6 Elements of a “Sticky” Pinterest Campaign

image of pinterest logo

Lots of bloggers and Pinterest experts are talking about the mechanics of creating Pinterest campaigns to connect with your ideal clients and grow your business.

But are there actual, concrete steps you can take to make sure your boards and images grab the attention of the audience you’re trying to reach?

Are there methods you can use to make your Pinterest campaigns more “sticky”?

Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, was one of the original thinkers to talk about the concept of stickiness. Gladwell’s book defined “the forces that caused social phenomenon to ‘tip,’ or make the leap from small groups to big groups.”

One of those factors was what Gladwell called “stickiness.” An idea, concept or product is considered sticky when it is remembered, repeated, and acted upon by lots of people.

Stickiness, when combined with Gladwell’s other key ingredients for tipping, is part of what causes epidemics — like the way Sesame Street took off in the 1970’s as a positive teaching tool for preschoolers, or the revival of Hush Puppies in the fashion world in the late 1990’s.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, expanded on Gladwell’s stickness concept by researching the exact formula that makes an idea sticky.

A “sticky” idea as one that people remember and act on. It also tends to get passed around, both face-to-face and via social media sites like Pinterest and Facebook. We remember a sticky idea, and we can retell the idea to other people.

And best of all, a sticky idea has the potential to permanently change our behavior.

So how can we take what Gladwell and the Heath brothers teach us, and apply it to our Pinterest marketing?

Chip Heath and Dan Heath write that sticky ideas — ones that capture the imagination of people and change the behavior of the group they are meant to influence — have the following factors in common.

The 6 elements of sticky ideas

Sticky ideas are:

  1. Simple: the idea is stripped down to its essence, its critical core
  2. Unexpected: the concept captures people’s attention (it is remarkable and unusual)
  3. Concrete: when describing an idea, you avoid abstract language and can describe it in concrete, easily-understandable terms
  4. Credible: the idea is believable; it is backed up by trustworthy examples
  5. Emotional: the idea is something that people care about
  6. Stories: the concept includes a story (or stories) that helps us understand and care about the idea behind it

Let’s look at an example of a Pinterest board that captured the attention of the people it was trying to reach, and break it down according to these stickiness principles.

Where Rush Limbaugh stepped in it

In February of 2012, Rush Limbaugh stepped into a public relations nightmare.

Limbaugh had launched an over-the-top verbal attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke (a student who was in the public spotlight after giving testimony before a committee of House Democrats on a health care issue) during his radio show.

Because the verbal attack was vicious (even for the typically outspoken and highly opinionated talk show host) and personal, there was a swift and powerful backlash against Limbaugh by American citizens. People expressed their outrage on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets about how Limbaugh had overstepped the bounds of decency.

Although Limbaugh later issued an apology, the show lost several national advertisers, as corporate sponsors starting backing away from being associated with Limbaugh’s show.

Many of these sponsors pulled their sponsorship money from Limbaugh’s show after being inundated by letters and phone calls from angry consumers who demanded that they stop giving money to the talk show host after his outrageous behavior.

What Limbaugh’s blunder has to do with Pinterest

Amid the Limbaugh controversy, the liberal political advocacy group ThinkProgress saw a potential opportunity.

ThinkProgress wanted to put additional pressure on advertisers to drop Limbaugh’s show.

This was difficult to do. Limbaugh, despite several major public relations problems in the last decade, has a reputation for taking hits in the media and continually rising from the ashes like a phoenix.

So, ThinkProgress needed to take advantage of the bad press Limbaugh was attracting because of the Sandra Fluke problem, and get more people to lean on advertisers to drop their support of Limbaugh’s show.

But in politics, it is incredibly difficult to keep people interested and engaged. The ThinkProgress team needed a mechanism to help them keep people concerned about the issue — to show the public that they were making an impact, that they were helping to turn the tide. They needed a way to show people that the movement to unseat Limbaugh was gaining momentum in a powerful way.

They needed to encourage people to keep writing letters, making phone calls and putting pressure on the corporations and businesses that still remained loyal to Limbaugh.

ThinkProgress needed a sticky idea.

So they created a Pinterest board of advertisers who had cut ties with Rush’s program, which allowed them to draw attention to the number of sponsors who were simultaneously bailing on Rush, adding to the board as more companies pulled their sponsorship.

Each pin was an image of the corporate logo of that company, with a description that included quotes from the business (when possible.) Seeing row after row of familiar corporate logos in this context packed a strong emotional punch, and was a powerful message to the folks writing letters and calling companies that what they were doing was indeed making a difference. People fighting for this goal could see their progress continuing every day, as more and more names were added to the Pinterest board.

About a week after this ThinkProgress board was created, I received a link to it (via social media and email) from five separate friends and family members. People were sharing and talking about ThinkProgress’s idea, and the fact that it was a clever and inventive use of Pinterest.

They were talking about the momentum that the movement to affect Limbaugh’s advertising revenue was gaining. More and more people continued to write letters and make phone calls.

The board now lists over 140 companies who no longer sponsor Limbaugh, and it has over 1200 followers. It has been shared on Facebook over a thousand times.

In the meantime, the boycott of Limbaugh’s radio show has cost radio companies millions of dollars. A representative from Cumulus (one of the country’s biggest radio companies) said the losses from Limbaugh’s advertising base accounted for one percent of the 3.5 percent loss in revenue that their company suffered over the first two quarters of 2012. It is speculated that larger radio companies were hit even harder.

So what is so special about ThinkProgress’s pinboard, which played in a hand in keeping the pressure on these corporate sponsors? What captured the attention of this board’s audience, and caused it to go viral on social media sites?

Applying the stickiness principles to Pinterest

Regardless of where you stand politically, or how you feel about Limbaugh, what are the lessons we can glean from this clever use of Pinterest?

The board — and the idea behind it — are sticky. We understand it, remember it and can retell it later to someone else. And the idea behind the board has the potential to permanently alter our behavior.

How many of the six sticky principles (Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotion and Storytelling) does the ThinkProgress board have?

1. Simple

The concept of the board is a simple one to describe … “Here are the sponsors that no longer advertise on Rush Limbaugh’s show.”

The idea is stripped down to its core, and you don’t need three paragraphs to explain it to someone.

2. Unexpected

Most Americans were likely aware that Limbaugh had dug himself into a pretty big hole. They knew that advertisers were yanking their funding for the talk show’s program.

But prior to the creation of this board, there were very few (if any) tally boards where people could take a quick glance and be able to see all the sponsors who were no longer advertising with Limbaugh.

This approach is also unexpected because of the newness and novelty of Pinterest — people were (and are) still getting used to the new tool, and it was really unexpected for a nonprofit or cause to use the board to further a political goal.

It was a remarkable idea (meaning people were more likely to remark on it and pass it on to their friends and family via social media), which contributed to its stickiness.

3. Concrete

This board from ThinkProgress doesn’t include corporate speak or hard-to-understand ideas.

Followers who look at this board could easily describe its purpose to a friend after seeing it.

Concreteness helps people learn, remember and take action. The more concrete the idea is, the better people are able to articulate it and take action on it.

4. Credible

Examples create credibility, and get people to believe an idea. The sheer number of companies who have bailed on Rush’s show clearly indicate the momentum that liberal advocacy groups had gained on this issue. Credibility is illustrated by seeing row after row of corporate sponsors.

5. Emotional

When an idea is emotional, it is sticky because it makes people care about the idea.

On the most basic level, if we as human beings hear a story or an idea and there’s no emotional hook — no reason for us to care about that story enough to retell it or act upon it — than the idea doesn’t have stickiness, and it will probably die on the vine.

There are a variety of ways that the ThinkProgress folks used to introduce emotion into their Pinterest board. This particular campaign actually has two intended audiences — they are trying to target individual members of the public, to continue to get them to write letters and make phone calls. And they are also targeting the corporations who still support Limbaugh.

On the ThinkProgress board, the organization rewarded the companies that pulled their corporate funds from Limbaugh.

They gave them positive feedback and press via this board and sent an inherent message — “responsible companies don’t support Rush Limbaugh.” Good corporations are careful and responsible about how they spend their advertising dollars. Bad corporations are not.

This emotional appeal has the potential to really make companies care about the idea. The stakes seem high — did you want your company to be associated with the “good” list, or the “bad” one?

This board worked on the emotions of individuals in a similar way.

The message was, “When you are deciding how to spend your consumer dollars, which kinds of companies do you want to support? The ones who banded together with 120 other companies to yank their advertising dollars when a talk show host with a reputation for shocking their audience went way too far? Or, the tiny minority who ignores an avalanche of letters and phone calls and decides to keep sponsoring Limbaugh despite a growing army of upset customers?”

That’s powerful stuff. Emotional stuff.

6. Story

ThinkProgress is also telling a story with their board — they are letting people know how Limbaugh has steadily lost his supporters as company after company pulled their sponsorship dollars.

They also give individual details on some of the pins, giving quotes from their companies from when they announced they were bailing.

At first, this example might seem counterintuitive. As a marketer, you want to make money and sell more products and services. And the ThinkProgress case study is an example of an advocacy group who actually cost companies money. 

But ThinkProgress was selling an idea — that Rush Limbaugh had crossed the line. And they were very effective at selling that idea to people through the use of this Pinterest board.

That’s what great companies (large or small) do, too — they sell an idea that paves the way to selling their product or service.

So how can you use the lessons of this successfully sticky Pinterest campaign to make your boards and pins stickier?

How you can create stickier Pinterest campaigns

Get more information. For more information on making your pins and boards sticky, I urge you to read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s fantastic analysis of stickiness. The book is filled with stories and case studies that will cement your stickiness expertise.

Think about your goals before you start. What do you want people to do when they see your board and connect with you via Pinterest? Do you want users to buy your product? Donate money? Call their Congressional Representative? When you know your goal before you start to brainstorm ideas, it is far easier to create a sticky concept that taps into the ways people act.

Try to pick two or three stickiness factors. In most cases it’s incredibly hard to create a sticky idea that includes all six qualities from Made to Stick. Pick two or three that seem to go well with the idea you’re trying to convey, and go from there.

Experiment and see what works. Despite your best efforts, you can never be absolutely sure what is going to stick and what’s not. So track your efforts using all the tools available to you. When an idea takes off and a board or pin goes viral, analyze it and try to figure out why it stuck by matching it to Made to Stick’s stickiness principles.

Put these principles into action on a regular basis, and you’ll notice a difference in your ability to influence behavior with Pinterest — whether the behavior you’re trying to influence is getting people to buy more products, change their behavior, or contribute more money to your nonprofit.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath say, “That’s the great thing about the world of ideas — any of us, with the right insight and the right message, can make an idea stick.”

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Reader Comments (42)

  1. says

    Sometimes in our attempts to be “outside of the box” and different we forget that there is nothing wrong with simple. Different doesn’t mean complicated. The best ideas don’t require a ton of explanation or support–they stand on their own two feet.

    • says

      Agreed, Nick – the simplicity stickiness characteristic is one of my favorites. And one that I think is most often forgotten!

  2. says

    Great analogy and the way you put it referring Limbaugh’s show.

    Pinterest can be used to produce great results and if there is an idea like in this article, then go for it and see if it takes off.

  3. says

    Good reminder about sticky ideas! You don’t have to bang your head against the wall. Just keep your finger on the pulse of what folks are tuning into and you’ll have a couple of sticky ideas in no time.


    I haven’t dabbled in Pinterest mainly because I don’t many people who use it, and I know you have to be invited to use the site. This is an interesting concept about Pinterest. Of course, you could request an invite. But I haven’t done this because I’m a freelance writer and I’m still unsure if Pinterest could work for me.

  4. says

    Excellent example of using the “Sticky Six” Beth.

    Like you say, it’s not always possible to check all six when applying them to a promo or copy assignment. But it really pays off if you can nail two or three.

    It’s a useful process to try and implement them at the planning stages of any project that needs to ‘stick’…

    Especially to close the gap between what *you* think should be included and what the reader needs to understand your point.

  5. says

    Extremely informative and useful post. I always appreciate a case study.

    It seems like simple ideas can often come from thinking about what would be useful to yourself. “I wonder just how many advertisers *have* dumped Limbaugh?” Instead of making a list on a notepad, use a public venue like Pinterest where everyone can benefit from it!

    • says

      Hi Kirsten – yeah, that is one of the reasons I liked this board. ThinkProgress also created a follow-up board that includes all the companies that are still advertising with Rush! Interesting to see all the businesses in one place like that.

  6. dave c says

    While I appreciate the concepta offered, I’m not amused by your example. Rush aside, thinkprogress was using these methods in an attempt to destroy an.individual they disagree with politically by coercing others not.to.do.business with him. And try to remember that Ms Fluke, a student at a $40,000 a.year law.school was whining before congress about how taxpayers should pay for hee $10 a month birth control pill. She was a useful shill, nothing more.

    • says

      Hi Dave – thanks for your comment. Rush crossed a line, and the market responded. Organized consumer boycotts are a simple, effective way for ordinary citizens to share their values with advertisers.

      The Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke debate is not about contraception. Health care is a human right and no one has the right to come between a doctor and his or her patient — not the government, not the Catholic Church, not Rush Limbaugh.

  7. Suzy says

    Rush makes $64 million a year from his radio show. The controversy helped boost his ratings and made him a hero of the right again. While a hundred or so advertisers asked not to run spots during his show the first few weeks, most have now come back. The national advertisers (who put money directly into his pocket) have also been replaced with new ones. So how exactly was it a PR nightmare?

    • says

      Hi Suzy, thanks for your comment. I do not believe the data supports your assertions. Cumulus Radio, for instance, lost millions in the first half of this year. A rep from Cumulus said that the losses from the Limbaugh’s advertisers bailing out accounted for nearly a third of their loss in revenue in the first and second quarters. And Cumulus is just a small fish in the radio industry pond — larger radio companies apparently lost much more. See for example:
      “Rush Limbaugh Ad Boycott Cost Cumulus Radio ‘Millions,’ CEO Says”

  8. says

    Hi Beth, thanks for a great post. I have sent the link to your online course to a colleague. We really need to understand Pinterest for Business a bit more..

  9. says

    This post is a great addendum to your book PINFLUENCE: The Complete Guide to Marketing Your Business with Pinterest, which I’m devouring! Like Amandah who commented above, I was dubious whether Pinterest would be helpful to me as a writer, but your book and posts like this prove unequivocably YES!

    • says

      Hi Benji – I think Pinterest is totally worth it, because it’s sending a lot more referral traffic to my website than Twitter, YouTube, etc. I’m encouraging my clients to look at Pinterest as an important part of their overall social media strategy. It might be worth it to try it out and see how much traffic it sends to your website – it was a nice surprise for me, when I started using it!

    • says

      I don’t think Pinterest is just for retail or product-based businesses. I’ve seen B2B companies, service providers, nonprofits, and lots of other kinds of companies doing really cool things on Pinterest. I would just think about the kinds of things that would appeal to your target audience, and start pinning that kind of content.

  10. says

    Beth, when I read your definition of stickiness, I was immediately reminded of viral Internet memes. I think what makes them so ‘sticky’ is their ability to tap into a common human experience or feeling that is so simple, so banal, that most people never mention it – but when someone does put it into words, we experience collective comedic relief in discovering our shared humanity. What do you think: is there a connection between stickiness and memes?

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