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Website Stickiness

by Todd Kasenberg

I've been challenged, over the course of some recent presentations I've given on Website Effectiveness, to communicate what makes some websites great and others, well, grate.

And as I've thought about some of the advice that I enthusiastically doled out in the aftermath of those workshop sessions, I've had a flashbook (umm, that's when you flashback to a book you've read) to a powerful and easy-to-read tome, Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Just so we are on the same page, a sticky idea is one that has roots and shoots - it's been around a while and has staying power, and is highly memorable.  The premise of their acclaimed (and the acclaim is well earned!) book, for those of you who have yet to read it, is that there is an anatomy to sticky ideas and, better still, a set of principles and practices to creating sticky ideas.  The Heaths have been clever enough to dissect sticky ideas, and have identified six points that are at the heart of stickiness: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotional engagement, and embodiment in story.

Simplicity means getting to the core of our ideas.  It includes concepts of focus, of delivering a single message, of priorities, of efficiency.  This is so critical to website development - too often, websites lack a call to action because they try to achieve too much and, in the end, achieve that which should be dreaded the most - the departure of the website visitor.  To embrace simplicity, adopt practices of questioning the value of every word, of keeping navigation conventional, and of focusing each page on one or two core messages.

Unexpectedness, as defined by the Heaths, happens when we violate the expectations of others.  Sometimes, it can be outrageous, while other times it is gently surprising.  Interest and curiosity are key parts of motivation - without them, we turn to our smart phones and tune out attempts at message delivery.  In the context of the web and web design, unexpectedness can come from big bold text introductions, from dialogue-generating tools, from juxtaposing images in ways that are fun and/or odd, and from custom functionality that we've not seen before.  It's not always easy or inexpensive to achieve cool custom functionality, but it certainly gets you cooing when you see it.

Concreteness captures the importance of making our ideas clear - in terms of human actions and appealing to our senses.  It can mean going beyond the theoretical, the jargon, to something that is in no way ambiguous.  To be concrete on the web, you must not only speak simply and get beyond the tendency to baffle with data and figures (unless they can be made obvious through pictures or images), but you must capture, in your text, the visual nouns that are better remembered.  Stay away from abstractions, from jargon particular to you business and stick to imagery and words that evoke clear meaning.  Tell visitors exactly what your organization does for them - a "You Are Here" signpost that gets to the point on the home page is one of my pet passions.  With every aspect of design, think about what it would be like to be in the shoes of your website visitor, what they would like to do, then design or create concrete interactions accordingly.

When it comes to credibility, the web doesn't make it easy.  If you are like me, you develop impressions about the credibility of the sponsor of the website from the visual esthetic and the accuracy in punctuation, layout, etc. - but that is not the total picture of what makes us trust a website or its parent.  To some extent, credibility on the web comes from being highly ranked at Google, from having other websites refer to you, and from having a presence in other channels (retail stores, offices, etc.)  And in Made to Stick, it is made obvious that credibility also comes from putting things to the test - so page errors, dead ends and "under construction" messages don't help a visitor's perception of trust.  If you make content difficult to access or your site tough to navigate, you're also falling into a trap that will diminish credibility.  Finally, testimonials and case studies, through which you show use of your product or services, can go a long way not only to improving credibility but also concreteness.

Can the web engage emotionally?  It bloody well better, or else we are largely doomed to it being a playscape and not a social agent.  We must never underestimate the importance of evoking an emotional response in the sales process; selling is not a purely rational activity, as many of us know from the car-buying experience.  More and more research is looking at the invocation of emotion as a key driver in buyer decision-making.  So we need to get used to the idea that it is our goal to induce reactions - reactions like "Cool!"  or "Oh, how terrible!" or "Those blasted politicians".  We can do it with brilliant imagery.  We can do it with focused concrete messages.  We can do it by telling very personal stories and anecdotes.  And, as Made to Stick points out, we can do it by derailing the engagement of the "analytical brain" which happens when we spout figures or facts.  The basic way to get someone to care about our message is to connect our message to something that they already care about.  Appeal to identity and self-interest - show how your product or service will benefit the website visitor in real ways that relate to quality of life, and how having it helps them to belong.  Apple does this really, really well, and is considered to be the authority/exemplar on designing for the web.

So with all of the previous advice about keeping it simple and concrete, getting to the point, using images and photos, and engaging emotionally, how do we incorporate story-telling into our web design practices?  It surely is important - from the youngest age, we were being told stories, and in stories we see morality, we find vision, we feel connection. Stories help us to instantly empathize. Think back to the sequence of advertisements, on television, in print and on the web about Jared and the Subway diet.  Powerful stuff, to be sure.  Case studies and testimonials like that can be told on the web and can drive business results.  But better still for engagement, help the website visitor tell you her/his own story of pain, because most of us turn to the web looking to fill a need that is rooted in pain.  Deploy a "story generator" - and even the functionality to allow your visitor to download or print the end result.  Stories have the amazing ability to simulate (which helps website visitors see how it applies to them), to motivate and to create; don't overlook them in your website strategy.


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