Retention – feat the tragedy of the commons | Thinking Product

There are two questions to ask when we think of retaining users  –

  1. Are we continuing to drive value for our users via continuous improvement or better surfacing of value?
  2. Are we reminding users of the value they can drive?

Both these questions are important but drive contrasting approaches. The first question focuses on improvements within the product while the second is essentially a notifications/reminders driven strategy.

1. Are we continuing to drive value for our users via continuous improvement or better surfacing of value? 

As mentioned above, there are two ways we drive value here. First, we keep making improvements within the product. For most enterprise products, this continual part of the roadmap is typically driven by customer feedback. For consumer products, it is generally driven by rapid experimentation and copying successful features from other consumer products. And, while consumer product management is arguably more gut driven than enterprise product management, great consumer products are often molded by their users. A seminal example of this is the story behind Twitter’s hashtag.

The first hashtag appeared thanks to Chris Messina, a user who suggested using # for groups. Interestingly, he got inspiration for this from another social network (perfect illustration of my point above) – Jaiku- and from tags on Flickr. In time, Messina’s idea spread and Twitter, after a period of resisting it, came around to it.

Second, most products generally do a poor job surfacing value to users. That’s because our assumptions about the most valuable aspects of our products are rarely what our users value. This is where analysis of usage data goes a long way in improving the product.

Overall, however, this question is all about continuously improving our products to drive value for our users and is the surest proxy for long term product success.

2. Are we reminding users of the value they can drive?

Any savvy mobile product manager today has a sophisticated notifications strategy. She has a point of view on when to surface a push notification versus a badge and when to use email to drive users back to the product. This isn’t limited to small companies trying to get traction. We see the largest companies use notifications a fair bit to drive usage as well. For example, Facebook gets very aggressive with email notifications if you don’t visit your profile or feed. I use Facebook primarily for my blog’s Facebook page. But, that engagement clearly doesn’t count for Facebook – so, I receive an email reminding me of what’s going on on Facebook every day.

Twitter, recently, shifted its notification strategy pretty drastically as well. This was what a notification email from Twitter looked like until the first week of July.

And, this is what happened once they shifted strategy.

Now, I have to click on “Take a look,” head to Twitter to see what happened. Twitter has been having difficulties with user growth and this is clearly a metric mover. The big question with such changes, of course, is whether it will continue to be a metric mover in the long run.

Notifications are important. When done right, they are good reminders of the value a product can drive for the user. However, too often, they are used as short term metric movers that only end up annoying users. The problem with notifications is classic “tragedy of the commons.” If a company has 5 teams who all want to drive up their numbers, how long before they all surface frequent notifications and compel the user to turn off notifications?

The bottom line – a retention strategy that is driven by notifications is a poor retention strategy. I think retention strategies work best when 80% of the effort goes into driving real value and the remaining 20% (and not any more) focuses on reminding users via notifications.

If our users aren’t listening to our many reminders of how great we are, maybe we ought to revisit our assumptions.

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