Dubbed the “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology” by MIT Tech Review, Nir Eyal is an expert of what drives us to engage with certain products over others. In this podcast episode, listen as Nir breaks down his “Hooked” model of product development and applies it to the world of podcasting. Listen to the full episode or read excerpts from the conversation below.
First, your book Hooked is one of those must-read business books for any start-up founder, marketer or product developer. What inspired it?
I wrote Hooked because I wanted to help businesspeople build the kind of products and services that people want to use. I didn’t think it was fair that only Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know these psychological tricks to keep you coming back. Why don’t all of us use these techniques? Why can’t we use them for good to build healthy habits with our products and services?
The response to Hooked has been profound. Why do you think it is so popular?
Matt Mullenweg, one of the founders of WordPress, gave me an endorsement for Hooked. He said, “Hooked gives you the blueprint for the next generation of products. Read Hooked, or the company that replaces you will.”
The model that I use as the backbone of Hooked explains all sorts of habit-forming products from Facebook to Instagram, to WhatsApp, Slack, Amazon, Google, YouTube … All of these products have within the design experience a “hook.” And a hook is this experience that connects the user’s problem with your product with enough frequency to form a habit. I think the podcasting explosion that we’ve seen over the past few years can really be explained with the same model. Podcasting has become so popular because of its ability to change our habits.
Okay, so before we talk about how this applies to podcasts, we should probably have you explain the Hooked model. Can you break that down for people?
The Hooked model contains four parts: a Trigger, an Action, a Variable Reward and an Investment. Together, these steps are designed to connect the user’s problem with your product with enough frequency to form a habit.
The Trigger. Every hook starts with an external trigger — a ping, a ding, a notification, something that prompts you with some piece of information. It might be an email. When it comes to podcasting, it’s maybe a notification that a new episode has been posted.
The Action. Then the action is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. In the book, I talk about these different ways that we can make a behavior as easy as possible to do.
The Variable Reward. Then comes the variable reward phase, which is all about giving people what they want, but also a bit of uncertainty. This comes from the classic work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner took these pigeons, he put them in a little box, and he gave them a little disk to peck at. Every time they would peck at the disk, they would receive a little reward. What Skinner observed was that when you give these animals a reward on a variable schedule, as opposed to a fixed schedule, the pigeon would peck much more often. And the same thing occurs for all the products and services we use. It’s what makes a good book or scrolling Facebook so interesting. It’s all about these variable rewards, this bit of uncertainty, just like Skinner’s pigeons.
The Investment. Then finally, the investment phase is where you put something into the product that makes it better with use. So, the more you can tailor it, customize it, add data or content or a following … Any of these things make the product better and better with use. What we see today with podcasting, for example, is that the very act of building a playlist is a form of investment. People have put effort into the product, which makes it better and better with use.
(The Internal Trigger). Eventually, the genius of a habit-forming product is that you don’t even need those external triggers like notifications because people start associating the use of your product with an internal trigger instead. Internal triggers exist in our heads, and they typically come from uncomfortable sensations. So, when we’re uncertain, we Google. When we’re lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re bored, we go to Reddit or check the news.
We use products for only one reason. This is what I want your listeners to remember: that everything your customer does, everything you do, every product you interact with, you do it for only one single, solitary reason. And that reason is to modulate our mood. That’s why we use every product and service. And so, when you can attach to a particular internal trigger or negative emotional state, and your product provides a solution … if you’re the slave to the itch … you become the thing that people use with little or no conscious thought. That’s how you ultimately build a habit.
Okay, let’s apply that to podcasts. It will be hyper-relevant for our audience to understand how the Hooked model can work for podcasting.
Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to build habit-forming podcasts if you start systematically. The systematic approach is to build a hook: What’s your trigger? How do you make the action as easy as possible? What’s the variable reward? And what’s the investment? So let’s walk through this.
The trigger is how can you make sure your podcast is in front of people when they need it most? What’s their internal trigger, for example? So if you think that the internal trigger is, let’s say for a salesperson, it’s fear of missing their quota, right? The salesperson is constantly thinking about quota, quota, quota. How can you satisfy that itch? Well, guess what? A podcast is something that people can do that helps satiate that fear. They think: Wow, I’m upgrading my skills. Here’s a new idea, here’s a new angle, here’s the latest from the company that can satiate my pain point right there when I’m feeling that itch of, “Oh, how do I close another sale? I listen to the podcast.” You might want the external trigger to be a notification that a new episode has been posted, but then eventually, the internal trigger should drive a salesperson to check for new episodes when they are thinking about their quota.
The action is all about the most effortless way for people to interact with your content or take action. Lewin’s equation that tells us that the easier something is to do — the less effortful something is to do — the more likely people are to do it. So this explains not only podcasting, but much of the personal technology revolution we’ve witnessed over this past several years. It’s really about this quantum shift in the ease of doing what people want to do. One of the things that made podcasting such a phenomenon is that the ability curve moved way to the right. That’s when podcasting flipped — when the software and the tools that we use to listen to a podcast became easier than turning on the radio. So that bring us to the action in podcasting — how do you make it as easy as possible to start consuming this content? Salespeople always moan and groan about sales literature because it’s boring, it’s long, and it’s hard to consume. Well, what could be easier than listening to an entertaining podcast, right? So how do you make that as easy as possible? You get it on their phones, you make it something that they can listen to with just one tap on their device. Suddenly, email takes a lot more work than “Hey, while I’m at the gym or between meetings or driving from place to place, I’m listening to content, and all it takes me is two taps.” That’s all back to the action phase of the hook. The easier something is to do, the more likely people are to do it.
Then the variable reward — this is where creating good content matters. I mean, if you have somebody droning on on your podcast, it’s going to be super boring and not rewarding, so you’ve got to make it entertaining. You’ve got to make content that people enjoy. Now, the good thing is that you can be super niche about that, right? You can cater to an audience of a few hundred people, or maybe a few dozen people. It doesn’t need to be something as popular as the top 10 podcasts in the world. It needs to be something that scratches the itch of the target audience that you are speaking to.
Then finally investment. How can you get people to invest into the podcast? Well, there’s a bunch of things you can do. For example, one way to get people to invest in something like a podcast is get them on the podcast. Make it about them. Get them to invest by actually being your guest. Talk to people in the field. Get them on your show. Make great content that gets them to invest in the show so that they tell their friends and their fellow coworkers, “Hey, guess what, you gotta tune in. Yours truly is going to be talking to the host.” That’s one of the ways we get them to invest.
How important is frequency in forming a habit? How often should people podcast?
The data shows us that it’s very difficult to change a consumer habit if the behavior does not occur within a week’s time or less. And we know that more frequent is better. Now, not every product lends itself to be a daily use type product. If you think about Facebook, you’ve got to use that product as an intra-day habit. Or email, the mother of habit-forming technology, is an intra-day habit. People use it multiple times a day. Other products just don’t make sense to use multiple times a day. Once a week makes more sense. But the critical cut-off point seems to be about a week’s time or less.
What format should the show be in?
It depends on the audience, right? It’s all about scratching the person’s itch in the appropriate way, which means you really have to understand their internal trigger. What are they coming to you for to relieve? What’s the discomfort? For some people, they want a certain type of format or show. For other people, they want a completely different format or show. And so, it’s not really about a single rule to rule them all. The idea is, what does your specific user want? What’s the best reward you can give them to scratch their itch? That’s not something I can answer. Only your customers can answer that question.
What are your thoughts on content creation? How hard is it to just get started podcasting?
Back to Lewin’s equation, the easier you make something to do, the more likely people are to do it. So the idea is to think of the simplest thing that you can do that is without effort. Like what would happen if you did a 30-second podcast, right? Or what happens if you cheated like I do and get someone else to read something you’ve already written, and that becomes your podcast? That is effortless. So I think that’s really a big part of how can you make it as easy as possible to get started podcasting. It’s important to make it something that you really want to do as opposed to feel like you have to do. That’s a pretty much a recipe to get anybody to not do what you want them to do –force them to do it.