Sticky from the Start: How to Create Products that Stick

“Stickiness” isn’t always a good thing, but we generally prefer users stick around and keep using them when it comes to products. Creating a sticky product experience means recurring revenue and more time to win over new customers instead of trying to convince existing ones not to abandon ship.

But in the early stages of conception and development, stickiness doesn’t typically get a lot of attention. Product teams are often worried about defining an MVP that will get people to try a product out that they’re not investing in aspects of the customer experience that will generate an ongoing fondness and appreciation for the product.

Putting stickiness off might bring a product to market slightly quicker. But if the user experience doesn’t leave customers thirsting for more, you’re destined to fail a lot faster. Let’s explore how products can co-prioritize stickiness with baseline functionality from the get-go.

The Right Kind of Product Stickiness

Sticky product experiences generate repeat usage by definition. When customers realize some value—financial, operational, or simple enjoyment— they continue using the product frequently. But stickiness can be earned in different ways, some of which are more desirable than others.

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The “bad” kind of sticky is when a product creates lock-in, meaning it’s way too hard or expensive for the customer to switch to an alternate solution. This might happen because there was a significant setup or integration cost or because exporting data or migrating to another platform is difficult or even impossible.

While there are definitely upsides to not making it too easy to abandon your product, holding customers hostage isn’t a great long-term growth strategy, either. It can foster a reputation that your company is difficult to work with and even open you up to legal challenges. Instead, stickiness should come from more positive associations, such as how easy it is to perform a task with your product versus the competition.

The “OK” Sticky Product

The “OK” type of sticky is a cousin of the network effect. Social media networks are a great example of this—their stickiness primarily comes from the fact that everyone else is using them, so if you want to connect with and keep up with friends or peers, users must stay active.

Although the value of a community ultimately comes down to who else is a member, the community itself shouldn’t be the only reason people enjoy using the product; it should be delivering additional recurring benefits aside from whoever else happens to be an active user.

The “good” flavor of sticky comes from users getting genuine value and satisfaction from using the product and wanting to experience those benefits by choice repeatedly, again and again. They don’t just have to use the product. They want to use it. This is where focusing on functionality, ease-of-use, simplicity, and positive prompting really reaps its rewards and where product teams should invest their energy from the beginning.

When a product is sticky for the right reasons, customers don’t mind paying the monthly or annual fee to keep using the service, and churn is minimal thanks to ongoing happiness with the experience. This optimal situation allows product teams to focus on optimizing and enhancing the experience instead of playing defense to try and stop users from fleeing.

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9 Ways to Make Your Product Stick from the Start

1. Decrease the time-to-value

A great product provides great value. However, it isn’t always obvious at first. This means products must do everything possible to expose their value to customers and prospects quickly as they can (without completely overwhelming them). This requires the shortest possible path to getting to the good parts.

“One of the ah-ha moments we’ve identified for Unbounce is when people get inside the builder, and they see how easy, yet how powerful and customizable it is. The problem is, they don’t get to see that until they slap down a credit card,” says Oli Gardner of Unbounce. “To amplify this, we just released a preview mode of our builder, designed specifically to help shorten the TTV.”

2. Make sure you’re solving a frequent problem

There’s no shortage of problems to solve, processes to simplify, and paths to shorten. But for a product to be sticky, it must tackle tasks users deal with regularly. For example, people don’t move very often, they only buy new cars every few years, and they don’t get married monthly. Therefore a product making those things easier won’t be sticky… at least not for long.

Understanding the tasks customers face frequently and making those easier should prioritize companies looking to hook new users.

3. Create habits to keep them hooked

Every app, website, and product competes for the attention of its users, so new solutions trying to break into a customer’s routine must incentivize repeat usage with some payoff. Even if a customer plunks down an initial monthly fee, there’s no guarantee they’ll keep using the product, particularly if there’s a bit of a learning curve to get started.

But thanks to notifications, emails, and other prompts, SaaS products have the option to nudge new users to engage in the behaviors most likely to deliver initial value. In-app messages can build awareness of features, spark usage, and beckon users back to apps even when they’re not using them. They’ve been found to increase user engagement by 4X and, when combined with push notifications, can increase engagement rates by 30-40%.

Making these nudges as contextual and relevant as possible makes them helpful and useful instead of annoying and distracting. If the nudge doesn’t have an explicit purpose that will spark a behavior known to increase engagement, don’t bother nudging them at all.

4. Minimize setup by relying on defaults

Many great products offer a ton of toggles, switches, and dials to customize the product experience for every customer. But, most new users don’t want to spend the time configuring setting after setting, particularly when they’re not really sure how they will end up using the product. While these options shouldn’t be eliminated, the product should work out of the box with minimal setup required.

This can be as simple as creating default settings for everything or letting new users choose between a few basic personas that each come with their own predefined options. Users will always have the option of tweaking things later as they refine their understanding and usage of the product, but this fast-tracks them to realize the value and doesn’t throw a wall of questions and options at them before they’ve even taken it for a test drive.

5. Break down the barriers

If users aren’t achieving instant product stickiness, there’s probably something preventing them from doing so, where user research can come in handy. Usability tests and customer interviews can unlock the why behind their lack of full engagement.

“The idea behind this is to understand cause and effect to get to the source of the issue. Start by identifying the issue at hand and ask “why” five times, with each answer building on the previous question,” says Talia van Everdingen of Taplytics. “At the end, you’re able to identify the reason behind the issue and work to fix it.”

6. School them up

Some products have too high of a learning curve for the average customer to unlock value instantaneously. So when you can’t simplify the path to productivity any further, offering an education-rich onboarding program can complement other efforts to create instant product stickiness.

Whether it’s self-directed learning, tutorials, one-on-one webinars, or in-person classes, providing new users with concrete instruction geared toward immersing them in the product and accelerating their usage can narrow the learning gap required to take full advantage of what the product has to offer.

7. Eliminate repetitive work altogether

Going one step further, some products can achieve instant stickiness by completely removing the need for the user to continue manually perform a task by automating it. If you can let users set and forget to replace something that requires their effort regularly, products can add a ton of stickiness without needing the users to engage with the product proactively.

These subscriptions happen—users get value, enjoy the convenience, and are willing to pay the price for what they’re receiving. As long as the product doesn’t screw things up or break, customers will happily fork over their monthly payment for the privilege of not doing something at all.

8. Keep it simple

While your product may eventually need to be more complex and add extra features that everyone doesn’t use out of the gate, it should try to serve its primary purpose and focus on doing that extremely well. Avoid feature creep before you’ve even stuck the landing on your first attempt by saying no to anything not directly related to improving the KPIs directly linked to engagement and increasing daily active users.

“Blindly introducing features into your product is a short-term strategy that will bloat your product and eventually make it unusable,” says Hiten Shah of Product Habits. “To create a truly sticky product, you can’t simply imitate what other products do. You have to dive into your own usage and metrics to find what’s already working.”

9. Ask them why they’re leaving

No product will have a 0% churn rate, but even products with minimal turnover shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore why anyone decided to throw in the towel. Directing departing users to a quick survey capturing their reasons for saying goodbye is a great source of data for understanding how to make a product even more appealing and sticky for others.

Keep it brief (they’re already leaving) with just a few quick questions about why they’re canceling and their plans, along with an open-ended option for additional feedback at the end.

The sticky combo platter

There are many ways to create a sticky product experience, but it ultimately boils down to a delicate balance of continually adding incremental value while increasing switching costs. Use a product for a day, and it may not improve your life that much, but you also don’t have much to lose if you quit; but once it becomes a helpful habit, pulling the plug becomes increasingly less desirable.

“Simply, sticky products use the data a user creates while engaging with the product as fuel to make the experience even more engaging for that user (accruing benefits), and at the same time harder to leave (mounting loss),” says Sarah Tavel of Benchmark. “The more I store in Evernote, the more likely I am to get value when I search. The accruing benefits continue, and I keep on adding more and more to Evernote and realizing more and more value from it. The flipside of this is that I can’t ever imagine leaving Evernote — it’s truly become an extension of my brain.”

Putting users on the fast-track to realize value and stickiness kicks in that much faster, facilitating deeper engagement and loyalty that every product needs to make it a keeper.