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Keeping users engaged...

So you got past the brain's crap filter, but now how do you keep their attention? How do you keep them involved? Take a lesson from game developers...

The more time someone spends with your "message", the greater the chances that they'll understand, retain, and be able to recall that message. So whether you're trying to help someon learn or get users to become more involved with your [product/service/website/music/cause/whatever], keeping the user engaged is crucial. But how?

By looking to places where keeping users engaged is not a problem--places where people want to stay involved. And that means looking to hobbies, sports, games... places where people are passionately addicted! Wouldn't we all love to have users that felt as passionately about our stuff as people feel for their favorite activities? Look at the characteristics of people who are passionate about something:

* They want to learn as much as they can about it.

* They want to connect with other users (user groups, conferences, clubs, online forums, etc.)

* They're willing to spend money to get the latest and greatest.

and sometimes most importantly...

* They talk about it to others. They can't help being envagelists.

So, the solution is simple:

Just make sure your product or service is as engaging as, say, snowboarding. Problem solved.

So what happens if your product is something just a tad less compelling... something like soap? Hugh at Gaping Void got a similar question when we wrote about how your brand makes the customer a more powerful entity. In a comment, someone asked, "How can garbage bags increase my personal power, or how could you even pitch them in such a way? Power over not having the bags rip and spill stuff all over me? Am I missing something? I do see where this could apply in the technical arena, or with cars, or suits, or whatever. I'm not seeing that the Hughtrain has universal marketing power."

I thought Hugh nailed the answer (or at least pointed to where the answer lies) with this:

"I think it is possible to be evangelical about a garbage bag.
But you need imagination and a sense of adventure."

So yes, it's easy to get people excited and involved when the thing you make, write about, etc. is something people can become passionate about. But what about soap, or canned chile, or garbage bags? What if your product is a spreadsheet? Sure it's easy for the guys who write fun tools for 3D animation to have passionate users, but what about the rest of us?

I can't speak for what Hugh meant, but we believe the answer (the imagination and sense of adventure) lies in creating an environment around your product or service that uses what game designers know to create opportunities for flow states(Beth has a lot of great things to say about flow in this post). And there's a formula for that. It's not easy to do, but the formula itself is simple.

It's about getting the challenge level right, and creating opportunities for people to want to get to The Next Level. It's about giving people the "I Rule!" experience. But first, you have to get yourself out of the way, since it doesn't matter if users think YOU kick ass. It only matters that they think THEY kick ass.

Give users a way to kick ass.

And giving them brighter whites in their laundry doesn't count as kicking ass. Giving them slightly stronger garbage bags doesn't count. Tastier chile isn't enough. Nice-smelling soap doesn't do it either.

The true feeling of kicking ass comes from challenge. If you get the challenge level right, people enter that state of flow where they lose track of time because they're so fully engaged and involved. They feel good about what they were able to do and learn. It's a kind of natural high, and it's been directly linked with happiness. More flow==more happiness. And game developers (and the researchers who study flow states) know exactly what creates the right challenge level (although it isn't one size fits all--what's challenging to some will be too difficult or too easy for others, although there are ways around that with dynamically adjusting challenge levels... but that's a different topic).

Challenge depends on your skills and perception of the task. If you perceive the challenge is too difficult, the flow state vanishes because you become frustrated and ultimately give up. If you perceive the challenge as too easy, the payoffs aren't worth it, and you lose interest. You can't feel like you kick ass (I Rule!) if the thing you're doing is dead simple or meaningless. Games or activities (skiing, rock climbing, running, etc.) that keep people engaged have a challenge level that matches the user's skills and knowledge and most importantly--keeps increasing.

The key is to have a cycle where the user can keep building their skills to reach higher and higher levels! In other words, the challenge keeps building, but so do the user's skills and knowledge. The spiral is a continuous cycle of motivation/seduction followed by a period of intense activity toward a goal followed by REACHING that goal which then gives you more skills and knowledge (superpowers, tools, whatever) that let you achieve still higher levels... and on it goes. Five hours later you're at Level Eight, or skiing bigger moguls, or helping save the world.

Which brings us back to... garbage bags. Nobody in the history of the world has become passionate and engaged and challenged and in flow as a result of their choice of garbage bags. What's the Next Level of garbage bags? Twist ties instead of those built-in handles? White instead of black? Would anyone want to become expert at learning how the damn things are manufactured?

So, those who're trying to do this with garbage bags DO have a big extra challenge of their own, and they have to take extra steps. But as Hugh said, it's possible:

If there's nothing inherently engaging about your product or service, you need to create something around your product or service that is.

In other words, you have to make the engaging challenge about something somehow related to your product, and then you have to provide users with both the challenge AND the tools to keep increasing their skills and knowledge around that challenge area. This related thing does NOT necessarily have to be deeply spiritually fulfilling. You don't have to make everything a Big Important Cause. You don't have to come up with some change-the-world benefit by, say, associating your product or service with a save-the-whatever campaign. Think about it... video games keep people engaged, involved, learning, passionate, and on and on, without ever suggesting that you're directly fulfilling a higher purpose other than feeling more personally powerful at something. Achieving a flow state is fulfilling on a personal level because it creates an "I Rule/I Kick Ass" experience. And that's a Good Thing, whether it's attached to an important cause or not. Happiness is beneficial all by itself.

(And one can argue that in a systems thinking way, the more experiences like that a person has, the happier they are and ultimately--the more likely they are to contribute in the world. To pursue more adventures and challenges and who knows where it could lead...but that's not necessarily our job.)

So what might that be? Let's take something easier first... like coffee and soap. Coffee is easy because you could approach it in many different ways, but here are a couple:

* Provide a means to make people the coffee equivalent of wine sommeliers. Give them the tools, education, and challenges. Hold contests. Award certificates. Make snobs.


* Help people understand and become involved with the issues around Fair Trade. Coldplay's Chris Martin reaches hundreds of thousands of fans at his concerts, and usually the camera zooms in for a close-up of his hands on the keyboard, where he's written "Fair" on one and "Trade" on the other. Those thousands of fans leave the concert, go home, and google on "fair trade". A coffee producer who shows some fair trade awareness is good, but that's not enough to create passionate users. But a coffee roaster who, say, provides interesting and challenging ways for people to learn and more importantly--become involved in issues around fair trade might have a better chance at keeping users engaged.

What if your product is soap? Maybe something like:

* Teach people to make their own soaps, using natural ingredients. Hold contests where people can submit the most wild-looking soaps, or that use the most exotic and unusual ingredients. Give people a way to keep learning more and increasing their skills, and provide interesting payoffs (a reason to get to the Next Level).

* Similar to getting people involved in issues around fair trade, you could use hemp as a platform for skill, knowledge, and increasing challenge.

OK, back to garbage bags. I've been delaying this one because I really don't know what to do there. If it were my job to know, though, I'd spend a lot of effort on it. But I'll throw out some probably lame ideas as a starting point:

* The easiest way would be to make sure your garbage bags really ARE made in some environmentally supportive and interesting way, and provide the tools for people to increase their knowledge and skills in some interesting and challenging way. When I say interesting and challenging, I mean that you can't just put up a bunch of good info to read. They might read it, but then what? That's not enough for passion.

But let's assume you just don't have that luxury. Your bags are what they are, and you have no control over how they're made. Then what?

* If you can't make it about the product itself, make it about the packaging. Make the packaging a collectible work of art. Hire Hugh to put his cartoons on the inside of the boxes. Give people a way to learn just what the hell these things mean (or better yet--let people speculate on their own interpretations). Make sure you keep varying the cartoons with new boxes, so people have to keep buying them to see what's next. Make them exclusives, so you won't get them anywhere else.

The Chocolove company makes great chocolate bars, but so do a ton of other companies. But their packaging is truly special. They even put poems inside, and sometimes the poem is continued... in another type of bar! So you must keep buying the additional bars for your sweetie or you've left her/him with an unfinished poem.

* Provide games on your site. Really good, fun, interactive, high-score publishing games. Put clues to the games inside the boxes. Even if there's nothing at all in the box, if you can keep people on your site longer, they'll at least feel something related to your product.

* Let users design the boxes or even the bags. Or be campy and let people design the most obnoxious colors. Let people submit and post digital videos about their most bizarre/creative use of a trash bag. Teach people digital editing skills.

* Make really cool designer trash bins. Hire the best graphic designers for your bags and boxes, and offer free industrial design appreciation classes on your web site. Invite people to submit design ideas.

[UPDATE: John Mitchell commented with what I think is a much better suggestion: ." ...For example, think about the coffee example... It would take a
bold garbage bag company to actually talk about something meaningful like
actually reducing the amount of garbage."]

Of course all of this costs extra money, but you were probably going to have to find something to do with that advertising budget anyway, as ads continue to asymptotically approach total uselessness.

So if you think of what used to be your ad budget as going to your "help users kick ass and have an 'I Rule!' experience" campaign, it's just shifting the dollars to something way more useful and interesting for everyone. DISCLAIMER: this is all assuming that you already have a great product. A product that's at least as good as most of your competitors in terms of features and meeting the user's basic need for the product (in this case, hold trash). The things in this post are about rising above the noise when there are potentially many competing products that all do roughly the same thing for the user, and do it perfectly well. In other words, this is about what to do when there just isn't anything truly, deeply remarkable about the product itself.

None of this is easy, and of course I'm way oversimplifying everything here. That's why we're doing a whole book on it, and a three-hour tutorial about it at the upcoming ETech conference. Game designers work extraordinarily hard at getting the challenge levels right to keep people passionate about the games, and there's both an art and science to it. But that doesn't mean there aren't a bunch of practical, useful lessons we can learn from them.

Combine that with the lessons from cognitive scientists, psychologists, learning theorists, and entertainment (that's a whole different area I'll talk about in separate blogs), and there is a formula that almost anyone can apply. We've implemented some of this in our books, and our suggestion to new authors is to be extremely careful about the challenge level in your book.

A lot of first-time authors err dramatically in one direction or the other, either by trying to make it too difficult (so that they'll be perceived as smart and credible) or by making it too easy (in a misguided attempt to build the learner's self-esteem by making sure they have plenty of successes). Remember that too easy is just as unengaging as too difficult, in some cases more so. And simply being successful at something isn't enough to give you the I Kick Ass feeling either... I could be quite successful at a book of puzzles designed for third-graders, but I sure wouldn't reach a flow state and feel powerful.

Anyway, this is just a first pass at some of these topics I'll be looking at much more deeply over the next several months as the book evolves.

Posted by Kathy on January 8, 2005 | Permalink


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Thanks Kathy. Great post. I can see why Hugh directs readers here. I'll be checking it out daily. Good inspiration to find imaginative ways to add the Kick Ass factor.

Posted by: Justin Hansen | Jan 8, 2005 4:45:45 PM

Have you read "Mme Zuzu’s predictions for the coming year":
3) Chanel/Hugo Boss-scented baby-wipes.
4) Designer trash bags.



Posted by: Map | Jan 8, 2005 5:06:03 PM

Seriously, I just read that the American Dialect Society announced that a winner of the "Word of the Year" title in the "Most Creative" category is the word "Pajamahadeen" -- "bloggers who challenge and fact-check traditional media". Apparently the word was born as a response to Jonathan Klein, who talking about the authenticity of the forged Rathergate documents said: "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."

Now pajama-makers of the world, it's your chance to introduce "blogger's pajamas"!

Posted by: Map | Jan 8, 2005 9:20:08 PM

W.r.t. the garbage bags examples, methinks that you're thinking too much in the box. For example, think about the coffee example... It would take a bold garbage bag company to actually talk about something meaningful like actually reducing the amount of garbage.

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Jan 14, 2005 8:44:40 PM

John, your suggestion would be much MUCH better. In my first bullet point I and then said "but here's what you can do if you don't have that option... " but now that you said this--I'm thinking you're absolutely right and that no matter how your bags are produced, you could still talk about the issues related to reducing the amount of garbage. Yes, your idea would be way better! I'm going to update that blog...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 14, 2005 9:03:07 PM

Yeah, like most people, I tend to ignore qualifiers and go right to the heart. :-)

One of the things that "marketeers" have succumbed to is the belief that they can manipulate the convesational context such that the discussion is myopically constrained. I.e., they want to control the discussion so that people only talk about what they want them too. Unfortunately, there's very little general education on this and so, alas, the marketeers are all too often right. As I've been trying to teach my little girl, asking questions like, "So, what's the point?" is a pretty good idea. One way to figure out answers to that question is to expand the context.

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Jan 14, 2005 11:20:26 PM

On the garbage bag example; I can't think of the brand name at the moment, but one gave me an I Rule! moment. I've always had trouble getting the lip of the bag around the edge of the can (know what I mean?), especially without snapping the builtin handle/tie-thingy.

Then someone released a bag with an elastic strap inside the lip. It stretched to fit over the edge of the can, and didn't break. I Rule! I was able to get the bag in the can without destroying it.

Pathetic maybe, but I only buy that garbage bag now (recognized by packaging if not name).

Posted by: Lance Lavandowska | Feb 14, 2005 3:43:22 PM

Great article - it could have been written about our challenge of making consumers passionate about our spot cream. Without even knowing it we followed your advice - we made a game, a snowboarding game (is this getting weired or what!) It has a high score table and you can even get bonuses (in some countries) by using codes from the packaging (I told you it was getting weired).
The results, well our consumers are now passionate about the game and stay engaged with it and the Clearasil brand for far longer than any 20 second TV spot could achieve (no pun intended) Over 4.5 million passionate consumers have played the game over 35 million times in the last 12 months.
If that's not passion, I don't know what is!

Posted by: Andy Sarfas | Jun 6, 2005 8:29:05 AM

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