Thursday, February 08, 2007

There’s Something Sticky Here…

There’s a new word in the experience design lexicon: sticky. It’s the child of the killer app, a slightly more palatable sister to “viral.” It hangs out at the Exploratorium with the APE (active prolonged engagement) folks. It was christened in a shadow box. And it keeps. Coming back.

I first became acquainted with sticky through the Electric Sheep Company folks. They’re building in a big and barely searchable virtual worlds like Second Life and they want to create content that hooks people in and draws them to come back again and again. They don’t talk about building the most beautiful or robust content (though that’s important); they talk about stickiness—where to find it, how to make it.

What differentiates sticky from viral? When viral marketing became popular, the goal was to create something that viewers/users would be compelled, zombie-like, to spread. Viral content depends on carriers to make it valuable. Viral content is short-lived in the memory of the user, long-lived in the distribution chain. Sticky is different. Instead of one-shot content that will hopefully spread like cannon fire around eardrums of the world, the goal is to generate something that will compel individual users to return.

Museums can’t be viral. They don’t travel well, and their content is more complex (hopefully) than a 30 second video of a dog peeing off a bridge. But they should be sticky.

Sticky is not synonymous with good. Good content is compelling on its own merits. It keeps people engaged, and motivates them to return—if returning will give the user another positive experience. Sticky seeks to turn that “if” into a certainty. That’s why it’s frequently applied to web 2.0 applications, where users generate and manipulate content, as opposed to more standard content providers. A great book is good content. A great diary is sticky. An informative site is good. An active chat room, a useful tool—sticky.

So where should sticky live in the museum? An obvious place to start is wow phenomena, APE-style interactive exhibits—the shadow wall, the hatching chicks. These are explorations that react to your input, something you can participate in, something wondrous enough to dissipate all “ifs” about the value of a return visit. But exhibits are mostly about content, and it’s hard to create content that is malleable enough to be sticky.

Sticky is best in the packaging of experiences—the way you interact with the content. Google Maps is a great example. The content they are providing is not unique—and arguably, it’s not even the best of its kind. But the way the software allows you to drag your viewing window around the map is so fun, so excellent, that the program becomes captivating. It’s not just a map. It’s an experience.

I sat here for awhile trying to think of museum experiences I’ve seen that are sticky, not gimmicky. The exhibit ones are easy—lots of installation art bits, sound floors to dance on—but the packaging isn’t coming to me. I’m still a skeptic on the use of handhelds in museums, but the basic concept of having a way to interact back with the content—static or not—is the right direction.

I’m learning from the Sheep that if you want to create a place for users—not just visitors—you have to prioritize sticky over almost everything else. When content is framed by a sticky experience, the user feels like you created something fun and wonderful for them to experiment with—which leads to more engagement with the content, brand love. And then they buy memberships. And they come back.

3 comments, add yours!:

The conversationalist said...

Hi Nina... Great post, and very helpful distinctions.

Lisa Neal said...

Sticky is when (1) you can see something from multiple perspectives and return because you are using a new lens and (2) there are changes that draw you back.

Dan Spock said...

The old content/experience problem is telling. I have always thought that museums were on firm ground when they put the experience first asking, in effect, "Is this really cool?" Too often you get exhibits that are clumsy vehicles for text, but text doesn't really get read unless something about the initial impression is captivating enough to make you want to read about it. Museum sticky might mean things that provoke lingering, curiosity, discussion, but it also might mean things worth coming back to over an over again -- the brand loyalty factor that is probaly the product of a pile of accumulated sticky experiences that compells you to take ownership of the place.