The Social Experience - How to Keep Visitors On Your Website Longer

Staying Power

Consumers have more choice than ever these days, especially online. Competing attractions are just a click away, so it's vital to engage your audience's attention and give them a reason to stay on your site - and want to come back again and again.

This elusive component of web design is often referred to as 'stickiness'. Stickiness is important for various reasons. Getting a user to return frequently is more cost-effective than trying to convince new users to come to a site. Once users are engaged, word-of-mouth will help you promote your site.

The Right Kind of Sticky

It's critical that stickiness stems from a positive user experience, leading to loyalty. Don't ever think of literally getting people stuck. It would be bad practice to make important information deliberately hard to locate, 'trapping' users. Instead, focus on users' needs and serve them well. As a result, you'll get the kind of 'stickiness' you want.

First Impressions

Design is integral to a site's stickiness. People react to gut instinct. If a site doesn't look professionally designed, they won't stick around - particularly if they're looking to buy something.

Looks matter! First impressions count. Before contemplating a return visit, a user must engage with a website. In providing a user with what they're looking for, in a usable format that looks good, you're half way towards achieving stickiness.

The idea is to not make people think. Optimise a site's design to deliver the most intuitive user experience, and deliver the desired end result to the user with little effort. This contributes to the likelihood of the user returning.

Of course, good first impressions are just the starting point: you have to make them last. A strong design is one that doesn't just look pretty but guides users and encourages them to interact or share.

Visuals and branding are important, but equally important is how those visuals and branding are integrated with the functionality and user experience. You can have a gorgeous looking layout, but it has to work well too.

Style and Substance

Content is arguably the most important single component when it comes to stickiness. To get repeat visits put what's most useful and compelling in the most logical, strategic position.

Fields points out that once a 'visual language' is created and a user knows where to find sticky content, it's easy to train them to find it, helping to ensure they'll stick around. In the fight for eyes and hits, video is definitely worth considering.

We're constantly visually stimulated, and video often achieves engagement where text and imagery cannot. Regularly updated videos maximise repeat visits from people looking for new content.

However, video by its nature takes time to consume and should be of a duration commensurate with the nature of what's being conveyed. If your video does not remain compelling the result = zero stickiness.

Social Engagement

Compelling content within a strong, usable design will guarantee some stickiness but adding new fresh content is the key to stickiness.

Also, sites that react to users' needs can result in longer session times and encourage return visits. Customization involves a personal investment on behalf of the user, and when someone has given time to a site, they're more likely to become loyal.

We Love Facebook

Facebook plugins vary from enabling users to 'like' or recommend things, to allowing users to make comments and show profile pictures of friends who've already signed up - they're essentially using peer pressure to encourage users to explore more.

Very soon what I see when looking at a site with a Facebook login will be different to what my friend sees. In the future, sites will be completely relevant to individual users. This will make them extremely sticky: by making content relevant and contextual, catering to what we want to see, a site will create loyalty.

However, websites must avoid the creepy sensation that comes with seeming to know too much about your visitors - a problem Facebook is arguably having to deal with.

Web designers have been tapping into existing networks such as Flickr, YouTube and Twitter. These are all great tools to achieve extra stickiness.

RSS readers are good to push content out, but are limited to a very small percentage of people who use them and understand what they do. Newsletters and email marketing are more effective tools to get users back to your site. A carefully planned email strategy will pay for itself in no time. Even better - enable user-generated content because everyone loves seeing their content published.

Speed vs Content

Getting the design and content right are key when making your site sticky, but so too are technical factors. If your site is slow to load, users might not even bother waiting, no matter how much amazing content it contains. Stive to keep your website lean and mean (not weighed down with graphics).

Assuming this hurdle is overcome, ongoing speed must be maintained to hold a user's interest. The longer people stay, the more engaged they'll become, ultimately increasing the chance of their desire to return.

Strike a Balance

Remember that web design is a balancing act - don't get spooked and rip out or oversimplify your content in the name of stickiness. People are willing to wait for something, within reason. For instance, most people don't mind that Netflix's online movie player takes a minute to load, because they're expecting to be with the site for hours. However, at the other extreme, the same wait for 30 seconds of content would be a poor experience.

Designers should resist the temptation to shove 'sticky' hooks above the fold. Thanks to long scrolling sites such as Facebook, people are no longer afraid to scroll. Sometimes, telling a story and creating pace on a page is good. Just as stories have an intro, climax and a conclusion, why shouldn't a website use that same convention?

The important thing is to ensure that content throughout your sites is of a high quality - that, ultimately, ensures users will be willing to wait, engage and return. Speed and pacing are especially important for mobile sites, although 'sticky' in the mobile domain rarely equates to 'more time' - instead, less is more in this space.

Keep things simple. Have content targeted for the device it's consumed on, remove noise and visual clutter, keep options relevant and obvious, and make things light and quick.

Whether on the desktop or mobile, fast sites demonstrably lead to increased stickiness, which can in turn increase revenue.

Speed Testing

Measuring a site's speed is fairly simple, thanks to modern tools like Firebug, which provides a list of how long each element takes to load, helping to identify those causing delays and enabling you to focus on improving specific load times.

Measuring a site's stickiness differs depending on its business objectives. It could be time on site; it could be returning visitors per campaign; it could be number of transactions; it could be cost per acquisition. There is no general rule for measuring this.

Ideally, look for a range of indicators when judging the stickiness of a website, and make them relevant to the site. If the site is designed to offer quickfire information, look for short visits with people returning regularly. If the site aims to keep people engrossed for hours, ensure that's what's happening.

If you're providing interesting content for people to grab, the tracking of downloaded files in tandem with return visits and growth might be enough to indicate a site's success regarding stickiness.

This will all change from site to site, but should detail whether visitors are doing what you expect,. Having stickiness as your overriding goal requires the strategy of proving value.

In the end, what some visitors find useless and trite, others will find essential. It's our job to aim the right content at the intended audience - and to ensure that everything sticks.

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