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Verbal Energy

Stickiness as a metaphor for connection

In an age of information overload, Web designers and advertisers strive for 'stickiness'; but how do you feel about getting 'stuck'?

By Ruth Walker / March 3, 2010



I've been hearing a lot about "stickiness" lately – and I don't mean just with reference to "sticky" gas pedals on Toyotas, either.

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An online publication focused on video games reported the other day on how long users were spending on Play Station Home, Sony's community-based social gaming networking service. "To spend 60 minutes on Home is a pretty sticky experience."

Under the headline "Yahoo tries to get its search mojo back," a BBC blogger quoted a Yahoo executive as saying, "There is much innovation yet to be done, but I think we can build that sticky experience and that is what we are betting the farm on."

A how-to website explains, "A good website is 'sticky' because it contains changing elements of interest." These encourage visitors to keep returning.

Stickiness is a quality to which advertisers aspire, too. They want their messages to stick in your mind, to hold their own against the competition for your "eyeballs," as they say in the ad game. In the "way too much information" age, stickiness is a prized quality.

This kind of stickiness is a metaphor for connection. But it's different from, say, the kind of connection represented by the satisfying click of seat belts that assures a driver that all passengers are securely buckled up.

One of the visual representations I ran across while looking into this was a kind of green blob splattered across a light background – pesto dribbling out of your Italian wrap and onto your just-back-from-the-cleaners white shirt, perhaps? Now that's lovely mental imagery, isn't it?

The Pew Research Center, in a March 2009 report, came up with another way of considering "stickiness" that makes me less inclined to think of my dry cleaners. As part of its research on demographic and social trends, the center ranked the 50 states as "magnet states" and as "sticky states."

Magnet states are those whose current adult populations include a high percentage of people born in another state. Sticky states are those whose current adult populations have a high share of natives. Pew found that 86.4 percent of Nevada residents, for instance, were born elsewhere. But only 49 percent of all Nevada natives still reside in the state. The stickiest state is Texas, with 75.8 percent of all natives still residing there. It's a fascinating study, and although it would seem that "magnetism" and "stickiness" would be mirror opposites, in fact it's possible for a state to rate high or low on both scales.

Stickiness may be a metaphor for connection, but sometimes the kind of connection that's not necessarily desired on both sides. An extreme instance of "sticky advertising" was the ads Coca-Cola ran a couple of years ago to introduce a new bottle, presented as eco-friendly and easier to grip. The ads were printed on Velcro and posted on bus shelters in Paris and (I assume) other places. When people brushed up against the ads on the walls of the shelters, they got "caught." You might say it was a truly gripping experience, and reinforced the point about the easy-to-handle bottle.

Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer who returned one day from a walk with his dog and noticed all the burrs attached to himself and his pet. We may admire the persistence of the burr, but we don't necessarily want to be the thing the burr persists in hanging on to.

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