When It Comes To Content Strategy, It's Better To Think About Spreadability Than Stickiness

Sam Ford, author "Spreadable Media," discusses why content strategies that focus on keeping conversations artificially contained are outmoded.

A few years back, a client came to my agency with a desire to show its "thought leadership" online. A key executive there was a credible source on healthy living, and the company wanted to find ways for him to share his expertise online.

We considered the question from the audience's eyes, thinking about the company's content in relation to other online communities and destinations online focused on the same subject, and considering as a goal seeing audiences sharing and engaging with our client's material in those various destinations.

The company would hear none of this way of thinking. Why, they asked, would they want to pay any mind to discussions about healthy living elsewhere? Wouldn't dispersed engagement be harder to measure and dilute focus on their expert? No, we needed to launch a corporate blog.

The disconnect between my agency and our client stemmed from contrasting mindsets. The company operated via stickiness, while we were focused on spreadability—a distinction my co-authors and I examine in our new book, Spreadable Media. With stickiness, success is determined by how many individuals come to a centralized location via a uniform experience and how long they spend there. Sound familiar? It should. It's an attempt to recreate the "impressions" model of traditional media industries.

Meanwhile, spreadability focuses on how content moves through communities and exists at multiple points of contact, with an emphasis on a diversity of audience experiences. Publishers focused on spreadability seek to motivate sharing and encourage audiences to actively engage with content on their own terms.

No matter what we said, the company couldn't be convinced. Their resulting blog didn't connect to discussions about healthy living elsewhere—because their system of measurement placed no value on such connections. As a result, the blog today sits like so many other online ghost towns, without an update in more than three years.

Despite gains made in being able to listen to how content travels online, the stickiness model still dominates. For media companies or e-commerce sites that build their business off visits to their site, the focus on stickiness makes some degree of sense. However, even if a stickiness mindset has its place, its dominance has been too strong and has distorted the nature of online communication to conform to what's easiest for the publisher to measure and what most resembles how distribution worked in a pre-digital era, rather than what audiences find most useful. It's especially unfortunate that marketers, non-profits, educational institutions, and others that aren't primarily trying to "monetize" a particular destination have nevertheless largely adopted stickiness as their core logic for success.

Building new models that align measurement with the ways in which audiences want to engage with and share content is crucial for companies to shift the way they think about content circulation, and success, in a digital age. In short, companies not actively seeking to figure out how to value how content spreads in their measurement models risk their brands as a whole eventually becoming ghost towns as well.

—Sam Ford is director of digital strategy for Peppercomm and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. He is also a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Sam was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He is also co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

[Image: Flickr user Doug Wheller]

Add New Comment


  • Elana S.

    It would be great to hear examples of how organizations have achieved greater influence or reputation through spreadability.

  • Sam Ford

    Research from The Reputation Institute, Nielsen, and others have shown in the past couple of years that people trust recommendations from one another far more than they trust marketing messages these days. In our book, we look at a wide range of companies and creators--indie artists in a variety of fields, Comcast, World Wrestling Entertainment, Electronic Arts, Old Spice, and a range of others who have seen success from taking more spreadable sorts of approaches. Just to name a few...

  • Sam Ford

    Thanks, Will. It's a great example...Why would brands strive to be the egomaniac who only talks about themselves or the person with stunted social skills mumbling to themselves? Brands worry about "getting the message right" and "retaining control," but such constraining systems for maintaining control means the content ends up being largely inaccessible to anyone outside the company...

  • Will Brewster

    Really great point. There is no point sticking (pardon the pun) to an existing way of communicating if no one is even listening. It's the equivalent of the pub bore (English expression perhaps) who sits in the corner of the bar and talks largely to himself. Companies should strive to be the person at a table with others who listens and contributes when they've got something interesting and thoughtful to say. Bar analogies over. Good luck with the book, Sam!