Keep Your Readers Hooked
First things first — social media is global-scale psychological manipulation. An induced addiction. For both, consumers and creators. The “connect-use-reuse-share-repeat” feedback loop preys on our psychological needs of attention, variety & variable reward. Our brain doesn’t simply gush out dollops of serotonin & dopamine. It does so because it likes it. The psych-tech whizzes making decisions at these companies know exactly what buttons to press. And they do. Repeatedly. But…
We still “social network”. With more devices than we ever did. Despite knowing the ills. We are gluttons for cognitive rewards. We keep finding ways to continue getting more of them.
What if we tap into the psychological prowess of social media to help us grow and evangelize our readers? Borrowing generously from Nir Eyal’s “Hook Model”, I give you five ways of how I aim to do exactly that.
1. Enter The Matrix
What is “value” and how do you create it for your readers? I do it by writing about books that people want to read but haven’t. This connects my reader’s problems (lack of time, resources, access, interest, etc) to my writing (1500-word articles of actionable takeaways from nonfiction books). That’s value. But here’s the trick: repetition of value induces habit. Being a one-trick pony isn’t of much use to foster a readership — everyone has one screenplay in them. Value is connecting my readers’ problems to my solution frequently enough.
Find your place on this matrix. If you intend to foster a loyal readership, the frequency of your writing is paramount. Even if not all your pieces are of high value. Don’t strive only for perfection, keep muddling through and you’ll get there. Fail fast & often. Not slow & once.
“A great man is one sentence”. Let this be your guiding light — one single line that encapsulates what it is your writing is trying to achieve. Do this now. See where your one-liner falls under this matrix. My line is this “To simplify, contextualize and apply the takeaways from books I read in a 1500 word article on Medium”. What’s yours?
You must write content that you’d like to read. Do not write for virality’s sake: it’s a slippery slope with zero value.
2. Ease Your Reader’s Cognitive Burden
Mark Zuckerberg, the wealthiest human-like droid yet, wears the same t-shirt every day. Jobs was famous for his iconic black turtleneck. Why? Not because of a lack of sartorial elegance. Rather, a conscious method of reducing decision anxiety. This is a psychological truth: our brains prefer automatic, repetitive, tried-and-tested, run-of-the-mill decisions.
We are cognitively lazy and much rather save energy for when we are escaping from hungry predators. It’s an evolutionary quirk that persists in the basal ganglia region of our brains. It’s the same quirk that compels us to make involuntary decisions leading to involuntary actions with little conscious thought. And you know what the collective word for that is? Habit. Providing frequent, valuable content to your readership makes them habitual to you. You see, if they liked your content in the past and you hit them regularly enough with it, their brains semi-consciously consume your next piece. You are in their heads. Literally.
Habits are LIFO — Last In, First Out. Old habits die hard. The most recent habit you pick up is normally the first one you drop. 2/3rd of alcoholics hit the bottle after a year of rehab. All the weight you lost for your wedding will probably be gained back in a couple of years. Repetition though, makes habits stick. Those old habits we have aren’t just old — they are reinforced millions of times over. That’s why changing old habits is a pain. They remain etched in the basal ganglia, ready to be redeployed in the real world. That’s why alcoholics are always recovering, never recovered. Repetition and reinforcement of new behaviour ensure a higher chance of it sticking. But when they do, they are the new default. And that’s my aim: to become the default book-recommendations guy on Medium. To get there, I need to create moderate to high-value content that reaches my readers, repeatedly. It’s not how well you write; it’s how often you write well. What’s your aim?
3. Make Your Readers Act
I want my readers to click on the notification for my latest content. Eyal states in “Hooked” that for action to be initiated, the “doing” has to be easier than thinking. In other words, it needs to be almost unconscious. Assuming the reader is habituated to my writing and I am now nestled in their heads, getting them to act is just another step. If the “doing” requires thinking, it is less likely that it will occur — it’s just more cognitive load for our lazy brains. One takeaway of this is to keep the outbound marketing of your content simple and direct. Painless. Preferably, one-touch (or click). This means not inundating your readers with spam, multiple links, confusing tones, etc. Getting them from “notification” to “content” seamlessly, effortlessly and quickly. Again, repeat this ad infinitum. Having a portfolio of content that’s easily accessible in a single location helps.
Here’s some arithmetic, based on the Fogg Behavioural Model.
Doing = Motivation + Ability + Trigger
Doing = the reader reading your content
Motivation = readers wanting to read your content. For new readers, this includes basics like relevant content, proper formatting, inquisitive headlines…all that good stuff. For established readers, this should be habitual.
Ability = them being able to read your content. Is it paywalled? Is it not accessible on their new tablet? Are they away from their desk? Ability is unfortunately beyond the realms of “behavioural change”. For now.
Trigger = notifications, messages, tweets or any such other external triggers you use for marketing. Here’s the clincher though: internal triggers. These are little, spontaneous pangs that hopefully erupt in your readers’ brains for your content. This is organic and obviously immensely valuable. But takes forever to blossom. Again, repetition and high-value content help foster this.
All three — motivation, ability and trigger — have to happen for the content to be read. You can spend decades perfecting your masterpiece, but if one or more of them fail, your content is unfortunately doomed.
4. Overvalued (The Ikea Effect) and Underappreciated (The Framing Bias)
We overvalue our own creations, aka the Ikea effect. Ikea produces affordable furniture. The trick: DIY. This keeps labour and manufacturing costs low and the savings are passed on to the customer. Bargain! But there’s another unseen effect to DIY: studies show that people who DIY their Ikea furniture tend to value it more than it’s worth. Because we price in our own labour costs (time and effort) into the finished product. This is why your pricey interior design renovations don’t increase the market value of your house. It’s also maybe why we think our kids are the most gifted? We produced them.
This applies to the content we create too. We fully, and perhaps rightfully, expect it to be lapped up in abundance by the swaying masses. But it isn’t. I overvalue my writing constantly. Even after knowing this fact. And when the statistics show that my article was a damp squib, I feel worse. The pain we feel from loss is twice as much as the pleasure of winning. We are inherently loss-averse creatures. Losing hurts. But we are overly optimistic when judging our own creations. Paradox, much?
When the world-famous violinist (Joshua Bell) played an impromptu concert in a Washington D.C. subway station, he received almost no attention. Yet, patrons paid over $100 a pop to see him perform at the Carnegie Hall. How can this be? The framing bias. This bias creeps in and clouds our brains in noticing value in unusual contexts. The frame seems to matter more than the picture. Repeated experiments with wine-tasters proclaiming an expensive bottle to be significantly better than a $5 bottle prove this (it was the same wine). If it can get experts, why can’t it get you and me? It does. It will.
Maybe you are an excellent writer framed in the wrong context? My first article has more views in the last couple of weeks than when I published it three months ago. This coincides with when I had the highest number of followers and when I was published in a prestigious publication. My writing was always good, it just needed to be framed. Yours is too.
We overvalue our creations and are disappointed when it doesn’t do as well as we hoped. It could be due to the framing bias. But we berate our writing instead. Or the lack of an audience. Or worse, quit. Don’t.
5. Fanatics beat Fans
You might think that’s a tautology — “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic, after all. But I use the word “fanatic” for someone who’s replete with internal triggers for your content. And a “fan” is someone who occasionally reads your content. You may have several fans but very few fanatics. But guess what? A few fanatics is all you need. Fanatics, by nature, are evangelical, devoted and provide constructive feedback. Fans read and maybe clap, now and again. Fanatics see your content for what it truly is bereft of the framing bias. Fans don’t. Fanatics will talk, tweet and share your work. Fans will only read it. Fanatics will scrutinize your work and offer you constructive, actionable feedback. Fans will leave you a generic compliment. Fanatics will want you to create content tailored to them. Fans don’t anticipate any further content.
Fanatics beat fans. Always. You need them on your side. It’s not the quantity of your readership, it’s the quality.
There you have it. Nir Eyal’s excellent “Hooked” revitalised how I look at my readership and pushed me to provide more frequent and valuable content. Something I know the book, and hopefully this article, will convince you to do.