The essential guide to creating a sticky site

15th Mar 2009 | 08:00

The essential guide to creating a sticky site

How to get more vistors and keep them coming back for more

If a tree falls...

Years ago, I created a website that was going to take the world by storm. The design was precise. Every page validated. The CSS was meticulously organised. The JavaScript was unobtrusive. The Flash elements were accessible.

Once I unleashed it, I'd win countless awards, attract a disgusting amount of new leads, and obviously receive honorary degrees from local universities. It would definitely put me on the map.

I launched it. I waited. Nothing. Never listed by a single website gallery. Didn't immediately win anything. It got about 100 unique hits on a good week. I couldn't figure out what was delaying my superstardom. The problem was, and still is, value. People need to know how useful a site is, and fast.

Years ago, web users weren't as hesitant to explore (or maybe they just didn't have a choice). It was actually fun to decipher mysterymeat navigation. Today, plagued with the plethora of irrelevant information, it's become a fine art to find what you're looking for quickly and quietly. Instead of being avenues to substance, websites have become roadblocks.

This adds an extra level of frustration for a user, but exponentially more for the content creators. The former hurdles of available information and the means to view it have been replaced with challenges of validity and relevance. "Can I find this on the web?" has evolved into "Where can I find this on the web?" Wikipedia estimates that "the indexable web contains at least 63billion pages" as of June 2008.

As Wall Street Journal writer Lee Gomes observes, "For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives". The idea that "If you build it, they will come" just got a lot more complicated.

If a tree falls…

A study at Carleton University in Canada showed that some people make a first impression in just 50 milliseconds. Let's face it: if you're creating content for online consumption, the odds are already against you. Forget needle in a haystack. It's more like a raindrop in the ocean.

In a recent article, designer Eric Kajaluoto lists a number of common problems for start-ups, such as distractions, running out of cash, and competition, but the most important one is front and centre: "No one is looking at you. No one is listening to you. (You don't believe me, but I'm right.)… Even if you create a portable fountain-of-youth, your start-up's biggest challenge will be to get anyone to pay attention. Really – it's that hard."

So how do you stand out from the crowd?

Hedgehogs and elevator pitches

Often, honesty really is the best policy. Many sites employ the technique of "the elevator pitch." Imagine you meet someone in an elevator for the first time who asks what your firm does. In the span of your elevator ride, you should be able to clearly explain your service offering. If you can't, you should re-evaluate the way you communicate about your service (or even the service itself).

Applying this to the discipline of web design, some companies actually state their elevator pitch as the first thing on their homepage. Even if it remains internal, however, the ability to distil a value proposition down to a few key actions is an effective way to cultivate a following.

In Advertising Online Now by Julian Wiedemann, BBH London's creative director Johan Tesch comments: "The secret to many of the smash hits lately is to succeed in entertaining people with something new and clever, and at the same time say something profound about the core of the product. Only then will people stop what they are doing and lower their guard and be willing to sacrifice a couple of minutes of their time to interact with your brand."

Christopher Cashdollar, creative director at Happy Cog Studios, also believes in this simplicity. "A basic principle should unify and guide everything," he says. "If a company can focus the singular purpose of the site, it could be a shining lighthouse that drives strategic ideas and innovation, a differentiating factor in an already bloated marketplace."

This harks back to an idea known as the Hedgehog Concept. In his book From Good to Great, Jim Collins recalls an ancient Greek parable that tells of a daily routine between a fox and a hedgehog. Every day, the fox envisions a new way to ensnare the hedgehog. As he springs his trap, the hedgehog rolls up into a ball, pointing his sharp spikes outward. Day after day, the hedgehog wins with his proven defence.

According to Collins, thinkers like Einstein, Marx and Darwin were all hedgehogs. "They took a complex world and simplified it … They understand that the essence of profound insight is simplicity … Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest."

An element of mystery

A seemingly contrasting approach to attracting users is to reveal very little (without being misleading, of course). Only offering a limited view of what's to come piques curiosity.

That's the draw of, for example, beta releases. I can guarantee that my name is on more beta lists than on actual registrations of fully released products or services.

Anthropologically speaking, humans are voyeuristic by nature. Maybe it's the instinctual evolutionary instinct to search the unknown for food to survive. Maybe it's an instilled desire to find others like ourselves to prove that we're not alone. Whatever the case, mystique has always and will always entice us.

Look at the site created by Big Spaceship for HBO Voyeur, a theatrical multimedia experience and marketing campaign launched by HBO in summer 2007. Shot from a solitary viewpoint across a street, the site highlighted a number of simultaneous stories of a cross-section of an apartment building through video.

Users could interact with and investigate individual stories or observe the larger story at their own leisure. While some blog posts questioned the intent of the website, the visitor numbers speak for themselves: the highest spike in traffic put HBO Voyeur in the world's top 15,000 most visited websites.

Online v offline

In Advertising Now Online, Jan Leth of Ogilvy Interactive describes the value of the online space as the ability to create "opportunities for dialogue rather than a broadcast model".

Interactive advertising is exactly what it says: a two-way street. Unlike older media, the web allows for instant response; a user can input information and influence a result, and a system can output real-time, context-relevant content. As Leth says: "The sensibility has changed the end result from a monologue to a dialogue. There is a clear sense of a value exchange. Give me something of value, whether it's entertainment, information or utility, and I'll pay attention."

However, that doesn't rule out the offline world playing a part. For instance, www.mint.com, an online money-managing application, enables you oversee your account through SMS.

Continuous media

Cashdollar views all media as continuations of the same experience, not separate efforts. "Users are almost never actually detached from an opportunity to follow up a TV spot, billboard or magazine ad. Marketing folks must be where their users are: no-brainer, but what they need to realise is that the intended web-based destinations must match the user device.

"Windows Mobile, iPhone, WAP – the campaign or website must work and pay off appropriately without a glitch. Nothing can deter a user's confidence quicker than a broken experience." Still, to advertise an online product, offline advertising could – and sometimes should – be completely non-technical and more about personal connection.

Liz Danzico, the chair for the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, shares a valuable offline experience. "About six years ago, when Fresh Direct was new and still expanding, they sent fruit-, vegetable-, and meat-costumed individuals into neighbourhoods they weren't yet delivering to. They stationed these representatives at subway entries, and took zip codes and email addresses of locals who were interested in using their service. Not only was Fresh Direct already developing a notable reputation among my trusted network using the service, but they were creating deeper respect by making the trip – offline – to my own neighbourhood. Months later, when they started offering delivery service to my neighbourhood, I received a friendly email (with a coupon), and placed an order immediately."

Building relationships

That interchange is the nucleus of social networking. Entrepreneur Alex Hillman sees it as "a two-way megaphone. If all you're doing is using them to broadcast, you're missing out on at least half of the fun. Pumping your RSS feed into every social site you can find might bring you a few more eyeballs, but the odds of them 'sticking' is low. Instead, use social networks to listen and to interact. Be a real human being instead of a node of a network. People don't identify with a post on a blog they clicked on randomly, but they will remember an experience where you (or one of your fans) pointed them to a post personally when it helped them learn something."

User experience designer Whitney Hess takes it a step further. "Social networking isn't a marketing tool. Word of mouth is, and that's naturally what happens on social sites. When someone I trust on Twitter mentions a site and says to check it out, I won't hesitate to go there."

People can smell advertising from a mile away. Try to sell them something and you've already lost the battle, but make a friend and you've instantly created a user base.

Relevance

When does advertising not look like advertising? When it's relevant. By now, users can effortlessly block pop-up windows and ignore banner ads. Advertising is now more challenging because buying random ad space is worthless. However, a passive and applicable ad works wonders. It easily overcomes the mental barrier that's traditionally associated with online ad space.

Coudal Partners runs a service called The Deck. Each month, a series of subtle ads are featured on a list of partner sites. These sites address a very targeted audience that is in line with that of the advertisers. The benefits are mutual: advertisers reach an audience that may very well need or want their services, and viewers see products that have a good chance of being useful. If you're a product or service provider, do the research to get in front of users who will actually care about what you're offering.

The second half of that research is really finding out what your users are looking for. Analyse site statistics: packages like Mint or Google Analytics offer easy access to site data.

Look at which parts of the site cause people to stay the longest. See which search terms are the most frequent. That will give you a great overview of the strengths of your service or content as well as its gaps.

The direct approach also works. If you want to know something, ask for it. Constantly solicit feedback from users. Services like Get Satisfaction exist to empower customers. Don't know if a buggy feature is worth fixing? Send a quick email to your beta testers. Not sure what to write that next blog post about? Ask your readers what they'd rather have you write about. People love having a voice that can enact change. By giving that to them, you earn their trust because you trusted them first.

Foster a community (or don't)

Over the last few years, the idea of an online community has really blossomed. Recent community-driven websites such as Wikipedia and Digg have validated the power of an active online community, and its ability to promote relevance instead of deterring it.

Andrew Sullivan is a well-known political blogger who writes a column for The Atlantic. His column typically does not allow commentary, but one day, Sullivan posed an open question to his readership: should comments be enabled? Surprisingly, 60 per cent were against the idea. One noted, "Readers of your blog could opt to not read the comments section, but in truth we would rarely opt not to read them – on your blog or any other blog. Blog comments have the power to hammerlock one's attention. I think, humans being highway rubberneckers, we'd be impotent to resist looking over the rantings and counter-rantings that would make their way into your Comments Section".

Comments can be either a Pandora's box or a treasure chest. The fine balance between the two rests in the relationship between you and your users. Tread softly, and remember to hold the ideal of open communication in the highest regards.

That human touch

In his article Understanding Web Design, Jeffrey Zeldman describes web design as "the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity." Clean code and a beautiful design are important components of a successful site. Getting in front of the right users and offering them something useful gets you on the right track. But humanity is the hook, the true holy grail of attracting visitors. Strive to make personal connections. Take your users on an adventure, show them the time of their life, and you'll have done all you need.

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First published in .net, Issue 186

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