Sticky Is as Sticky Does

Online media types, buyers and sellers alike, seem to obsess about traffic. Buyers brag that they’re going to “substantially increase traffic” to their clients’ sites. Sellers chest-beat that their traffic “far surpasses” their competitors’. News flash: Traffic isn’t the be-all end-all of online advertising. Duh.

Perhaps this is left over from the way online advertising was sold in 1994. Let’s face it; we all sold the concept of online advertising as traffic. Back then, no one scratched below the surface and asked the right questions: What do the numbers mean? How many unique users are on the site? Tell me about loyalty indicators, such as how often visitors come to the site and how long they stay.

Of course, almost eight years later, many of us have grown up in this sea of online dysfunction. Still, we’re learning, and most of us are beginning to ask the right questions.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Internet penetration numbers flattening out. I urged readers to take a hard, close look at such loyalty indicators. Since then, many of you have written asking for my viewpoint on “stickiness.” Like any other online term, this word has many definitions, so, when planning, it is important to ask a site or a third-party ad server how it defines the term.

According to TechTarget, stickiness is anything about a Web site that encourages a visitor to stay longer. A Web site is sticky if a visitor tends to stay for a long time and returns regularly. These indicators of loyalty, coupled with ad views, TechTarget deems the most important measurements a Web site can offer advertisers. Some common stickiness approaches are:

  • Providing content that a user really wants
  • Allowing the user to personalize the site
  • Building online communities in which users can post information or create forum groups
  • Inviting user feedback in response to columnists

A description of the term appeared in the pages of Wired back in 1999: “Stickiness refers to a company’s ability to retain users and drive them further into a site.”

In 1998, Business 2.0 warned, “Stickiness: The name of the game is to create high switching costs so that consumers who use your portal as their entry to the rest of the Web won’t bother to stray.”

Many analysts and research firms refer to features that contribute to stickiness as “community drivers.” For instance, Yahoo involves its users in the site by offering a customizable user interface. A user can get personalized information, such as local weather, sports, horoscopes, and the like, on their “My Yahoo” home page every time he logs on. In addition, the site offers instant messaging. Users not only frequent the site, they spend a good amount of time there.

According to research found on Marketing, stickiness has two distinct elements: behavioral and cognitive. The behavioral element involves three components:

  • Duration of visits
  • Frequency of visits
  • Depth of navigation

The cognitive element refers to loyalty, or lack thereof, to a site. For instance, a user could spend 20 minutes on a site due to her inability to find what she is looking for. She could come to the site looking for ways to finance and build an addition on her home. Initially, she might search on the word “additions,” then land on another page with multiple options. Page by page, she might click deeper into the site to find a great addition-designer tool. She may continue her user session by beginning to download the applet. But when she finds it would take another 15 minutes to download, she signs off. This user may have spent a great deal of time on the site and clicked on multiple links. However, she may never come back.

This term may have been penned by Trevor Bentley, author of an article written for Management Accounting in 1997. “The subtlety and cleverness, i.e. the stickiness of the WWW, may catch many flies, but it is their choice to be there in the first place,” he wrote. “Of course, not all Webs are successful in attracting and catching flies. Some become ‘cobwebs’ that have only attracted dust instead of flies, and are no longer sticky. Cyberspace is littered with ‘cobwebs.'”

Although the cheeky bug metaphors freak me out, I hate to admit that I agree with this chap. It’s been almost five years since he wrote about this, and it’s still true. Let me ask you: Is stickiness an important factor when buying or selling media? Email me.

P.S. You might want to check out these past ClickZ articles on the subject of stickiness: The Fall of the Cult of Stickiness and Makin’ It Sticky.

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