“There’s an old saying: The first baby is an accident, the second one is a coincidence, and the third one is a habit. And you, my dear—you are definitely in the habit stage.” – A statement my grandfather made to mother on the day I was born.
Recently, I wrote about a few brainy techniques to make content memorable. One idea that I’m increasingly intrigued with is using new knowledge about how habits are formed in the brain and its application to creating influential content.
My inspiration is Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit, and the research he uses from MIT. In a nutshell, our brains are wired to create habits, but understanding how habits form can lead us on a path to ignore, change, or replace a habit altogether.
Understanding habits isn’t just a personal journey. Demystifying habits is a process that can even help companies identify behaviors that may be counterproductive.
Let’s look at how habits work.
The Habit Loop
If we see habits as a pattern with a beginning, middle, and end, then we can begin to unravel the mystery of how habits work. A habit loop is a three-step process our brains employ to address everything from brushing our teeth to walking to the subway.
Every habit loop begins with a cue. This is trigger that communicates to the brain it’s time to go into a routine and which habit to use. Examples of this are the feeling of hunger, anxiety, or even the time of day. Next is the routine. This is an emotional or physical response to a cue, like when I forget to eat breakfast and the only food I can think of is a pepperoni calzone the size of my face instead of healthier options. In the final stage of the habit loop, we receive our reward. So cue, routine, reward—that’s the habit loop.
“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort,” Duhigg writes. In fact, the reason our brains crave habits is in an effort to conserve energy. At the start of a habit—the cue—our brain activity is high. Once we establish a routine our brains go into automatic drive and use less effort. Then, when we receive our reward the brain perks up again to acknowledge everything occurred as expected, and the information gets saved so the next time we get the same cue we have a way of handling it.
Habits in the Digital Space
While interviewing participants for a forthcoming study I was front and center on a number of online habits people use to locate credible health, travel, and finance content.
Participants drew on methods they trusted would lead them in the right direction to answer a series of questions we posed to them. Some began with a Google search while others went directly to a website they felt would have a credible answer. In one session, I observed a participant changed from a Firefox browser to Chrome browser and then did a Google search. Even though the results would have been identical in any of the available browsers, she felt Chrome would give her the best information.
“Habits are powerful, but delicate…they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.” – Charles Duhigg
Habits don’t have to make sense because they are fulfilling a biological need. Out of habit, the participant used Chrome for browsing the web at home and work. Our cue to find the answer to a question kicked off a routine her brain communicated was familiar and available. When she found the answer, and she did, she more than likely confirmed that Chrome was indeed a good choice and to use it again.
Other habits are alive and well in the digital space. In the context of content strategy, content ROT (Redundant, Outdated, Trivial) comes to mind—especially low-hanging fruit like outdated content. It’s rare to find a company that doesn’t have expired content on their website. Facts, contact information, and forms can take the back seat to newer content or higher-profile tasks. Yet it’s these inaccuracies that lead users to judge whether an entire site is worth revisiting.
One in five students surveyed in another study said they removed a school from consideration because of a bad content. Among the definitions of “bad content” were outdated information and misspellings, to name a few. When organizations get in the habit of not updating their content there is an impact on the bottom line.
Good governance can help an organization plan to prevent outdated content, but the task of updating content needs to be a habit if the processes are going to work.
Recommendation: Start with a site audit beginning with a comprehensive content inventory. Use a Content Inventory Tool to determine if your site has content ROT (among other things). Once you’ve identify the outdated content make a plan to archive it, or remove it all together. Choose a CMS with reminders or schedule content to auto-expire. Then, create a plan to review evergreen content each year to ensure it still connects with audiences. Test when you can (and you can) your content with users. Cheap and easy testing can be done and still achieve results. Read Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy to learn more about fast, efficient user testing methods.