Nieman Foundation at Harvard
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 19, 2018, 9:53 a.m.

Should you design for addiction or for loyalty?

That depends on whether you want users or an audience.

The word addictive gets tossed around a great deal these days. From dubious pseudo-science to casual conversation, the word has almost lost its bite. Almost. When coupled with words like “cocaine,” “opioid,” or “tobacco,” the word bears its full weight, and rightly so. The effects of these and other addictive substances have been widely researched, and the process by which the brain and body respond to them has been thoroughly documented. And, for better or worse, this research has caused addictiveness to become a design principle.

Slot machines have been described to be the crack cocaine of gambling addiction. And that’s because they’re designed to entice, tease, and reward on a scheme precisely calibrated to deliver devoted patrons and huge dividends. So are phones, apps, and social media. The question is not if addictiveness is an effective design philosophy. Rather, the question is: Will this approach deliver a healthy, long-term customer relationship?

Clickbait and switch

With advertising as the primary driver of web revenue, many publishers have chased the click dragon. Seeking to meet marketers’ insatiable desire for impressions, publishers doubled down on quick clicks. Headlines became little more than a means to a clickthrough, often regardless of whether the article would pay off or even if the topic was worthy of coverage. And — since we all know there are still plenty of publications focusing on hot headlines over substance — this method pays off. In short-term revenue, that is.

However, the reader experience that shallow clicks deliver doesn’t develop brand affinity or customer loyalty. And the negative consumer experience has actually been shown to extend to any advertising placed in its context. Sure, there are still those seeking a quick buck — but these days, we all see clickbait for what it is.

Media companies that want to develop a genuine relationship with readers, listeners, and viewers know that these wham-bam, fly-by hits are just that. And, as media companies seek to diversify revenue and increasingly explore paid offerings, reputation and real relationships are paramount.

Designing for addiction

The nice thing about addiction as a design principle is that it can be clearly engineered. There are proven techniques that will, with a high degree of success, deliver a consumer who will almost irrationally desire your product. They may also derive pleasure from it — which is helpful, because that will reinforce their desire.

For example, many push notifications are specifically designed to leverage the desire for human interaction to generate clicks (such as when a user is alerted that their friend liked an article). Push notifications and alerts are also unpredictable (Will we have likes? Mentions? New followers? Negative comments?). And this unpredictability, or B.F. Skinner’s principle of variable rewards, is the same one used in those notoriously addictive slot machines. They’re also lucrative — generating more revenue in the U.S. than baseball, theme parks, and movies combined. A pull-to-refresh even smacks of a slot machine lever.

It turns out that, for somebody to do something, three things must happen at once: The person must want to do it, they must be able to do it, and they must be prompted to do it. That prompt — or trigger — is a hallmark of digital design. And “when motivation is high enough, or a task easy enough, people become responsive to triggers such as the vibration of a phone, Facebook’s red dot, the email from the fashion store featuring a time-limited offer,” according to B.J. Fogg, founder and director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab.

One of Fogg’s students, Nir Eyal, further developed the idea of triggers by stating that they work best when they meet a user’s most basic emotional needs even before she has become consciously aware of them. As Eyal put it: “When you’re feeling uncertain, before you ask why you’re uncertain, you Google. When you’re lonely, before you’re even conscious of feeling it, you go to Facebook. Before you know you’re bored, you’re on YouTube.”

Infinite scroll and autoplay are also addictive design techniques common among apps, videos, and websites. Without a set endpoint, users consume more. Yet it is significant to note that, despite consuming more, they will not feel more satisfied. As former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris (who was also a student of Fogg’s) wondered: “What is genuinely worth your attention on an interruptive basis? It’s a really hard question, and something we should think about.”

We should also think about whether we’re simply trying to get people to consume more — or to feel satisfied.

Designing for loyalty

An addict can’t resist your product; all you have to do is pump up the digital nicotine to your tobacco, and you’ve got a guaranteed hit on your hands. But the question you need to ask yourself is: Do I want to create an addict or a loyal customer? Because there’s a difference.

Sure, an addict is “engaged” — clicking, liking, swiping — but what if they discover that your product is bad for them? Or that it’s not delivering as much value as it does harm? The only option for many addicts is to quit, cold turkey. Sure, many won’t have the willpower, and you can probably generate revenue off these users (yes, users). But is that a long-term strategy you can live with? And is it a growth strategy, should the philosophical, ethical, or regulatory tide turn against you?

When your business ambitions go beyond clicks, to generating revenue from brand affinity and the diversification it enables, loyalty might be a better design ethos. In the post-pageview era, content creators must nurture deep relationships with their audiences.

For example, while the need to feel significant or important is a basic human desire that is often exploited (say, by the hit of dopamine we get when someone requests to link to us on a social network), it can also be used for personalization and delivering unique value. Audience understanding is one of the fundamentals of successful media. Understanding customers’ needs — and then satisfying them with the information or entertainment they desire — will help develop feelings of trust and reliability.

Where addiction relies on an imbalanced and unstable relationship, loyal customers will return willingly time and again. They’ll refer you to others. They’ll be interested in your new offerings, because they will already rely on you to deliver. And, as an added bonus, these feelings of goodwill will extend to any advertising you deliver too. Through the provision of quality content, delivered through excellent experiences at predictable and optimal times, content can become a trusted ally, not a fleeting infatuation or unhealthy compulsion.

So yes, you can design the crack cocaine of content. But a better business strategy might be to stop thinking of your customers as “users” and think of them as an audience instead. A user will chase a fix, sure. But when you deliver, audience members will become your biggest fans.

Michelle Manafy is editorial director for Digital Content Next.

POSTED     April 19, 2018, 9:53 a.m.
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
“Any organization that is dependent on having a founder around is inherently unsustainable.”
Worldwide, news publishers face a “platform reset”
Some findings from RISJ’s 2024 Digital News Report.
The strange history of white journalists trying to “become” Black
“To believe that the richness of Black identity can be understood through a temporary costume trivializes the lifelong trauma of racism. It turns the complexity of Black life into a stunt.”