“Excuse me for saying this, but it’s only a f*@$%ing chocolate biscuit”

This phrase was uttered by an agency planner working on a new chocolate cookie for Nabisco.  His client mistakenly believed that housewives would be reduced to hysterics over a new product improvement that added an extra half-millimeter of chocolate all around the biscuit (Steel, 1998).   This statement reveals a painful, but accurate truth: most people don’t care about the intricacies of a product or service.

With the increasing penetration of online networks in the market, many companies naïvely cling to the idea that consumers are falling over themselves to comment on their brand’s Facebook page, Twitter stream, YouTube video and blog.  And of course after doing so they will promptly run to the store and buy the product.

Unfortunately, many brands are finding out the hard way that it doesn’t work this way.  While there may be 60 million Facebook updates a day (Qualman, 2009), but you can bet that most of them aren’t about products.  To understand how brands can develop effective digital content, we must first understand the core elements that make commercial messages successful.

In “Made to Stick” Chip and Dan Heath explore the common elements shared by   phenomenons such as urban legends and proverbs.  These messages went viral long before the internet was even conceived.  By exploring the commonalities between these messages we can learn important lessons on how to successfully communicate with consumers.  Below I explore the six elements of effective messages, and what this means for digital communications.

Successful messages are…

Simple.

Consumers have always had limited memory capacity; now they also have highly segmented consumption habits, a diminished attention span  and a need for immediate gratification.  Tweets are 140 characters, status updates are rarely longer than a sentence and even URLs are being condensed.  Thus, if a consumer can’t explain why an online video or site is worthwhile in a sentence or two, it’s unlikely they will ever share it with their network.

Concrete.

The best messages talk in the language of the consumer.  Nabisco’s agency planner knew better than to talk to housewives about how many millimeters of chocolate were on each one of their cookies.  Even if it was put into terms they could understand, it is unlikely that it would break through the clutter and even more unlikely that they would care.  However, they might care if they found out their family was getting twice as much chocolate-y goodness for the same price.  This is an extremely important concept for digital messages.  Consumers have infinite entertainment choices and information outlets online.  They are not going to take the time to wrap their minds around a complex or convoluted statement.

Unexpected.

There’s a reason why Old Spice and Nike enjoyed some of the biggest viral successes last year.  People expect deodorant to talk about how well it can keep you dry.  They expect an athletic company to talk about why their products make athletes great.  But these companies didn’t do that. Instead they discovered something the consumer was already familiar with – the desire to impress the opposite sex, the excitement that one moment of a championship game can lead  to glory or despair – and presented these moments in a fresh way.  It paid off: Old Spice’s sales doubled.

To fully understand how brands can develop effective digital messages, we must first understand what makes a message appealing to the consumer.  Although there may be a lot of important things we want to say about the product or service we are offering, it ultimately does not matter what we think.  By focusing our digital messages on simple, concrete concepts and presenting those messages in an unexpected way we can capture the attention of consumers in saturated medium and encourage them to share the experience with their networks.  In the next post we’ll look at how brands can leverage credibility, emotional appeals and stories to create consumer interest and involvement.

Steel, Jon. (1998). Truth, Lies & Advertising: The Art of Account Planning. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Heath, Chip & Heath Dan. (2008). Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Rev. ed.). New York: Random House, Inc.

Qualman, Erik. (2009). Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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