social Media


Jared A. Chambers · July 14, 2015 at 1:23 pm

YES! I’ve been purely frustrated by the number of smart people, whom I am sure know it is a gimmick, writing post after post that follow the model of “X things (smart/successful/productive/other superlative adjective) (always/never) (do/say).” Christ. Stop the madness! There’s no magic formula. Always and never are theoretical abstractions that rarely work in reality. Superlatives are usually best defined in your own way. Why not simply try to add value, based on experience and principles, in a way that compels and entertains your audience? I may get fewer clicks because my post titles don’t have numbered lists that make you feel excluded from the ranks of “real” smart and successful people, but I like to think that I’m building a much more valuable platform.

Jim Mitchem · July 12, 2015 at 9:55 am

This is why as a writer, I have a hard time saying that I’m “a blogger.”

suziwalks · July 7, 2015 at 9:05 pm


Abedrossian · July 6, 2015 at 1:43 pm

Haha! Manipulating us to show how manipulation works.
Stop being a robot and put out what matters to you. I don’t follow the blog formula, and hence probably in no small part, I have a small readership. There is so much noise, it gets disheartening, but at least avenues are more open to the individual than ever before.

Anatomy of a Blog Post | Justin Kownacki · July 27, 2015 at 12:11 am

[…] to them and hopefully they’ll read me and promote me to their audiences — as well as a link to basically the same article that I wrote three weeks ago, so you’ll think I’m […]

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