Time fades away. Unforgettable messages endure.
They’re made to stick, as Chip and Dan Heath note in their marketing classic Made to Stick.
The Heath brothers provide a checklist for creating sticky messages – a checklist you can use to make your content memorable.
Let’s go through five of those tips along with examples from brands using them. (Note: All quotes from the Heaths come from their book.)
1. Keep it super simple
Before you write a single word, determine your core message. And that core message must guide your content, giving it structure, purpose, direction.
Finding the core is analogous to writing the commander’s intent – it’s about discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important shine.
Thus, your message must be simple but nutrient-rich. Or, as the Heaths write, “core and compact.”
Take Dunkin’s slogan: “America runs on Dunkin’.”
With just four words, Dunkin’ implies its product fuels its customers. The subtle message? Your day is incomplete without us.
It also doesn’t hurt that Dunkin’ used an action word like “run.”
Roy Williams, author of the Wizard of Ads trilogy, once said, “(T)he secret of persuasion lies in our skillful use of action words. The magic of advertising is in the verbs.”
Dunkin’ made its core message compact, simple. And as a result, its message stuck.
How to do it
First, make sure your content has a clear, simple, underlying theme. You should sum it up with one line, preferably. Your theme must be evident in your headline and power each sentence.
Let’s dive into an example – comparing an article listing the benefits of eating vegetables to an article explaining that carrots are great for eyesight.
The former is too general, too broad. Which vegetables? If the writer lists every vegetable and every benefit, how can the article stick in the reader’s mind? Research shows there’s a cap to how much information we can digest at once.
The carrot article is specific, the theme simpler. It’s easier to remember that carrots are great for eyesight. Readers also can envision a carrot. It’s tangible.
That said, I’ll leave you with this example from the Heaths:
A successful defense lawyer says, ‘If you argue 10 points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.’ To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion.
2. Snatch attention using the unexpected
Research confirms that people learn by searching for patterns. We seek consistency, follow routines.
Therefore, anything that disrupts our routines grabs our attention. Why? Because it did the unpredictable: It broke our pattern, fooled our expectations.
When people encounter the unexpected, they want to investigate it, rationalize it, then solve it so they can return to their familiar patterns. Here’s what the Heath brothers say:
The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out.
For example, on a hot summer day, you flick the switch for your ceiling fan. You hear the blades spinning. You return to concentrate on your writing and the sounds of the fan blades hush. You’ve adjusted to the ceiling fan’s pattern. The novelty wore off.
This concept also applies to content marketing. If everyone is saying the same thing, in the same way, no one stands out. So, if you hop on that same bandwagon, your content gets tuned out, blending in with the background noise.
You can break the pattern by offering a fresh perspective on a popular topic. You snatch attention.
And that’s what ShowerSafe does with this sales letter:
Most people assume taking a shower is harmless. In fact, they think it’s a sign of pristine hygiene. So, when they encounter a headline that hints at the opposite, they’re hooked. Why? Because it challenged their expectations. Now they must investigate.
ShowerSafe immediately lists all five of the “hidden dangers.” It then offers proof of the “danger” by referencing chlorine tests and citing Harvard research. The effect? Credibility. The unexpected, now believable.
How to do it
Take an unexpected angle on a popular topic. And, if you make surprising assertions, back them up with proof.
For example, if you’re in the health niche, write an article about how dark chocolate with almonds reduces the risk of heart disease. Here’s a work-in-progress headline: “Did You Know That Your Heart Loves Dark Chocolate with Almonds?”
3. Practice concreteness and reject abstraction
On a flat surface, the quickest route between points A and B is a straight line. This rule also applies to your content.
When your delivery is concrete, you provide a straight line for your reader to travel. If your delivery is abstract, you provide a squiggly line that confuses your readers. And, once confused, they flee.
Thus, abstraction is the enemy of stickiness.
I’ll let the Heath brothers elaborate:
Abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and to remember it. It also makes it harder to coordinate our activities with others, who may interpret the abstraction in very different ways. Concreteness helps us avoid these problems.
M&M’s tagline harnesses the power of concreteness: “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”
The M&M’s team could have given a scientific breakdown on why their candy doesn’t melt in your hands but does in your mouth. But that would have been too verbose and abstract for the audience.
M&M’s used simple language and prioritized concrete terms – mouth and hands. Those terms keep their audience’s mind focused on one thing: devouring M&M’s.
How to do it
Here’s an example:Abstract – “I must clear my mind.” Concrete – “I must remove the cobwebs from my brain.”
The first expression is overdone, boring, dull. The second? Its concrete words grab you. You can visualize it. It’s much more memorable.
4. Use emotions to connect
I’ll let the Heath brothers chime in:
We show how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities – not only to the people they are right now but also to the people they would like to be.
Consider the Kay Jewelers slogan: “Every kiss begins with Kay.”
Cleverly, Kay Jewelers connects its jewelry with love. The message? Providing your significant other with jewelry from Kay Jewelers is a gift of intense affection, a heart-warming gesture.
By the way, note Kay Jewelers’ word play. Phonetically, “Kay” and “K” are the same. So, essentially, Kay is saying that affection (kisses) begins with them. Bold, huh?
How to do it
Determine which resonating emotion marries your message with your target audience. Flavor your content with that emotion and your readers are more likely to care.
5. Captivate with an alluring story
Research shows that people don’t just hear a story, they experience it. It has a transporting effect.
In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers write:
When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it.
Therefore, storytelling is a potent persuasive tool.
The Tale of Two Young Men sales letter by Martin Conroy for The Wall Street Journal illustrates this power:
Strategically, Martin introduces the reader to two men with similar backgrounds and aspirations. Then, he details the difference between the two – one had achieved greater business success than the other. Readers now wonder what made the difference between the two. The key differentiator is revealed – one possessed the right knowledge, positioning him for superior career success. The call to action? Subscribe to The Wall Street Journal so that you, too, can possess the kind of knowledge that propels you above your competition.
Martin took The Wall Street Journal’s target readers on a journey, using a memorable story.
How to do it
Share a relevant story that connects your message with your target reader.
Let’s say you’re writing an article for Dole encouraging readers to eat bananas. Your story begins with a sluggish person who dozes mid-morning at their desk. But the next day, the subject begins the day by eating a banana and now has enough energy to power through the morning and the rest of the day. The result? Eat bananas if you want to get more tasks accomplished in your day.
Tell an engaging story that guides your audience members to the solution they seek. Then, close with a conclusion that inspires them to act.
Tell an engaging story that guides your audience to the solution they seek, and then close with a conclusion that inspires them to act, says @ContentStride via @CMIContent. #Storytelling Click To Tweet
Stickiness is a choice
A sticker isn’t sticky by accident. Knowing the product’s purpose, the manufacturer placed adhesives on its surface so its purchasers can stick it to another surface.
Knowing your content’s purpose, you can add the right adhesives so it sticks with your audience.
Your content is more memorable. Why? Because it was made to be.
Which of the five tips do you plan to use?
Get lots of ideas to help your content marketing stick – with your target audience as well as with internal and external stakeholders. Join us for Content Marketing World this October. Register today!
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute