From the Experts: Dan Kaplan Offers His Secret to User Retention

Fireside Chat with Dan Kaplan, Marketing Veteran and TechCrunch Author

When it comes to sharp insight on UX and user onboarding, there’s a legion of lowly bloggers, and then there’s Dan Kaplan. Known for helping startups craft intelligent stories, blogging about marketing and growth, and his soon-to-launch podcast about the future of humanity, Dan Kaplan is an all-star in the world of marketing. This week, we chatted with the TechCrunch veteran about his secret to user retention and how to align customers’ needs with product stickiness.

HS: A lot of your writing focuses on dissecting the user experience and the intricacies behind an app marketing strategy. What’s some actionable advice you might give to a startup to help them implement a successful marketing strategy?

DK: I like to borrow from two of the smartest minds on growth that I know, James Currier and Stan Chudnovsky of Ooga Labs; they say the most important thing you can do, which I agree with, is to understand the psychology of your retained user. So specifically, this means running surveys and carving out time to conduct 1:1 in-person interviews to learn as much as you can about your most engaged customers.

You need to understand who are the people really sticking with your product. Where did they discover your product, and where do they generally go to discover new products that they’re learning about? Because these people generally tend to be a proxy for more people like them.

When you conduct these interviews and surveys, you want to transform what you’ve learned while interacting with your most loyal customers, and turn it into a very clear, compelling story that details how your product improves the lives or the businesses of the people who use it regularly.

You want to really capture the language that people are using to describe your product, its benefits, and the features they care about most. Using the language your customers use to describe your product will attract your ideal prospects because you are leveraging a combination of qualitative and quantitative data from your existing customer base. And from there, you want to distribute this compelling story in as many places as you can, and optimize for where your target audience is most active. Wherever your customers are living, you want to go there with the story you’ve derived from understanding your retained customers.

HS: How can you use these stories to give your customers an exceptional onboarding experience?

DK: So this is a really interesting question because mobile onboarding and desktop onboarding are different. But the fundamental principles of marketing are always the same: you want to get the person to experience the initial moment of value in as few steps as possible, but no fewer. A lot of mobile apps will have screenshots: this is step 1, step 2, step 3. That’s a pretty weak onboarding experience, it just sort of gives you a sample of how the app works, but it doesn’t actually immesh you in the principle of the app. A great onboarding experience shows you how to use the app, and incorporates onboarding tutorials while you initially navigate through the product. To make it more concrete: you have figure out what the “aha moment” is for your users, and try to instrument your onboarding experience to get them to that moment as fast as possible. This is where the long-term benefits of connecting with your users in a meaningful way is realized.

HS: What about retaining these mobile users?

DK: There’s this whole sort of school of thought that has emerged in the last 2-3 years called customer success. And that’s taking the new user, and making sure they’re entrenched in your product. The mobile medium makes the marketing process a lot harder. In mobile, you don’t really have as many opportunities to keep users around long enough to provide product education the way you do on the desktop. That being said, the fundamental principles of desktop still apply to mobile: people don’t want apps, they want solutions to their problems, they want to invest in the products that tailor to their needs. Paul Graham said it very well and very simply: “build something people want.” And if you don’t do that, it’s going to fail.

If you look at the top 50 apps in the app store in terms of revenue, or even downloads, they’re primarily games and apps from companies that you’ve heard of. It’s very rare for there to be an app like Peach (a novel social network app) that broke into the top 10 when it launched. The question is, will they be able to retain 80% of the people that signed up that first week after launch when there was still initial hype. What about even 20% or 30% of those first converted users?

HS: What do you currently consider some best practices for user conversion?

DK: Conversion is fundamentally about user acquisition, which is getting people excited to try your app. It is really about, in a mobile case, getting users to the app store, getting them to download the app and try it for the first time, without abandoning. Not an easy problem, by the way, on mobile. If you don’t give people something valuable immediately, if you put up registration walls before they’re ready to register, if you ask for push notifications without context you’re going to lose them. There are so many ways to blow it in mobile.

If there’s one thing I would want you to take away from this is build something people want, and then continue to add value. Add value early and often. It’s really about doing that upfront work to understand who your customers are, what content keeps them around and then act on those insights to improve product and retain more customers.

HS: What user engagement strategy do you see being the most effective?

DK: The principle of product value-add, that I mentioned in the last question, still remains no matter what platform you’re on: if your product doesn’t deliver something that people want, consistently, reliably, and over a long period of time, it’s not a sustainable business. The best user engagement strategy is to understand the specific characteristics/properties of your retained customers and implement a strategic feedback loop to guide your product roadmap. This will ensure that your product consistently delivers more value each time they launch your app.

Proactively engaging customers with timely surveys or 1:1 interviews, ensures that you are aligning your product roadmap to customer needs. Naturally this greatly impacts whether or not your app/product is sticky. Think of it like flypaper, or gum when you get your foot stuck in it; you pull up and it pulls you back. Product stickiness is about attracting users and getting them to come back over and over again (like the flies to the paper). If you deliver a product that people want, they’ll keep coming back because they enjoy the product experience.

Want more? Check out From the Experts: Ted Schadler from Forrester Chats About The Mobile Mind Shift. VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester and co-author of”The Mobile Mind Shift”, Ted sits down with us and reveals what this shift exactly entails for the future of business.

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