Editor’s note: This article was partially adapted from a talk—The Dangers of Activation—given at the 2019 Product-Led Summit.
Activation goes hand-in-hand with the all-important aha moment—the moment a user realizes your product's promised value and starts to achieve success with your product.
If your user activates quickly, your chances of turning them into a paying customer skyrocket.
Fail to do so, and you have one leaky bucket on your hands.
With the rise of product-led growth, activation is arguably the most critical SaaS metric to measure and optimze. That’s because although activation occurs early on in a user’s journey, it has a lasting impact on customer satisfaction, success, retention, and revenue.
Activation is, no doubt, a tough metric to get right. So how, exactly, do you go about identifying it? The task can be broken down into 4 broad steps:
- Map backward
- Talk to your users
- Observe user behavior
- Leverage your team
Below, we’ll go through each step in more depth.
Step 1: Map backward
Look at users who are already getting value from your product. Retained users are activated users—find out what sets them apart from the folks who churned.
Dig into your product analytics and use cohort analysis look at common patterns of behavior by asking questions questions like:
- What do return visitors consistently do in your product?
- Is there anything that these returning visitors don’t do in your product?
- Are there commonalities that can be used to segment your users?
Make note of the patterns in your behavioral data to identify the early, critical actions that retained users take within your product. Then, figure out how strongly these actions correlate with long-term customer retention.
Imagine your product is a music app and you've identified 2 actions that seem likely to trigger an aha moment within a 30-day time frame:
- User favorited at least 3 songs
- User joined at least 1 community
To understand their impact on retention, you’d want to plot out each of these actions along a retention curve.
In the image above, the 30-day retention of all users is plotted out in blue. For a cohort of all users, roughly 5% are left by day 30. We can see that retention almost doubles for users who favorited at least 3 songs is. The retention for users who joined at least one community is even higher—12%. That means your primary aha moment is joining at least 1 music community.
In this scenario, the percentage of users who join at least 1 music community is your primary activation metric, while the percentage of users who like 3 or more songs is a strong secondary activation metric. These are the actions that you’d want to drive users toward as soon as possible after signup to improve activation.
Analytics tools to identify and measure activation
At this point, there are scores of great analytics platforms out there that can help you into the numbers to get an understanding you product’s activation metrics. Some of our favorites include:
- Amplitude: A product analytics software known for its user-friendly design. Amassing key insights about your users is easy because you can segment them and analyze their behavior without having to navigate bulky and confusing software.
- Mixpanel: A business analytics tool that excels at providing digestible reports with easily implementable feedback. Signal, one of Mixpanel's core features, analyzes all your data and tells you key user behavior and how strongly it correlates with retention.
- Heap: A data analytics tool that tracks every move your users make. Heap is awesome because it allows you to track every user behavior without having to write or troubleshoot code. You can then analyze the data for acquisition, behavior, churn, and retention.
These tools can give you invaluable insights and help you identify the activation metrics that you need to optimize. And if you were feeling lazy, you could probably get by reasonably well with this quantitative data.
But to get the full picture, you really do need some qualitative feedback. That’s why, after you’ve done behavioral analysis and formulated some hypotheses about your likely activation events, it’s important to validate your assumptions by actually talking to your users.
Step 2: Talk to your users
To understand your product’s activation experience from your users’ perspective, you should interview people who have recently signed up for your product.
Of course, this is often easier said than done. If you’re not sure how to get started, try sending a simple email like the one below:
If you’re having trouble recruiting interviewees, you can also try offering a $50 gift card as an incentive. Money talks, after all.
Once you have your meetings scheduled, come up with a list of questions to help you understand a user’s jobs to be done (JTBD). Ask open-ended questions like:
- When did you first realize you [needed something to solve your problem]?
- Before you began using [your product], how did you solve these same problems in the past?
- What alternatives did you consider before using [your product]?
- With [your product], what can you do that you couldn’t do before?
- What job are you ultimately trying to get done?
- Are there features you use all the time? How?
- Are there features you never use? Why not?
- What’s something you wish [your product] could do?
You want to try to understand what your users actually do in your product and whether it lines up with what they say they’re doing (you’d be surprised how often they don’t).
Step 3: Observe user behavior
You can do this by implementing a product like FullStory and watching user recordings. The beauty of this approach is that you’ll be able to quickly see what’s getting in the way of your users’ activation.
Andrew Capland, Director of Marketing at Wistia, finds this one activity so invaluable that his growth team regularly meets up for "FullStory Fridays"—the team grabs their lunch and watches session recordings of people using their product.
You can learn a lot by sitting down and watching users actually use your product. Your engineers can catch bugs that weren’t supposed to be there, your designers can understand how people really interact with the interface, and everyone can get an important reminder of the real people on the other end of their work.
Watching user recordings can help you to pinpoint the places where your users are getting frustrated and to identify the possible fixes that will have the biggest impact on your activation rate.
Step 4: Leverage your team
Finally, you should be leveraging your customer-facing teams.
Your customer success, support, and sales teams talk to your customers every single day. They are sitting on a treasure trove of invaluable information and are acutely aware of many of the pain points that your users have.
Grab a coffee or tea with them and ask how they would improve the user experience. If this isn’t standard practice at your company, prepare to be surprised at how great their feedback is.
How to vet your activation metric
Once you’ve gone through the steps above, you should have a pretty solid idea of what your product’s activation metrics should be. But let’s take it a step further and put your assumptions to the test.
- Does this metric demonstrate user commitment?
- Does the user realize value from your product?
- Is this metric related to conversion?
You should be able to answer “yes” to all 3 questions. If that’s the case—congratulations! You’ve successfully identified the moment of activation within your product and have an activation metric that you can measure.
Now, you can start optimizing for it!
Check out this article for insights on improving your product’s activation rate—plus, 3 common activation pitfalls and how to avoid them.