The phrase “sticky website” feels like something of a throwback to me. I remember first hearing the phrase and debating it as a product objective when I worked in the search industry. At the time Ask Jeeves (yes, I am that old) was popular and well used but not habitually used. Search was and still is a staple benahviour for online users and a vital tool to making sense of the choices available. In this regard, a lower frequency of use search engine has a weakness to address. And so it was for Jeeves. It was a familiar and high reach product but only a habit for the few. (The search advertising industry did, however, support a very profitable business as a result).
That frequency of use metric was drummed into me early in my career in online services as result. A small increase in frequency could have a dramatic impact on the profitability of the business. Ever since, I have regarded frequency, loyalty and depth of use as critical signs of the health of a product. How often your users return (daily, weekly or monthly), how many of them come back over the period and how much they use your service (whether searches, page views, orders, applications, message or whatever per visit) are vital in assessing how useful you are to them.
We spent quite a deal of time, money and effort at Jeeves in various marketing campaigns to persuade users that the product was the equal of the competitors or, at minimum, worthy of consideration, versus them. The best of these efforts did increase reach and nudge users to gives the Butler a try. Rarely did we retain those users, however. They would try but then return to Google. The proof of the pudding being relevance, speed, accuracy and simplicity. No advertising effort could mask those experiences relative to the engineering power of Mountain View. They did not stick.
That stickiness goal is still crucial, I think and the stickiest services are those that are useful. They reward repeat and frequent use. This is one good test of the “if we build it they will come” model. That may be true (if very unlikely). Will they, though, stay around and come back soon and often enough to return that building effort.
Stickiness equates to utility more than anything else. Be wary of a primary goal to engage users. Being engaged is rarely a primary user need. I suspect that our attempts to engage users often mask the fact that there is a weak primary interest in our offer. Being useful or interesting is much more fertile ground. From that foundation, it will be much easier to be engaging, if engagement is needed at all.