How Sticky are your Products?

Why do some ideas succeed while others fail?

Stanford professor Chip Heath has spent the last 10 years asking that very question. I just finished his book (co-authored with his brother Dan who owns a business that specializes in innovation) in which Heath published his findings.

The ability to create winning products (note: products are manifestations of IDEAS) may sometimes feel like dumb luck but there are patterns in why some are more successful than others. Heath’s book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, identifies six traits that help ideas endure.

Jack Welch is renown for communicating ideas that inspire and yet other business leaders are often frustrated that their ideas are too soon forgotten.

What is a “sticky” idea?

A sticky idea is one that everyone understands when they hear it… is memorable… and changes some fundamental concept. While sticky is a straightforward concept, it doesn’t happen too often. (Think back to the last presentation you saw… How much do you remember? Did it change your behavior in any way? Probably not.)

I liked Heath’s example of an abstract message “employees should maximize shareholder value.” ( Okay, we’re all on board… that sounds like a good thing for employees to do.) But what specific behaviors should employees change to respond to this message?

Contrast the message statement above to an example of a FedEx driver who couldn’t open one of his pickup boxes since the key was back at the office. His deadline was tight and he knew that he wouldn’t have time to go back to the office and return with the key to make the deadline for the plane. So he got a wrench, unbolted the whole box and slid it into the truck. He knew he’d be able to unlock it back at the office.

Telling FedEx drivers to “maximize shareholder value” just leaves them hanging. But a story gives them a visualization of what the message really means.

Here are Heath’s six traits for sticky ideas:

1. SIMPLE – Messages are most memorable if they are short and thoughtful. Proverbs are short but also deep enough to guide behavior.

2. UNEXPECTED – An idea that sounds like basic common sense won’t stick… it must be unique.

3. CONCRETE – Anything abstract doesn’t leave sensory impressions… only concrete images do. Compare “get an American on the moon in this decade” with “seize leadership in the space race through targeted technology initiatives and enhanced team-based routines.”

4. CREDIBLE – Will it sell in Toledo? Trying to convey an idea which is outside the listener’s realm of experience won’t stick… even if experts are used to validate the idea.

5. EMOTIONAL – Case studies that involve people are sticky. Heath says that we are wired to identify with people… but yet have no emotional attachment to ideas.

6. REPEATABLE – We use stories every day to convey ideas. Why? Heath says that rehearsing a situation helps us perform better. Stories that are easily repeated act like a mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

As you develop your products, try using these concepts. It just might help make them a bit more sticky.

One response to “How Sticky are your Products?

  1. Hi Kevin –

    I just picked up this book after reading your review–I’m really digging it so far, and will probably offer up a review, too, at some point.

    Many of the positions the authors are offering up seem pretty straight-forward: Why do we remember Proverbs and urban legends? Because those stories hit the notes you mention above.

    Putting these concepts into action, however, is another thing altogether!

    – Chris

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