A Brief Explanation of the Chumbox

Content creators and administrators HATE this one weird trick!

Image of a website's chumbox showing clickbait headlines within a picture frame illustration.

You may never have heard of the online advertising presentation method known as the "chumbox," but you've most certainly seen them. They're an excellent source of advertising revenue if you:

  1. Don't care about your audience's experience.
  2. Don't care about dragging your brand's name through the mud.
  3. Don't mind offensive content being served to your audience.
  4. Love clickbait.

Here's what chumboxes are and why you shouldn't use them.

Like fish in a barrel

About ten years ago, online advertisers and marketing specialists started serving advertisements through vendors that generated advertising cards for their clients. These vendors sold panels of ads to websites trying to collect passive revenue through banner-ad-like presentations injected into their site's flow. While the older banner ads typically took up the entire screen width—hence the "banner" in the name—these new collections of advertising cards were smaller, allowing for more potential advertisements to be displayed to site visitors.

The name chumbox comes from the fishing world. To draw certain types of fish to where you are and hopefully get a bite, you dump a bucket of gross fish parts, blood, and other viscera into the water. The fish, smelling the tasty bits, come straight to you. Then, they either get caught in a net or caught on a hook.

This moniker took to the practice due to the vendors' high level of content optimization. Metrics derived from these advertising cards about clickthrough rates were quickly and easily gathered. A trend emerged—the more titillating, the more shocking, the more engaging or enraging the advertisement was, the better it would perform. Soon, aliens and blood and gore and celebrity infidelity and conspiracy theories and this one simple trick were the highest performing ads. And some incredibly offensive content was being generated and served to otherwise unsuspecting viewers.

It turned out that many of the fish didn't like the smell.

This bucket of blood and gore was presented (and still is) on tons of sites, many barely related to the served advertisements, but it was all styled to look like it was simply another part of the page. Soon, much like other platforms that have had advertisers boycott ad placement, many websites pushed back against these types of ads and abandoned these vendors altogether. Likewise, users who didn't enjoy such evocative nonsense pulled away from sites that continually pushed these ads into their browsers. Much to the horror of online advertisers and marketing specialists, they even installed adblockers on devices that would support them.

Indeed, many online communities have popped up in response to the sea of clickbait that has proliferated online in the last decade. The subreddit r/savedyouaclick, for instance, has archived clickbait links with the spoiler already provided in post titles. It does what it says on the tin—it saves the user a click to find out whatever the ad's ridiculous claim is based on, without giving any revenue to the company serving the ad.

The stink lingers

The reason you shouldn't use chumbox vendors to serve ads is twofold:

  1. You have no control over what other cards are placed next to yours and what you might become associated with. Do you want your brand to be displayed next to an Infowars claim that the Illuminati are creating clones of world leaders? How about next to ableist or bigoted language?
  2. Most users either block ads or visit communities that tell them what the clickbait title eventually claims, making your payment to vendors and the administrative process of managing your relationship with them pointless.

And the reason you shouldn't try to monetize your site with chumboxes is as simple as not having much control over what gets injected into your site. A continual poor user experience for those not using adblockers will drive them away from your site and to places that don't serve potentially offensive ads. An accidental click that sends a user to a shady external site will generally discourage them from clicking on links on your pages—after all, they fell for it once, and now they feel insulted.

There's a reason that many companies have moved towards purchasing ad time on content creators' videos and podcasts in recent years. You've seen those videos brought to you by Squarespace, ButcherBox, and HelloFresh—they know that they won't accidentally get placed next to content that could damage their brand. The exposure might be technically lower than what a chumbox can give. Still, the engagement will be much higher due to brand association with creators who have communities that trust their opinions.

So steer clear of the world of chum and put your advertising dollars where they will get you high-quality engagements. There's no need to waste your time and energy damaging your brand's reputation by associating it with made-for-advertising nonsense.