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The Psychology of Sticky Content

What makes content in content marketing psychologically sticky?

In other words, what makes content not only ‘beddable and spreadable’ (attractive, memorable and shareable), but also change something? (minds or behaviours).  Whilst there are many content marketing tips and tricks around for creating sticky content (some of the best are from Heidi Cohen), you can also boost your content smarts with a little psychology.

First up, reverse engineer the official CDC guidelines for reducing ‘media contagion’ – copycat incidents following ‘infectious’ media stories (for example, two weeks after a fictitious overdose in popular UK TV soap, hospital admissions for real overdoses had jumped by 17%);

  • GRAPHIC/visual content
  • CELEBRITY content (/attractive characters)
  • SIMPLISTIC content (simple explanations)
  • SUCCESSFUL content (portrays success)
  • HOW-TO content (useful, practical)

Then, think SUCCESs, Chip and Dan Heath’s distillation of years of content research and communication science into an easy-to-remember mnemonic and blueprint for creating ‘sticky’ content in Made to Stick;

  • SIMPLE – Psychologically sticky content is simple and short; it is often a distillation of complex, multifaceted ideas or concepts into a single core idea that is easy to get and that can be embodied in a compact plain-English soundbite. For example, the simple core headline of SouthWest airlines is ‘THE low-fare airline’ – something that everyone gets and that can guide content products. So try using the ‘Hollywood Pitch’ technique to get your content across in one short memorable phrase; Speed; it’s Die ­Hard on a bus’ and Alien; it’s Jaws on a spaceship. Simple and Short is Sticky.
  • UNEXPECTED – Psychologically sticky content is surprising and interesting; it grabs our attention by defying our expectations, and keeps our attention by teasing our curiosity. It also makes sense. This means that unexpected content is randomly unexpected, but it first creates a ‘huh?’ moment and then an ‘a ha!’ moment. A ‘radio that fits in your pocket’ (a pocket radio), like a ‘man on the moon’ both surprise and tease, but also made sense. So look for knowledge gaps in people’s minds, and appeal to curiosity in a surprising way.
  • CONCRETE – Psychologically sticky content is tangible, real and appeals to our (five) senses. So don’t sell the soft hands, sell the hand cream. An attribute – hand cream – is concrete, a benefit – soft hands is abstract. Don’t make content about concepts, make it about things. Don’t use statistics, use examples. For example, people give prefer to give donations to real people, not abstract causes. So make it real, and avoid abstractions, metaphor, numbers and jargon like the plague. Use the senses and sensory language to paint a vivid mental picture; we remember urban legends like ‘kidney heist’ and ‘boyfriend death’ because the vivid imagery and details that appeal to our senses (waking up in bloodied bath, noise of hanging body scraping on car).
  • CREDIBLE – Psychologically sticky content is believable – it has both ‘internal credibility’ (it makes sense, and is coherent i.e. it’s not self-contradictory) and ‘external credibility’ (it has proof or authority to support it). So make your content psychologically sticky, make sure it makes sense, and offer proof by example, proof by numbers, or proof by authority – or anti-authority. For example, use an image of a dying smoker to ‘prove’ smoking is bad for you. Or use rave reviews and popularity as proof you’re as good as you say you are. And let people try-before-they-buy to prove to themselves you’re worth it. Finally, use the ‘Sinatra Test (‘if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.’) by deploying an extreme example to prove your worth (‘the makeup of make up artists’).
  • EMOTIONAL – Psychologically sticky content moves us, it evokes emotions, makes us feel something – and in doing it makes us care. So to make your content sticky, focus either on what people already really care about – usually themselves (self-interest) – or create an association between your content and something they care about (again, usually themselves). It’s not so much about talking benefits (soft hands) and not attributes (hand cream), but about laddering up the emotional ladder to higher-order self interest by appealing not just to what they want, but who they want to be (someone more attractive). The golden rule of John Caples, one of the top copywriters of all time, still stands; ‘First and foremost, try to get self-interest into every headline you write’, but move beyond the beyond basic benefits and basic emotional drivers (sex, greed and fear).
  • STORY: Psychologically sticky content tends to be in story format, and have simple story plots that people can relate to. Statistics may be dire, but stories inspire – and if a picture speaks a thousand words, a story beats a thousand facts and figures. Subway’s low fat subs were brought to life by the story of Jared Fogle who lost over 100lbs in three months on an all-Subway diet. Interestingly, three simple plot lines pattern sticky content (for example over 80% of the stories in Chicken Soup for the soul fit these plot lines)
    • The Challenge Plot (inspiring grit – Rocky-style underdog story, championing people overcoming adversity)
    • The Connection Plot (inspiring relationships – Romeo & Juliet style story, championing people bridging a gap (racial, social, traditional) connecting against all odds)
    • The Creativity Plot (inspiring ingenuity – The MacGyver style-story championing people using their smarts to achieve their goals)

Bottom line, stories sell, because they inspire, move and motivate us.


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.