The essential guide to creating a sticky site

Years ago, I created a website that was going to take the world by storm. The design was precise. Every page validated. The CSS was meticulously organised. The JavaScript was unobtrusive. The Flash elements were accessible.

Once I unleashed it, I'd win countless awards, attract a disgusting amount of new leads, and obviously receive honorary degrees from local universities. It would definitely put me on the map.

I launched it. I waited. Nothing. Never listed by a single website gallery. Didn't immediately win anything. It got about 100 unique hits on a good week. I couldn't figure out what was delaying my superstardom. The problem was, and still is, value. People need to know how useful a site is, and fast.

Years ago, web users weren't as hesitant to explore (or maybe they just didn't have a choice). It was actually fun to decipher mysterymeat navigation. Today, plagued with the plethora of irrelevant information, it's become a fine art to find what you're looking for quickly and quietly. Instead of being avenues to substance, websites have become roadblocks.

This adds an extra level of frustration for a user, but exponentially more for the content creators. The former hurdles of available information and the means to view it have been replaced with challenges of validity and relevance. "Can I find this on the web?" has evolved into "Where can I find this on the web?" Wikipedia estimates that "the indexable web contains at least 63billion pages" as of June 2008.

As Wall Street Journal writer Lee Gomes observes, "For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives". The idea that "If you build it, they will come" just got a lot more complicated.

If a tree falls…

A study at Carleton University in Canada showed that some people make a first impression in just 50 milliseconds. Let's face it: if you're creating content for online consumption, the odds are already against you. Forget needle in a haystack. It's more like a raindrop in the ocean.

In a recent article, designer Eric Kajaluoto lists a number of common problems for start-ups, such as distractions, running out of cash, and competition, but the most important one is front and centre: "No one is looking at you. No one is listening to you. (You don't believe me, but I'm right.)… Even if you create a portable fountain-of-youth, your start-up's biggest challenge will be to get anyone to pay attention. Really – it's that hard."

So how do you stand out from the crowd?

Hedgehogs and elevator pitches

Often, honesty really is the best policy. Many sites employ the technique of "the elevator pitch." Imagine you meet someone in an elevator for the first time who asks what your firm does. In the span of your elevator ride, you should be able to clearly explain your service offering. If you can't, you should re-evaluate the way you communicate about your service (or even the service itself).

Applying this to the discipline of web design, some companies actually state their elevator pitch as the first thing on their homepage. Even if it remains internal, however, the ability to distil a value proposition down to a few key actions is an effective way to cultivate a following.

In Advertising Online Now by Julian Wiedemann, BBH London's creative director Johan Tesch comments: "The secret to many of the smash hits lately is to succeed in entertaining people with something new and clever, and at the same time say something profound about the core of the product. Only then will people stop what they are doing and lower their guard and be willing to sacrifice a couple of minutes of their time to interact with your brand."

Christopher Cashdollar, creative director at Happy Cog Studios, also believes in this simplicity. "A basic principle should unify and guide everything," he says. "If a company can focus the singular purpose of the site, it could be a shining lighthouse that drives strategic ideas and innovation, a differentiating factor in an already bloated marketplace."

This harks back to an idea known as the Hedgehog Concept. In his book From Good to Great, Jim Collins recalls an ancient Greek parable that tells of a daily routine between a fox and a hedgehog. Every day, the fox envisions a new way to ensnare the hedgehog. As he springs his trap, the hedgehog rolls up into a ball, pointing his sharp spikes outward. Day after day, the hedgehog wins with his proven defence.

According to Collins, thinkers like Einstein, Marx and Darwin were all hedgehogs. "They took a complex world and simplified it … They understand that the essence of profound insight is simplicity … Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest."

An element of mystery

A seemingly contrasting approach to attracting users is to reveal very little (without being misleading, of course). Only offering a limited view of what's to come piques curiosity.

That's the draw of, for example, beta releases. I can guarantee that my name is on more beta lists than on actual registrations of fully released products or services.

Anthropologically speaking, humans are voyeuristic by nature. Maybe it's the instinctual evolutionary instinct to search the unknown for food to survive. Maybe it's an instilled desire to find others like ourselves to prove that we're not alone. Whatever the case, mystique has always and will always entice us.

Look at the site created by Big Spaceship for HBO Voyeur, a theatrical multimedia experience and marketing campaign launched by HBO in summer 2007. Shot from a solitary viewpoint across a street, the site highlighted a number of simultaneous stories of a cross-section of an apartment building through video.

Users could interact with and investigate individual stories or observe the larger story at their own leisure. While some blog posts questioned the intent of the website, the visitor numbers speak for themselves: the highest spike in traffic put HBO Voyeur in the world's top 15,000 most visited websites.