Technology is addictive. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest have changed habits of millions of people for both better and worse. But many experts will tell you that it’s not technology but psychology that holds the key to human behavior. Technology by itself can’t hook a user, it’s the use of psychological principles that makes technology so addictive.
Up until now, marketers had a broken idea of how to make use of psychological principles but Nir Eyal presented a framework in his book Hooked, which can be used by companies to create habit forming products.
This is a case study which will demonstrate how Hook Model can be applied to a website like YourStory.com which attracts over 10 million readers a month and is a leading platform to find news & stories about Indian Startup ecosystem.
If you’re not familiar with Hook Model, please go through this slideshare presentation, otherwise it would be difficult to understand the rest of this article.
Briefly, Hook Model suggests that a user needs to go through 4 stages (Trigger → Action → Variable Rewards → Investment) to complete a Hook cycle and the more frequently a user completes these cycles, the more likely it is for the user to form a habit of using your product.
For any user to form a habit, you first need to identify the simplest core action of your product that a user should perform repeatedly. There could be multiple core actions depending on the complexity of the product but it’s best to start with one.
For Facebook, the core action could be to upload an image or reading through the newsfeed. For WhatsApp, it is the act of sending a message, for Google it is the act of searching by entering a phrase and so on. The repetition of these core actions turns into habits.
In case of YourStory (YS), the simplest core action would be to read stories/news on their website.
From here on, we’ll deep dive into each step of the Hook Model and explore ideas on how to align that step with the core action of YS.
Triggers are the cues which start a behavior. When an alarm clock wakes you up in the morning, the sound of the alarm acts as a trigger. When you open the Facebook app after getting a notification, that notification acts as a trigger.
A behavior will not take place without a trigger.
These triggers are of two types –
- External triggers are usually present outside of our body which may or may not be in our control. Sound of the alarm, your dog looking at you with the puppy face when he is hungry, the traffic lights etc, are all external triggers which compel us to start a behavior.
- Internal triggers arise from our thoughts and emotions. When an action is tightly coupled with a thought or emotion, it converts to an internal trigger. When you feel bored, lonely, insecure, confused etc, it leads to a behavior. Binge watching Netflix to avoid boredom is a perfect example.
New habits are sparked by external triggers, but association with internal triggers is what keeps users hooked. This is why you open the Facebook app when you get a notification (external trigger) and also when you’re bored (internal trigger).
Some of the common external triggers used by YS –
- Desktop Notification
- Word of mouth – when readers share articles on social media
There are of course many more external triggers available to YS like –
- paid triggers – advertising, SEM, paying bloggers to feature your product at top etc.
- earned triggers – good for generating short term exposure like YS android app ranking at top in play store, viral content etc.
- owned triggers – are a part of users’ environment by their choice. Example – user downloading YS android app, opting in to see desktop notification or email newsletter etc.
This is a part of user acquisition which most marketers are very well versed in, so I’ll not go in detail about this.
However, is YS actively trying to move users to internal triggers? Let’s assume they aren’t. To identify the internal trigger we first need to understand the motivation of people that brings them to YS.
It would be reasonable to say that people reading YS stories are either running their own startup, working in a startup or want to startup on their own. Essentially, they all have a profound interest in startup ecosystem.
We can now use the 5 Whys analysis to determine the internal trigger for this audience –
Q1 – Why people want to use YS?
… because they want to read startup, entrepreneurial stories and news.
Q2 – Why would they want to read such stories?
… to keep themselves updated about what’s happening in the startup world and for inspiration.
Q3 – Why would they want to know what’s happening in the startup world?
… because they either run a startup or want to start up on their own.
Q4 – Why would they want to run a startup or startup on their own?
… because they want to create products/services to help others.
Q5 – Why would they want to create a product/service to help others ?
- so they can make more money or to be famous or to impact the lives of people in a positive way.
- so they can feel proud about their contribution to the society.
We deduce two main internal triggers here – to get inspired from other people’s stories and to feel proud by contributing to the society.
The marketing copy on YS website confirms our inference and so does their logo which has the word ‘inspire’ prominently placed in it.
The simplest way for YS to use this internal trigger is by adding it to their messaging copy. As you read further, you’ll know how this internal trigger can be used more.
Reading a story is a behavior and a behavior will only work when three elements converge together – motivation, ability and trigger.
This is according to the B=MAT formula devised by Dr. BJ Fogg where
B = behavior
M = motivation
A = ability
T = trigger
We’ve already found our triggers so we’ll focus on motivation and ability.
Motivation is driven by six core motivators –
- to seek pleasure
- avoid pain
- to seek hope
- avoid fear
- to seek social acceptance
- avoid social rejection
For every business, only a few of these motivators would apply so you have to pick the most appropriate ones.
Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster ride and it is during those weak vulnerable moments when we need hope, inspiration and support. Keeping this in mind, here are some ideas that’ll help YS increase motivation among its readers –
To seek hope – this can be done by focusing on stories of startup founders. Every founder has unique problems in their business and discussing them would help other entrepreneurs.
But even though the problems could differ, they usually are in the same common domain of finding good talent, institutional funding, finding the right tools for their business and so on. Good part is that YS already focuses on these topics and you’ll find many startup stories on the YS website which act as a motivator for their readers.
So here I’d only suggest that YS should not lose focus on this because it is a core part of their existence.
To seek social acceptance – entrepreneurs need support and the YS community is perfectly suited for it. YS organizes offline meetups in various Indian cities and their flagship event ‘YourStory’s MobileSparks’ also helps them in this direction. However, more engagement can be encouraged on their website which will push this forward.
In today’s world where people forge relationships online before meeting in person, getting people engaged on the website is a more efficient way of building communities.
As an example, many of the ‘In Depth’ category articles on the YS website present an excellent analysis but still have zero or very few comments.
YS can leverage the comment section using three major tactics –
- by explicitly asking an open ended question at the end of the article which will serve as an external trigger for people to express their opinions in the comment section.
- by actively engaging with other’s comments and asking follow up questions to further perpetuate the discussion.
- when a lively discussion is under way, an external trigger like email can be used to inform others, asking them to contribute their opinions. This sparks a curiosity among people to know the opinion of others which will lead to more people reading the article to express their own opinions.
To increase the ability of the user, you have to simplify the action as much as possible, ideally to an extent that it becomes a no-brainer. You can start to simplify the actions by attacking these 6 elements –
- Time – how long it takes to complete an action
- Money – the fiscal cost of taking an action
- Physical effort – the amount of physical labor involved in taking an action.
- Brain cycles – the level of mental focus required to take an action.
- Social deviance – how accepted is the behavior by others.
- Non-routine – how much the action matches or disrupts existing routines.
Let’s see how YS can use some of these…
Optimizing For Time – there are two aspects related to time reduction, one is to reduce the time to find the right article and other is to reduce the reading time of the articles.
How to reduce the time in finding the most relevant article?
- Improve the search experience – Most people would use the search box when they’re unable to find what they’re looking for. At the moment YS has embedded Google’s Custom Search Engine which shows ads before the relevant search results. I tried searching for news related to Flipkart and this is what I got.I had to scroll to find if there is something else apart from ads in the search results, others might not. It is likely that people will get distracted by these ads and leave the website which is not what YS would want. Using a search service like Algolia is a much better option.
- Optimizing the right sidebar on article pages – At the moment you’ll see there are three sections on the right of any article with repetitive headings ‘Most Popular’ (check here). However, the content is different in all three sections probably because the stories are being fetched from three different categories.
The three sections can be optimized in different ways like showing ‘Most Popular’ stories of categories most closely related to the current article you’re on.The three sections can also be optimized to show only two sections – ‘Trending’ and ‘Most Popular’ with 6 stories in total. This would be a good way to avoid paradox of choice which may lead readers to inaction. Here’s one way to optimize it…
Another important area to optimize is the content of each section. If you notice the first image carefully, the main story ‘Flipkart-Ebay India in a $2B Tango’ is again shown as the third story under the first ‘Most Popular’ section. This leaves YS with a scope for improvement. Since there are multiple ways to tackle it, I’ll leave it to YS to figure it out.
How to reduce the reading time of an article?
- Add Spritz technology on the website – Spritz is a speed reading technology which can be introduced at the beginning of every article for people who are pressed for time. It could look something like…
- Add an audio version of the article – The narrated version doesn’t have to be of studio quality but something decent enough that people can listen to while driving to work or when they’re engaged in something that prevents them from reading. The audio version can be placed at the beginning of an article to allow readers to choose how they want to consume the story. Something like this…
Optimizing For Social Deviance – To take advantage of social factor, the positive aspect of the action or something related to it should be highlighted.
Reading articles online is a standard action taken by all of us. In YS’s case, this action can be further boosted by showing social proof and using the bandwagon effect. YS already shows the number of times a story is shared at the beginning, which makes people think – ‘if others found it useful, maybe I will too’.
But the number of shares are not given enough visibility and prominence, is shown in small font size overshadowed by the flashy colorful sharing buttons. Quite likely that most people don’t notice it.
It can be shown more prominently, like Mashable does…
Another important aspect to be considered here is Pareto’s principle. I researched where people like to share YS stories the most and the answer was not shocking at all. Almost all stories were majorly shared on Facebook and Linkedin. In fact Facebook + Linkedin always had over 90% shares.
This YS story was shared over 30,573 times, out of which 30,363 shares were on Facebook and 208 on Linkedin (source). This brings us to the question, why does YS show 7 different platforms to share a story when people only use two or three?
This is our cue for optimization. After looking into the sharing pattern, YS should reduce the number of sharing buttons to two or at max three. This will also help in avoiding paradox of choice and will make the screen a little less cluttered. Mashable knows this well, that’s why they have only two sharing buttons.
Taking advantage of endowed progress effect – a phenomenon that increases motivation as people believe they are nearing a goal. Often times you’ll see a progress bar when you’re going through the onboarding process of an app which is aimed to take advantage of this very effect.
Linkedin uses it very efficiently by showing the profile strength as you complete your profile.
YS can use this effect when a reader is reading an article, similar to Harvard Business Review.
People are constantly looking for something and when they get it, it turns into a reward. But getting a reward once would not satisfy their needs and would neither create a habit. This is why users need to constantly get rewarded but on a variable schedule.
If readers are rewarded periodically on a set pattern, the system becomes predictable after a point and readers lose interest in the reward. It is the variability of achieving the reward that keeps them hooked, looking for more. This is why games keep us hooked because they have a variable reward system built in them.
A reward could be to find an entertaining tv show on Netflix when you’re bored (after finishing it you go search for more) or finding that perfect gift on Amazon for your kid’s birthday or getting inspired after reading a story on YS.
But variable rewards are not magic fairy dust that a product designer can sprinkle onto a product to make it instantly more attractive. Rewards must fit into the narrative of why the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations.
– Nir Eyal in his book Hooked.
Rewards are categorized in three ways and every company utilizes them in variable proportions.
- Reward of the tribe – our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attracted, important and included among people. Reading stories on YS makes people aware and stay connected with the people in startup ecosystem who are similar to them and going through the same kind of experiences. This reward of the tribe makes them come back for more.
- Reward of the hunt – we search for resources and our need to acquire physical objects, like food and other supplies that aid our survival, is part of our brain’s operating system. Where we once hunted for food, today we hunt for deals, discounts and information. Again, reading stories on YS also satisfies the reward of the hunt.
- Rewards of the self – we search for intrinsic rewards of mastery, competence and completion. We are driven to conquer obstacles, even if just for the satisfaction of doing so. Puzzles provide no prize other than the satisfaction of completion. Similarly, when you read a story on YS, you get better informed and learn new things which you can later use for your own benefit and this satisfies the reward of the self.
Good part is that all these rewards are automatically presented on a variable schedule on the YS website because every YS story would not inspire you or help you find the right information which forces you to keep looking.
A couple of ideas on how variable rewards can be optimized on YS website –
Optimizing the ‘My account page’ – once you signup on YS website, you’re taken to your account page which is automatically populated with random stories without any regard to your preference.
This is a good place to start. YS can ask users to pick a few topics of their interest during the signup process and populate stories according to the user’s preferences. These personalized story recommendations will help readers reach rewards faster.
Making it simpler for readers to write their own story – YS allows anyone to write a story if they’ve created an account. This is a powerful tool. Knowing that you have the option to publish something which can reach thousands of people instantly, is a powerful motivator in itself but if left buried in an unimportant place, it could be overlooked easily.
If a reader publishes her own story, she will achieve –
- the reward of the tribe – her story being read by other people and
- the reward of the self – the potential of her being considered an expert in the area she has written about.
When you’re on ‘My Account’ page (shown above), the button ‘Write Your Story’ in the left section opens an editor tool for you to write your story.
Instead of hiding the editor tool behind a click, it can be shown top and center in My Account page which is an easier way to get started (saves us a click) and will also serve as a constant reminder for the reader, that they can start writing their own story anytime.
People value their labor and that’s why it is important to have people invest in your product by doing a bit of ‘work’.
People also invest in a product in the hope of getting rewarded in future. This is why the editor tool to write a new story is an important element of YS and should be placed top and center on My Account page, as suggested above.
Asking users to pick a few topics during the sign up process also serves this goal and in fact the sign up process in itself is a way for users to invest in YS. But remember, people also choose the topics in the hope that they’ll find interesting stories about those topics, which should not be overlooked.
Two important things to note before we move forward –
- the investment required could be in many forms like time, money, social capital, effort, emotional commitment, personal data (email, phone number) etc.
- ideally ask your users to do a bit of work immediately after they’ve received a reward, this is when they’re most likely to oblige because of the norm of reciprocity. This is why many apps will ask you to rate or review after you’ve purchased something.
At the moment, YS website also contains a small subscription box (shown below) which is always present at the top right on individual story pages.
But surely there should be more ways to make this happen without being intrusive. Let’s explore one.
Using Upgrade Wall – An upgrade wall is a blocking notification that asks you to give out some contact information to continue reading the rest of the story.
What would you do if that happens to you?
Chances are that you’d either abandon the website or if the story has captured your attention, you may not mind sharing your contact information. This means that the product designer has to carefully examine the positioning, messaging and the user experience of the upgrade wall, before putting it in place.
An excellent example of this could be seen on Tim Ferriss’ blog…
The goal here is to nudge people to upgrade and not force them, this is why there are two options to close the upgrade wall and continue reading –
- the button ‘Continue without email address’
- a close button (x) at the top right corner of the notification.
Instead of forcing, Tim is asking his readers to consider the possibility of becoming a member which is a good way to nudge readers.
YS can strategically introduce this upgrade wall in their ‘In Depth’ category articles at a point where readers would be most engaged with the story. If the story is interesting, the users would be invested in it and by the time they hit the upgrade wall, they’ll be in no mood to forego the rest of it, making them more likely to give out their contact information.
Sharing an article on social media – Another way to make user invest in your product is by asking them to share an article. People do it for the same reason why they wear Gucci shoes and Ray Ban sunglasses – to raise their standard in the society.
Humans constantly compare themselves with others and try to raise their standard in the society. Sometimes they do it conspicuously by showing off wealth through expensive objects like Gucci shoes or their Rolex watches and other times they do it by showing off their intellectual prowess by sharing an interesting article that other people might like and benefit from.
Making it easier for YS readers to share an article will increase the reach and also help in retaining the reader. Two simple ways to optimize it on YS website –
- Add ‘click to share’ functionality on the images and important snippets of information throughout an article. Compare the screenshots below, the original one doesn’t have a way to share the quote but the edited screenshot does. This option is provided by many marketing tools like Buffer and Sumome.
The sharing can further be optimized by automatically attaching an image to the shared message which further increases the visibility and engagement on the platform it is being shared on.
Something similar is done by Product Hunt as well. When you leave a comment on Product Hunt website and allow it to be shared on Twitter, a screenshot of the comment is automatically attached to your tweet. Pretty good use of the technology to reduce the effort required for users to share their opinion. Here’s how it shows up…
— Pallav Kaushish (@pallavkaushish) January 5, 2017
- Directly asking readers to share the article by adding a line at the end of the article saying something like ‘Help inspire others. Share this article on Facebook or twitter‘. The statement in itself contains the core motivation of the readers (inspiration) and will serve as a trigger for the desired action. This is also an example of using the internal trigger of the product in the messaging.
The cycle of Hook model completes here but there’s more to be done. A behavior like reading stories on YS will only turn into a habit when it is repeated frequently in a short amount of time. It has to cross over to the Habit Zone as shown in the image below. So our goal is to start another Hook cycle as soon as the last one finishes.
Let’s explore a couple of ideas for YS to keep the Hook cycles going –
Suggest what to read next – At the moment, the end of an article on YS website is not optimized to suggest what to read next. Take a look.
Now before we move further, let’s try a small exercise. Take 30 seconds to think how you would optimize it. This will help you develop your thinking process. Continue reading when you’re done…
There are a lot of elements present at the end of the article but none of them directly suggest what to read next. Here’s an optimized version, spot the difference. 🙂 This is not the only way to optimize this section but here’s my rationale on presenting it this way:
- Instead of showing too many tags, only the most relevant ones should be shown and they should be consistent throughout the website. YS can find from their analytics if people are using tags to navigate to other stories and optimize it accordingly.
- Author’s name is already shown at the beginning of the story which is linked to the author page. Therefore, having an extra author bio box at the end seems redundant.
- Collapsing the comments section to save space but not de-emphasizing it.
- Finally, adding a carousel with navigation controls to show recommended stories to restart the Hook Cycle.
Infinite Scrolling – YS has infinite scrolling activated in some articles but majority of them still don’t have it. I’m not sure why that is but it is certainly a missed opportunity.
Infinite scrolling immediately shows the next article after the current one so the reader can have an uninterrupted reading experience. This phenomenon is championed by Facebook in its infinite newsfeed and by Pinterest in its infinitely scrollable collections.
But implementing the infinite scroll means the next article should be loaded immediately and readers should be made aware of it with the help of design. Let’s further optimize the screenshot from the previous point for infinite scrolling. It could look like this…
Think it can be made better? Let me know your suggestion in the comments.
By now you should have a basic understanding of how to apply the framework of Hook Model to facilitate habit formation. And what I’ve covered here is only a small part of the overall optimization that can be carried out on the YS website.
What matters at this point are not the ideas/suggestions I’ve shared in this article but the process of finding them.
More importantly, Hook Model can be applied to most of the marketing activities, be it in sending out emails or designing an onboarding process, and I sincerely believe that marketers can use this tool to move away from the practice of using an assortment of psychological phenomenons to a more structured way of using them.
I’d love to hear what’s your biggest takeaway from this case study in the comments.
And if you’re looking for someone to help you implement the Hook Model, let’s talk.