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How to make your site stickier

How to make your site stickier Reid Carr

There's been a lot of talk about "sticky" websites and how to create them. Though the terminology sounds awful, stickiness is a good thing. But what does it really mean for a website to be sticky, why is it important and how do we achieve it?

In short, a website is "sticky" if people spend a lot of time on it. That means they either visit the site frequently or stay on the site for a long time. The term "stickiness" brings to mind an image of flypaper -- once on your site, people can't get away. But we don't want people to be trapped. Instead, stickiness should be a compulsion -- like the need to read just one more chapter in a gripping novel. (Well, maybe two more chapters.) You want your site to be the kind of good book a reader keeps picking up and cannot put down.

The concept is nothing new: Salespeople in brick-and-mortar stores know that if a shopper walks out the door, the sale is most likely lost; they need to engage people long enough to sell them. This article takes a look at how to apply this principle to your website.

So, why is sticky good?

Whether you sell clothing, publish news or promote a cause, you want people to associate themselves with your brand. Those who spend more time exploring, learning and contributing on your site will tend to feel a part of it -- like they belong to something that's important to them.

Brand identification is a critical component of many buying decisions. For example, entire families, for generations, may identify themselves as being "Ford owners" or "Chevy people." This identification is so strong that many will not consider buying the "other" company's product. They'll even put a decal on their truck that insults the competition. That's what we're after with our websites.

To achieve such loyalty, you have to consistently fulfill on your brand's promise and personality both online and offline in every way possible. Online, some brands have found interesting ways to further convey their personality, such as the Big Ass Fans website below. Some even do so on their 404 pages.

Those who are impassioned about your brand are more likely to notice your advertising amidst the clutter, visit your sites, buy your new products and services and participate in your promotions and events. And, if advertising is what you "sell," audience loyalty will allow you to grow your inventory.

Of course, then the question arises: Who do you want to stick to your site? We can't be all things to all people. There is no one kind of content that is going to bring everyone to your site and keep them there. But you don't want everyone -- you want your customer base. You should already have a good idea of who these people are -- their interests, concerns and needs. But it's always time well spent to talk with them and listen to them in order to gain an understanding of what they want. Addressing them as directly as possible gives you the best chance of keeping them coming back and staying engaged with your brand.

To achieve true stickiness, a website needs to achieve one or both of the goals mentioned earlier: Get people to visit often and get people to stay longer. Visiting often, of course, involves coming back, so we'll look at why someone might return to your site. And staying longer means not leaving, so we'll look at how we can accomplish that, too.

Give people a reason to visit often
Why would anyone visit your website in the first place? You need to offer products, information or services that people want, naturally. And they have to hear about you somehow. There are many ways to accomplish this, including advertising, media coverage, search engine optimization (SEO) and word of mouth. But we will leave these for another article.

Your site needs to offer something worthwhile, but that's not enough. We all know of perfectly good sites that we rarely visit. If we want to find the hours of our local post office, we know we can go to USPS.com and easily find that information. That's great, and it's useful -- but it's not sticky. We only go there rarely, get our information and get out.

So why would people keep coming back to a site?

Invite people to come back
You might have new and interesting content. Your customers might be raving fans. You might offer daily specials or monthly coupons. And yet...

People get busy. They get distracted. Life happens. They aren't necessarily unhappy about anything; they just forget that your site exists. They need a tap on the shoulder. If you know who they are and have their permission to stay in touch, you can invite them to come back.

Some of the most effective messages impart a sense of urgency. A sale is about to end! Free shipping until midnight! Hurry, or you'll miss out! A recent email from LifeIsGood.com was titled "Free Shipping! Catch it while you can!" More subtle messages are effective, too -- like a newsletter with links to "continue reading on our site." Zappos.com sends an information-rich weekly newsletter with fashion tips, shoe care information and readers' questions and answers, along with links to new products or sale items. A news or social site could let a member know there have been "72 new messages since your last visit." Or, more personally, that "someone has replied to your question or comment."

To be able to send these reminders, you need email addresses and permission. Because few are excited about clicking an "email sign-up" link (yawn), at Red Door we recommend presenting this as an enticing opportunity, such as "receive weekly specials" or "become an insider." And be sure the content has real value for the reader. Make people happy to continue hearing from you.

Take advantage of any additional communications, too. Include information on a new special when you confirm that you've shipped a customer's order, or invite customers to view new products when confirming their email subscription. This is just like the warm "thank you for coming in, and remember to stop by next week when our big sale is on" that you might get when shopping in person. Make people feel appreciated and welcome to return.

Once people stop by, we want them to stay -- but why would they? We need some sticky content to keep them around, but what makes content sticky? What is sticky for one person, at a particular moment, will not be sticky for another -- or even for that same person at another point in time. But there is one universal truth in this regard: Sticky content fulfills some need for the visitor.

People are strongly motivated to get their unmet needs met. Websites obviously can't meet all our needs, but when a site does offer something we really need, it is very easy to get caught up in it and hang around. We could be drawn in by the prospect of being admired for our taste in clothing, the fun of hunting for our dream car, a promise of finding meaningful work or by having a place where we can belong and feel understood. Let's look at a few of the many needs that could compel visitors to spend time on your site.

1. The thrill of the hunt
The excitement and suspense of looking for something we want is powerful motivation in itself. According to Quantcast.com, 79 percent of visits made by 8.6 million people per month to Autotrader.com are from "regulars" or "addicts." While Dreamhorse.com has fewer visitors -- only 195,000 people per month -- it is even stickier, with 90 percent of visits being made by regulars or addicts. But Ebay.com out-sticks them both, with 96 percent of visits being made by regulars or addicts. In each case, regulars and addicts are often people who visit the site when they get up, at lunch, when they get home from work and before they go to bed.

Sites that achieve this kind of stickiness offer focused, rapidly changing content, along with well-engineered browsing, searching and filtering tools. Site visitors can explore options, try different selection criteria and search for the best deal.

Most ecommerce stores sell the same products day in and day out. But with the above-mentioned sites, there is a real danger of missing out. This makes the sites all the more addictive. After all, if someone else spots your Roman Red 1961 Corvette convertible before you do, it could be gone before you even realize it was for sale.

But what if your business doesn't lend itself well to repeated visits and hours of searching? Let's say you offer a fairly niche and stable selection of products. There's nothing wrong with that, but your products alone provide little reason for people to drop by your site now and then. In this case, you can let others provide fresh content that will attract the kind of shoppers who would be interested in what you have to offer.

A perfect example of this is TheMuleStore.com. This charming little online store sells very specialized products, from bumper stickers to home décor... all with a mule or donkey theme. But what makes it a great place for its carefully targeted demographic to visit regularly are the classified ads -- for mules and donkeys! These ads are a powerful draw for precisely the people who are in the site's market. This content is far more effective at attracting this demographic than any cleverly written copy or highly produced video would be. People come back day after day to search for their perfect mule -- and discover that they also need a mule sweat shirt.

2. Confirmation and assurance
A more deliberate activity among website visitors is the quest for information that confirms they are making a good decision. In this state of mind, a visitor to your site may want lots of details, clear images, diagrams, reviews, testimonials and comparisons. They have a pretty good idea of what they want and probably have several options in mind. They are either trying to make a final decision or assure themselves that the choice they've tentatively made is the right one.

The obvious situation in which this need for information occurs is when one is shopping for products. But it also applies to other important decisions, like choosing a school, finding housing, learning about medical treatments or researching a new community or employer.

If you sell products related to decisions of this magnitude, you can invite people to come to your site, and stay around, by providing the kind of information they are seeking.

3. Recognition or authority
Many sites offer visitors the opportunity to actively participate, often by answering questions from others, moderating a message board or reaching higher levels of status. Sometimes one can earn the right to display badges or have others vote on their photos. Some people are strongly motivated by a need to achieve a goal, or be respected by their peers. Recognizing an individual's contribution -- and giving them something to work toward -- can help them feel a sense of ownership and can bring them back again and again.

4. Community and support
Social isolation can be a general, long-term situation or a narrow, temporary condition. Even when we are surrounded by friends and family, we may want to seek out others who are passionate about a particular hobby or issue.

We want to be understood, and we like being with people who are like ourselves. Offer a comfortable, friendly gathering place for like-minded people, and they will often happily adopt your site as a place to hang out with kindred spirits.

If your company offers products or services to a specific community, you can benefit by offering that community a place to meet. One such example is RVUSA.com. Recreational vehicle enthusiasts (RVers) living on the road can stay in touch with each other and share their common interests here, via a modest but perfectly useful message board. Meanwhile, RVUSA can present information and advertisements for all the services and products unique to their lifestyle, from weather and road information to listings of RV dealers.

An online community of friends could be any group of like-minded people, interested in a cause or subject -- anything from international relief efforts to fly fishing. Whatever the central interest, the drive to be involved and to stay connected with one's friends leads participants to return again and again.

5. Safety and reassurance
Worry is relieved by information from trusted sources, and people in the midst of a crisis need information and reassurance. The situation could be a personal health issue, a natural disaster, a broken home appliance or a stain on a new shirt. People in these situations are strongly driven to find information that can help them feel more powerful and secure in the face of confusion and uncertainty. Sites that offer information to people in these situations include Webmd.com, Fixitnow.com and the new emergency information aggregation site Crisiswire.com

If your site can provide answers, details, instructions or anything else useful to them -- whether from experts, or from others who have been through a similar experience -- people will flock to it.

6. A feeling of competence
Empowering consumers with a feeling of competence is a concept that speaks for itself. For a prime example, check out Doityourself.com.

7. Excitement or entertainment
Lastly, when we are bored, frustrated or just need a break, a little mindless entertainment can be a great thing. Some of the stickiest sites are also the silliest. People share videos, jokes, photos and stories. A few belonging to this category are cakewrecks.blogspot.com, Etiquettehell.com, Cuteoverload.com and the classic favorite, icanhascheezburger.com. Go on, I dare you to look at these sites and not get stuck. We'll wait here...

The content on these sites is compelling in its own right and is very easy to browse. It is continually updated, and visitors can participate in many ways. They can submit their own photos or stories, comment on others', vote for ones they enjoy and share their favorites with friends.

One of the stickiest (and incidentally, viral) sites out there at the moment is the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam on UStream.tv. Thousands of people have spent hours and hours watching a litter of puppies grow up. A community of fans has grown around these pups. People have shared the site with friends and reported on the puppies' activities in other venues. And each visitor is presented with ads for puppy training, puppy supplies and puppies of this breed.

Below is evidence of the kind of stickiness that possible with this sort of content. The tweet illustrated reads, "Like my colleagues, I have surrendered to puppycam. Soon, all [people who work here] will know their office as merely 'the place I go to watch the puppies.'"

It's obvious, isn't it? Don't make your visitors go away. But sites send their visitors packing all the time. You might have plenty of reasons for people to come to your site and spend time browsing, but you might also inadvertently give them good reasons to leave. And when they leave, they may not return.

Let's say you have a restaurant chain. Your site gives the address of each location. A potential diner would likely want to see a map. Not only is it good customer service to provide a map for your customers, it also encourages them to stay on your site. Maybe they'll look at the menu next. If a diner must leave to look for your location on his or her favorite mapping site, that person will have many opportunities to become distracted and forget about visiting your restaurant. A third-party map might even show them a dozen other restaurants nearby!

Put yourself in the shoes of a visitor to your site, or watch actual users in person. Try to notice where one might be inclined to wander off. What do they need that you are not providing? Are there terms a shopper might not understand? If so, explain them, or people might have to go elsewhere to look them up. Do you have reviews and testimonials? If you don't, your customers are almost certainly going off on their own to find support for their decision to buy. Will they come back, or might they find a better product, offer or company elsewhere?

The AutoTrader.com site is an excellent example to follow. Not only does the site provide an easy-to-search selection of millions of vehicles, but it also offers reviews, comparisons and information on getting a car loan, buying insurance and even how to sell your old car. It's a one-stop shop where you can get all the information you need.

Now go create stickiness!
It's time to get started. Begin by thinking about appropriate, effective ways to make your site sticky for people in your market. Keep in mind the kind of visitors you want. Think about their concerns, attitudes and needs. How can your site be a place they rely on and return to?

Talk to your customers. Listen to what they say and watch what they do. Determine the needs that are driving them and address those issues. Remember to invite customers to stay in touch and then also come back. Finally, look for places where visitors might be forced to leave your site and fill those holes with supportive content to help them continue their journey with you.

Reid Carr is president of Red Door Interactive.

As Red Door Interactive's President & CEO, Reid is there for clients and employees alike. Having began his career in advertising, Reid appreciates the integrity of the brand, but focuses on the fact that what we do for clients has to make them...

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