Active Users, Habits, and Puppies

I just finished The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, which talks about identifying and improving habits. (You can’t really “break” habits; the best you can do is replace the routine withe something else. The key is identifying the cue (what triggers the habit autopilot) and the reward (what you get out of it) — both of which can be tricky to pin down — and then finding some other routine that will satisfy that reward.)

The book walks through personal examples (why does the author eat a cookie every day at 3pm and can he change his behavior?), organizational examples (can Starbucks employees all learn to have an automatic, pleasant reaction to an irate customer?), and marketing examples (why do always buy the same brands, even if we don’t like them?).

This morning, I spoke to a group of owners of tire stores. One asked what tire dealer I frequented and I said that I didn’t go to a tire dealer. I always go to the Volvo dealership for maintenance (even for non-warranty items). And as I was speaking those words, I realized why. Volvo has three years of free maintenance, including oil changes. The whole time I was thinking how nice and convenient Volvo made everything for me, they were really ingraining a habit that would last longer after the free maintenance expired.

We talk a lot about viral components and stickiness, active users and differentiators. But if we want users to come back to our products again and again, we need to both provide a reward (the awesome thing our product does for them) and a cue (what triggers the automatic action to come back). The reward alone (having an awesome product) isn’t enough.

For some products, everyone’s trigger might be different. (I never log in to Facebook unless I’m waiting for a flight to take off and everything’s packed away except my phone and a magazine, and then I always check Facebook). Some companies are trying to create new triggers rather than rely on existing ones (the big red Google+ number that shows up at the top of all logged in Google pages comes to mind).

We experience these triggers all the time — every time our phone buzzes, which is always, we look down to see what’s going on. If we have a product, can we create cues that trigger habits? And more importantly, as  consumers, can we identify cues before a habit is formed or change the routine to something else if it’s too late for that? Maybe every time my phone buzzes, I pet a puppy rather than look down to see the latest check in? Does anyone have a spare puppy I can attach to my phone?

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5 Comments

  1. Kimberly Reynolds January 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    I have never thought of user behavior like this. I also thought my car dealership was awesome for providing 3 years free maintenance, but now I see they’re doing it to create a habbit… very interesting! I’m definitely going to read The Power of Habbit now. Also, I love your use of puppies – that’s what got me to click on the link from Twitter. Headline Hacks : )

  2. David Boozer January 21, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Bought the book, did not put it down for days until I was done. Thank you Vanessa, that really hit home with my own marketing habits and strategies.

  3. Steven K. Dale January 31, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    How can we develop habit for infrequent purchases? We sell blinds and shutters which is has a 10-15 year between purchases.
    Fortunately they will give us their emails, and we plan on a E Newsletter next quarter.

  4. Brad Campbell April 25, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    Vanessa, heading over to Amazon to buy your book now — not sure how I managed to overlook this for so long, but can’t wait to read about your insights ;-)

  5. Rachel May 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    I read the book as well, and found it utterly fascinating. My favorite case study was the one involving the spray (sorry can’t remember the name and don’t have the book with me).

    For those that don’t know, the company created a great spray that removed bad smells completely. Even though it was a great product, it didn’t take off, until the company identified the reinforcer that made people want to use the spray – not the fact that it took away the smell, but the fact that the good smell signified they were done cleaning.

    I’m curious what you think the trigger was in that case?

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