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Recently, I’ve been thinking about clickbait and how often I see it when I’m browsing the internet. While a bit annoying, it’s easy to understand why writers sometimes choose to use it, as any piece of online content has to compete with a thousand others for a casual reader’s attention.
However, while it might seem modern, it may surprise you to learn that this attention-grabbing trick is much older than you might initially think.
When you start to dig, you can trace the roots of clickbait all the way back to the puritans of 17th century England. Read on to find out how it came to be and what it can teach you about marketing.
Puritans took advantage of print to spread their message more effectively
As you may remember from school, the puritans were a group of highly devout Protestants who espoused for a more godly, decent, and moral society.
They only had one problem – nobody wanted to listen to them. Just like today, many 17th century Brits didn’t really have much interest in giving up their worldly comforts, even in exchange for their eternal salvation.
This problem forced the puritans to change tactics and focus more of their energy on printed media, rather than public preaching.
As I mentioned in my previous blog about the English Civil War, it was during this period that printed media, like newspapers, really took off in England. The invention of cheap printing made it easier than ever before for a message to be spread quickly to a large audience – and the puritans took full advantage of this.
“Murder pamphlets” grabbed readers’ attention with lurid headlines
Early attempts at spreading their message through literature were not especially successful and a lot of the material was only really circulated within puritan communities. To overcome this, they decided to seek the advice of professional printers, who had a greater understanding of what the public typically liked.
One of the most successful results of this was the creation of so-called “murder pamphlets”, which you could realistically describe as the earliest example of clickbait.
These typically aimed to lure in a reader with a particularly lurid story on the front cover, often involving shocking crimes, to grab attention. While they often started earnestly, the pamphlets would slowly transition into a moral story which espoused puritan values.
One of the most famous examples involved the gruesome murder of a London merchant at the hands of a mob when he was found out to have been stealing alms meant for the poor. As you can imagine, this would have been an excellent opportunity for a puritan writer to moralise, and to stress the importance of honesty and decency.
Puritan writers used wonders as a way to communicate their own message
In a similar vein, “wonder pamphlets” often reported strange and exciting events but with a puritan spin on the interpretation. These typically featured tales about wondrous births, witches, and freak natural events.
One of the most fascinating examples of this was a story from 17th century Norfolk in which a congregation were terrorised by a “great grey ball” which burst through the belltower in a thunderstorm. According to the source:
“Mr Hobbs, being in the pulpit, saw men fall some one way, and some another, in such manner that he thought they had been all struck dead.
“There was a great and hideous outcry in the church, and in the confusion there was one man found stark dead and many others lamed. One woman who sat in the porch is so weak it is thought she will not live. It did raze and tear the Church wall in two places on the inside.”
To the modern reader, we would immediately recognise this phenomenon as “ball lightning” but a person back then would have no idea at all. This was of course great material for the puritan writers to explain this freak event as an example of God’s wrath and use it to push their message about the need for moral reform.
As you might imagine, due to the nature of their subjects, these pamphlets proved incredibly popular. This allowed the puritans to vastly increase their audience and spread their message much more effectively.
The puritans can teach you some important rules about engaging with your readers
While using clickbait is rarely advisable when writing for a professional audience, there are important lessons that we can learn from the puritans:
Engage your audience in a way that they’ll understand
The first lesson is that it’s important to produce content that your audience will understand, as this can help to keep them engaged with your message. It’s important to be able to relate to your reader if you want to be able to communicate effectively.
Make sure your content adds value and entertains the reader
Another important lesson is that your content needs to engage the reader. If it isn’t interesting and useful to your audience, it’s less likely to make an impact. While the moral message of a murder pamphlet was the same as typical puritan literature, the way that they expressed the message was much more engaging.
Don’t be afraid to innovate
If a particular marketing strategy isn’t working, you might benefit from a change of tactic. For example, if written testimonials aren’t effectively communicating the value that working with you adds, client videos might be more effective.
Keep your content fresh
Like with the wonder pamphlets that reported strange recent events, if you want your content to interest the reader then it’s important to make sure your content is fresh and relevant to the audience. A topical piece is usually much more attractive than an “evergreen” article.
Work with an expert if you’re struggling
Writing can be a tricky job sometimes, so if you’re struggling then you may benefit from working with an expert. A professional copywriter can help you to communicate your message as effectively as possible, spreading awareness of your business and giving you one less thing to worry about.
Get in touch
If you want to provide your clients with high-quality, fact-checked updates, blogs, or newsletters, we can help. Get in touch with us at [email protected] or call 0115 8965 300.