Social Media and Marketing Lessons from Fake News Sites

Fake news has been strongly blamed for a lot of things that happened last year, from Hillary Clinton’s election loss to Facebook’s stock decline. Among the popular ones that circulated last year were Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump, Hillary’s alleged emails with John Podesta, Obama’s decision to ban the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, and more obscure ones like a cinnamon can exploding from a shoplifter’s behind. Are there Social Media and Marketing Lessons from Fake News Sites that legitimate websites and digital marketers can learn from all this?

What are fake news sites?

In case you’ve been living under a rock or living as a social media hermit, you’ve probably seen a few of those often sensationalized headlines posing as credible content. Perhaps some of your friends may have fallen victim to these websites, which typically reaffirm their beliefs and are written in such a way that they are prompted to post them on social media, thereby generating a larger reach and ultimately leading to embarrassment once they realize that the information was false.

These pages and articles are created with the intent of catching readers’ attention, appealing to their emotions, and disseminating false and inflammatory information for the purpose of increasing web traffic and social media engagement. In other words, it’s a bunch of lies disguised as content.

Even so, owners of these false news sites seem to have mastered the aspects of digital marketing well enough to drive hundreds of thousands of page views in days, as readers are often drawn to click-bait titles and believe the false information well enough to share it with their social media followers. What’s particularly interesting (and disturbing) is that these fake news sites managed to drive more traffic than larger, well-funded, and more reputable media outlets.

Because of that, digital marketers need to pay more attention to how these sites did it. Of course your website should operate on a more ethical standard but there are some key points worth applying to your own brand.

Aligning marketing goals

As a digital marketer, among your goals are creating content that is of interest to your target audience, making use of a wide range material for search real estate and SEO, targeted promotion on various channels, and a strong social media presence for visibility and engagement. But apart from your website’s credibility, another factor that distinguishes it from fake news is the call to action or conversion.

While fake news sites seek primarily to drive high volumes of web traffic to boost ad revenues, most websites need to convince readers to make a subscription or buy products and services. Most fake news articles appeal to emotion in order to feed into the readers’ biases or political beliefs while legitimate websites try to engage audiences to try something new.

Key takeaways from fake news sites

So how can you take the fake news formula and apply it to something that doesn’t aim to deceive readers? First is to apply the news funnel idea and focus on a particular emotion typically felt by your target audience. Emotional reactions can influence how people view your content and how they engage with your brand so it’s important to narrow your focus to one or a few. This can be an effective way to get a newsletter signup, a social share, or simply to lead the reader to other parts of your website.

Next is to zoom in on a single goal for each article or piece of content. The reason why some articles fail to convert into a sale or signup is that it is trying to do too many things at once, be it to introduce the brand, drive a sale, encourage social media sharing, and boost page views all at the same time. Think of your content as the first impression you make on a new client so you must be clear with your intent rather than overwhelming readers with too much information and driving them away.

Another takeaway is to keep conversion cycles as short as possible. This is aligned with the previous tip on focusing on a single goal, as removing additional steps in your conversion cycle can be good for SEO purposes also. For instance, instead of asking for a lot of information such as the name, address, telephone number, and preferences in a newsletter signup, you can simply ask for the email address as input then allow the readers to customize their updates later on.

Lastly, provide incentives for your readers to share your content on social media. This can be in the form of prizes or discounts for every additional X friends they invite to sign up on your website or a raffle for followers who retweet your posts. This way, you can tap into more networks and reach out to a larger audience through your existing user base. Of course it goes without saying that your content should be one that your readers will be proud and not embarrassed to share.


There are a lot of lessons to be learned, painful or otherwise, from fake news sites and it’s important that your brand is able to stay on top of these online developments instead of getting left behind. What’s crucial is that you retain your credibility and legitimacy versus relying on dirty tactics that draw readers in, as this could prove to be detrimental and of course unethical.

As they say, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. There are several case studies on the proliferation of fake news, particularly during the latter half of 2016, and most have concluded that this can be viewed as a helpful reminder for content marketers to simplify their focus instead of using too many tools and articles to drive engagement or conversion.

The bottom line is that simplicity is still key. While it can be tempting to make use of all the online tools available out there, it makes more sense to utilize the ones that align with your brand and goals.

What do you think about fake news sites? Tweet me @Charli_Says

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