[Whose fault is that? Dan should have given me the draft earlier.]
Malcolm Gladwell is one of our heroes, and of course we borrowed the “stickiness” terminology from The Tipping Point. Gladwell’s interest was in what makes certain trends likely to “tip.” In his chapter about stickiness, he talks a lot about the value of experimentation in educational shows, such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. He’s absolutely right about the value of experimentation. But we think that you can know a lot, up front, about which ideas are more likely to succeed and fail because successful ideas share common traits. Our book digs into those traits and how you can put them to use in communicating your own ideas.
Question: What separates ideas that stick from those that don’t?
Answer: We spent lots of time researching sticky ideas—ideas that people understand, remember, and that change the way people think or behave. The ideas we studied ranged from the ludicrous to the profound, from urban legends (no, there is no kidney theft ring) to great scientific theories (yes, the land we walk around on does ride on giant tectonic plates and when they collide they cause mountain ranges and earthquakes). We found there were six principles (“SUCCES”) that link sticky ideas of all kinds. Sticky ideas won’t always have all six, but the more, the merrier.
For example, JFK’s idea to “put a man on the moon in a decade” had all six of them:
Simple A single, clear mission.
Unexpected A man on the moon? It seemed like science fiction at the time.
Concrete Success was defined so clearly—no one could quibble about man, moon, or decade.
Credible This was the President of the U.S. talking.
Emotional It appealed to the aspirations and pioneering instincts of an entire nation.
Story An astronaut overcomes great obstacles to achieve an amazing goal.
Working with my buddies at Electric Pulp, we created the Stickiness Aptitude Test (SAT). You can use it to determine how sticky your product or service will be.
Question: Your principles sound pretty basic. If these six principles were all it took to make a sticky idea, why aren’t there more brilliant ideas in the world?
Answer: Basic, yes, but not natural. That’s an important distinction. People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communication part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that, “If you think it, it will stick.”
And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.
Here’s the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge: The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. But notice we said “unnatural,” not “impossible.” Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness.
JFK dodged the Curse. If he’d been a modern-day politician or CEO, he’d probably have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.” That might have set a moon walk back fifteen years.
Question: Why has Windows stuck? It doesn’t appear to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, or involve stories.
Answer: It’s important to distinguish ideas and products. A fax is a product but not an idea. “Do unto others…” is an idea but not a product. We talk in our book about what makes ideas stick but we don’t want to claim that our framework describes everything you need to know about why products stick—or pop stars or dance crazes. Everyone has a mailbox, but it’s weird to say that mailboxes are an idea that has stuck.
Some parts of our idea framework may apply to Windows: In comparison to DOS, Windows was certainly simple and concrete, as had been the Macintosh and Xerox PARC graphical interfaces before it. Because of its association with IBM PCs, Windows also had more credibility—what are you going to trust for your business: an IBM PC or a Commodore 64? But let’s face it, Windows lives closer to the fax side of the continuum than the idea side.
By 1985 when the first version of Windows came out, IBM had the largest market share in PCs. Even back then people were starting to understand network effects: There was more software available for DOS and Windows machines, so people were more likely to be able to exchange files with coworkers, so they—and coworkers—tended to buy the same kind of computer. Network effects for products are powerful, but we don’t want to claim credit for them as part of our framework for ideas.
Zooming out, there *are* things that live at the intersection of ideas and products—in almost any branding opportunity, there’s a product and idea. High-end vodkas, for example, would probably be indistinguishable in a blind taste test as products, so when people prefer one, they’re preferring the idea promised by the brand. Our framework is more likely to apply to analyzing the ideas promised by different brands than the products that go along with them.
Question: Who’s in the Heath Hall of Stickness Fame?
Answer: JFK, of course, for his man on the moon idea. But that example is somewhat misleading because JFK is a president and a hero. It’s easy to think his idea was powerful because he was powerful. So in the book we discuss a lot of great ideas that come from relatively unknown heroes:
An elementary-school teacher who designed a shocking simulation that virtually cured prejudice in her students.
A small-town publisher who created the most successful local newspaper in America by focusing on a simple mission for 40+ years.
The leader of the team that developed the PalmPilot, who kept his team obsessive about design simplicity.
The Australian medical internist who figured out what caused stomach ulcers—and then faced the much larger challenge of convincing his colleagues that he was right. He was unknown at the time, but he isn’t any longer, and he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year.
The important point is this: You don’t need power or charm or resources to make a sticky idea. It’s not solely a JFK thing.
Question: Time and again, you hammer on simplicity and core, and yet your jacket copy says, “This is a book written for anyone who strives to craft messages that are memorable and lasting: teachers, businesspeople, journalists, ministers, and nonprofit leaders.” This sounds to me like you want to be Gladwell, Cialdini, Warren, and Drucker. Isn’t this a violation of your concepts?
Answer: Nope. Our book was written for a type of problem, not a type of person. The problem is this: When you have an important idea, how do you communicate it in a way that has impact? How do you construct a great idea? Teachers and businesspeople and ministers all have this problem in spades, so our book will help them—but only with this one problem! We’ve got absolutely nothing to say about long division or finance or salvation.
The cool thing, to us, is realizing that the idea-playbook is similar for these diverse sets of people. Good science lessons and good Hollywood movies both raise mysteries that cause people to *want* to listen until the mystery is resolved. Aesop’s Fables have survived over 2000 years because of their concrete examples, and if you want your business plan to survive more than 15 minutes, you’d better be concrete as well.
Once you’ve got a great idea in your head—whether you’re in engineering or business or teaching—there are a handful of principles that will help you communicate it. That’s where our book comes in.
Question: Did Herb Kelleher “know” his core when the first Southwest Airlines flight took off?
We talk in the book about the importance of finding a simple message that expresses the core of your idea. Kelleher’s core is that Southwest is “THE low-fare airline.” Most entrepreneurs struggle for years to find a core message, but Kelleher started with his.
In fact, the original core idea fit on a cocktail napkin: An entrepreneur named Rollin King from San Antonio, Texas owned a small commuter air service and had the idea of creating a larger commuter service with bigger planes. In a conversation with Kelleher in a bar, he sketched out his idea on a napkin. The original napkin is framed in the boardroom of Southwest. On it is a triangle with the vertices labeled Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The idea was to launch a commuter airline flying big planes between those three cities. The driving distance between the cities is about three to three and a half hours. Rollins and Kelleher knew people might decide to fly instead of drive if the fares could be made cheap enough to present an attractive alternative.
Of course, it took a long time to put the napkin into practice. The other airlines tied up Southwest in court battles for four years. But the Southwest story has a nice lesson for potential entrepreneurs, the Cocktail Napkin Test. Lots of entrepreneurs can tell you a dozen reasons that their product or service will transform the world. A good challenge for them would be to sort through the dozen reasons and pick the single most important one. It’s a worthy aspiration to paint a picture of the world that is simple enough and concrete enough to be sketched on a cocktail napkin.
Question: What is the relationship between stickiness and evangelism?
Answer: Evangelism has been one of your recurring themes over the years. As far back as The Macintosh Way you were arguing that the best partners are interested in the ideal of what you’re doing, not just the potential for making money. The people in it for the money bail when times get tough, the people in it for the ideal stick with you.
We have a similar theme in our book. There are two basic approaches to creating an emotional idea that makes people care—you can appeal to consequences (e.g., money) or you can appeal to identity. Consequences are not as important as we sometimes think. Political scientists find that voters don’t vote their personal pocketbook as much as they vote their identity—what’s good for us as Americans, or, more narrowly, for the other members of our religious or ethnic groups. Steve Jobs’ 1984 commercial cleverly appealed to identity—Macintosh true believers were striking a blow for liberation in an oppressive world filled with IBM’s big box machines.
But though identity is powerful, we often ignore it. When we predict what motivates others, we all tend to assume that everyone else is motivated by consequences. We tend to think that we, personally, are motivated by learning and service and and fulfillment, and others are motivated by bonuses. Research suggests that people tend to systematically neglect identity appeals. Bottom line, there’s less evangelism than there probably should be.
Question: Is there a point in a market where it’s impossible to make a new entrant stick? For example, how would you try to kick MySpace’s butt?
Answer: In the beginning, MySpace started as a better idea. At the time the leading social networking site was Friendster, founded by a former Netscape programmer, which assumed that being “social” was the ability to calculate the degrees of separation between you and someone else. On Friendster you couldn’t see the profile of anyone who was separated from you by too many degrees.
By contrast, MySpace started as a place to bond with others over emerging bands and music, an important source of identity. You could see everyone’s profile –you could easily meet strangers who shared your interest in Seaweed or the Bad Brains. Shared identity and hormones are a potent combination. Friendster, by contrast, tried to shut down “fakester” members that stood for shared interests or identities as opposed to real people.
At this point MySpace is a sticky product because of network effects—just like the QWERTY keyboard or Windows—so the idea of MySpace may not matter as much as the product. You have to be there because that’s where your friends are, just like you have to buy on eBay because that’s where the sellers are. But if something can unseat MySpace it might be a reverse of the basic identity appeal. MySpace is getting so mainstream it may be vulnerable to a rebellion strategy just like fashion products that lose their cachet when knock-offs show up in Tulsa strip malls. MySpace has a serious problem: People in their 40s have MySpace pages. That can’t be good and it might leave room for a hipper niche player.
Question: Can a slick marketer apply your principles and make a piece of crap stick—or does the intrinsic value ultimately decide stickiness?
Slick marketers are already using most of these principles. We wanted our book to serve as an equalizer. Because you’re right—instrinsic value counts. The slick marketing recipe is: Sticky communications about ideas with little intrinsic value. The social enterprise recipe is: Ideas with huge intrinsic value communicated with little stickiness. We wanted to even the arms-race.
The problem is that ideas with intrinsic value don’t always win. It’s not true that you only use 10% of your brain. Or that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space. And gum doesn’t take seven years to digest in your stomach. The world of ideas is unfair. Teachers and public health officials and legislators agonize over how to get their messages across, and meanwhile, dumb ideas, like urban legends, propagate with no advertising budgets and no authority figures supporting them.
We can bemoan the fact that dumb ideas win out. But we can also reverse-engineer them. We can figure out the principles that make them stick and teach them to people who have worthwhile messages. Slick marketers know a lot of these principles already. Urban legends have them baked in. But no one teaches engineers or entrepreneurs or chemistry professors how to make their ideas stick.
Question: What’s your advice to a product champion stuck in a large company who gets matrixed to death trying to implement your ideas?
Make people play on your turf by keeping things concrete. It is so much easier to bullshit with abstraction than with concrete examples. Don’t say, “I think we should devote more resources to evangelism among mid-market IT decision-makers.” Say, “Here’s a list of 500 IT decision-makers in the area around Salt Lake City. I want to invite them to a one-day conference on Sept 29. It will cost $60,000 to pull off. Who’s in?” Even if they disagree, it will be productive disagreement, anchored in reality.
In the book we tell about Melissa Studzinski, who joined General Mills as the brand manager of Hamburger Helper. She was twenty-eight years old. When she started she was given three huge binders full of sales and volume data, ad briefs, and marketing surveys. The data was too abstract to provide much intuition. Then she ran a program called “Fingertips” in which her team found Midwestern moms who would let General Mills employees barge into their homes and watch them cook. They wanted a concrete picture of their customer at their fingertips. What they found was that moms didn’t care about variety of flavors. This was a shocking insight within the company: previous generations of marketers and food scientists had created thirty flavors of Hamburger Helper!
On the other hand the moms did care about being able to find the same predictable flavor that their kids would actually eat. Using this concrete information, Studzinski’s team convinced people across General Mills to reduce the number of products. Costs went way down and sales went up. Who’s going to argue with Betty Jones in Wheaton who says she stopped using Hamburger Helper because she could never find the spaghetti flavor? That’s a very concrete example that convinced lots of people across a big bureaucracy to consider a different way of doing things.
Question: What does it mean if your book doesn’t become a bestseller?
Answer: It means we should have been born the Grisham brothers.
“Bestseller” does have a nice ring, so please do buy some books, but remember that a sticky idea is one that people understand, remember, and causes some change in the way they think or behave. So our failure story has nothing to do with sales. Our failure story is that people who buy our book do nothing different the next time they pitch an idea and they’ve forgotten what they read 3 months later. Erg, that would hurt.
We have a specific measure of success for our book. We want to get emails from people who used techniques from our book to make their ideas stick. If we get a lot of those emails, we’re happy. If we don’t, we’ll keep studying ideas until we get it right. [To email Chip and Dan, use these: Chip Heath Dan Heath