The Hack to Make Your Content Site Addictive
This is Instant Appeal, a newsletter about Science-based hacks to optimize your business, career, life, and relationships. Based on concepts in my book, Instant Appeal:The 8 Primal Factors That Create Blockbuster Success. (HarperCollins)
Today’s topic: Streaks. No, not those annoying smudges on your car window or bathroom mirror. And we don’t mean a blue streak, a mean streak, or a cold streak. We’re talking about interaction streaks that will turn your sales into a hot streak.
Interaction Streaks are having a moment in digital product and service design. An interaction streak is a regular, uninterrupted interval of interaction (duh) with a (usually) digital product. Examples include usage streaks, winning streaks, completion streaks, and achievement (self-improvement) streaks.
Streak Freaks: Why people cheat at Wordle and how Snapchat ruins nights out.
How it Got Started: It started with trouble. Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for....Persuasive Tech. (Apologies to Meredith Wilson.)
#BizBrief: How Duolingo used streaks to make learning addictive. (Heads up for anyone who runs an online course.)
#Streaks-4-U: How authors can use streaks to improve book sales, media entrepreneurs can increase engagement (say, with your podcast), and coaches and consultants can get retainer clients.
Just for Fun: Don't look, Ethel! 1974 is calling.
On the go and want to learn more? Listen to today's 10-minute podcast where we interview two top research experts on how to best use streaks to engage customers.
THE BIG DEAL:
Streak Freaks: They'll do (almost) anything to keep the streak alive.
Seems C H E A T is the winning Word(le) of the day. More people are cheating at the online puzzle game just to keep their winning streaks going.
Not only are people cheating by searching for the answer keys, but they're also cheating with clues. According to Google Trends, searches for five-letter words starting or ending with specific letters (letters you have already correctly guessed) have increased 1100% between November 2021 and March 8, 2022. Wordle was made public in October 2021. Coincidence? Methinks not.
Snapchat users have been searching for tips on how to hack Snapchat to trick the app into thinking they've "snapped" a friend every 24 hours--even when they didn't--so they can keep their snap streaks alive. One teen lamented a ruined vacation because of the stress of losing her streaks, and adult Snap users find the app ruins a night out with friends.
They'll fake lesson completions in online courses
Even subscribers to online courses look for ways to (ahem!) "creatively" keep their learning streak alive even when they aren't actually viewing lessons.
But...why? What's going on with the brain here?
Why do people cheat just to keep a streak going? The answer: The brain is wired for repetition—especially when we’re stressed. We turn to repetitive successes—such as keeping a Wordle winning streak or uninterrupted Snap streak or a course-review streak going—to relieve anxiety. Wordle came along in the midst of the pandemic, which had just about everyone anxious and stressed out. Keeping Wordle streaks alive gave us some sense of safety, control, and what to expect next. Break the streak, and the brain ratches up the fear. Fear of failure. Fear of loss of control.
Where did it all start?
Streaks have always been used to foster addictions. (Vegas casinos, anyone?) But when the cache of winning combines with social validation, the brain is like a drug addict looking for a hit. It'll do anything to avoid the pain of a bruised ego by breaking a streak. (The scientific term for that is loss aversion.)
And social media companies know this. They’ve been using something called Persuasive Technology for years.
Persuasive technology is digital design used to influence behavior. Snapchat—and other social medial platforms—play on people’s social anxieties (acceptance, community, belonging) to keep you going back again and again and again. Wordle plays on your failure anxiety. So does Duolingo, which has learned that streaks can lead to stratospheric engagement.
#BizBrief: How Duolingo made learning addictive
They help people keep their streaks going.
Like most subscribers to language-learning site Duolingo, a Reddit commenter with the handle IfYouComeaKnockin was panicked because he lost track of time (perhaps too much time a rockin’?) and was panicked that he broke his losing streak. He appealed to the Duolingo crew via Facebook to get it reinstated.
Does this user have an unquenchable thirst for learning? A desire or need to become proficient in foreign languages?
Hardly. Many users confess their main reason for staying on the platform is based on obsession as much as (if not more than) learning.
"Not wanting to lose my streak is the #1 reason I'm still on the app. No joke."
—LearnDash collaborator blog post.
It's worth noting that Duolingo allows you to keep your streak going even if you don't meet your daily learning goal. Which is exactly by design. Streaks are more addictive—and more satisfying — than accomplishments. The savvy UX designers at Duolingo know that repetition compulsion is more satisfying to the brain than achieving a goal, thanks to a concept called arrival fallacy (or, why reaching your goals won’t make you happy).
“Reaching your goals won’t make you happy. Streaks are more satisfying than accomplishments to the brain.”
They exploit our evolutionary instincts.
Duolingo content maestros put a lot of thought into streaks, and they’ve tweaked their own approach to streaks. One change (whether intentional or not) manipulated our passive attention to increase excitement and light up the reward center of our brains. How? By changing the reward icon from a static image to a dopamine-inducing animation.
We’re hard-wired to give more attention—and more emotion—to movement. A keen eye for even the slightest movement was helpful to our hunter-gatherer ancestors to keep them from harm. (Man-eating tiger moves in the bush next to you. Better either be a fast runner or a good aim with your arrow.) So, any movement catches our eye because we subconsciously initially perceive it as a threat. We’re always passively on the lookout for movement.
They tap into the reward prediction error dopamine trigger.
It gets interesting when the movement isn’t a threat, but rather a pleasant surprise—as with Duolingo’s reward animation. Several things happen in the brain at that moment. First, the neurotransmitter dopamine gives us a rush from the surprise of the movement. (This is the dopamine function associated with motivation. In this case, it’s motivation to subconsciously assess whether the movement is a threat. Whew! It’s not!) Then we get another dopamine hit from the rush of the unexpected reward (known as the “reward prediction error” model). We get a bigger thrill from pleasant unexpected surprises than from pleasant events that are planned.
Dopamine on steroids: The thrill of multiple mini-hits.
Finally, we get another dopamine blast from the novelty of the animation. The Duolingo developers worked to create not just any old animation, but one that is emotionally satisfying in its cleverness and novelty.
There are several “mini-surprises” in the animation itself. First, we see the familiar green owl’s facial changes and wing flaps. (Mini-surprise #1.) Then we see it leap into the air and spin around. (Mini-surprise #2.) Just when we think the owl will then land back down, it transforms into a phoenix “super owl” with the expanded yellow wings. (Super cool mini-surprise #3.) As we see “super owl” start to land, our brain expects that is the end of the transformation. But, noooo; “super owl” is now “on fire” owl, cleverly reinforcing the “on fire” lexicon associated with Duolingo streaks. (Unexpected mini-surprise #4.) It really is quite remarkable how the developers triggered so many dopamine hits in an animation that lasts only about five seconds. They tapped into the most recent studies that indicate dopamine isn’t just for rewards and pleasure; it’s linked to motivation, movement, and novelty.
Compare the dopamine-inducing animations above with Duolingo’s previous milestone reward:
Yeah. Not the same reaction. No dopamine-induced excitement here.
#Streaks for You: How You Can Use Streaks in Your Business
Just because you create a streak, doesn't mean it will be effective. Turns out there is an art to creating an addictive streak. Here are some tips to use streaks to increase engagement with your products.
1. Tie streaks to events--not goals. (Remember, our brains are more motivated by repetition than achievement.) It's a win/win for the brain. You can tie your streaks to:
Product usage. Set usage levels, and create, as Duolingo did, “Milestone” days—when a user reaches a particular number of consecutive actions (sharing a post, using a product, interacting with your site).
Sharing. Obvously you want to make your content shareable but, more improtantly, reward customers for sharing your content. Someone refers five people to your blog? They get a free download of a course you offer. A reader buys three books in your series? They get an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of your next book—with the ability to make story suggestions. Someone shares your podcast link with a dozen people? They get a mug. (you get the idea.)
Content engagement. Set streaks based on how many of your books people read, how many podcasts they listen to, or how many courses they take.
PRO TIP: Streaks are especially powerful if you're an author. Why do you think the most wealthy novelists (those making six-and seven-figure bank) write in series and have online communities where readers log in daily to "brag" about how many books they've completed? As a cozy mystery fan wrote on Facebook: "I'd like to branch out to other authors, but I need to complete the entire series by this author first. It's so addictive to continue with a series." Turns out streaks are a competitive advantage—even when there are no rewards associated with streaks. But, you could do like Duolingo and offer membership in a swanky “Streak Society” once users reach 365 consecutive days of engagement with your content.
2. Be forgiving with your streaks. One way Duolingo makes money is by allowing users to buy "streak freezes." Because sometimes you gotta just take a vacation.
3. Keep content short. The general rule here is three to five minutes. That's why Wordle is more addictive than a crossword puzzle: You can usually finish a Wordle in about three minutes. Course creators keep individual modules or sessions to three minutes or less. Or, rather than a complete course, offer a daily email course that takes no more than three-to-five minutes to complete. Business podcast producers create three-minute "series" with cliffhangers to encourage audience members to listen to the next podcast. (They don't create fifteen, thirty, or God forbid sixty-minute podcasts.) And authors keep chapters to 1,200 or fewer words. (The average reading rate is between 200 and 250 words per minute, so 1,200 words can be read in about five minutes.) What is the magic with three minutes? Research by the Davis Lab at Carnegie Mellon shows that three minutes is the maximum time humans can focus on something before they lose focus. (More on this in a future newsletter.)
4. For digital content, prioritize usage flexibility. What if your users are too busy on any given day, and can't sit down for even five minutes of uninterrupted time to complete a streak? Do what Duolingo did: include settings for busy environments. The app has an "I can't listen right now" and "I can't talk right now" setting so you can use the app in public (while on a train, for example) without coming across as a crazy person talking to yourself.
5. Be a streak easy. Snapchat users practically declared mutiny when the app updated features that would potentially jeopardize streaks. Same with Duolingo. Be careful that any product updates don't mess with streaks in any way. Unless, of course, the updates make streaks easier to achieve. ;)
6. Animate your milestone rewards and include the element of surprise. Because everyone likes a good dopamine hit or two.
And now, for another kind of streak…
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