What Makes Ideas Sticky?

In May 22, 2017
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When we think about things catching on, we see it around us in the world all the time. There are products like greek yoghurt or kale, services like Uber or Square, apps like Snapchat, ideas like democracy, behaviours like quitting smoking or voting. Catchphrases, fashion styles and the likes. We can think about these items as culture or cultural tastes. And a number of years ago, a scientist wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, where he called these ideas memes. Just like genes compete for people, genes evolve over time, based on us, memes are cultural units that compete in the world around us. They evolve over time, competing to see what’s going to be more or less successful. And when we think about this, when we think about social epidemics or things catching on, well what does that really mean? It’s a case where a product, an idea, or a behaviour diffuses through a population. We can almost think it like spreading a virus. Starting with a small set of people and moving to, in fact, a broader set. This thing catches on or is contagious at its core.

Contageous: How things catch on?

What makes some things stick in the memory. Why do people look to one decision and not others? Why does one person influence us and other people lead us to avoid what they’re doing? Why do people share word of mouth about one product or idea rather than another? And how social networks spread the share of information and influence.

Importantly beyond these, there’s one more factor that’s important to think about, which is the likelihood of adoption, the likelihood of a trial. Why do we try some things rather than others? And often there’s a barrier that makes it difficult. We don’t have enough knowledge, or time, or money to try everything that’s out there. And so often companies try to get things to us to make them easier to try. If you go to a grocery store, for example, you’re walking down aisle three and there’s a sample of a food product. They’re lowering the barrier to trial to make it easier for people to try that particular product.

Creating shareable content

So you may have heard that you only use 10% of your brain. You might have heard that wearing a seatbelt can increase your risk of death. Or you may have even heard that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC because it isn’t chicken. Now, if you think about those three things, most of us have heard at least one of them. I’ve done this a few times. Almost everybody’s heard that KFC changed its name to KFC because it wasn’t really chicken. Some people have heard that wearing your seatbelt increases the risk of death. But why have we heard these things? Why have some things stick in memory while others don’t? And what’s interesting about these three particular things is that they’re not true. They’re all false. Yet we’ve all heard them and we’ve all remembered them. And so one important question is, well why do even false things stick in memory while some true things don’t? And how can by understanding why false things succeed, we design true things to be more successful?

Making messages stick

In thinking about why things stick, it’s important to think about the idea of natural selection. And you may have heard about natural selection with the beak of the finch, the famous example from Charles Darwin. The idea there was very simple. Different finches have different beaks. Some have longer beaks. Some have narrower beaks. Some have wider beaks. Some have shorter beaks. And certain finches have a better fit with their surrounding environment. Depending on that year if there are more seeds or more ants that need to be eaten, finches that have certain sorts of beaks will be better rather than others.  Certain animals fit better with their environment and are more likely to succeed and have kids and those genes are passed on. Variations, selection, and retention. We can think about those same ideas of variation, selection, or retention and apply them to our own ideas in the world around us. Take variation. Well, certain stories are longer versus shorter. Certain stories have more emotion versus less emotion. And it turns out that that variation impacts whether those stories or those ideas succeed.

Certain ideas fit better with the way we’re designed, and as a result, those ideas stay in our memory and get more likely to be transmitted later on. The same thing is true for all sorts of ideas. Whether it’s a long message or a short one, whether it’s a piece of online content or a video we saw, whether it’s a speech we might make in front of others, all these things are selected on by the environment to determine whether or not they succeed. And so here we’ll talk about a recipe for making ideas stick, essentially a set of ingredients that you can add to any piece of content or idea you’re building to make them more likely to be remembered.


How can we get consumers to remember our ads or our messages? How can we get our kids to remember to take out the trash? Or how can we get our employees to remember an important initiative that we’re supposed to be doing this year? These tools will help us think about how to make these messages stick more effectively. And, in fact, to help us, they’re part of a framework. It’s called SUCCESs and that’s an acronym that stands for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. We’ll talk about each of these in turn and talk about how we can use them to get our messages to stick.

Dont miss: How social influence shapes behaviour

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