How to make habit-forming content, according to research

Binge watching doesn’t happen accidentally. New research unpacks the mechanics of repeat media consumption.

It started out with a click; how did it end up like this?

Who among us hasn’t fallen victim to a Netflix binge? The streaming platform has mastered the  watch-repeat cycle that marketers call “engagement” and researchers  refer to as “the rabbit hole effect,” or people’s tendency to keep consuming a certain type of media. 

Understanding this effect can help you be a better consumer of media and a better marketer of content. This is why we found it interesting when researchers from the Journal of Marketing Research conducted several experiments to test what leads to people going down the rabbit hole.

Setting the stage for rabbit-hole media consumption

Rabbit-hole behavior is linked with a user’s perception of “accessibility,” and when a category is more accessible, people feel immersed in it and anticipate that future options within that category will be more enjoyable,” according to the researchers who authored the study. (The effect applies whether there is a shared storyline, in the case of a TV series, or no continuity of storyline, in the case of an advice column).

The rabbit hole effect is driven by three major factors:

  1. Similarity: Content seems to belong to a shared or similar category
  2. Repetition: The frequency of the experience; availability of content
  3. Consecutiveness: Of prior media consumption (versus an interruptive experience)

To learn more about what triggers consumers to binge, researchers conducted experiments that looked at the following:

  • After viewing a video, are people more likely to dive deeper into the same category or browse for other genres?
  • While browsing social media, are people more likely to seek out more of the same,  whether it is photos of art or photos of food (arguable that these are the same)?
  • Will people be more likely to dive deep into serialized content if it’s labeled as such?
  • Are ad messages related to content being viewed as more likely to be engaged with?

The answer to all of the above is yes, with one caveat*

Here’s how this research can be applied to your content strategy:

  • Create content formats and label them. One experiment found that people were more likely to watch another educational video when it was labeled specifically as an “educational video” versus simply a “video.” Content formats that follow a similar pattern provide familiarity and increase anticipation of future enjoyment; let your audience know that more of the same is available. 
  • Show the hole is worth the dig. Frequency of exposure was more likely to encourage consumption. Show people that there’s “more” behind an episode to prompt the deep-dive experience. 
  • Don’t interrupt them. An uninterrupted stream of consumption (versus alternating content experiences) presented the likeliest conditions for someone to continue to binge. 
  • Riff on a theme. Content templates can feel restrictive, so think about your content in motifs instead. Familiarity helps set the stage for engagement, and variation keeps audiences from boredom.

*Beware of diminishing returns: Overconsumption of a given category can lead to dissatisfaction. (Our thought: Carefully consider how you meter or batch your content distribution. Balancing having enough to binge with imposed scarcity may be the winning combo).

TL;DR: Think like a Netflix series producer when planning your content strategy. You can set the stage for loyal media consumption by creating serialized, episodic content franchises that follow a structured format while allowing variation on the theme.

Want to create a content format that drives interest among your audience and value for your business? Let’s talk. It’s what we do.


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