6 traits of a content idea that sticks

Do you want tons of traffic and links? All you’ve got to do is “create great content” – but for content to be great, it needs to stick.

In today’s fast-paced digital marketing landscape, it’s a well-known fact that you need quality content if you want to succeed.

But creating quality content is easier said than done. You’re essentially putting your creativity, thoughts and ideas on the line and hoping people notice them, understand them, remember them and act on them – and as a nation, we’re certainly not easily swayed.

But why do some ideas survive and others die? The book (or bible) Made to Stick is popular with everyone, from CEOs and managers to marketers and entrepreneurs – and, if you work in digital marketing like I do, you’ll probably agree that the principles of this book have become a gospel part in deciding what makes “great content”.

Made to Stick analyses why we remember random stories, yet struggle to recall important information and facts.

Urban legends and kidney harvesting

The book starts with an urban legend about a man who has his kidneys harvested. It then provides a passage from a paper distributed by a non-profit organisation, full of industry jargon.

Imagine what would happen if we closed the book and tried to tell someone about the kidney heist and the jargon. It’s likely we’d remember the kidney heist; it’s highly unlikely we’d remember the jargon.

Now, I’m not saying quality content has to involve urban legends and kidney heists (I don’t think our clients would be too happy if we proposed anything along those lines!), but it’s a brilliant introduction into why some ideas survive and others don’t.

As the book says: “It’s the nature versus nurture debate applied to ideas: Are ideas born interesting or made interesting?”

So how do you get ideas to stick? There is no formula, but sticky ideas do draw from a common set of traits; S.U.C.C.E.S.S.

Principle 1: Simple

When you’re trying to sell an idea, it’s easy to expect everyone to absorb every detail, but the secret to simplicity is to find the core of the idea.

Ask yourself: “What is the one key thing I want them to remember?” and focus on that.

Essentially, it’s about stripping an idea down to its bare essentials: one point is better than five. The less we say, the easier it is to take in. Simplicity cuts through.

Principle 2: Unexpected

Your idea needs to make an impact in order for it to survive – and this is often achieved by producing something that’s unexpected and surprising.

It’s easy to grab someone’s attention by surprising them, the tricky part lies in figuring out how to do that.

You have to break someone’s existing thought pattern. The example from the book is a good one. We all know popcorn isn’t healthy, but telling people that isn’t exactly unexpected.

On the other hand, if we said: “One serving of popcorn contains more fat than eggs, bacon, steak and a Big Mac,” then suddenly the idea goes from expected to unexpected.

You get the gist (and for those who are interested, this was actually true – until they took the coconut oil out of the recipe!).

Principle 3: Concrete

This is one word I use a lot when it comes to analysing my content ideas. Is it concrete enough? What does that even mean?!

Ultimately, the easier it is for us to relate to something, the easier it is for us to understand it. If we can personalise an idea, then suddenly the idea becomes sticky.

Let me give you my own example. I once did a piece on the scale of deforestation. It started off like this:

“Our planet is currently losing over 15 billion trees every year.
That equates to 768 km² of forest cut down or burned every three days,
which equates to 10,833 km² of forest cut down or burned every month…”

Hang on a minute. That’s not very concrete. How big is 768 km²?! Can you relate to that? No, me neither. Let’s try and make this more relatable.

“Our planet is currently losing over 15 billion trees every year.
That equates to an area the size of New York every 2 days,
which equates to an area the size of Yosemite National Park every 9 days…”

And suddenly the idea becomes concrete.

Principle 4: Credible

How do we make people believe our ideas? Credibility doesn’t always mean stating hard facts and numbers (although this can help), but it also means connecting your story to real life experiences.

Instead of simply presenting data, make it more accessible and understandable.

Principle 5: Emotional

Making an idea emotional doesn’t mean it needs to be a tearjerker. It simply means finding a way to make people care.

I like to refer to this principle as the ‘hook’. Ask yourself: “Will people care?” If you want them to care, make them feel something.

Principle 6: Stories

Stories are easy to tell and are far easier to remember than statistics. The hard part about using a story is creating it.

However, when you’ve nailed your story, it usually meets many of the other principles for making ideas sticky. More often than not, stories are concrete, emotional and unexpected.

These six principles explore the tactics needed to make sure that your ideas are not forgotten about in a world of content overload. If you can make use of any of these principles, you’ll make your ideas stickier.

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