Sticky content, cash cows and online prayers

[Image courtesy of Derek Gavey at Flickr Creative Commons]

The Holy Grail of copy is to create something so compelling that users come back again and again for more.

The idea of ‘sticky content’ has been around for at least 10-15 years, but nobody’s quite cracked it yet. People tire of blogs, and sign off from newsletters, and even reach saturation point when it comes to 140 characters. 

So maybe there isn’t an easy answer, and the solution is to keep creating content and keep showing up (which as Woody Allen once famously said, is 80% of success). 

Or maybe there’s another way.

I wondered about this recently as I read an intriguing book by Nir Eyal. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products was released in 2014, and quickly shot to the top of the Wall Street Journal business bestseller list.

Unsurprisingly, Eyal, who’s an Israeli-American based in Silicon Valley, was instantly in demand by high-tech startups and established players alike. They were keen to tap into his insight and create the killer app that hooks people and doesn’t let them go.

If you’ve every wondered why you go back to Facebook again and again, or why Twitter is like a magnet or Pinterest so compelling, this book is one you have to read. In clear, precise prose, Eyal dissects what it is that makes these programs irresistible. 

And he should know.

Hook, line and sinker

Eyal was one of a group of Stanford MBAs back in 2008 whose startup was looking at ways of inserting adverts into the booming world of online social games. (This was back in the era of Farmville, when people were spending a fortune buying virtual cows on digital farms.)

He identifies four key elements of any product that truly hooks users:

  • Triggers, which cue the user to take action. They’re both external (telling the user what to do by putting information in front of them) and internal (using the user’s associations to get them to act spontaneously). 
  • Actions, where users do something in anticipation of a reward. 
  • Variable rewards, with the emphasis here on the word ‘variable’. If we know exactly what we’re going to get every time, it’s less appealing.
  • Investment, when users reciprocate following a reward, and spend either time or money on the product – which increases the value they place on it.

The book contains some fascinating insights, from Viral Cycle Time (how long it takes one user to invite another – think Facebook again) to why it’s a good idea for Amazon to include links to competitors (improves customer confidence). There’s also a thought-provoking section on whether you’re producing a vitamin (optional, of dubious value) or a painkiller (targeted, essential, effective). 

But for me, the standout quote comes in the Trigger section, and it’s from Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter: 

“If you want to build a product that is relevant to folks, you need to put yourself in their shoes and you need to write a story from their side. So, we spend a lot of time writing what’s called user narratives.”

You said it, Jack.

The greater good

Eyal is at pains to stress that the insights of the book should be used responsibly and he cautions against the dangers of addiction.

Chapter Six (What are you Going to Do With This?) even has a ‘Manipulation Matrix’ – based on whether a product materially improves a user’s life and whether the inventor uses it. It’ll allow you to instantly see if you’re a Entertainer, Facilitator, Peddler or Dealer. Which is useful to know. 

As if to emphasise his point that this should be used for the greater good, he includes a case study of a Bible app that’s gone viral. It’s had over a 100 million downloads, and is opened on average by 60,000 people every second. Eyal examines just how it reached such dizzying heights in a crowded field.

Now I’m no app creator, but I am a content creator. And I think that most of the book is highly relevant if you’re in the business of marketing, communicating or connecting with a reader, prospect or customer. And let’s face it – we all are. 

Just in case you’re thinking you don’t have time to read it, think again. Because after you do, just like me you may be spending a lot less time on Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram – now that you know exactly where the hooks are.

And how they work.