Product is the new marketing: chatting with the chief product officer of CleverTap

product is the new marketing clevertap

Retention is simple. But simple … doesn’t mean easy.

In this episode of Retention Masterclass we chat with Vishal Anand, the CPO of CleverTap. Marketers spend a lot of time focused on how to retain users: what to do, when. How to onboard. What to show first. How to train. What messages to send.

But sometimes, we forget the simplest things.

It’s all about the product! It’s all about the user experience … the customer experience. I mean, technique matters and technology matters, but if you don’t have a good product … TikTok isn’t addictive because they have a better tech stack than you. Facebook doesn’t have a billion users because they send smarter push notifications. (Big hint, they don’t!) Clash of Clans isn’t STILL the top-grossing app because they onboard correctly.

Note: Peggy Anne Salz had technical issues, so this episode is just with yours truly … John Koetsier.

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).

John Koetsier: Retention is simple. But simple … doesn’t mean easy. Hello and welcome to Retention Masterclass. My name is John Koetsier. And usually Peggy Anne Salz is with us, but she’s having technical difficulties, so this is Retention Masterclass with just John Koetsier for today.

So, marketers spend a lot of time, a ton of time, focused on how to retain users, what to do when, how to onboard them, what to show first, how to train them on how to use their app, what messages to send, push messaging, that sort of thing. But sometimes we forget the simplest thing. It’s all about the product! It’s about the user experience. It’s about the customer experience.

Obviously technique matters, technology matters.

But if you don’t have a product, if you don’t have a great product, you’ve got an issue, right? TikTok isn’t addictive because they’ve got a better tech stack, a growth marketing stack than you do. Facebook doesn’t have billions of users because they send smarter push notifications. Big hint, they don’t send very smart ones. Clash of Clans isn’t still the top-grossing app on the App Store because they onboard correctly. 

So we’re going to chat with a product expert. In fact, a chief product officer. Here’s the funny thing …  he’s a chief product officer at a technology company that offers engagement and retention solutions. So you’d expect that he’d be saying, hey, it’s all about the technology.

And guess what, it is, and we’ll get into some of that too. But, his name is Vishal and he is a CPO at CleverTap. Vishal Anand, welcome to the show! 

Vishal Anand: Thank you, John. Thank you again. We miss Peggy of course. 

John Koetsier: We do miss Peggy! So you’re at CleverTap. 8,000 apps use CleverTap to connect with their users, boost engagement. Disney’s among them, Sony, Fandango, Cleartrip. And obviously you’ve got a tech stack that is built to engage with users, understand your mobile users, work with them, message them, those sorts of things.

But you say that retention is fueled by product … by user experience of a product. Let’s start there. What defines a good app experience? 

Vishal Anand: That’s great. And speaking as a product guy too, yes, even though we sell solutions for engagement and retention and analytics, it’s good to talk about product for a change too. So, it’s a great question.

So a good experience is one that satisfies the end users’ needs quickly and effectively. And, it may be a complicated app, it may be an app doing one thing and one thing really well. But it always, always starts with a great user interface.

If you’re talking about mobile apps, it’s important that they are compatible to the device that you’re sort of consuming it on. You can’t have an Android layout on an iOS device — you’ve seen some of that too — but that sort of doesn’t work. You need a really fast loading time of course. It’s amazing how quickly people have adapted and started expecting fast snappy apps. More often than not, they will offer some sort of personalized experience based on, you know, having learned from what you do. You hear all the stories of why TikTok is so popular. And in some cases, it will also involve a great support ecosystem in terms of, you know, helpful customer support. All of these together provide a great app experience. 

John Koetsier: So, I think one of the reasons that sometimes apps miss out on a great app experience is because there’s a tension, right? There’s a tension between what a user, what a person wants to do with the app, why they download the app, why they installed it, and why they’re opening it. And there’s, guess what? The app publishers need to make some money. They need to generate engagement. They need to, maybe they’re showing ads, maybe there’s in-app purchases or something like that, but they’re not just building the app for fun, in most cases, they need to make money.

So is that tension between what the user wants and what the publishers need … how do we resolve that? 

Vishal Anand: Yeah. So ideally, you know, what the product is trying to solve, it is trying to solve a user problem. You know, you may have an idea of what you may want as certain behavior from them, but going in you both should have similar expectations for the kind of problem that you’re trying to solve. And, you know, a camera app should solve, ability to take pictures, for example. You may want to do other things, just as an example, but now the question becomes, you know, when you as a product owner, when you’re going in, you need to have some sort of expectation from the user that this is what I want the user to do, that this is like I want them to take pictures, or I want them to post pictures, and the app should try to meet that promise.

So, going in, you should, as product owners, you need to validate some theories by testing.

And post going live, you need to have a strong analytics platform where you can start to measure behavior for a segment or a cohort of users for what they do. Where do they spend time? How long do they spend time? Where do they struggle? Where are the drop offs?

With some of these data points, then you should be in a position where you can fix that, in case there was an expectation mismatch. But both going in, you should know what you want and sort of when it goes live you should validate your theories whether the product is meeting its promise. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. So you’re essentially talking about a customer journey or at least a customer experience flow, right? And you’re trying to make that optimal. There’s going to be some testing there.

You’ve also talked about using an MVP approach, right, a minimum viable product approach. Can you talk about that a little bit? 

Vishal Anand: Correct, correct, correct. So, and in this day and age especially, right, there’s no need to boil the ocean. Like you can get a lot of valuable insights with a nicely targeted group of users where you can test your theories before even you go live or go wide with it … for both consumer and enterprise products. It’s through your network, through sort of panels, through paying people on Craigslist, you can get a lot of live user feedback that you should use before going live.

The barrier to achieve that is right now so low that it’s kind of foolish to go in the market without having that insight. So an MVP approach I strongly recommend, yes.  

John Koetsier: It’s funny, sometimes the barrier is more mental than technology, or ways of doing it, right? You want to get out what you’ve got there and you’ve got a product vision. But experimentation is really, really critical obviously.

You need to experiment — what works, what doesn’t work, where should you start?

Vishal Anand: Yeah. And it’s funny, like, you know, you talk to a lot, I’m sure you talk to a lot of people who are similar to me, and I have my own biases and we’ve been doing this for so long.

A lot of these things seem obvious to you, but more often than not, you find that people don’t sort of do the basics, like, the definition of what are you trying to solve is …  and it could be multiple problems.

It could be, you know, starting from the beginning, like when you’re trying to acquire a new user from the App Store. You see that the app icon or the app description or the app images don’t sort of entice. They don’t provide the value that the user can get out of it, or don’t tell enough about the product that the user should download the app. So, starting there, you should experiment there, that does this icon work better? Or does this description work better than the other?

And you can sort of go down the user journey. You can, you know, how do you sort of, if the app is to take a picture or upload a photo, how many steps are they taking to achieve this? How do you get them to invite more users? Things like this are problem statements that you’re trying to solve, and once you have defined that problem statement then you can sort of use to experiment. You can apply some experimentation framework to test your theories out. 

John Koetsier: That makes sense. What kind of features and approaches have you seen boosting retention? 

Vishal Anand: Yeah. So, since this is a product talk, so it’s, the answer is kind of similar to what defines a good app experience. It’s, you need a great user interface. You need very fast loading times. You need personalized experiences. You need great support. All these things all come together.

But let me start with simpler things, right? Like for defining great user experience, both Android and iOS are defined very solid guidelines for their design standards.

And there are very few apps that can define a new interaction model. A good combination of these universally designed apps train the user to achieve results faster, and you should take advantage of it. A lot of products don’t do that. They try to reinvent the wheel or they’ll have a unique interaction pattern which takes a while to sort of get used to. Even in user interface, like, you know, people use color combinations that don’t work or call-to-action buttons that don’t tell you what will happen next.

All of these things have defined a great user. These are small little things, but they all come together in the finding. In terms of sort of fast loading times, you know, even in my sort of professional career, it’s been interesting to see this percentage grow, where the amount of time that people take to drop off, it used to be like 5, 6 seconds that they would give for pages to load.

Now if the page doesn’t load or even for mobile, like more than 50% of mobile’s websites are abandoned if it doesn’t load in 3 seconds. I’ve now heard that’s 40% in 2 seconds. That’s really a small amount of time. So you have to make your product very snappy. Even if the data might not come in, but it should give a perception of speed. You know, you can do things in the experience for that. And for retention for mobile apps, like you know, you sort of touched about the whole push notification thing too. The amount of notifications that you send matters. Like, what time does it show up? It matters.

So, you should keep track of how many notifications are being sent to this user, or are you delivering it in the right time zone. These are, again, small little things that help retain the user. Lack of personalized product experiences, and so, personalized experiences happen both when the user’s on the product and when the user’s not on the product. So, to give you, to sort of elaborate, when user’s on the product that you understand that the content that they’re seeing is personalized based on their preferences, or the layout, or the color, or whatever — that’s when you’re inside the app.

But when you’re outside the app, the notifications that come to you, they should be personalized, otherwise it seems generic.

And then, you know, both of these impact retention strongly or lack of which affect, it will affect how they will get retained. And so in this day and age, the bar is getting higher and higher. A mobile user has been trained on very high class product experiences and expects the same even from a small app. If your product doesn’t deliver on it, they’ll leave quickly. You have this data that, you know, people drop off very quickly.

John Koetsier: I love what you talked about, about the standard user interfaces and non-standard user interfaces ’cause that’s always — not always, but that’s often an interesting question for a designer, product designer, product manager, right? If it’s a known sort of user interaction methodology, people know what to do the first time they’re in their app. That’s a great thing.

And yet there’s always a temptation … our app is a little different, or what we do is a little different, or our brand identity is a little different, and we’re going to reflect that in the user interface. And sometimes that can really, really work. Right? And sometimes that’s amazing. But you do run that risk… 

Vishal Anand: Yeah.

John Koetsier: …in that first usage of somebody just getting confused, and guess what? Nobody likes to be confused, everybody hates the feeling of being confused, and dropping off. 

Vishal Anand: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

John Koetsier: So we talked about product and we’ve said that product is critical and product experience, user experience, customer experience. But obviously there’s some techniques that matter too, right? You know, given that most people who download a mobile app never touch it again after two, three days, right.

You see the D3 retention curve and it’s just down, right? What’s really critical to get right on that first use, that first open, somebody just installed your app, just downloaded it, they open it the first time …  what’s absolutely critical to do at that point?

Vishal Anand: So, it’s during onboarding, right. So for something like this, it’s important for you to sort of map out user journeys even before sort of, you know, before you launch the product. And you need to communicate the value proposition.

So how quickly can you deliver value before you capture the value from this user? You need to always balance that out.

And at the time of onboarding, which is sort of right after first use, how do you sort of reduce friction? That’s the goal, and a great value proposition through and through. So from the time they see the description of the app to what gets promised when they download the app, needs to come through. A great value proposition, but where sort of signup process can reduce, can sort of kill the process too. So, you know, sign up too long, complicated … all of these things all come into play.

During onboarding we’ve seen that guided tours help, but in some cases there are advanced users who [are] used to it, they want to quickly get to action, they don’t like that. So there are a bunch of things that come into play to improve your onboarding, yeah. 

John Koetsier: So when you’re architecting that customer journey through your product, what are the critical points? What are the critical building blocks that you need? 

Vishal Anand: All right. So, I would say the first of all is, you know, experience. The experience is not just user experience, but all your touch points from design, to UX copy, to actually like what’s written in the label or the button, what does it say, to the email that goes out to the user, to the push notification that shows up on their device. They all make an experience for the user.

So, essentially that’s the first that you don’t play around with. And then once you’ve sort of, you know, we have a pretty looking app, then you should measure so that you can improve. So you should measure from what channels of how the behavior is, what channels of acquisition behaves, how user consumes your product, to how much time does it take for them [to] load, to look at, you know, device anomalies. You see that a lot with Android apps, that because there are so many variations of OSs that are still in the market and different screen sizes and all, you will sometimes get different behavior.

You may have to redesign your screen because, you know, your majority of the user base is coming from three inch devices. It’s only when you measure it can you then fix it. So, once you have these two, then you need an experimentation framework.

So with these three building blocks that you can sort of measure experiment tweak, measure experiment tweak, and keep getting better and better. 

John Koetsier: It’s really interesting because of course if you’re a major company, maybe you’ve been doing this a long time and you’re adding a new app, you’re a big app publisher … you’ve got people. You’ve got roles. 

Vishal Anand: Yeah.

John Koetsier: You’ve got, there’s a lot to do. There’s a lot to focus on here. If you’re a kind of a startup, and you’re two people, three people in a basement, in a garage somewhere, or all in your own individual homes as we are right now, this is hard. This is not easy. There’s a lot of things to think about. 

Vishal Anand: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. 

John Koetsier: So, let’s talk about some features and approaches. Are there some specific product features that you feel boost retention, maybe some different examples in different verticals? 

Vishal Anand: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You know, and I call them sort of “little big things.” They are small little things, but they are big for the user, and these things, these are features that show empathy. This is features, this is product copy … these small little things which are, which turn out to be big for the user.

And it sort of shows that you’re thinking on behalf of the user, that you’re making their life easier, that, you know, the products sort of cares. There’s so many examples. I’m sure you have some like in your daily use, for example, like I’ll use two of my highest used daily … Slack and Gmail, for example.

So Slack does this cool feature that if I’m on a channel a lot, if I’m typing somebody and I get distracted and I go somewhere, the icon of the Slack channel, the hash changes to a pencil that reminds me that I was writing something there and maybe I need to either finish it or delete it. Or like, as you become a power user in Gmail and you’re constantly sending emails there’s this feature that in the body of the email, if you say, ‘plus’ it suddenly drops down a list of names from the address book that you can then, you know, when you say ‘add that’ it automatically adds it to the “to” line.

These are small things that save me so much time every day, just because I’m, you know, constantly on it.

And again, it depends, like the answer again is it depends on what product you’re building. But these are like a lot of these small little things that people appreciate a lot more than you realize, than what even what your core product might be offering.

John Koetsier: One of the things I really appreciate in Gmail is predictive text. And quite often, I mean, because I get a ton of emails, I get a ton of pitches, obviously for my Forbes column, and I have to respond to a lot of them and I don’t have a ton of time. So there’s predictive text and I can often like tab tab tab through.

Vishal Anand: I do the same thing, yeah. Exactly. For a lot, and it saves me so much time. I’m surprised how effective it’s become now. Yeah. 

John Koetsier: It might make me much more boring to receive email from, I’m not sure. It’s very standard and I don’t know. Hopefully in time that’ll become customized to what I want to say, versus what everyone wants to say. But we’ll see how that goes.

Vishal Anand: And it’s one of the reasons why I still stick to their web interface in spite of having, you know, I’ve tried so many sort of desktop apps just to make the workflow better, but then I go back to web just because there are all these small little things that help. 

John Koetsier: Yes, exactly. Okay, cool. So we’ve got this app. We’ve launched it. We’ve been smart. We’ve had 15 different people or at least we’ve worn 15 different hats to get different aspects of the product experience and the journey and the, even the App Store or Google Play experience right, and all that stuff.

And somebody’s opened it for the first time, we’ve treated them right. It’s really great, everything’s going well. But guess what, retention is still dropping off of a cliff, right. How do we fix that? How do we work on that? 

Vishal Anand: Yeah. So there are many things that lead to sort of retention dropping off or churn. It could be badly designed product or poor support or, you know, the product might require training.

So first — first things first, you need to start measuring and look for signals that alert you before it happens.

So for example, if you measure frequency of users logging in, which you should, any drop in daily VT averages should raise alarm. A drop in NPS scores should raise alarm. Increase in number of support tickets should raise alarms. They’re all signs that tell you that something’s going on in the system. And once you have the data, then you have to sort of look at the user journey and try to remove hurdles as much as possible, and again, to provide value sooner. That’s what you’re trying to do.

As product companies, you know, we all have limited bandwidth, so focus on improving features that really matter once that they’re a part of users daily flow, it may be, like going back to [the] same example, it may be how you share a photo and how do you make it as quick as possible.

You know, there was this story that Instagram when they had initially launched, as soon as you’d take — the perception is speed thing, right — so what they would do is as soon as you would take a picture, they would start the process of uploading before you could even, you had actually chosen to upload and they’d discard the file rather than, if the user didn’t want to use it.

So it’s a great example of how they thought this through. The user sort of needs to get value out of your product, you know, as fast as possible. So you have to think of these things. And of course, experience matters. The product experience matters. Features that it offers matters … speed of the product, cost of the product. All of these things sort of play a role that lead to a user churning out on sort of, you know, on the other side to view. We do see some products are now trying to game-ify to increase customer satisfaction. It’s a great thing.

You know, it may be access to limited features like, you know, but I don’t know if you’re a Snapchat user too, but there are certain filters that come out that are specific to loyal users. They see that filter and some don’t. And some SaaS companies will give pre-release features to their loyal customers or extra storage. All of these things come into play to sort of reduce the churn. 

John Koetsier: I get about three Snapchat messages a year, and they’re all from Team Snapchat. So I’m super popular on Snapchat. It’s unbelievable. I mean, even the company messages… [laughter] 

Vishal Anand: Yeah. I had only one friend on Facebook. That was not exactly … but I don’t know, it’s been a while. I haven’t heard that before, but previously, when you’d become a member of Facebook, he’d be the first friend that you’d have. I remember that.

John Koetsier: Oh, you remember MySpace actually, right? Tom … MySpace Tom. When you became a member of MySpace you automatically had one friend, I think it was Tom Anderson, co-founder, or something like that? 

Vishal Anand: That’s correct, yeah.

John Koetsier:  Probably somewhere around there still. I don’t know if he has as many friends as he used to. 

Vishal Anand: Yeah, he’s a great photographer from what I remember. He was traveling a lot and taking a lot of pictures. I don’t know what happened to that though. 

John Koetsier: Nice. 

Vishal Anand: Yeah.

John Koetsier: Nice, nice. Maybe retired. I don’t know. Hopefully got a few dollars from the eventual sale of MySpace or something.

So … we’re measuring a lot of stuff. Do you have some frameworks that we should be looking at? I mean, because you know, if you just have an app, you don’t have analytics, you’ve got too much data. You can have logs and all that stuff. How do you measure this stuff at scale? 

Vishal Anand: Yeah, no. So it’s a good idea to have a framework here. Like there are a lot of frameworks that already exist that are popular. We at CleverTap created one with Phiture called AIC, which is Acknowledgement-Interest-Conversion.

So essentially, if you’re mapping a user life cycle journey, you’re mapping a user in these three stages. That they’ve acknowledged that your app exists, it could be app launch. They’ve shown interest that they are now consuming a newsfeed. And conversion, which may mean that they either like the post or, you know, created a post too. So, depending on what your business, you can have different sort of stages defined and it’s this what you experiment.

There are others as well. Like there’s another popular one, which is AARRR which sort of maps Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral, and Revenue.

So, depending on like, as a product owner or marketer, you need to measure the product usage across these stages and then use this data to make the product better. So rely on these frameworks that are more — Google has HEART as well.

So some small plug here, like at CleverTap we have this feature called Lifecycle Optimizer which lets you sort of track your user’s journey across these stages and provides you a framework to experiment. So, you know, what you’re trying to do is move the user across these different stages of the life cycle. But you need to experiment, see what works, and if it works then roll it out to all users. So, what campaigns, what screen experiences, what can you do that lead the user from one stage to the next.

John Koetsier: So let’s say you’re using one of those frameworks and maybe you’re using a tool. It might be CleverTap or whatever else. And so you’re able to see at scale what your users are doing, what they’re working on, and you can start seeing all this stuff in the data. 

What should you look for, what you should be tracking? How do you know when you’re winning or losing? And what do you do about that? 

Vishal Anand: Correct, correct. Right. So, great.

So, what you’re looking for is conversion metrics. It’s important like to know if you’re winning or losing.

You’d need to look at, you know, broadly conversion metrics. So the conversion metrics are, for example, how does a new visitor convert? And convert could very well, it depends on the business that you’re in, the conversion could be doing the first search, for example, or watching a video. So what’s the behavior for a new user and repeat user? So you should track both of those.

You should track interactions per visit. So, an interaction, again, depends on the product that you have. It could very well be videos that you viewed or purchases that you did per visit. What’s the value per visit, eventually leading to a lifetime value of the user. So, how much money do they help create for you essentially?

And then once you see this growing, then you need to compare the lifetime value of the user to cost to acquire this user, to see if there is a semblance of a business there or you’re just losing money.

So, and that sort of in the end, you know, that’s how you’re defining winning for most apps that you’re trying to make money here. So it’s important to measure these conversion metrics and then compare it to the cost to acquire this user, to see if there is a business being made here. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Interesting. Very interesting. So we’re still in COVID-19 coronavirus times. We talked earlier before the show that you’re in your home office, everybody’s in their home offices. I’m in my home office, but that’s normal for me.

But what have you seen in terms of the impact for COVID-19? Have you seen more retention, have you seen less, does it depend on the vertical? Are you seeing more rapid like install, download, testing, trials and abandonment? What’s going on in the data? 

Vishal Anand: Yeah. So, a few things are kind of, you know, you naturally think that behavior. So we’re seeing jumps in apps for content and media. We’re seeing jumps in apps of like app launches for education, for entertainment, for health and fitness, for gaming and a little bit in online shopping as well. We saw a big jump in grocery delivery apps globally.

We have a global footprint, so almost like, you know, 175% jump in app launches for grocery delivery.

We saw a definite drop in travel. We saw a drop in event ticketing. Ride hailing suffered a lot. Food delivery, we saw a big dip initially and now it started to pick back up. Even in my behavior I’m seeing that. So, yeah, some obvious things that you can also guess would happen, that’s what we’re seeing that as well. But the publishers that are on our ecosystem they’re active, they’re sort of innovating, they’re releasing new features, and they’re seeing uptick accordingly for it. Product development, you know, is on. It’s going on. It’s good. It’s good to see that momentum actually, to be very honest, yeah. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Well, I mean the economy needs it, right? People need it. 

Vishal Anand: The economy yeah, yeah.

John Koetsier: We obviously have to take precautions, but we can’t stop everything. People need to eat. 

Vishal Anand: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, yeah. No. So these digital products, we’re seeing more and more growth there. Yeah. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Well, Vishal, thank you so much for joining us for this funky odd edition of Retention Masterclass without Peggy, even though we’re streaming on her Twitter for the very first time, as well as my own and others. Vishal, thank you for the time. 

Vishal Anand: Thank you. Thank you, John. Peggy, we miss you. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely. We do, Peggy. Well, and everybody else who’s been watching, whatever platform you’re on, thank you so much for joining us! Please like, subscribe, share, comment, all the above. If you love the podcast, hey, rate it, review it, that’d be a massive help.

And Peggy’s words usually are ‘Until next time …  keep well, keep safe.’ Then she says, ‘This is Peggy Anne Salz signing off with Retention Masterclass.’ Well, this time it’s John Koetsier signing off with Retention Masterclass. See you soon.

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