How to run a good survey and get valuable insights about how people use your product

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Surveys are a powerful tool for building up a clear picture of your audience but they are often used in the wrong way. I want to show you how to avoid the common mistakes of running an in-product survey.

Have a clear idea of what you want to know going in#

I often come across people that run surveys because they want to “know more about their users”. They just ask a bunch of different questions. Before you know it, you end up with a big, bloated survey. This is terrible because nobody is going to complete a survey that long, and if they do, you just end up with a lot of data that you don’t know what to do with.

If you have a clear idea of what you want to know then you should probably just be asking one question. Answering that question should allow you to do something specific. Don’t just have a question that you want to answer out of curiosity, ask a question that lets you achieve something specific with the answer.

If you don’t have a specific question in mind, then you probably shouldn’t be running a survey. It’s not the right time to do it. Customer interviews are a much better fit for more exploratory qualitative research. On the other hand, if you already know the answer and you’re just looking for confirmation then experiments and AB testing be a better approach.

A good example of a one-question survey is to ask people is “if you decided not to try our product today, which of the following reasons stopped them?” And then provide a list of reasons, and at the bottom, I put an option for ‘Other’.

It’s a good survey question because the answer will help inform a clear and specific. The other reason a survey is a good fit here is that the reason could’ve been any number of things. It could be price, it could be that they didn’t know what the product does, maybe they just don’t know how to use it. You’re not looking for reasons, you have a pretty good understanding of why people don’t try the product, you just need help understanding which option to focus on.

Beyond getting people to identify basic segmentation data about themselves, don’t focus on who your audience is. Instead, focus on what they want to do. What tasks do they want to complete? What questions do they want to answer? What are their goals? What are their pain points? What are the objections that stop them from acting?

So, how can we encourage more people to complete a survey?

Pick your moment to ask#

You arrive on a new website for the first time and immediately a survey pops up and asks you to answer a few questions.

No thank you.

People typically come to a product with a task they want to complete. Let people complete the task they came to do and then ask them to complete a survey. At the very least give them a few moments to get settled in, maybe let them visit one or two pages first.

The best place for a survey is on exit intent. It’s at that moment when they’re about to leave the website. This might not make sense depending on the content of the survey, but you certainly shouldn’t jump people the minute they arrive.

Keep it short.#

One question is usually enough.

If you don’t have a single question, make sure you keep it short and make sure it’s focused on a single subject. The more different, random questions you throw in, the more people are likely just to give up.

If you do have more than one question then always start with the easiest one to answer. One of the first things people will ask you on a telesales survey is what your name is. The reason they ask that is that it’s so easy to answer. If you can get them to answer one question, the chance of them answering the second one goes up significantly.

Use closed Questions#

They tend to have a higher response rate than open questions. People don’t want to have to think too much when completing surveys. Offer a set of predefined options for people to select. If you’re planning lots of open questions, maybe you should be conducting interviews rather than running a survey.

Explain why you’re asking.#

Why do you want to know this information? What are you going to do with it? If you’re honest about this and you tell people they will be more likely to help you out.

Don’t ask for personal information.#

People sometimes use surveys as an opportunity to start collecting email addresses. If you want people to complete the survey, you shouldn’t be asking for stuff like that. It’s just going to put them off.

Incentives#

Incentives are one of those things I often struggle with. Offering an incentive biases the type of people that will complete it. That said, not offering an incentive also introduces bias. As I said, it’s something I struggle with.

An interesting approach you can use with incentives is to only tell them about the gift once they’ve completed the survey, rather than saying upfront that you’re going to give them a gift for completing the survey.

We’re giving people an incentive to motivate them to complete the survey. If you don’t tell them about it, how are they going to know, and therefore, how will it motivate them to complete the survey? I know this sounds back-to-front but bear with me for a moment.

By offering them a gift at the end to thank them for completing the survey, you trigger a reciprocal response because it’s an unconditional gift. They weren’t expecting it. They didn’t factor it into our decision to complete the survey.

Because it was a surprise, and a delightful one, in those kinds of situations, people sometimes feel the need to give back. What some people will often do in this situation is tell other people about it. “Oh, I just did a survey and they gave me this great gift at the end. Isn’t that nice?” Because that’s their way of saying thank you.

There is also the idea of it being a little insider trick that you can give to other people. “Oh, did you know if you complete this survey, you get this at the end of it?” So, sometimes not talking about the incentive is an effective way of getting more people to spread the news about it and encourage other people to complete it too. At the very least, it’s worth trying out.

Surveys are an invaluable tool for understanding how people use your product, but they’re often a wasted opportunity. To avoid the most common mistakes, be very clear about what you want to learn from your survey and focus exclusively on that. Secondly, pick the right moment to ask people to complete your survey. Third, explain why you’re asking, and if possible, offer some kind of incentive to encourage people to act. Most importantly, keep that survey short and focused, and easy to complete. In my opinion, when it comes to user research, often, one question is more than enough to point you in the right direction.

Avoid wasting time testing inconsequential stuff when growing a product

Artwork by Justine

Traditionally, marketing focuses on acquisition as the main growth lever. The problem is if you don’t activate new customers, they’re unlikely to retain long-term. In SaaS businesses especially, if you don’t retain customers then you’re really just replacing a customer each month. You might be able to do it effectively for a few months. But over time, it’s an unsustainable way to grow a business.

Begin with a north star

The best way to start thinking about this process is to begin with your core action, this is the thing people do that drives value for them. This is sometimes called a north star metric. The north star metric is one of the breakthroughs that came out of Facebook and now all the effective growth companies have latched onto the concept.

All that matters is that your north star metric reflects the value that is delivered to users. You’re trying to track the aggregation of customer value over time. The idea is that customer value is what drives retention and retention is what drives sustainable revenue.

A couple of examples here would be Airbnb’s north star is ‘nights booked’. So whether you’re a host or a guest, when a night gets booked, everyone is getting what they came to the platform for. The more nights booked over time, the more value is being created in the system, and that value is what drives sustainable growth.

Then find high leverage opportunities

Once you’ve narrowed in on a north start and began tracking your core action, the next step is to understand the relationships between the variables that move your north star. The only way to do this is to test what actually drives growth.

There are two different types of testing. The first is testing to discover and the second. is testing to optimize. The best way to think about this is like a game of battleship.

If you’ve never played battleships then here’s a 2-minute walkthrough of how the game works:

The point is that when if you get the coordinates wrong, you still learn something. Over time, you start to get an idea of where those opportunities are. This kind of exploratory ping is a discovery test. When you do hit upon a growth opportunity, it’s safe to assume there’s a better way to do things. The only way to find a better way is to start testing variations. These kind of tests are optimization tests.

I first heard this Battleship example in a talk by Sean Ellis. He claimed to have stolen it from Brian Balfour so I think it’s safe to steal once again because it’s such a good analogy.

The general rule here is that the more testing you do, the faster you tend to grow. If you test 10 things, the chances of finding a growth opportunity are higher than if you take one or two shots. However, that’s not an excuse to test pointless details. Tiny changes like the shade of a button are a waste of time because you could be using your limited resources to test more consequential stuff.

The way that you find leverage is that you look at the data, and study where you’re losing people. For example, if in a funnel you find that you have a 90% drop-off somewhere, running tests around how to fix that are going to be more consequential to growth than testing different colors of your sign-up button.

Then use qualitative data to brainstorm why

Quantitative data helps you narrow in on high leverage opportunities. Once you’ve found a focus the next step is to figure out what the problem is. Qualitative data is much more useful here. Dress it up however you want but fixing product problems is a guessing game. Surveys, session recordings, competitive research, industry best practices, and (my favorite) customer interviews make it an educated guessing game.

If you want to rely on intuition alone then you look at the problem and rely on common sense to figure out what the most likely cause of the problem is. A more effective approach is to get as many relevant people in the room as you can and leverage as many different viewpoints as possible. You want diversity, so rather than getting the whole product team into a room, aim for one person from sales, one from customer support, an analyst, a developer, and someone from the customer research team.

These kinds of group brainstorming sessions can fall apart easily. It’s important to make sure that everyone understands the opportunity you are focused on. This is not a general-product-feedback session.

Typically, people like to start by throwing solutions on the board. This makes it really hard to compare and prioritize different solutions. An easier approach is for everyone to come up with ideas around why the problem exists first.

Once you have a shortlist of the most likely problems then you want to come up with the simplest solution to test if the problem exists. Don’t spend 3 months building a possible solution to something that might be a problem. Spend a month building 10 simple solutions to the most likely problems. Then spend the remaining 2 months building better solutions to the problems that had a measurable impact on your north star metric.

Identify and focus on the highest leverage opportunity you have. Then run as many discovery tests as your resources allow using the best guesses you can source.

As soon as you hit a battleship, switch to optimization tests and figure out the best way to execute that solution. Measure success in terms of improvements to your north star metric. That’s why it’s so important to make sure this number corresponds to actual user value when you begin.

After a while, you’ll start hitting a ceiling on the optimizations you can make. This is when it’s time to switch focus and repeat the process with the next high leverage opportunity.

Testing takes a lot of expertise to set up properly and a lot of time to run effectively. This is why it’s important to avoid wasting time testing inconsequential stuff when growing a product. You want to focus on high leverage opportunities and systematically test your best assumptions before you narrow in on optimization tests. The more tests you run, the more you will learn, and the more likely you are to drive a successful growth outcome.

Email marketing laws

Good email practice boils down to setting clear expectations. If someone is on your list they should know exactly what they’re going to receive and why, who it’s coming from, and how often to expect it.

If you send someone an email, and they don’t know why they got it, they can hit the spam button. If they do Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo pay attention. They will listen to a user over a marketer any day of the week.

Legality and permissions aside, we’re talking about deliverability here. Just because you send an email does not mean that it will land in someone’s inbox. Deliverability is not the same as a bounce rate. If Gmail thinks your email is spam, they might just not deliver it. They don’t report back to you either, there’s no bounce back, they just don’t deliver it.

According to Jessica Best (I’ll link in her amazing course on Email Marketing at the end), in the US, what we see on average deliverability is about 85%. About 5% or 6% go to a spam folder, and the rest of it just goes missing entirely. So whether or not the following laws apply to your it is in your interest to follow them

Let’s say you’re setting up a new newsletter for your SaaS business and you fully intend to follow the law, here’s what you have to do to make sure everything is above board:

  1. You must accurately identify yourself and who the email is from.
  2. You must have a functional opt-out mechanism.
  3. You must add a physical address to your emails. The reason being that people need to be able to opt out without clicking on a link. If you get dangerous-looking spam and you don’t want to click on any links you always have the option to write a letter to opt-out of any email marketing.
  4. Your message and subject line must not be deceptive in any way. This means that the subject line must accurately reflect the content of the message. If your email is an advertisement you must disclose this clearly and it all has to be in plain language. If you promise something in the email and don’t deliver that is just fraud. For example, if you say you’ll compensate or reward people for taking some action and have no plan to follow through. There is zero grey area here, this is straight-up illegal.

These are all US rules based on the CAN-SPAM act. The last one is actually from the Federal Trade Commission. I will include links to all of these sites at the end of the post.

The US has some of the most relaxed laws when it comes to email marketing. The law is literally called CAN-SPAM. You can spam anybody you want until they tell you to stop.

In the US, the only people who can take action are inbox providers like Gmail. They take action on mass on behalf of the folks that use their service for their email. On the other hand, Canadian anti-spam legislation allows individual citizens to take action.

With CASL you must explicit permission to send an email to someone on your list. No pre-check checkboxes and no automatic opt-ins. You have to have affirmative consent to email somebody.

The kicker is that anyone in Canada can invoke CASL. Not just Canadian citizens. Anybody who’s in Canada at the time of receiving your email. If someone reads your email in Canada, technically, you are required to follow the laws of CASL.

Similarly, GDPR is for people in the European Union. Again, this is about where your readers are, not where your company is. If your company sends emails to people in Europe you are subject to GDPR law.

If you want to comply with all of these laws the trick is to explain how someone’s email is going to be used when they signup. This means everything should be clear right before someone presses the submit button where they give you their email address.

You have to use plain, concise, intelligible, transparent language that is easily accessible. No sneaky jargon and you can’t obscure important details on a hidden privacy policy page.

The scary bit for businesses is that under GDPR law an individual subscriber can request all of the data that you have on them and ask to be forgotten. This can be
tough because you don’t always know where all your consumer data is. If somebody asks to be forgotten, you must be able to comply in 30 days.

Fortunately requesting to be forgotten is not the same as unsubscribing. Unsubscribing just means they don’t want to receive marketing emails. You can still keep someone’s details on your database after they unsubscribe, provided they are marked as ‘do not mail/email/market’. In most cases, you need to keep someone’s details so that you don’t accidentally add them back to your through another channel.

The last thing I think I’ll cover in this primer is that you can’t deny people goods or services or charge them different prices, based on the profile data you collect. For example, if you live in a higher income zip code, you can’t charge people more based on the zip code data. Or if people live in other zip codes, you can’t deny a sale just because they live in lower-income zip codes.

I think I’ve now covered the most important fundamentals here. I’m still learning about this stuff so if I’ve got any of it wrong please let me know.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are all of my primary legal resources around permissions and data:

Landing page optimization

When I begin working on improving conversion for a landing page the starting point is always the value proposition.

A company called Marketing Experiments put together a heuristic for calculating the probability of conversion:

Conversion = 4 motivation + 3 value prop + 2 (incentive - friction) - 2 anxiety

The single biggest factor here is motivation. I can’t control why people want my product but you can understand it. Clearly understanding what brings someone to my products makes it easier to craft a value proposition that they can relate to. If I can craft an effective value proposition that speaks to people’s core motivation around my product then that’s more than half of the battle won.

If I were starting a restaurant I’d pick a hungry crowd over a fancy chef any day. I like to spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to figure out who my crowd is and what they are hungry for. I’m talking about researching competitors, listening for relevant conversations in related forums and communities, understanding what the customer support team already knows, conducting surveys, and most importantly, setting up customer interviews.

I’ve managed to conduct 15 customer interviews in the two months since joining Chirr App and we’ve surveyed exactly 199 people to date. If you’re one of the people I interviewed or if you filled out our survey, I am grateful for your time and feedback. I’m also now handling all of the customer support, which is basically free customer research.

This is painstakingly slow work, but it’s worth it. If you get it right it’s all downhill from here. If you get it wrong, nothing else really matters.

There are loads of ways to establish your value proposition. I like to take a volume-based approach. I list out every single problem I can think of or find a reference to, around the problem my product solves. Then whittle it down to the best ones.

By the end of it, I’ll either have a few different value propositions that I want to try out or I’m working on optimizing an established value proposition.

Either way, once I’ve narrowed in on a value proposition, the first step is always the headline. I work on figuring out the words first. Once the messaging is down for the whole page then I work on the design.

Start with the headline#

The headline is arguable the most important part of a landing page.
If someone read nothing else, would they understand what my product does?

I like to pretend the person I’m designing for has zero context. Let’s say they walk into the Apple store and this is the default page on a computer screen. I also like to assume they are not my target audience. I’m not trying to get them to buy anything. The litmus test is whether or not they understand the product clearly enough to recommend it to the right person when they’re having drinks with friends later in the day.

For example: “Our products are only made with organic ingredients which means that they are good for you and they taste delicious”

I don’t formulaically include “which means that…” in my headlines, it’s just an easy way to start thinking in the right direction.

A mistake I’ve made with headlines in the past is to try and get fancy, now I just aim to be obvious. People don’t read much online. Typically, they just want information quickly.

On the Chirr app pricing page at the moment our headline is “Save your time and nerves”.

Screenshot 2021-08-13 at 8.12.08 AM.png

This makes sense because our pricing page isn’t really a landing page. Most people who get to our pricing page have already used the product.

However, I would like to drive some ad traffic to our landing page in the future. This means we have to make sure the headline makes sense with zero pre-existing context.

The current headline does not pass the litmus test of people being to understand what it does if they read nothing else, nor could they recommend it to the right person in casual conversation.

  1. To improve things, a feature I’m going to focus on to capture the product’s purpose is that it lets you turn long blog posts into Twitter threads.
  2. Which means that you can create Twitter threads easily and quickly.
  3. In less than 10 words I’m going to go with “Make Twitter Threads
    quickly and easily.”
Screenshot 2021-08-13 at 8.13.53 AM.png

It’s not sexy, but it’s obvious. I’ll probably tweak this some more before any of these changes go live but that’s my thinking so far.

The subheadline#

If a good headline tells your audience what you do and why it makes their life better. Your subheader explains how you do it, again in 10 words or less and with zero fluff or jargon.

Feature sections#

I like to use my feature sections to handle common objections to using the product.

The idea is to communicate the core benefits of the product, explain the biggest problem our product solves, and address your main concerns and objections all in one go.

I aim for 3-5 features. The more expensive or unintuitive the product, the more objections I need to address.

A good feature description is made of three parts: a title, a description, and an image.

A title lets people decide if something is relevant#

A title describing your feature or its value in 5 words or less

I’m just trying to describe what it is so that people can decide if it’s relevant to them.

I have a group features, benefits, and objections that I want to focus on:


For the first value prop, I came up with as many headlines as I can think of


Then I try and trim the best ones down to 5 words or less

I’m going to go with ‘Preview threads as you write’ because I think that will make the most specific to anyone who has tried to create a long thread on Twitter and is then searching for a solution.

Then I repeated the same process of laying out options for the other two value props and then trimming then and picking the best one.

The description twists the knife#

If the title lets people skip over bits they don’t care about, then I’m going to assume anyone reading this description stopped here because they can relate to the value prop in the title.

Now I want to speak directly to the person (not in the third person) and go straight to their problem. If it goes on for more than 2 sentences I resort to bullet points. I try and end each line with a clear benefit.

I’m trying to point out what people are doing wrong and how I make things better. The ideal outcome is to reveal the larger implication of the issue and make them viscerally feel the pain of their problem in the headline.


Preview threads as you write
Making threads in Twitter means copy-and-pasting stuff into a notebook, counting characters to figure out where the breaks go, and moving images around as you edit 🤯 Start sharing great threads on a regular basis without all the hassle.
✨ Know exactly how many characters fit into each tweet.
✨ Easily split text into separate tweets.
✨ Add as many images, videos, and gifs as you want.


Then demonstrate the feature in action#

Your feature’s image should visualize the feature in a way that puts everything into context. Even better, use an auto-playing GIF or SVG animation.

Here is everything put together.

screencapture-localhost-3000-2021-08-14-13_19_04.png

This is all work in progress, I’ll continue to write about this as I improve our landing page, then I’ll AB test the changes and share them.

User Retention Audit

Retention is a measure of how often someone comes back and uses your app after they first sign up.

Here is a quick framework to measure and improve user retention. I’ve distilled everything I know about improving retention into 9 YES/NO questions.

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Customer discovery in the context of existing products

Customer discovery is the process of speaking to people to understand their problems so that you can uncover opportunities to improve your product.

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Writing Design

Most of what you see on a screen are words. Words make up the content, the navigation, it’s on the buttons, in the headings, it’s everywhere.

Everyone knows what the product is supposed to say. Yet, at the last minute, someone on the team is tasked with filling in the final wording. If you have ended up being that person, this article is for you.

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Getting Press

For smaller companies that don’t always have the budget for advertising or building their own content team, focusing on public relations offers the biggest bang for your buck.

Even when teams do have the resources to produce original content, PR provides a type of third-party validation that no other form of marketing can.

Advertising is only becoming more and more expensive. Native advertising and editorials do work but the savvier the customer is, the less effective they are. People are just getting better at distinguishing between an ad and a real story.

For larger teams that can produce original content scale and place advertisements, PR complements the overall marketing effort by validating your message. Whether it’s an interview or an opinion piece or a guest post on a popular blog, having other people talk about your product always hold more weight and credibility than investing in ads or promoting yourself.

What PR Is and Isn’t#

One of the biggest misconceptions is that PR is about advertising. People think you create ads and work with the media outlets. That’s advertising. PR is earned media.

Earned media is working with reporters to pitch stories so that they either write about you or interview you. That interview on TV, a PR person probably pitched that and set the whole thing up. The articles you read in newspapers are the result of PR efforts, not advertising.

Another misconception is that PR people can guarantee results. You can always guarantee that you’ll put in the work, but you can’t control when the results show up or how big they’ll be. If anyone guarantees that stuff, then you probably shouldn’t hire them as your PR person.

A good PR effort is about coming in and figuring out your messaging, understanding who your target audiences are, working out what the right messages for each audience are, and putting the two together.

There are no special rules for talking to the press and getting great stories out there. There’s no fiddling around with email subject lines or blasting lists of reporters with story ideas. PR is about developing relationships with people and creating a fair exchange of value.

Define Your Audience#

When it comes to your public messaging, your message needs to be laser-focused on a target audience. Robust messaging is always tightly focused on a specific segment. Unless you have a product like Coca-Cola where everybody is your potential audience, speaking in very broad terms is not a good sign.

Once you have figured out who your target audience is then you can work backwards and ask:

Your PR effort is about making connections and figuring out how to get placements in those areas so that you can get your messages out through those mediums and reach that audience.

Generate News#

The most important thing is to generate news. News is timely. It’s the stuff that makes more sense to talk about today than tomorrow. It’s what reporters want. Product launches, new features, product milestones, huge sales, significant deals or customers, and fundraising achievements all count.

Sometimes things will resonate, other times they don’t. When a story doesn’t get traction, you move. This happens a lot in marketing, and it certainly happens in PR. If something isn’t working and the messaging doesn’t resonate, you get to work on the next story.

Rely On Warm Introductions#

When pitching reporters, always do your research. Who are you pitching? What have they been writing about? How have they been covering it? Follow them on Twitter, comment on their stories, focus on building a relationship with them first.

Reporters want to talk to CEOs and co-founders–not PR people. As an early-stage founder, you should be building relationships with reporters and making pitches.

The best way to meet a reporter is through a warm introduction. If a reporter you want to meet has written about someone you know, have them introduce you.

In your intro, you should be able to describe your news in one sentence. Let the reporter know you’re offering them an exclusive. Always offer your story as an exclusive because your audience usually all exists in just a few outlets. The goal is a twenty-minute phone call.

When you get the reporter on the phone, be ready with three to five clear reasons why your news and company is important. At the end of your call, offer your notes and helpful collateral like screenshots, graphs, logos, pictures, etc.

Measuring The Impact#

Measuring results with PR is complicated. If I get you on TV a few times, people start to see you, they start buying your stuff and that’s good PR. But you can’t say that because you were on TV three times that translates into $100K worth of sales.

There is a correlation, but you can’t always trace it. With the trend towards digital, there are more analytics to work with. You can track mentions, you can track sentiment, you can see where people are coming from and how many people click through to your website.

However, “We got a story in the New York Times, and one in the L.A. Times,” does magic for your image even if there are no backlinks involved. It’s the quality of the mention, the quality of the article that matters, and that stuff is harder to quantify.

A front-page story might cost tens of thousands of dollars if you’re advertising but it doesn’t cost a PR agency anything. That’s not to say it’s free. It’s just that the value is in the relationships and understanding how and when to pitch stories.

The benefits of PR are hard to measure but they do exist. To see real PR results you’re better off getting one story every month versus one huge story every year. Don’t combine all of your news into one story, the idea is to spread it out over time.

After about six to twelve months of sharing real news, you should be relatively friendly with two to five reporters. In other words, they’ve written about your company enough that you’ve probably met them in person and certainly they’ll reply to most of your emails.

Growth Marketing

I got accepted to the CXL Institute’s growth marketing mini-degree scholarship program.

The program runs online and covers 112 hours of content over 12 weeks. As part of the scholarship, I had to write an essay each week.

Here is what I learned

  1. The product growth mindset
  2. Getting press
  3. Landing page optimization
  4. Email marketing laws
  5. Avoid wasting time testing inconsequential stuff when growing a product
  6. Running surveys
  7. Product messaging
  8. Marketing analytics
  9. Google f@$%*#! tag manager
  10. Customers sign up and don’t use the product

I got to week 10 and then I had to pause the program because I got busy. Unfortunately, I never resumed the project. I would like to finish it someday.

The Product Growth Mindset

The reality is, a lot of the time, most of us haven’t got a clue what we’re doing. A growth mindset lets you collectively acknowledge this elephant in the room and it lets you deal with it in a systematic way that improves your odds with the resources available.

The biggest difference between brand marketing and growth is that growth is driven by experimentation. The idea is that you constantly experiment with different ideas, programs, campaigns, features to continually eke out improvements.

The key is being able to run lots of experiments over time. You’ll probably get most of them wrong. But you only need a few to work each quarter. Moving things by 2% points each time adds up.

The lean methodology is all about coming up with hypotheses and figuring out the fastest way to test the best ones. If you’re wrong, you’re never heavily invested in something nobody wants.

With traditional brand marketing you flesh out one idea, end to end, and then put all your chips on it. If you’re right, you win big. If you’re wrong, there’s no second chance because you put all of your chips on one big campaign.

Three types of skills you need to get good at growth#

There’s expertise, analytics and strategy. Expertise just means understanding how a marketing channel works and having some experience with it.

The most important ones are SEO, email marketing, ads, content marketing or social. You can’t work in growth and not know how to do at least one of these things. Expertise is also the least important aspect of growth to focus on because it’s easy to learn.

Next is analytics. You must be able to use data to make better decisions. This one is important. You don’t have to master SQL, you can just do everything on Excel but you need to be able to extract data, gather insights, and analyse your own experiments.

Strategy is about being able to come up with good ideas and figuring out which experiments to prioritise. This one is tricky. You have to actually understand your customers and what they’re trying to do. Working with lots of different teams and stakeholders is also key here.

Generally speaking, a good way to think about this is to get really good at one of these skills in the long run, but maintain a baseline in all of them because you can’t do growth work without all three.

Defining your growth model#

A growth model is an answer to the question of how your product grows. You should be able to answer four basic questions: How do you find new users? How do you plan to keep them? How will you make money? How are you going to defend against the competition?

The most common framework for tracking how well you’re performing on each of these questions is Dave McClure’s Pirate Metrics (AARRR). At the moment, I’m focusing on one metric for traffic, one for conversion, one for weekly active usage (so weekly active listeners/drivers/reader, etc). One for retention and one for the 💰.

Every project is unique but the top-level metrics you pick are just a high-level view of your entire funnel. Each metric represents an opportunity to grow your business in a different way. First, figure out what your metrics are. Then walk through the user journey and understand what it all looks like from their perspective.

The best way that I’ve found to map the customer journey is to start at the end and work backwards. What is the ideal place you want customers to end up with your product? Define that and then work backwards, step by step to the very first point of contact.

If you have different types of users, or different end goals then map a different journey for each one. Understanding how all the pieces fit together is an important exercise to do up front but it’s also useful to revisit once a quarter. You never want to lose sight of what everything looks like from the customer’s point of view. The bigger the team, the easier it is to lose track of this.

Quarterly growth planning#

Once you’ve established your top-level metrics and you’ve mapped the customer journey then you can begin quarterly planning.

Most teams set goals on a quarterly basis. 12 weeks is long enough to do something useful but short enough that the end is always in sight.

The first step to coming up with a good 12-week growth plan is to understand the biggest areas of opportunity and the biggest pain points your customers have. It’s not about the features you build, it’s all down to the problems you solve for people.

I always start with the data. Look at your funnel, explore the data, and identify the biggest areas of opportunity. I’d argue that you shouldn’t start a growth team until you have at least a year of data. You need a baseline understanding of what’s working and what’s broken.

Where are the most people falling off your funnel? Are people visiting your website but not converting? Are lots of people converting but few come back for a second purchase?

You need to be able to identify the biggest area of opportunity so you can prioritise things that have the most impact first. Guessing is not the best way to do this.

Once you’ve narrowed in on the bit of the funnel that needs the most love, the idea is to do everything you can to really fine-tune that part of the machine for 12 weeks.

Generally speaking, the sequence for growth planning is to optimise what you have first. Squeeze every ounce out of what’s working before you reach for your next big idea. You improve a metric a little by little, 1% here, 1% there, week over week.

By the end of the quarter, you’ve significantly improved a certain experience or metric. Once you start feeling like you’re hitting a ceiling, you either
look for a radical new way to improve things, or you move onto the next metric and focus on a different area of growth.

As many ideas as possible#

Once you’ve picked an area of opportunity the next step is to get as many ideas on paper as possible. Big ideas, broad ideas, super-specific ones, silly ones, bold new ones, bat-shit-crazy ones – within the context of the problem you’re focusing on, anything goes.

Get as many different teams and perspectives in the room as practical. At the very least you want to make sure you have someone from the user research team and at least one customer success representative.

Trace the user journey together and flag any rough edges. Use best practices, research what other companies are doing as a source of inspiration, if you can speak to other people in the industry and ask them what they did for your focus problem.

Rather than thinking about increasing value for your business, think about how you can improve things for your customers. The worst way to come up with improvements is to focus on the metrics. The idea is to think about this in terms of increasing value for your customers.

People don’t care about your product, understanding and focusing on their problems is a far more effective way to improve your performance. Improve their experience and the byproduct is a bump in your metrics.

No matter how random ideas are there needs to be a rationale: “If we do x, we’ll see an improvement in y metric because of z reason.” The more rooted in data or research you’ve done the better. Structuring ideas like this sets you up to turn them into tangible experiments.

Stack ranking the best ideas#

Figuring out what to work on next is a complicated, multi-stakeholder problem that never goes away.

Look online for how to prioritise stuff and you will run into frameworks RICE, ICE and PIE. The problem with these frameworks is that everything ends up being rated a medium. The great ideas were obvious to begin with, and everything else ends up in the messy middle.

Stack ranking forces you to rank things from best to worse. You can never have two medium ideas, one idea will always get ranked better than the other.

You can also have as many dimensions as you want.

I typically start with:

Pick 3 to start with, more than 7 and you’re getting into the weeds.

What’s cool about this is that you are only ever comparing options that are in front of you. You’re not asking if something is a good idea, you just looking at whether it’s better or worse than the other options on the table.

You add all the scores up and the ones with the lowest totals are the best. So idea 3 would be the winner in the example below.

Screenshot 2021-07-29 at 11.27.37 AM.png

The system is far from perfect, but it does tell you why the best idea won. This is important in a team. If I pitch an idea that doesn’t get picked up, I want to know why. The stack shows me what dimensions it did well on and which ideas beat it in other areas. It helps me understand the tradeoffs the decision-maker had to make.

Even if a HIPPO rules out an idea, having a stack makes it easier to ask why. When the reason is a dimension that wasn’t on the board, you can add it to the board as you build up a clearer shared criteria for ranking things in your organisation over time.

Stack ranking is not a silver bullet, but it helps. The bottom line with prioritisation is finding the highest return on investment, you want to work on the ideas that have the highest impact with the least amount of effort first.

Turning them into tangible experiments#

The first step in the experimentation process is designing your experiment. A good experiment has an independent variable, a dependent variable, and it’s based on a clear assumption: “If we do x, we’ll see an improvement in y metric because of z reason.”

Let’s say we want to improve retention for a food delivery app. You see know people who order with a coupon have lower retention than average. We’re training people not to pay full price, so the rationale is they’re less likely to come back for a second full-price meal.

You set up the experiment as an A/B test. You want to start by testing the most basic version of the A/B test. Your dependant variable is the % of users who buy a second full-price meal after using a coupon. The independent variable is whether or not we send them an email.

The next step is to implement and then ship the experiment so you can measure the results. This post is about the mindset around doing this stuff so I’m going to skip over implementation.

We get the results and we see that email has no measurable impact on getting people to come back for a second meal. The experiment did not succeed but now you know that email is not the best approach with this audience.

On the other hand, let’s say 5% more people buy a second meal because of the email. Now you can test on top of this, you try and come up with a better version of the test. You start testing different value propositions in the email content.

The next hypothesis could be that talking about price is more effective than talking about convenience when it comes to ordering a second meal. You A/B test them and whichever one wins is the one you move forward with.

You keep repeating that process and stack wins on top of each other until you you hit diminishing returns. That’s it. You build, then measure, then you repeat the whole cycle with what you learn. And you keep going through experimentation cycles as quickly as possible.

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