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In his opening keynote this morning at the J. Boye 2009 conference, BJ Fogg presented his views on why Facebook and Twitter are the rock stars of social media, and how they got there.

Weaving in psychology and behavior models into the conversation about technology and new media, Fogg introduced the notion of persuasion being all around us and tried to help the audience understand better how exactly it works.

Love it or hate it, Facebook is the #1 persuasive technology of all time. Here's how they hook us.

Persuasion's Secret Sauce

As a Stanford researcher, Fogg knows well that while the constant of human psychology remains, the tools and technology are ever changing. What happened in the last few years is historic, he said.

Remember the times when you woke up and the first thing you did is checked your e-mail? Well, nowadays, for many of us, it’s Facebook that's our first stop. This, according to Fogg, is a new ritual.

Facebook is good at changing our behavior, triggering us, said Fogg. Whether you like Facebook or not, it’s very good at putting what he calls hot triggers in users's paths. And this ability to spur activity in a clever way is exactly why Facebook is so successful.

In contrast, what he calls cold triggers are also used to prompt action, but the difference is that they can’t perform that action right then. Fogg referred to using “cold triggers” as something that was just frustrating for us modern, clicking homo sapiens.

What changed with technology is that we are now able to deliver more and more triggers. But, thinking of the ease of use, it is important that triggers should be easy to read. If they are easy to read, people know exactly what you’re asking them to do.

Systematizing Behavior Change

When you put something in the code, you have to specify exactly what it does. Comparing behavior to programming, Fogg said that this pushed him to systematize behavior change, and make more sense out of all the academic and social noise.

While persuasion is not new and existed since the times of Adam and Eve, thinking about persuasion systematically was the lens Fogg put on today’s discussion.

One of the reasons Facebook is winning, said Fogg, is because Facebook triggers us to do things we are motivated to do, like check who tagged us in a photo and click on the link to go to that photo page. Facebook is also helping us achieve goals in terms of connecting with people.

The moral of the story is -- think clearly about what you’re doing in terms of behavior change and run many trials.

[Editor's Note: For more details on BJ Fogg's model of behavior change, see Persuasion: How to Make Your Media More Persuasive.]

Core Motivators of Behavior Change

Fogg identified three kinds of motivation in his behavior model:

  • Pleasure or Pain -- both cause an instant sensation in humans and animals, which causes motivation
  • Hope or Fear -- illustrated by all these media messages about being young and being beautiful. Humans fear rejection, he asserted, which can occur if we don’t do something.
  • Belonging  -- something the human race is longing for, because we are all social creatures.

In regards to changing human behavior, Fogg advised to go about it carefully. If you try to stoke the fires of motivation too much, it doesn’t work, or can wear off quickly. He counseled attendees to use the lightest touch possible.

Motivation Without Ability is a Flop

It’s not just about motivation. People need to be able to do what you ask them to do. Ability or simplicity (along with motivation) is a necessary component to behavior change. Facebook, for example, has a very simple way of uploading pictures.

Twitter is also easy. You don’t need extensive training to figure out how to post a 140-character message. It requires very little physical effort.

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BJ Fogg Presenting at the J Boye 2009 Conference in Aarhus, Denmark

Triggers Are a Must

It’s not enough to merely have motivation and ability. We need triggers. Otherwise, the certain behavior won’t happen. Put the hot triggers in the path of users, right in the path, where it is impossible to miss them, advised Fogg. And triggers will lead to growth.

Twitter has evolved to become a place to give you “hot triggers.” According to Fogg, Obama does a good job triggering people on Twitter.

If you trigger enough, the behavior will change. This is how you create a ritual.

Rituals Start with Habituals

The ultimate goal is to create a ritual. Differentiating between two components -- routine (something you do every day like updating your status) and reflex (action done in response to something, e.g., commenting on a photo) -- you can expand rituals into a new domain to intensify the behavior: from doing something once a day to doing that five times a day.

Facebook created that ritual for its users. Twitter has also became a ritual for many people. But keep in mind it is a lot easier to support the ritual than to create one.

The secret to creating new ritual is to start small and focused. Don’t fall into the big brain problem -- over thinking everything -- and make it too complicated. Everything big started small.