Data Analytics That Matter

Data analytics gets unnecessary grief. When most people think of analytics, they envision Google or Facebook following your every move on the web to figure out what sort of ads to show you while you are browsing. This is pretty creepy.

Admittedly, it’s pretty easy to shift over to the creepy side of analyzing user data, but that doesn’t mean that all data analysis is bad. In fact, it is essential if you want to run a successful product.

When I took over Glassboard, there wasn’t that much data on how the service was being used. None of the apps used analytics, and the server side generated a basic report that contained some basic vanity analytics such as user signups, boards created, statuses posted, and the like.

This is interesting information to notice from high-level analytics like user signups growing or dropping off, but it doesn’t tell us who is using the service or how they are using it.

Why Analytics Matters

Who, how and why are the most important questions you want to answer when you are starting to work with data analytics in your mobile products.

  • Who answers what the current audience for your product is. Your audience dictates how you should charge, what features you should add, and what marketing opportunities you may have as well. If you don’t understand who your audience is, pricing and targeting becomes really difficult.

  • How answers what ways users are using the product. Are you primarily getting users on Android? iOS? What’s the breakdown of iPhone vs iPad? How’s the web app doing? You want to put most of your attention on the platforms people are using, so knowing how people are using is important.

  • Why answers the reasons that someone is actually using your service. This one is a bit more difficult to gather without crossing the creepy line, and I’d argue its less important than the first two. There’s ways to gather this information without crossing the creepy line, which I’ll cover later on.

Choosing an Analytics Provider

Choosing an analytics provider is important. I have two rules for it:

  1. You should be paying them money.
  2. They shouldn’t be using your data for other things like selling ads.

Since Glassboard is an inherently private service by default both of these are essential. All of our board information is encrypted on the servers so that prying eyes can’t pry. I want to understand my user base (in an anonymous fashion), but I don’t want those users to be pawns to be used for a marketing company to sell ads off of.

Right now I am using Localytics, but I’m in the process of switching to Keen, because I haven’t been getting the value out of Localytics to justify its $500 price tag. Keen’s pricing and feature set seems much more promising to me. Mixpanel is probably the other major player in the mobile analytics game. They offer some powerful functionality as well.

Each of these services is going to likely run you into the hundreds of dollars range if you have a marginally successful application. The obvious goal is to be able to use the information you garner from these analytics providers to make informed decisions to help you grow your app’s reach and in turn drive more revenue your way.

Vanity vs Useful Analytics

If you’re just focusing on the vanity analytics such as how many users you have, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get your money’s worth out of any third-party service. What do I consider vanity analytics?

  • Active users
  • Usage regions
  • Amount of a certain type of data created daily
  • Device breakdowns between iPhone and iPad

This is useful information, but it’s also pretty easily to generate yourself for much cheaper. Alternatively, it’s something you can just check periodically rather than something that needs care and attention on a constant basis.

The real power of analytics comes when you start to understand how your customers are using your app.

  • How long are they staying in it?
  • How many people are viewing your upsell prompts? How many are converting?
  • What’s the average time between a new user signup and the time they start paying for the product or service?

You get the idea. These are hard questions to ask and creating the tools to generate that sort of data is non-trivial. But, when you can start to understand how long someone is staying in your app, you can start to adjust the design of the app to either increase or decrease that engagement.

If you aren’t getting a high enough conversion rate on your premium upgrades, you can start tinkering with the wording or page layouts to see if that will either increase or decrease your conversions.

If you’re getting a bunch of non-paying free users, you can use data to start to understand why they aren’t paying. Maybe your free plan is too generous? Maybe they are just downloading the app and never using it after that first launch? Maybe they are just cheap?

Analytics Through Customer Feedback

Automated usage analytics is a useful metric to have, but far more useful is understanding your user base personally. When I first took over Glassboard, I didn’t really understand who the user base was. I knew how big the active base was, but in terms of who was using the product? It was just guesses and assumptions.

The first thing I did when Sepia Labs handed over the keys was to send out a short user survey using Survey.io to all of the existing premium users to introduce myself as the new owner of the service and to get an understanding of how they were using the product.

Glassboard’s premium user base is far smaller than our free customers, but since this is a bootstrapped company, they are the more important customers during the acquisition. I wanted to understand how the people who supported the service in the past were using it so I can continue keeping them happy going forward.

Our premium user survey had a 70% response rate, which was insanely high. It shared with us a lot of useful information about how Glassboard is being used (many ways I didn’t even imagine!) as well as what alternatives people would consider, which is a pretty good way to learn about some different competitors you may not have heard of.

Another thing I implemented when I took over Glassboard was a ‘personal’ email that is sent out to users a few days after they sign up. It comes from my email address and is basically a prompt to gather direct feedback from our newest users.

Hi [John Doe],

I’m Justin Williams, the CEO and lead developer of Glassboard. I wanted to see how things are going so far.

If you have any questions, feedback or need help with anything at all, reply to this email and I will get back to you with a personal reply.

Thanks again for using Glassboard!

I receive a few responses a day from this, which has been really useful for understanding who is signing up for the service, how they are using it, and (most importantly) what they are finding confusing or hard to grok about Glassboard. By far the biggest source of frustration these new users have is the onboarding experience.

When you sign up for a new Glassboard account through the apps, it creates your account and your first board called “[Justin’s] Board”. It then drops you into an empty news feed. Hardly ideal.

The feedback I’ve received from many users is that they are confused at this point, which is really good personal data. It shows that I have an opportunity to improve the onboarding experience to hopefully receive a more positive response about functionality in the future. We’re working on it now.

Always Keep Tweaking

I’ve been sending the email above for the last few months, and the value from it has diminishing returns at this point. I’ve recently noticed a pretty major influx of new users coming onto the service, but I don’t really have a good idea where they are coming from right now.

I’m thinking my next goal for these new user signup emails will be to just plainly ask users to tell me where they heard about Glassboard and what they are using it for. I may get less of a response back, but the data that does come in will be interesting to see if the understanding I have of my audience from earlier this year still matches the new users signing up as of April 2014.

Data is only as useful as it is current. Long-term trends are meaningful in some use cases, but when you’re in the middle of trying to turn around a ship as big as Glassboard, the past isn’t nearly as important as the present. Understanding your current users is essential to being able to build and sustain a successful product in this new app economy.

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear, makers of Glassboard. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.