Sticky Messages


What if you wanted to encourage people in your community to recycle more?

You might put an ad in the local paper that outlined the recycling program’s successes, e.g. “Last year we recycled 250 tonnes of OCC, 150 tonnes of ONP, 55 tonnes of boxboard and 25 tonnes of steel cans.”

You can probably already tell that the public isn’t likely to pick up on this message — the average person isn’t familiar with OCC or boxboard and most people can’t truly picture a tonne of ANYTHING.

Of course, people in the biz understand OCC and 250 tonnes. Sometimes we know too much about a subject and have trouble translating what we know into messages that the general public can understand and remember. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick (Random House, 2007), call this the “Curse of Knowledge” and attribute many failures of good messages and ideas to this “curse.”

The Heath brothers have studied what makes some ideas succeed and others fail. They have identified six principles of sticky messaging:

  • Simplicity — the messages have to be both simple and profound. We need to identify our single, most important message and go with it. In this example, the core message is “Our recycling program is working, please recycle more”
  • Unexpectedness — getting and keeping attention is difficult. We notice things that surprise us — that create a new way of thinking about something. Keeping attention often involves creating a mystery, getting us curious about something — then we have to stick around to find out how it ends.
  • Concreteness — express your core message in terms of human actions or in terms of sensory information. Abstract language doesn’t stick. Back to our example, how much is 250 tonnes? Will it fill the hockey arena or the town office? Letting people know that they’ve recycled enough cardboard to completely fill up Council Chambers is both unexpected and concrete — and more likely to stick.
  • Credibility — we need to find ways to get people to believe our ideas. Sometimes the messages come from an expert, but more often we need to find ways for people to be able to test out the idea themselves.
  • Emotions — getting people to care about our ideas involves making them feel something. Our example might generate feelings of pride.
  • Stories — stories are a powerful tool that can get people to act on our ideas. Ideas illustrated by a story can be very sticky.

Not all sticky messages contain every principle, but these six can be used as a ’stickiness’ checklist.

Let’s try the recycling example again. Maybe your ad has a photo of the mayor at her desk with newspapers stacked all around so that you can hardly see her. (Photos are very concrete — the idea is also unexpected, as it isn’t our normal vision of the mayor). The slogan might be “Congratulations MyTown, you recycled enough materials last year to fill up the mayor’s office ten times! If we all recycled just 10% more, we could fill up the foyer in the legislature building… let’s do it, MyTown!”

It’s simple, concrete, unexpected and generates emotion (community pride, maybe a bit of rebelliousness). It doesn’t tell a story or attempt to create a credible source, but it’s definitely stickier than the first one.

[Source: May 2007 WasteWatch ]