A good product is like a good marriage. Please don’t groan.
In both, the sweeping gestures are celebrated. Yet it’s the countless attempts at improvement and the discipline to continue improving that help each prevail in the long run. And HoneyBook knows a lot about both holy matrimony and product development.
HoneyBook was started after its founders realized that weddings, corporate events, bar mitzvahs, and really any big day, requires a fleet of creative professionals to make them go off without a hitch. But paper-chasing, and other inconveniences, hamper the events industry. In the case of a wedding, a photographer isn’t only trying to get the betrothed to sign off on decisions and pay their contracts. He’s also trying to collaborate with the many other vendors included in a wedding. When you’re dealing with a high volume of events, each with a high volume of other vendors, it pays to centralize that collaboration on a platform like HoneyBook.
Florists, photographers, disc jockeys, caterers, planners—these solopreneurs devote too much time to logistics, and not enough to their craft. HoneyBook cares about the craft, and that’s reflected in more than its product; the San Francisco office is made-over with the artifacts of its vendors. When I met with Yotam Soen, HoneyBook’s Director of Product Management, we sat in a conference room devoted to photographers, a cornerstone of the the company’s vendor base. Our conversation was reflected and warped in the eyes of several retro cameras lining the wall.
“The creative professional space is a very offline and fragmented environment when, at the end of the day, these people work together,” Yotam said.
When Yotam came aboard, HoneyBook had a pretty strong product/market fit. But it wasn’t acquiring users as fast it wanted. There was an obvious roadblock.
At the time, vendors had to go through a specialist to sign up for HoneyBook, who would demo the product for them and then set up their accounts. Opening up the platform to online signup, it was assumed, would open the floodgates. Under this model, any enterprising creative professional can get in, spread the word about her brand, and get paid by clients. It seemed like the right direction.
“And that’s where the onboarding challenges became much more dramatic,” he said.
Specialist-led onboarding is hard to scale, but there’s no risk of onboarders getting distracted. In the open platform, users weren’t following the flow the way Yotam wanted. Without the hand-holding, they tended to wander, and in doing so, churn.
Big product shifts will always be the cost of doing good business. But a product manager’s real worth is not just in executing the change, but in adjusting to the daily reality that follows. How do you cure cold feet and build trust? HoneyBook committed to its data, and in doing so, improved overall conversion by more than 33%.
Horse to water
There’s an old saying: You can lead a user to a platform, but you can’t make them move through the onboarding flow in the way you’d like. Or maybe you can, but only with a lot of testing.
As Yotam watched his user onboarding flow struggle, he was also tracking individual sessions (“It’s like being in the matrix,” he said.) Where were new vendors exploring instead? He was happy to see users familiarizing themselves with all of the buttons, widgets, and menus, but he saw that users whose sessions wandered were likely to leave.
Because Yotam knew something about users that even they didn’t.
If he can get a new vendor to send a proposal—and fast—he can make her trust the platform and return. This might seem like an obvious conclusion, but it’s grounded in thorough tests.
“There’s been historic data that getting paid through the system is the magic moment,” he said. “It shows you the value of the platform and how easy it is to get paid, as opposed to getting that check in the mail, or whatever dysfunctional, disconnected steps happen offline. That’s how we realized this was our holy grail.”
Even when HoneyBook couldn’t guarantee payment, sending the proposal produced significant results.
“Me sending the proposal doesn’t mean that the end client signs and pays me,” he said. “But we had data that shows that this is the big ‘aha’ moment for vendors. One, it’s easy to send for you. Two, your brand comes through. I, as a product manager, want you to see that moment.”
But Yotam wasn’t sure how. Knowing what makes users convert isn’t the same thing as getting them to convert. Again, it was a question of making new users trust HoneyBook.
“Do we choose to push you more aggressively to where we think that the end game is, sending that first proposal? Or do we walk you through and get you acquainted?”
The first bet was on a locked-in walkthrough. The platform would be open to anyone in this scenario, but after registering, the member would be forced to trudge through all the meaningful steps. But that didn’t seem to translate into a positive experience. The product team iterated on this repeatedly and decided to scrap it even before shipping. What was the point of an open platform that felt so aggressive?
Instead, they decided that the onboarding flow would suggestively push users toward sending that first proposal.
Trust is, of course, earned. Sometimes painstakingly.
When HoneyBook first launched its open platform, the numbers were discouraging. To understand why vendors weren’t onboarding, they dug into the process’s funnel.
Only 17.87% of the vendors who created accounts were following through and sending a proposal out to an end client. And the majority dropped off at the first step, in the event creation phase. If new users balked at a few fields requiring a title, location, event type, and date, they wouldn’t make it very far.
“We pushed more aggressively into that,” Yotam said. One fix was a gentle nudge. After creating an account, a new user is immediately pushed into the event creation pipeline (even though he can navigate elsewhere).
And to signal that a user has entered the pipeline, the product team displayed a progress bar across the top:
“It’s some conventional wisdom of endowed progress, showing users that they’ve gone part of the way,” Yotam said. “Essentially, our test proved that conventionalism. Introducing this, it was about 15% improvement in conversion. So that was a no-brainer.”
The next question revolved around making users simply click the button that said, “create event.”
“How do we relate to our onboarders on the homepage that they’ve not created any events? There’s a big, empty state there. It points to the area where you create an event but there’s also a button on the side that shows you, ‘Hey, if you click here, that automatically creates an event.’”
These were small changes, but they would ultimately make up the difference.
If vendors successfully created an event, HoneyBook asked them to draft a bookable. “Bookables” can either be proposals, which are legally binding, or invoices, which are what they sound like. Because a big part of HoneyBook’s value prop is in simplifying the correspondence between vendors and end-clients, this process was crucial. But users sometimes act against their own best interests.
HoneyBook provides templates so solopreneurs can start sending invoices or proposals and getting paid right away, but many new users were firing them off without reading any of the fine print.
“There were first proposals sent out that weren’t that professional,” Yotam explained. “We saw the dummy text that we put in proposals being left in there. So we changed it to ghost text. Vendors see it, but if they don’t change it and send it, it goes blank on the client side.”
Obvious though it sounds, certain fields couldn’t be ghost text. So, the question for HoneyBook was how to get as much need-to-know information as possible from users, while not overwhelming them.
“What information do we give you about this bookable which will drive you to actually follow through with it and send it?”
And here Yotam had to make a hard decision. The product team at HoneyBook wanted to believe that of the two bookables, proposals were a better bet. Because of its legal nature, the proposal is a more onerous document, but by that same fact, it was theoretically better for long-term interaction between vendors and end-clients. But in the short-term view of the funnel, users converted at a higher rate when presented with the invoice. The A/B tests bore it out.
So, although the proposal is available to new users, the team pushes users toward the lighter file, the invoice.
“You lose some educational value,” Yotam said. “But you move through the process faster and more easily.”
The ultimate design was a fine balance between customization and the minimal requests necessary.
In improving this step, Yotam mitigated one of the biggest dropoffs in the funnel, but he still needed to guarantee users were reaching that final magic moment: Actually sending the bookable.
But where earlier users were recklessly sending dummy text, now they were overanalyzing.
Say a vendor has filled out an entire proposal. That includes the dates, the price, his binding signature–all of the stuff creative professionals use HoneyBook to streamline. That’s the hard part, right?
For an industry that witnesses “I do” on the daily, HoneyBook users can sometimes struggle with commitment. They weren’t ultimately sending the proposal or invoice, and Yotam wondered why this could be.
After several tests, he found that the problem was copywriting. The button that completed this action said “Send.” And send was scary. It seemed too final.
“For onboarders who don’t know the system yet, they’re afraid to click a button,” Yotam said. “Am I ready to send this? I don’t know.”
The product team tried a couple of different iterations in an effort to curb second-guessing. They tried the open-ended “Send…” but found the most success with “Next: Review Email.”
“It just worked,” Yotam said. “There was about 60 or 70% improvement with the ‘Next’ label.”
After clicking Next, vendors have a chance to review their emails. Does Next mean they send it and hit the end of the funnel? Not always. Some drop off during the email review process. But, as Yotam explained, it lures users down another step. It builds just a little more trust.
And each of these steps is about productizing trust. As with relationships, trust isn’t built on a big, romantic gesture, but on the little favors and generosities. And so goes product management. The grand opening of HoneyBook’s platform wasn’t nearly as important as the maintenance that followed.
Funnel of trust
At the end of our talk, Yotam spun his laptop around and showed me how the funnel’s pillars had climbed. And it had all happened in a very short timeframe.
“We went from around a 16% conversion to a 23% conversion of these different steps,” Yotam said. “We improved on each of these stages. None of them is a very dramatic improvement itself, but they add up to 33 or 40% improvement of the overall conversion.”
The party line in product management is that it’s never one thing that drastically improves user behavior. And with HoneyBook, the product team had to slowly tease out users’ trust. It’s very similar to the business the platform caters to.
Every time a mother hires a DJ for her son’s bar mitzvah, she’s taking a chance. She’s counting on the DJ to not play grossly inappropriate music for 13-year-olds (despite what the teens may want). And the DJ, in turn, is taking a chance on HoneyBook: Make me look good in front of my clients.
“This is how they’re going to be seen by their clients, and so they’re afraid of it,” Yotam said. “This whole process of them doing it on their own is obviously not trivial.”
Yotam doesn’t take this lightly and he can’t. Not every day at HoneyBook will be momentous for him. Some are spent testing features that won’t yield success. But it’s important that he does. Because even on an off day, he’s making a big day possible for someone, somewhere.