How To Make Sticky Content

We’ve all heard of sticky content, right?  But what does ‘sticky’ really mean?  And how do we make our blog posts and link-bait sticky?

There are lots of sources out there on how to write good content, but they tend to focus on the structure.  How to write titles, how to use sub-heads, the right length of sentences and paragraphs etc.   And it’s all great stuff, but it doesn’t really tell you what your content should contain!

How do you know your idea’s a winner?  How do you know it will spread?

Chip and Dan Heath address these factors in their AMAZING book, “Made to Stick”.  After years of study, the things they’ve found that help ideas take hold can be categorised under the following 6 principles.


Experts tend to become fascinated with the finer details, but it’s easy to bury your message in a volume of information.  You need to keep your message “succinct enough to be sticky, meaningful enough to make a difference.”

Analogies often make things simple and easy to understand because you’re comparing new concepts to something they already know.

What’s the one point you’re making?  And why would people care?


What’s new, different or surprising about what you’re saying?  This can be of huge importance, and potentially the most overlooked.  Masses of infographics abound with information like ‘Hey, isn’t Facebook big?’  Em, yeah, we know, thanks!  However, what about the announcement (at the time) that Facebook had more visitors than Google for the first time?  Okay, that’s a little unexpected.

The book gives the example of somebody posed with the challenge of communicating how bad for you movie popcorn is.  Telling people it’s bad for you or it contains lots of fat is not exactly unexpected.  But how about the statement they eventually came out with?  One serving of movie popcorn contains more fat than eggs and bacon, a Big Mac and Fries and a steak dinner – combined?!

Now you’ve got my attention.


Many cinemas changed the oil with which they make their popcorn in response to this powerful (and sticky) message.


JFK didn’t say they planned to ‘win the space race’, cause really what would that mean?  What he said was they aimed to put a man on in the moon within the decade and return him safely to earth.  There’s no mistaking what he meant there.

Abstraction distances people from the emotional aspect of a message.  You can imagine (in some way) what it would be like to be that man sent to the moon.  How exciting or terrifying it would be.  But you can’t really empathise with ‘winning the space race’.  It’s too abstract – it’s not personal.  It’s like the old adage:

“1000 deaths is a statistic, 1 death is a tragedy”


Credibility of your message might be quite an obvious one, but the ways in which you can gain credibility can be more subtle than you might expect.

Authority - If you have a depth of knowledge or experience, you come with credibility, likewise if you’ve built a huge following on your blog or Twitter within the relevant domain.  But there are other things that can add credibility to a story.

Concrete details  -  If someone tells you a story and throws in lots of details, you get the impression it must have happened.  If challenged and they can’t provide sufficient detail, you begin to challenge the reliability of the source.

Statistics - Did you know Penguins live for 5 times as long as normal birds?  I have no idea if this is true, but the inclusion of a statistic leads you to assume a level of credibility.  We presume (on the whole) that people don’t just pluck figures out their ass!  Yes, there are the more discerning who might challenge everything, and want scientific proof, but the majority of people aren’t like that.

The Sinatra Test - “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”.  If a security company held the contract for Fort Knox, you probably wouldn’t challenge their credibility.

Testable Credentials - Wendy’s burgers are bigger than McDonald’s and Burger King.  Take a ruler with you and check!


Ultimately, will people care?  This is maybe another one we’re more familiar with.  It’s what we’d traditionally refer to as the hook.

In fact, Chip and Dan Heath refer to all of these principles as hooks.  They all help the ideas take hold.  They confess they’re not necessarily an exhaustive list, and ever idea or piece of content needn’t have them all, but the more the merrier.  And if one is really lacking (e.g. credibility) it could really be to your detriment.


Stories are uber-powerful.

It’s very tempting to leave out stories and just deliver tips.

I know from my own experience of attending Distilled conferences, I get equally excited by great tips as a I do by great stories.  But here’s the rub.  The ones I remember the following year, are the ones that told great stories.

Wiep Knol told a story about running a competition about the best churches in Europe.  Turned out one of them was being celebrated by its home town that year, so they got links from the local authorities.  Wil Reynolds told a great story about gaining links from Cosmo and other top magazines, and his rankings still bombed.  Simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, story – it’s all there!  These are the things that stuck, for me.  There were tips embedded in the stories, but I remembered them because of the stories.

I only recently discovered this book, and I’m a huge evangelist now.  I’m recommending everyone in Distilled reads it.  I’d love to see us start to discuss our content ideas using this as a framework.  I’d recommend you do too.

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