Designing For Addiction

Designing for Addiction - The Leith

Jim, Head of all things Digital here at Leith, on how to make
people even more addicted to media than they already are.

I’ll admit it. I’m an addict. I’m hooked. To Netflix. To Facebook. To Instagram. To iPlayer. To Spotify. To Twitter. To media. And I’m not the only one. This seemingly endless access to information, to social media, to news, to entertainment is, in the words of Super Hans from Peep Show: “just so more-ish”.

The fact that it’s kind of my job to be on this stuff helps. But even when I’m not “working”, I’m off binge-watching box sets (word of the year 2015 for good reason), on a ‘netflixathon’ of Narcos, or OD-ing on 4OD. If it’s not Homeland or Humans, it’s an obscure Canadian comedy (Trailer Park Boys is my current fix), switching off from my media-saturated day job with, yup, more media.

Trailer Park

So instead of penning a sanctimonious piece on how the end of the world is nigh because most of the developed world are rotting their brains with a never-ending stream of infantalising entertainment, I thought I’d look at what makes this stuff so addictive, for anyone wanting to design even more of it.

In the interest of moral balance, if you’d rather challenge media consumption head on, then go and read Amusing Ourselves To Death, by Neil Postman, who convincingly argues that TV has had a cataclysmic effect on the way our society absorbs information, effectively making us shallow-headed goldfish that struggle with deep thinking. And if you’re concerned about how big shiny internet businesses like AirBnB, Amazon, Uber and Spotify are affecting small businesses, then settle down with The Internet Is Not the Answer, by Andrew Keen.

But if you temporarily don’t care about the long-term effects of media addiction, or how these services affect society, and just want to create and share more of the good stuff, then turn on, tune in and read on…

1. Make It Available

This is an obvious one. If people can’t get hold of something, they can’t have more of it, so your market can’t grow. Which is why Facebook put so much effort into redesigning their product for mobiles five years or so ago. Not only do you get access to new users (see Africa), but you also put your content in everyone’s pocket, so that they can get their fix the moment they wake up to the moment they sleep, and even when they’re sitting on the loo (allegedly).

It’s nothing new to say “you must be on mobile”, but it can still feel like an afterthought, even when you set out to be mobile-first. But a mobile strategy is, to steal from this excellent piece on Adage by Buzzfeed’s president Jon Steinberg, “like having a side dish of steak”. And that was from three years ago. As in, mobile is not just another channel, it’s the channel, stoopid. Because it’s always available. And feeds the always-on addiction like no other.

2. Massage The Ego

Ping! You just got another like on that Instasunset you posted. Ping! There goes another. And another. Another couple more and you’ll get to that comfort zone of 10 likes, where your post doesn’t look lame any more with only a paltry handful of people liking it, most of whom you’re related to anyway. The endorphins rush. The serotonin kicks in. Another ping! 11 likes. You’ve practically gone viral.

Sound familiar? Or maybe I’m just that sad. But it’s not for no reason that Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have grown into such big media powerhouses. Who doesn’t feel buoyed when some pithy wisecrack you’ve taken all day to think of gets a retweet by someone you’ve never met (probably a p0rn spambot)? Who doesn’t get a warm glow when someone in Azerbaijan starts following you? What these media platforms do so well is giving you a good feeling for contributing your media. Likes, followers, stars, favs, stats, friends, etc. They all give you the sense that what you’re doing is valued, that it makes a difference. So you do more of it. And more. And more.

So if you’re creating content, ask why someone might think they’re clever / funny / cool by sharing it on. Much of the time people share things to make themselves look good. And if you’re designing a platform or channel to support media content, think about how you can feed the egos of the media creators you rely on. Sometimes a like is all it takes.

3. Make It Personal

Content may be King, and [insert latest buzzword trend] may be Queen, but relevance is the Prime Minister that they both have to report to because they’re an outdated monarchy that no one really listens to anyway. Simply put, if it’s not relevant to me or my life, then why would I care?

Buzzfeed know this better than any other media channel right now, and it goes a long way to explaining their meteoric rise. They’ve mastered the art and science of appealing to every nuance of human character. Whether it’s tapping into an affinity with location (44 Reasons To Choose Edinburgh Instead Of London), age (48 Reasons ’90s Kids Had The Best Childhood), or a certain feline animal (Yes, Obama And Putin Met, But Did You See The Cats?), they know that we’re much more likely to share something we feel speaks closely to a tribe we feel part of. It’s how, in the words of their Head of Brand Strategy, they “optimise for the share, and not the click”. And how they keep rolling out ‘listicles’ that you just can’t help yourself from sending on.

4. Remind people you’re here

Marketeers and media platforms know that it doesn’t take much to get someone back to something they might like.

So there’s a multitude of ways to feed a media habit – from the humble email (1% of opens is still traffic), to the push notification, to countless ad formats. Reminding people you exist is often overlooked as a strategy. And the more other brands, products and services get in on the game, the better, smarter and more creative you need to be. Which is why ad agencies exist. (Stuck for one? Try Leith.)

5. Make It Entertaining

Finally, nothing is so infectious as humour. It can make even the dullest topic or the most serious issue seem accessible and interesting. It’s why Mailchimp’s done so well. And why a chipper song can help encourage people to smear poo on a piece of card and pop it in the post to test for bowel cancer.

So if you want to hook people for good on your content or service, make them smile as they succumb to your fiendish masterplan.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got five episodes of Fargo to catch up on…