Want Engagement? Find the Heat.

If you talk to product managers, designers, and engineers at almost any consumer internet company these days, you’ll find that they measure their success largely across three dimensions:

  • Growth (more users)
  • Revenue (more money)
  • Engagement (more visits, more activity per visit)

Believe it or not, it’s that last bullet which is the ultimate coin of the realm: engagement.  How to measure it.  How to design for it.  How to predict it.  How to generate it.

The assumption is that engagement is a proxy for the strength of the relationship with the consumer, and thus leads to both strategic advantage as well as long term monetization.

There is no one simple answer to the question of how to design and build highly engaging products and features.  Game mechanics (thanks in large part to Amy Jo Kim) has become the de facto answer for designing for engagement on the consumer internet in the past few years.  However, in the last few months, I’ve been advocating a new frame for product managers and designers to think about engagement in their products, particularly content-based applications.

Find. The. Heat.

Given the phenomenal success of Google, most modern consumer internet companies are heavily influenced by its product culture, whether they care to admit it or not.  Google made relevance the gold standard for content, and machine generated algorithms for sifting and sorting that content the scalable solution.

But when it comes to content, it’s worth considering things that frankly our colleagues in old media have known for a very long time.

There is a big difference between:

  • Content that you should read / view
  • Content that you want to read / view
  • Content that you actually read / view

It’s not an accident that there are a spectrum of news content, ranging from PBS -> 60 Minutes -> CNN -> Fox News / MSNBC.

The difference?  Heat.

For several years, I’ve been largely focused on designing products with two separate goals in mind, always in tension.  Relevance: ensuring that the content and features presented to the user are as productive as possible.  Delight: ensuring that the user experiences that mix of surprise, happiness, and comfort from using the product.  Jason Purtoti, former designer at Mint.com and current Designer in Residence @ Bessemer, has often advocated for designing for delight.

Heat, however, is not the same as delight.  But heat might be more important than delight for content-based applications.

Let me explain.  Heat covers a multitude of strong emotions.  Vice.  Virtue.  Delight.  Disgust.  Anger.  Thrill.

You can generate heat by showing people content they love… and also by showing them content that they hate.  When you get to the heart of why people share content, you realize that Youtube had virality long before social networks, feeds, and other forms of viral growth were around.  What they had was content that people wanted to share so much, they would cut and paste arcane text strings into emails and send them around.

Heat make many technologists uncomfortable.  First, it’s emotional and irrational.  Second, it’s typically at odds with strict definitions of relevance and utility.

But like the theme of this entire blog, people are predictably irrational.  TV Producers and writers tend to be experts in detecting heat from their audiences, and generating content to match it.  I believe that, just as Google revolutionized the automatic surfacing of relevant content, we can also automate the surfacing of content that generates heat.

This is fairly obvious in politics, as an example.  I can generate highly personalized and relevant content by showing liberal users articles from Daily Kos about health care.  But I can generate heat from that same audience by surfacing articles by Karl Rove on the same topic to those users.

Which are they more likely to click on?  Which are they most likely to share?

Which one generates the most heat?  Which one is “better” for them?

Please note, I am not advocating designing for heat as any form of solitary framework for building engaging products.  However, I have personally found in the past few months that this line of thinking helps inspire me to come up with far more interesting ideas for feature design.  It also seems to help teams that I work with get over mental blocks that lead to dry, boring, unemotional, data-driven content features.

Try it.

Find the heat.