Morning Keynote: Dan Heath

Good morning! It’s the last day of SES, the last chance to take in all the Internet marketing goodness floating around the conference hall. Let’s see if I can transfer any of that to you, dear reader.

Dan Heath is the author of “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”, a NYT bestseller and acclaimed business book. Kevin Ryan says that he spent most of his early days in an ad agency. He said they didn’t have enough time to sit around and think about being creative, how to reach outside of the box. One of the things he wanted to do was offer the attendees out of the box thinking. He says that he’s pleased to present one of the biggest thought leaders for creative thinking.

Dan’s going to drive right in. To understand how to stick, look at the winners: urban legends. The Great Wall of China is the only manmade object you can see from outer space. But let’s think about it. What makes the Great Wall remarkable is that it’s long, but what width is what’s really needed to be seen from space. If that was true, you could see every major highway. Drink eight cups of water a day? Myth. You get it in other things you eat. KFC changed their name because the government wouldn’t let them continue to claim they were selling chicken when they were selling genetically engineered birds.

Sticky ideas:
• Are understood.
• Are remembered.
• Change something.

It’s not just urban legends that stick. Proverbs do, too. Fables as well. Aesop’s Fables have been told for 2500 years. History lessons, marketing campaigns, mission statements – Dan looked at all of these and wanted to figure out why some stuck and others never found traction.

He and his brother discovered six traits that make up a sticky idea:

You don’t need all six for an idea to stick, but the more the better. The vast majority of your communication doesn’t need to stick. But ideas aren’t created equal. Some ideas are special, need to have an impact, need to be remembered.


It’s not surprising that a simple idea would be effective. Here’s a case study. Scientists studied college students. They gave them the choice to study at the library as planned or see a visiting speaker. Twenty-one percent decided to go to the library. When they did it a second time they added a third choice, to see a foreign film. In this case, studying at the library surprisingly goes up to 40 percent. Decision paralysis says that the more choices you have, the more likely you are to freeze up go with your default position.

One way to beat decision complexity is to hide the complexity. Pandora radio makes the thousands of songs in their database invisible. They just ask you for one artist or song. When you say you like James Brown, you really like flat out funky grooves, extensive vamping, and groove-based composition music.

A more subtle type of decision paralysis can be seen in a team setting. Everyone needs to have an aligned vision, but everyone’s making individual decisions. He’s going to give us thoughts on how to make decision making simple. An Australian credit union says “We don’t want to be first but we sure as hell don’t want to be third.” This is a strategic statement that cascades throughout the company and effects all the decisions they make.

A high-concept pitch will help the team coordinate the larger vision. Your role is to beat decision paralysis with simplicity. Create a vision for the team that serves as a beacon.


Now Dan throws a bunch of industry phrases on the screen. Link analysis, conversion/ROI, contextual search. When he thinks of these words he thinks “emotion.” Uh… Oh, he’s being sarcastic. His point is that sticky ideas thrive on emotion.

In the 80s Texas was having a problem with litter. So, the state brought in a team of litter-reduction experts. They found that the litterers tended to be 18-35 year old men that drove pick up trucks and like sports. They called him Bubba. They wanted to figure out how to get Bubba to stop littering. With an idea and an audience in mind, they had to figure out how to communicate to him.

Some possible ideas:
• An owl that says, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!”
• The Native American shedding a tear.

What they did was talk to lots of Bubbas and found that many of them had a strong Texan patriotism. This led to the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign. Texan sports stars and role models would say that by littering you would be dishonoring the state. It worked.

In the consequence model, you weigh the costs and benefits and choose the most beneficial one. In the identity model, the person asks “who am I?” and “What do people like me do in this kind of situation?” The Texas littering campaign spoke to Texan’s identities.

The Curse of Knowledge

In the early 90s there was a game called Tappers and Listeners. Researchers gave someone the name of a song on a piece of paper. The tapper was supposed to tap out the rhythm while the listener had to listen. Only 1 in 40 answers were correct. Before the tapping, the tapper said the chance of someone getting it right was 50 percent. Why this gap? The tapper can imagine the whole song in their head, and made it impossible to think without that knowledge. This is reenacted with politicians, with students and teachers, and throughout the world.


Dan’s friend was always on the road for business. He had some extra time at the airport. At the bar, a woman approached him and asked to buy him a drink. That usually never happens to him, so he said, “Sure!” He takes a slug of the drink and blacks out. He wakes up in a bathtub full of ice. There’s a sign that says “Call 911”. He calls and the operator seems familiar with what’s going on and asks him to check if there’s a tube coming out of his back. There is. She tells him to wait there, the paramedics are on their way. He’s been gotten by the organ thieves.

This is a ridiculous story, but it sticks because of all the sensory details. Concreteness is the turf of differentiation. Rather than “high-quality coffee”, Starbucks says “we brew every 30 minutes.” The more concrete description will get more of a response.

Dan went on for an experiment. He saw that people on the site got a picture and a one line headline to describe them. Some of the headlines he saw:

• Hey…
• Friends say I am down to eath
• Looking for love!

These people are trying to cast the net too wide and avoiding anything that would draw someone in. Some more concrete headlines he saw:

• Must love burritos.
• Seekingmy2ndMRS
• Sour-cream and Onion Dip is my Crystal Meth
• Athletic math nerd looking for someone to hum Seinfeld intro music with

It won’t attract everyone, but it will attract the right people. That’s the mission of market – to get people off the fence.

One guy says “I can make you laugh!” and the other says “The guy above me is married, the guy below me is a stalker.” Which do you think is more effective? Push for what sets you apart. There are rules and connections in the marketplace of ideas. There is a way of making your ideas more sticky. Next time, make it simpler. Make it more concrete. Can you find a story? If you try it, tell Dan. You may be in his next book.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

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