There was a pretty terrific piece in the New York Times a few days ago about how marketers use consumer data to help sell their products.  The whole piece is worth a read, and much of it is relevant to our work in building websites and creating CRM solutions.  I found this portion about habit formation particularly interesting:

Luckily, simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control. Take, for instance, a series of studies conducted a few years ago at Columbia University and the University of Alberta. Researchers wanted to understand how exercise habits emerge. In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.

The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. Other studies have yielded similar results. According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

I think the most addictive web services are the ones that exploit this habit loop. 


When you check in to a  location on Foursquare, you are immediately rewarded points and shown where you stand on a leaderboard.  If you use the service religiously, you have the opportunity to earn mayorships and badges. 

Facebook and Twitter

While Facebook and Twitter don’t have leaderboards, both services have a rich understanding of how rewards motivate.  When you post updates to theses services, you are rewarded with interaction.  On Twitter this takes the form of replies, favorites and retweets.  On Facebook it takes the form of likes and comments.  In addition to these rewards for each update, both services offer larger, longer term rewards in the form of followers (Twitter) and friends (Facebook).  While it isn’t as overt as Foursquare, the use of rewards is critical to the success of these services.

Presidential Candidates

Political campaigns use rewards to encourage donations.  Indeed, it is rare that campaigns just ask for money without offering either a tangible or psychological reward.

Currently, the Obama campaign is running a promotion where users donate in exchange for the chance to win a dinner with the President. 

A few weeks ago the Romney campaign launched a money bomb called the One Term Fund, which aimed to raise a million dollars in a few days to ensure one Obama term.  A day later the Obama campaign launched the Two Term Fund, with a goal of raising two million dollars to ensure a second term.  Both efforts worked.  In addition to the larger reward of helping the candidate reach the overall goal, these efforts also reward donors immediately by tracking the amount raised in real time and having the numbers increase as users give. 

As you build websites or web applications whose aim is participation, you would be well served to think through how you can use the habit loop to make your product a part of people’s routines.

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.