You may not know Tamara Steffens by name, but you’ve downloaded her apps. Running business development for companies like Path, Color, and most recently breakout email app Acompli, she’s responsible for millions of mobile downloads and blockbuster deals with the likes of Sprint and Verizon that have brought in even more. In doing so, she’s come to signify a new breed of BD professional–a hybrid of quantitative marketer and sales leader who is laser focused on delivering what young startups need most: Users.
And not just any users, either—valuable users who will stick with you and generate revenue. With the data available to startups today, it’s easier than ever to find these people and keep them happy. It’s also easier than ever to get distracted by the wrong metrics. In this exclusive interview, Steffens—now senior vice president of business development at Acompli—sheds light on her approach to user acquisition and how both enterprise and consumer brands can capture the market share they need to win.
Ironically, Steffens’ number one acquisition strategy doesn’t involve users at all: Keep information flowing between all teams at your startup at all times. This is vital. “One of the best things a startup can do is make sure that the person who understands distribution and app store optimization is constantly educating the engineering team,” she says.
Every time she meets with Google or Apple about Acompli’s position on their platforms, she takes meticulous notes and emails them out to the entire company. At all-hands meetings, she regularly shows off successful marketing campaigns so everyone knows what users like and what they don’t. “Our whole team understands what app store optimization is, what the right keywords are, what has worked for us and what hasn’t. No matter what their role, they’re invested in understanding these strategies themselves.”
The same goes for sales. An engineering team that understands your customer acquisition goals is critical to success. “As soon as I finish a customer meeting, I will send notes to the engineers: This is who I met with, these are the five things they are still looking for the product to do,” Steffens says. The product team then figures out how to fit this feedback into the product roadmap, including all the milestones engineering needs to hit to win a deal. Depending on the size of said deal, the higher these items are prioritized. “The engineering team loves it because they can say, ‘Okay, if we get these things done by this date, we’ll definitely get the deal.’”
Of course, this degree of collaboration is easier to accomplish at smaller companies, but that just makes it more important early on. Make this type of detailed, free-flowing, multi-directional feedback a cornerstone of your culture from the very beginning to stay hungry and open to opportunities. “That’s the great thing about startups—you can make a huge impact simply by having engineering and business development work directly with each other,” says Steffens.
The key to landing users and deals that yield more users is to iterate fast enough to meet needs and surprise people with quick product changes—ideally before they even have a chance to ask for them. This is why the constant, open communication between feedback recipients and product builders is necessary. If you don’t have this clear pipeline in place, you need to start building one immediately.
At last count, consumers are faced with 2.5 million apps to choose from between Apple’s App Store and Google Play. Given this deluge of content, what are the most influential things a consumer app company can do to gain traction right out of the shoot? Steffens has very fixed ideas about this–some common sense and some not–and it all requires hard work.
Get the word out. The top three things you need to make your app part of the zeitgeist are press, partnerships and smart points of sale. Here, Steffens breaks down each one.
Press: It turns out that good press really is all it’s cracked up to be. Traditional media hits on publications ranging from TechCrunch to the Wall Street Journal and everything in between will drive the most traffic to your app. Period. But Steffens cautions startups against falling for a one-size-fits all media strategy. Depending on your company and product, blasting your launch to every journalist in the valley won’t get the job done.
“If you’re leaning toward using a PR agency, you really need to do your research on consultants who deeply understand the market for your product,” Steffens says. Unless you understand your story and the audience you’re trying to go after in really great detail, you’re not going to get the media you want. The WSJ and big tech sites will overlook you unless you hook them the way they want to be hooked.
You have to take the time to make a list of the reporters who are most likely to cover your company–maybe they’ve written about similar products in the past, trends you fit into, subjects you’re tangentially related to. Regardless, you need to cherry pick the right names and then pitch them in a personalized way. Make it clear you’re familiar with their work, and then position your news as something you know they would be interested in. Suddenly, it sounds like you’re trying to help them do their job. It takes extra work, but this is the type of approach that pays off.
In this same vein, don’t go after the majors at the expense of getting media hits in more niche media that will almost certainly write about or feature your app. Maybe you’re working on something to do with health care. Sure, you’d love coverage in TechCrunch, but what about all of the smaller blogs that regularly report on health technology. If you rack up enough stories and good will with these publications, you’ll reach just as many prospective users–users who are more likely to engage with your offering.
The key thing is to never wait for someone else to tell your story, Steffens says. You can shape your narrative by proactively pitching a clear message to media, and reinforcing it with your presence on social networks. “As early as possible, hire a marketing lead who understands community building and viral marketing plays,” Steffens says. This gives all the traffic you generate through traditional media a place to go. “Once you get the viral loop going, keep it strong. Direct customer engagement is one of the most powerful resources a new company can cultivate.”
This means growing individual relationships with customers and users through Twitter, on Facebook, and even through email. Once someone lands on your site or downloads your app, you want to make them feel like there is constant opportunity to engage, whether that’s following you on a social network, or receiving regular newsletters, or even just push notifications. It keeps you and your app top of mind long after stories about your launch have run.
Partnerships: While traditional media relations may move the needle for your company all at once, strategic partnerships are the best way to fast-track and continually build distribution. And when it comes to signing distribution deals with mobile giants, Steffens is something of a legend. As the vice president for business development at Color, she signed with Verizon to preload an exclusive version of the app on all of their Android phones. With this in her pocket, she approached Saturday Night Live with an idea: “Verizon threw in $2 million in advertising with NBC and SNL said, ‘Okay, we’ll use the product.’” That spring, the cast and crew all broadcast behind-the-scenes clips from the season’s final week using the Verizon-exclusive Color app–reaching millions of viewers in the process.
Established media juggernauts reach massive customer bases almost instantly. “At Path, we did a deal with WordPress, and suddenly we had more people posting from WordPress into Path than anything else,” says Steffens. “Our product offered something that their users wanted, and we were able to pull them in because of it.” Incidentally, the best way to solidify a deal like this is to show how valuable the other company’s product is by demonstrating everything it did to help your product succeed. It gives you a chance to highlight their power and influence, and who doesn’t want to have evidence of that?
Also keep your eyes peeled for hacks you can use for different types of partnerships, Steffens says. For example, consider zero rating to supercharge your relationships with mobile operators. As these operators look for new benefits to entice their customers, they want to offer more and more pre-loaded apps that are exempt from data caps and charges. “This isn’t hard to set up–it might take a few engineers a few days,” she says. “But if you go to an operator with the infrastructure to make this happen for them, they’re much more likely to preload you on their phones, and that can increase your user base exponentially.”
Companies like Sony and Samsung have the resources to maximize your marketing reach if they see clear benefits to working with you. But to work with them, you can’t wait for your app to be ready for prime time. You have to start thinking about distribution partnerships while you’re still actively developing the product. You want to be early and flexible enough so you can make changes if one of these giants requests them.
“You can’t just put your product on the App Store or Google Play and hope to get featured anymore–that’s not enough,” Steffens says. “Getting featured may get you 10,000 downloads a day. But think, how many of those days do you need to string together to keep you going. Partnerships are the real long-term sustenance.”
Points of Sale: As important as press and partnerships are, people still have to be able to find and buy what you’re selling. This makes placement on the App Store and Google Play a priority. When you’re launching an app, you have to go the extra mile to engage with the right people at both Google and Apple. There’s no way around it. And to do it right, Steffens encourages startups to treat each of these interactions as development opportunities, not just boxes to check.
Steffens recommends asking the App Store team at Apple for a design review. This demonstrates good faith, high interest, and flexibility—all attributes Apple looks for when approving apps for their platform. But don’t just stop at your initial launch—keep sharing what you’re doing with every new release. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t focus exclusively on your app and the success it’s enjoying.
“What is the benefit of your product for Apple? Tell them how you’ve been designing for bigger screens, or leveraging the new features of iOS 8. Tell them how you’re taking advantage of the things they have a stake in showcasing,” she says. This is how you nail a coveted featured spot in the store.
Google Play’s process is more straightforward. You submit your app to the editorial team and ask for a review to be featured. What follows resembles a simple bug review, Steffens says. The team at Google will give you notes on anything that’s broken or features that don’t work with Android. “If you fix those things, they’ll feature you almost every time,” she says.
However, ease of entry should not be the most influential factor when it comes to whether you lead with Android or iOS. This can be a critical decision for user acquisition, and your criteria should be very specific.
“Which one you go with depends on whether you’re starting out as U.S.-based or global,” says Steffens. It’s that simple. While Android’s market share in the U.S. is growing, iOS still owns the mobile market. The rest of the world, on the other hand, is all about Android–but also less accustomed to paying for apps. “Monetizing outside of North America and Europe, with the exception of Japan, is tough,” she says. All of this should be considered. If you’re going global and are only after unpaid users, then Android may very well be for you. If users and revenue are directly tied, iOS is probably the best bet to start.
Keep a close eye on reviews. Once your product is out in the wild, consumers become both your most powerful allies and enemies. Their word travels fast, so you want to keep it positive. “If you’re a consumer app, you’ll want to keep your reviews above a 4.5 star average in both app stores,” Steffens says. “If they drop below 3.5, there’s something wrong with what you’re doing and you need to find out what it is fast.”
So how do you actually “keep” your reviews high? A lot of this has to do with proactively sourcing them rather than waiting for your users to express themselves. “You want to encourage them to review you at the exact moment you most want to hear from them,” she says. In addition to prompting users to leave a review while they’re using the app, there are a number of tools startups can use to make sure they’re hitting users up when they’re happiest.
“There’s a relatively new company we’ve been using called Helpshift,” Steffens says. “It offers customer support inside the app to streamline the mobile customer experience, and as soon as their problem is solved, Helpshift directs users back to the App Store to leave a review. It’s great. It increases our ratings all the time.”
“Get users to go back and rate your app right after you’ve fixed something for them.”
Uniquely, Google Play offers startups the added advantage of answering users’ questions and responding to comments on their platform. “Take this opportunity,” Steffens advises. “Engage with your customer base and publicly address feedback wherever you can—that’s part of keeping your viral marketing loop strong and positive.”
Beware the leaky bucket
With every new release, Steffens doesn’t just look at what users are saying–she closely observes what they’re doing too. You need to stay close to usage metrics, especially: How many times does a user open your app every day? Every month? What are they doing in your app while they’re there? When you release a new feature, how many of your users take advantage of it?
“As your engineering team is coding all of these new features, they need to be building in hooks so that you can see all of these numbers in real time at all times,” Steffens says. She tracks these numbers for every user for day one, week one, their first thirty days, and their first six weeks. And, along that timeline, she’s identified two particularly crucial benchmarks–the moments in the cycle when a particular bucket (or vintage) of users is most likely to spring a leak:
Leak 1: How many users do I lose from the time they download the app on Day 1? There are actually two crucial metrics to mine from the first day someone has your app. You want to pay attention to the number of people who downloaded your app without ever signing up, and the number who open it once and never again. “Just this morning, I opened an app on my phone and I didn’t know how to use it. I hit a couple of different buttons, but I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish the thing it was supposed to do,” Steffens shares. “Right then and there I just put it down, literally, and I will never pick it back up.”
“Assume you have 90 seconds with a new user before they decide to use your app or delete it.”
If your product is at all confusing or intimidating, chances are the average user will turn it off and trash it shortly thereafter.
If you’re losing users who have taken the time to sign up, then you need to scrutinize your welcome flow. If the first screens you show people are all about the fun things you can do on the app without explaining how to do them, you may be in trouble. You need to do enough A/B testing to identify where and when you’re losing people. From there, you can fine tune your flow to include the messages your users need to see to stay engaged.
Following up with a welcome email is also a crucial way to keep people invested in using your app. Steffens recommends using this email to share tips for using the app—this could make the difference between gaining a super user and losing a customer entirely. “I know a lot of startups say, ‘Oh we don’t want to bother our users,’ but that’s wrong. You do. You absolutely to,” she says, citing Evernote as a company that does a great job with its welcome email.
“I downloaded the Evernote app and did see it’s value, but I still thought, ‘You know what, I’m never actually going to use this,’” she says. “But then they started emailing me two or three times a week with all these great, different ideas for how to use Evernote that I hadn’t thought of–and I wasn’t offended by getting this many messages, not once. I’m the one who downloaded the app, right? I could always hit ‘unsubscribe’ if I wanted to.” Sure enough, Evernote’s email strategy drew Steffens back in–it was the business card camera that hooked her. “They finally sent me an email about the one thing that I use all the time now. It’s a really good example of giving users real ideas about how to use the product.”
Deployed effectively, these onboarding communications can not only plug the Day 1 leak, they can help retain users for the long haul.
Leak 2: How many users are still using my product at six weeks, and do they have what they want?
By six weeks, you need to think about whether your app has diminishing utility. Is it possible for it to lose its novelty? What does your average user require to keep using your product? You need to do a bit of psychologizing here, but having data to back you up can help pinpoint why people are leaving.
Fix 2: Keeping customers for six weeks and beyond means listening intently to what they want from your product and implementing it as fast as possible. “Snapchat has done a great job at this,” Steffens says. “They started out with a simple idea: the disappearing photo, but they didn’t stop pay attention when they saw incredible early traction.”
One of the reasons people fled Snapchat after several weeks is they realized people could take screenshots. The ephemeral service wasn’t so ephemeral after all. Snapchat noticed this drop-off, did the necessary surveying, and figured out why they were losing out. Before most users had a chance to formally complain, they rolled out a feature that would notify users when their photos were screenshotted, offering an extra measure of comfort.
“They did that, but then they also heard from customers who actually wanted to keep their photos a little longer, so they launched their Snapchat Stories feature to do exactly that—you’re continually drawn back in because they’re always changing the product. Not in crazy ways, not in ways that make it hard to use, just by adding features that are adjacent to what they already do.”
Analyzing usage data and customer feedback side by side is what will take your product from a good idea to an established part of your users’ daily routine, Steffens says. Using Snapchat as a guide here isn’t a bad idea. You want steady, incremental changes that introduce novelty while not straying from the core that people know and love.
“Again, it’s vital to share everything you learn in BD, sales and distribution with your engineering team every step of the way,” she says. To keep everyone in the know, she reviews these metrics, with emphasis on Acompli’s leaky buckets, at every week’s all-hands meeting, no matter what. Together, the team identifies where they’re losing people and what action items they can implement over the coming week to get the users they want and keep them.
Consumer-facing startups have the benefit of daily metrics and fast, actionable analysis. But where does that leave enterprise companies? When your acquisition process can span months and not minutes, how can you keep customers in the funnel?
Find great salespeople
Steffens has built several enterprise sales teams from the ground up, and she knows one thing is essential: building a corps of experts. “Start by asking who knows the market you’re operating in best. Who has been selling the older technology in the market that people are leaving? Who is the very best salesperson at those older legacy companies that you’re about the surpass? Look at them, and look at companies in adjacent spaces,” she says. “Dig several levels deep. If you’re a email service provider, you’re probably going to be talking to IT directors all the time. So what salespeople out there are the best at talking to IT directors? They probably come from companies like Oracle, SAP, Salesforce.”
Once you fill your candidate pipeline with these types of people, you want to identify the ones who have done the most. Don’t waste time testing them on hypotheticals or what they would do in certain situations. Simply say: “Tell me about the deals you’ve actually closed.”
Do they have customer relationships that have stood the test of time? People who are capable of long-term customer relationships are worth the investment. They may be more expensive, but experienced hires should be your first and will almost certainly be your best salespeople, Steffens says. “You don’t need ten of them–just one or two can tip the dominoes and help you fill out the team with the right junior hires. If you can find an expert in your market who has experience nurturing junior salespeople, you’ve struck gold.”
Don’t just sell–sell again and again
With a top-notch sales team in place, you’ll want to give them plenty of product to work with. The most successful enterprise platforms are the ones that don’t just sell one product, they offer a number of add-on modules too, and with them opportunities to sell into new user bases.
“Salesforce does this the best,” Steffens says. “You can buy the Salesforce platform and build your own app on top of it–it could be for sales, marketing, supply chain. This has allowed them to go out and resell different components of their platform over and over again.” And the potential add-ons don’t stop there.
Take Salesforce’s Chatter product, for example. There may be other chat apps out there for companies to communicate, but if they’ve already invested in a Salesforce package, they’re much more likely to stick with all Salesforce products. Going even further, Salesforce’s integration with third-party apps empowers customers to combine it with tools they already use in their workflow for just a little bit more money each month. “If you can achieve this kind of highly customizable, open-API solution, your sales team can keep going back to the same clients and make easy sales.”
Hone your process
Given the length of the enterprise sales cycle, it can be difficult to measure the success of your marketing and sales strategies. “In the end, revenue really is the metric for enterprise sales. You know your cycle and how successful a salesperson was in that time frame, and there’s no gray area,” Steffens says. But only focusing on revenue will cause you to miss some important nuances and lose customers as a result.
Instead of looking at the numbers, Steffens suggests investing time and analysis in your process. Have you kept the entire company updated on your sales pipeline? Have you followed up with your sales reps after every meeting? “In sales, for the most part, if you follow up and follow a tight process and tell your engineering team what your customers are thinking and asking for, you will close deals.”
A healthy feedback loop requires instant follow-up. Waiting even five or ten days can lose you a huge chunk of revenue. If someone says they’re interested in trying out the product, find out exactly what features they’re interested in trying, and deliver on those immediately. Once they’ve engaged with the product for a short amount of time–a couple days counts–ask them what they thought.
“Every time you have a meeting with a customer, ask if they got everything they needed, what their time frame is looking like, how you can move things forward.”
Steffens is not one to shy away from concrete asks, even though she’s the first to admit that these conversations can be uncomfortable. But, as experience has shown her time and again, a direct salesperson opens the door for the customer to be equally direct–and that’s when you learn what they actually need to sign on the dotted line.
She recalls one meeting when her prospective customers left the room for a quick huddle. “When they came back, I said, ‘So, are we going to the prom? Should I buy a dress?’” Through their laughter, they admitted that the product was missing a couple key features they would need before committing–and this gave Steffens insight she could act on. “I could have kept going with my presentation and ignored the fact that they were probably going to pass without asking more questions. Instead, I was going to close that deal no matter what.”
There’s a lot of talk about growth hacking these days, with hundreds of websites and articles dedicated to tips and tricks that supposedly bring in droves of users. Steffens’ verdict? Don’t buy into it.
“None of that works in the long-term,” she says. “There are no one-size-fits-all tricks in a world of products that are diversifying this fast. If one strategy does become popular, it’ll shift in no time.”
She points to a tactic that many social networking sites were employing at one time: Asking new users if they wanted to automatically invite all their webmail contacts to use the service. Soon users got hip to how obnoxious and intrusive this was and everyone had to move away from it. At the end of the day, the most effective “hacks” for consumer and enterprise apps alike are simply good sales and marketing practices, and not losing sight of the basics:
Focus on customer support
When it comes to differentiating yourself from the competition and steadily increasing your user base, there’s nothing more important than attentive, kind, surprisingly responsive customer support. And it’s not a new story. “I was just talking about EarthLink today at lunch and reminiscing about the days of dial-up,” Steffens says. “I remember everyone wanted EarthLink there for a while simply because they had the best customer support–you could call them up and there was always a real person there to help you. The desire for this hasn’t changed.”
For enterprise companies in particular, impeccable customer support is a must. If any little thing malfunctions or breaks down you need to get it back up and running as fast as humanly possible. “If a customer has gone to all he trouble of inputting all their notes and data and fully integrating your app with their other tools, chances are they aren’t going to desert you for the competition—the only reason they will is if they feel like they aren’t getting quality support.”
Compound incremental gains for serious traction
It may not be glamorous, but it works. Optimizing your homepage for signups, continually testing copy and layout, experimenting with video vs. photos vs. animation, and even testing button colors. All of this needs to happen continuously so that you can be sure you’re doing everything you can to capture as much of the market as possible. It is worth the time and trouble. Any of these changes can increase users’ engagement with your product and your brand, Steffens says. “If you can increase conversion by just one, two or three percent with every little tweak, those gains will start to stack up.”
Find your magic number
There may not be a silver bullet, but for every app and product, there is a magic number–Steffens has seen it. For Acompli, that number is two–two email accounts. “As soon as our users create a second email account on our app we hardly ever lose them,” she says. At that point, it’s clear the user has started to understand the product’s value. Armed with this knowledge, the Acompli team can adjust their messaging to push more users to open a second account. Reaching out over email with more robust tips for using the app professionally is just one example that can help them hit their magic number.
By defining a magic number, a company can define who its most successful users are, and then take action to get more people to that point. If you want your users to send two emails in their first week on your app, for example, focus on that in your onboarding communications, or drop alerts directly into the app that will encourage them in this direction. You want to give users the best opportunity to find value in what you’ve created.
This is what it all comes back to for Steffens–the fact that successful user acquisition is solely dependent on building a great product. You have to make something that users want, and then do whatever it takes to help them see it for what it’s worth.
“Unless people know what they can do with your product and what your product can do for them right from the start, no trick or hack is going to keep them. You have to think ahead.”
This article originally appeared in First Round Review and is reprinted with permission.