A sticking point on the subject of “stickiness”

Yesterday, I spilled coffee in the cupholder of my car.  No big deal.  But today, it revealed a curious discovery about an important aspect of modern marketing:  the phenomenon known as “stickiness.”  We’ve all heard this term in the last several years, probably in many different contexts.  But what’s really happening in a “sticky” exchange, and is there something tangible for us to take away?  The coffee spill in my car provided one ineluctable clue.

First, let’s review what “stickiness” is.  This term came of age about the time websites and web development began standardization discussions. Sticky sites are those that have the ability to attract repeat visits, or to keep visitors there longer, by virtue of content or customization or both.  Basically, just about every website WANTS to be sticky, but not all of them are. Malcolm Gladwell, in his paradigm-defining book The Tipping Point, quantified the “stickiness factor” as the informational content and packaging of a marketing message. He argued that some messages are sticky (and therefore remain active in the consumer/recipient’s mind,) and others simply are not (and thereby forgotten, or worse, not transmitted or spread.)

These are both helpful clues, but they may leave out one critical factor.  In my opinion (as evidenced by the coffee spill I mentioned above,) stickiness is not as much a phenomenon as it is a process.  And it’s really a TWO-PART process. (And someday, these two parts may be managed by Chief Stickiness Officers popping up at forward-thinking organizations.  Yeah, no…that’s probably taking it too far.)  Part 1 is creating stickiness.  That’s the more obvious and relatively easy part.  Part 2 – the much more difficult aspect – is what I’ll call the “hardening.”

You see, anything that’s truly sticky tends to go through a transformational process from sticky/gooey phase to hard/fixed state.  Think about it…drop a dab of honey on your kitchen counter…all sticky and gooey, right?  Leave it there for a few hours or even a day, and it hardens at the edges – you’ll need a spoon to wrestle it away from the counter.  Same with glue.  It goes on sticky, but the real work isn’t done until the glue hardens.  And in some cases (depending on the glue,) that hardening could permanently affix two or more items. The process bears true for most sticky substances, like chewing gum (if left somewhere) and even a bit of spilled coffee in the cupholder of one’s car.

You certainly need assistance in getting something to coat the surface – that’s where a sticky/gooey texture comes in very handy.  (And probably a feasible budget.)  But the real value of anything sticky is that the substance is given what it needs to harden in place.

Let this be the beginning of a new understanding for anyone involved in the marketing process.  Messages are simply more effective – and if you buy Gladwell’s theory, they’re ONLY effective – if they’re sticky.  And an oooey-gooey texture will help initiate the process.  But for your messages to be truly memorable and worth spreading – to be clinically sticky – they must be given the time and the ingredients and the environment to harden in place.  How do we manage that?  Tune in for follow-up posts on this topic.

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