Are You Contagious? If Not, Follow these Six Steps

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Achoo!  Under the right conditions, a sneeze or cough can spread sickness far and wide.  All it takes is for one infected person on a plane or in a crowded room to pass the condition to dozens, maybe hundreds more.

Most of us understand how a virus spreads and epidemics begin.  But few use that knowledge when communicating to reach a larger audience. By making your communications more contagious, or “sticky,” you can increase their impact, longevity and spread.

Epidemics

The 1918 Influenza epidemic was the deadliest plague in history.  It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years, more in a year than the Black Plague in a century.

According to The Great Influenza by John Barry, the virus had humble beginnings.  It started in isolated Haskell County, Kansas.  Soldiers on leave caught and brought it to the 60,000 men at nearby Fort Pierce. Aided troop movements, it circled the globe and killed 50-100 million people in 18 months.

Information moves even faster than disease.  Within minutes the entire world knew about the 9/11 attacks. Media helped initially, but word-of-mouth spread it around the globe in minutes.  That’s because 9/11 was the ultimate sticky message, one quickly shared by friends, family and coworkers.

Going Viral

Viral videos also show how quickly information spreads.  Unfortunately, the odds of creating a successful viral video are miniscule.  In fact, Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield recommends you don’t even bother trying.

“Fishing for rainbow trout?  If you catch one,” he writes by way of analogy, “it’ll probably weigh 2 pounds. You will not catch a 42-pound rainbow trout.  Oh, it’s been done…and it’s conceivable somebody will hook another one. But it won’t be you. “

Fortunately, you don’t need a viral video or 9/11 to make sticky messages.  With a few simple tips, your media releases, direct mail and website will be more likely to cling.

Money magazine provides an opportunity to compare the stickiness of different messages. Five health nonprofits placed ads the magazine.  None were outrageous or “went viral.”

But the Alzheimer’s Association’s ad was better and incorporated elements of all six criteria needed to create a sticky and more memorable message.

Six Steps to Stickiness

How do you get “sticky?” Authors Chip and Dan Health offer six recommendations in Made to Stick. Elements of each can be seen in the Alzheimer’s Association ad above.

  • Simplicity – Strip your ideas to their core elements.
  • Unexpectedness – Being different captures and holds someone’s attention.
  • Concreteness – Specificity makes your message easier to process and remember.
  • Credibility – Are your spokespersons believable?
  • Emotion – Connect beyond facts and figures.
  • Stories – Are memorable and effective teaching tools.

While no guarantee (not all seven-footers play in the NBA), incorporating these elements will make your messages more contagious.  Like sneezing on a crowded airplane.

Popcorn Problem

The Center for Science in the Public Interest had a problem: How to convince the media and public about the unhealthiness of movie popcorn (37 grams of saturated fat per serving).

That’s a tall order.  Americans are inundated with messages on healthy eating.  How could CSPI break through the noise, and get noticed, with nothing more than dry fact (37 grams of fat)?

They called a called a press conference with the following message: A medium-sized movie popcorn contains more saturated fat than a bacon and egg breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and steak dinner with all the trimmings.

And just in case the reporters missed the message, each item was carefully laid out on a table for comparison.

The story contained nearly every element of stickiness.  The result? CSPI generated national media coverage and public awareness.  More importantly, their sticky message mobilized the public to demand healthier popcorn options at the movies.

Conclusion

Information spreads like a virus.  The stickier your message, the more likely you’ll create an information epidemic.

Creating “sticky” communications is not difficult. It starts with knowing your audience, what you want them to do (“call to action”) and what motivates them to act.

Then, following the Six Steps to Stickiness, you can generate communications that people will read, respond to, and pass along to their friends, co-workers and loved ones and others.

A barrier to creating stickiness is often an unwillingness to be “unexpected.”  The good news is that you don’t have to be outrageous to get noticed.

Six Steps to a Sticky Message

I just finished reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in getting their message heard in this noisy, hyper-caffeinated, message messy world.

We are inundated with messages – as many as 3,000 a day according to some experts.  In this kind of environment, it is very difficult to make an impact with your target audience.  One way you can do that is by making your message memorable, or “sticky” as the Heaths and The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell recommend.

But creating sticky messages doesn’t come easy to many people.  And because creativity is involved, many believe that it cannot be effectively taught or learned.  Fortunately, the Heaths turn that notion on its head and have developed the following six principles for creating a more sticky message: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotion and Stories (SUCCESs…get it?).

Fans of The Tipping Point will find a lot to like in Made to Stick.  Written in a breezy, engaging style it nonetheless includes real world examples that illustrate these six principles in action.  And like another of my favorite marketing and communications books, Influence by Robert Cialdini, it backs up many of its claims with data from psychological and other medical journals.

If you’re having a tough time getting your message heard, Made to Stick may be the right place to start.

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