While we'd love to begin this blog post with a straightforward definition of link bait, we can't, because the word itself forces an important question, one with the power to decide the outcome of every individual effort:
Is link bait about catching links or people?
The question comes up because the word itself is just asking for it. “Bait” implies a trap, a devious little game. Bait is attractive, of course, and fish eat it because fish are dim, cold-blooded objects who cannot shut their eyes. Well, that's what the word calls to mind, anyway. But here at TCF, we like fishes, and we think this is the wrong way to go. Forget about the backlinks, we say. Instead, strive to remember the functional definition of linkbait. Whether you write it, film it or record it, your primary goal is to create a piece of Internet content so compelling that others simply must link to it.
It's a great first question to ask. It should force any writer to stop for a moment and think about what they themselves would like to read. And so here's what we think link bait might be. Whatever else it is – however much it's about wildfire and tipping points – link bait is essentially a creative piece of writing that makes readers forget that they're on the Internet and steals five minutes from their lives.
First and foremost, link bait is great content. You also get valuable backlinks when you write link bait effectively – which will continue to drive traffic to your site for months after the content has fallen from the first page of your blog. In fact, one of the most popular pieces of link bait we’ve ever written for a client has been on sex toys – the Top 10 Sex Toys of 2010. It’s received over 15,000 views since we posted it back in January, and it’s still the most popular blog on the site.
Create Your Own Virus
Let's be honest, though. You want to catch people, otherwise you wouldn't be writing linkbait. While we recommended forgetting about the backlinking opportunities themselves (you can't succeed if the content isn't there), you still have to remember what you're really trying to do when you write link bait: getting people to pay attention and then getting them to act. Part of creating great content is having a good idea, an idea that's likely to spread. In fact, the people who are just thinking about linking opportunities are the ones who are the most likely to cut corners, to go with the first thing that comes to mind, to do a simple list of some kind and stock it with filler.
Why bother? Cliches don't go viral. Uninteresting material will not. Clumsy writing seldom does. (Technically it's probably not a great idea to mix a bunch of metaphors either, but we can't talk about fishing anymore because now it's gotta be viruses – and to get into piscine viruses is just going to be get ridiculous fast.) Michael Sacca from TinyFac, suggests using a controversial tone when writing linkbait.
So what do we know about how ideas spread?
These days, everyone knows about memes. Coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, the word meme is meant to get us to look at an idea from the idea's point of view, as if it were a life form seeking to colonize other minds. Successful memes spread by reproducing – by jumping from mind to mind. In order to do that, the idea has to be strongly appealing, whether that means that it's useful, funny or just so “catchy” that there's just no resisting. If memes themselves had minds, they'd think, “How am I gonna appeal to people? What do they want? How do I get inside?”
So what do people want? Do you know? Probably. Assuming that you're a discriminating person, the chances are good that what you want to see is what others want to see. To create your own thought virus, spend some time with the only audience who will stick around while you work out the mechanics of enthrallment – yourself.
Look for an idea that really grabs your attention in some way, even if you're not sure it's the right approach. You'll know you're on the right track when you find yourself honestly hooked by what you're researching or writing. Maybe you're learning something new as you go, and it interests you. Or maybe your goal is maximum humor, and you just start tweaking. Whatever your specific goal, there's a way to do it well. You'll just have to find it.
5 Things to Consider Before Writing Link Bait
To start writing link bait you just need a decent idea, a little confidence and a few awesome tips for how to write content. We have a couple for you, so grab a nice cup of coffee and consider these:
- Take some risks. You have an employer, and you want to please him or her. Or maybe you're self-employed and you're trying to figure out where the line exactly is. Too often, this leads to a conservative approach. If you want to get people talking, you yourself are going to have to speak, that's all. What do you want to say? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (By the way, avoid cliches. We weren’t kidding when we said they don’t go viral. Why would they, when everyone knows them already?)
- Make your tips great ones. When you're doing a tip-based article, really try to find some good tips, don’t just write the generic stuff you find on About.com. Dive down deep and become an expert. People want to read real insider tips on any given topic, but those same people can smell landfill from a mile away – just like you can.
- Learn how to not be not funny. Bad humor is like bad magic: if the audience can see the coin, well then how'd you get this gig? In humor, like in no other form of writing, intent really matters. When it shines through – when you're either asking or telling people to laugh – your obvious trick is obvious. The subtleties of this are too numerous to name, but generally it's good to have at least some sort of meta-awareness. Stand outside of your piece and look at it from high above.
- Re-edit your edits. You’ll also want to check everything, down to the order of the ideas and words in your individual sentences, because if there's one tip for humor writing (aside from the content), it's that. Punchlines come at the end, right? They should in your sentences too. Make it so that your funniest sentences can't be understood until the final word – the punchline – is read.
- Play with pacing. Run-on sentences are legit when they're consciously crafted, and they're even better when juxtaposed with shorter ones. Density matters too. While there are certainly many types of humor you can explore, the “popcorn” style is definitely up there when it comes to linkbait. To achieve it, check to make sure that every single sentence contains something off the wall or outright funny. To mix some more metaphors, if you're seeking to infect fish with viruses, don't drop the ball.
Simply Put: You Gotta Write Well
If you're going to write link bait successfully, you have to be able to telegraph through the content writing itself that you know “the rules.” You've got to first write well, or you'll lose the people who perceive that they're better than you. That means being aware of all the little sentence-level things that are so easy to neglect.
Commas show how your mind works. Commas are everywhere – you have to use them – and so they're often the canary in the coal mine when a reader is trying to decide if a writer is maybe not so good. You have to be careful not to abuse them, but you can break comma rules when you can somehow telegraph that you know them.
An independent clause is a full sentence within a sentence, and this sentence contains two. When two indy clauses are joined by the words or, and or but, a comma is prescribed. But what if the pacing is far better without it? What if no speaker would pause there? Commas can also, of course, be used to signify a pause or a breath. Unless, you put it someplace silly. Like right there. Writers who make that type of decision cannot get away with using commas as breaths. At least not quite yet.
How do you telegraph that you know the rules? By not making elementary mistakes elsewhere in your writing. Drop the necessary comma or add the elective one when you're sure your writing is otherwise spot-on. Follow the actual rules often (look them up!) and make each departure a choice. The feeling of consciousness is always the benchmark for our little experiments.
Just beclause. The clauses in your sentences are like beads on a necklace: each one's a discrete, self-contained unit, and yet they're part of a whole. What kind of necklace would you have if you took one bead and cut it in uneven halves, then inserted two clashing beads of different sizes between them – and placed the second half of the first bead backwards? You'd have one lousy piece of jewelry.
It's common for people to jam clauses into strange spaces. We sometimes feel free to suspend ideas and concepts, to divorce key ideas from one another so that they no longer register and to generally wreck the logic of a sentence. We do this mostly because it's how we speak. But writing isn't speaking – writing a sentence means doing algebra. Check to make sure that words and functions aren't attempting to distribute forward in weird ways, and check to make sure that suspended structures resolve fully. Unless your aim is unease, tension and incompleteness. When it is, and when you're conscious about it, it'll show.
Make it pop. Great Internet content doesn't lose the reader, even when the reader has a super-short attention span. While great writing is divergent in terms of style (shout-out to our convoluted homies in the 19th century), every writer can become more conscious of their work by striving to produce clear sentences. If you feel your writing might be a big foggy, count the nouns. Look at their positions and frequency. Seriously. Nouns are images, and the brain deals in pictures. A dead spot in a sentence often simply lacks purchase points.
On the other hand, adjectives, when used to excess, can obscure rather than illuminate. They're more vague, but still fantastic for meter and pacing – for the beat and sound of a sentence. And verbs? They're lightning in the dark. Pick the right one every time and ditch the homebrew pyrotechnics. Watch the storm with Mark Twain from your porch.
Be conscious. Just in case we've actually been unclear here, your degree of consciousness about writing is visible in your writing. Consciousness is everything. It's how you telegraph your intent beneath the words, and it's always on display. There are certain mistakes that are so egregious that if you make them and make them with a clear conscious, it is recommended that you go to the libarry at once and read some books on the subject. Just to make sure you're conscience.
Break the rules when you've got a reason. “The rules” are great, and we're big fans of them. They're necessary, because without them there'd be no standard. Always remember this, though: you earn the right to break them when you do it for effect and when your intent is clear – and that itself is a rule. You can start sentences with and and but (unless you're just not good at it, although this was never a rule anyway!) and sentence fragments can help in terms of pacing and tone.
Being consciously creative at the sentence level is something that real writers do, and it's bound to help you in your linkbaiting efforts so long as you're sure you're not making embarrassing gaffes along the way. To break the rules, first learn them. Then and only then does writing become something like speaking. Link bait is either tough or easy. It's got a definition and it's whatever you decide.
It's one half science and one half art, and if anyone's going to teach you, it's you. Just like learning to do anything, learning to write effective link bait requires something that often seems to be in short supply these days: focused attention and a little bit of hard work. Link bait won't write itself, you know, and tips can only light the way. Put that in your rod and smoke it, and good luck to you in your quest to spread some germs at the magic show.