Type the name of almost any successful consumer web company into your search bar and add the word “addict” after it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Try “Facebook addict” or “Twitter addict” or even “Pinterest addict” and you’ll soon get a slew of results from hooked users and observers deriding the narcotic-like properties of these web sites. How is it that these companies, producing little more than bits of code displayed on a screen, can seemingly control users’ minds? Why are these sites so addictive and what does their power mean for the future of the web?
We’re on the precipice of a new eraof the web. As infinite distractions compete for our attention, companies are learning to master new tactics to stay relevant in users’ minds and lives. Today, just amassing millions of users is no longer good enough. Companies increasingly find that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits they create. But as some companies are just waking up to this new reality, others are already cashing in.
A company that forms strong user habits enjoys several benefits to its bottom line. For one, this type of company creates associations with “internal triggers” in users’ minds. That is to say, users come to the site without any external prompting. Instead of relying on expensive marketing or worrying about differentiation, habit-forming companies get users to cue themselves to action by attaching their services to the users’ daily routines and emotions. A cemented habit is when users subconsciously think, “I’m bored,” and instantly Facebook comes to mind. They think, “I wonder what’s going on in the world?” and before rationale thought occurs, Twitter is the answer. The first-to-mind solution wins.
But how do companies create a connection with the internal cues needed to form habits? The answer: they manufacture desire. While fans of Mad Men are familiar with how the ad industry once created consumer desire during Madison Avenue’s golden era, those days are long gone. A multi-screen world, with ad-wary consumers and a lack of ROI metrics, has rendered Don Draper’s big budget brainwashing useless to all but the biggest brands. Instead, startups manufacture desire by guiding users through a series of experiences designed to create habits. I call these experiences “Hooks,” and the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.
I wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Productsto help others understand what is at the heart of habit-forming technology. The book highlights common patterns I observed in my career in the video gaming and online advertising industries. While my model is generic enough for a broad explanation of habit formation, I’ll focus on applications in consumer Internet for this post.
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