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How HubSpot grows a product into something you can’t live without

Justin Megahan

Did they even open my email? Did they check out my link?

Marketers have had tools to answer these questions for a long time. Sidekick, a project from HubSpot, brings this kind of email tracking to one-on-one email communication.

For HubSpot, it’s a little outside their wheelhouse. Over the last nine years they’ve developed some of the largest and most popular software for marketers. Sidekick is part of a decision to broaden their scope and serve non-marketers. And it’s built on the freemium model.

“The whole idea from the beginning was to go for really big scale that millions of people could use for free,” says Dan Wolchonok. “And then to have a seamless path for those who want to pay for power features.”

Dan is a senior product manager at HubSpot. It’s his job to get those millions of users. Which is less about finding them and more about keeping them around.

Being active means getting value

“Everyone talks about how tools like Evernote just have perfectly flat retention curves. Once someone is hooked, they are on it for years.”

At Sidekick that means one thing: people getting real value from the app, day-in and day-out.

“What is the threshold that constitutes usage that someone is going to use it for a really long time? What is that point where they say ‘I cannot live without this?'”

You might think that’s as simple as sending a tracked email, right?

After I downloaded the chrome extension and connected it with my Gmail, a little check box appeared at the bottom of my message. I check the box and my send button turns orange and shows the Sidekick logo. That’s it. When I fire off the email, it’ll be tracked. But that’s not what Dan is looking at.

“Just sending a tracked email doesn’t count as being active. It’s not until you receive a notification from the email that you count as active, because that’s when you are getting value out of Sidekick.”

A little later, I got a notification from Sidekick. I guess Suhail does open my emails.

"What is that point where they say 'I cannot live without this'?"

Resurrecting Users

Digging into retention numbers by user activity doesn’t just tell you why people are staying, it also shows you how they’re leaving. That informs your efforts to win them back and suggests strategies for plugging that hole to not lose future users. But to even get that far, you’ll need a better idea of how people are using your product.

For Sidekick, it turns out people don’t want tracking notifications on every single email they send. A follow-up to a prospective customer? Yeah, that sounds useful. That adorable cat .gif you sent off to the whole department? Probably not as useful.

Dan’s big a-ha moment came when they looked at segmented user funnels and retention graphs of actual user behavior. Once users unchecked the notification tracking box, some just forgot to turn it back on.

With this insight, the app team had a couple options. If Sidekick defaulted to “always on,” the user would have to uncheck it before each untracked email, which is a suboptimal experience. Instead, Dan’s team opted to turn Sidekick back on after long periods of inactivity and to clearly communicate that to the user. “Hey, in case you forgot, we turned this back on for you.”

Dan saw that with just a little nudge, Sidekick’s users came back and stuck around. “If you are really good and sophisticated in how you do outreach to people, you are going to have that smile retention curve after you win those people back.”

Growing by solving problems, not just adding features

When it comes to building out the product to drive more growth, the focus remains on providing the Sidekick user with real value.

“We’re constantly looking at how we can add features that supplement what our users are doing and solve their problems without making it more complicated. I think everyone thinks it’s always about more. But, sometimes, adding more features only makes it more confusing.”

The way to find that value is by running experiments in parallel, releasing early-stage features to real users, obsessively evaluating results, and iterating, iterating, iterating. If retention data shows users are getting value out of something, the team will know it’s on to something. If it’s not helping to create a product that people are using more often and coming back to, the feature ends up on the cutting room floor.

Dan references the scientific method as we walked through Sidekick’s process. He’s not after that one mystical thing that will do it all. He’s methodically going after an array of things that will make it a little bit better today than it was yesterday.

“Having metrics and an analytic system is a core part of that. You want to keep improving one percent. That’s what powers that kind of growth. The thing that gave you 10x growth when you were getting to 10k people is only going to give you 10% growth once you are at 100k people. So you need a lot of these incremental improvements that are going to help you grow as a percentage of whatever your goal is.”

And he doesn’t read too deeply into what may have worked for someone else with some other product.

“There’s this stereotype in growth hacking that you just need to find this secret to power a whole bunch of growth. I don’t think it’s about any one thing. I think that every anecdote you hear is different and might not work for you because your product’s different, your user’s different, or because the tactic is burnt out and won’t be as effective.”

Smarter, happier users

Often, even when you’ve found that thing that’s going to drive value and growth, your work is only beginning. The question quickly shifts to: How do you communicate this to thousands of users? How do you communicate this to users who have already set patterns for how they use your product and are likely to stick to the paths they know?

Sidekick hasn’t quite found that “7 Friends in 10 Days” magical retention metric, but it’s something Dan’s been chipping away at. After a bunch of experiments, the team is constantly returning to the benefits of education, whether through emails, tooltips, or animated tutorials.

Being more targeted allows Sidekick to do more. Knowing what features drive value and what messaging keeps users coming back allows the app team to re-engage and truly educate customers towards growth.

“There is still so much low-hanging fruit around explaining everything the product does. The more we do that, the more people really get it, and they stick around.”

"Everyone thinks it's always about more. But, sometimes, adding more features only makes it more confusing."

Segmenting for Insights

But even the most educated user’s experience will be derailed by a bug that short-circuits your app. Platform variation is an even bigger concern for Sidekick than for the average app since it’s built on top of a browser and email client that can change underfoot, creating interesting edge cases.

“Gmail can decide to test something out with just a small percentage of their users. Our developers might not even be able to recreate it. You just can’t test everything.”

It’s pretty obvious when something is completely broken. Engagement falls dramatically. Alarm bells go off. All hands are on deck. But what about when numbers just dip?

“You can quickly get to the root of a problem if you segment your data. If you follow the chain of ‘this event follows this event, which is followed by this event,’ and segment those funnels, that retention, you really get a feel for why usage has changed.”

Is it from people on a new version of Chrome? Or is it people in a specific geographic area? “It’s always a holiday somewhere, right?” Dan jokes.

You really don’t know until you start asking the right questions.

“I actually find it surprising that more people don’t just say, ‘Let’s segment it ten different ways as a starting point before you dive in.’ I think most people just dive in to the numbers without asking enough questions first.”

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