Actionable Metrics – Something all publishers ought to pay attention to

Many sites are geared towards getting customers to download something and some attempts are made to get them to log in and personalize the site for themselves. As you build your solutions, its important to think in terms of what the user is getting out of all this and how they got to you site, what actions led them to download from your site. By paying attention to that you can increase repeat visits and downloads.

Recommend reading this article – Actionable Metrics – Say Hello to Cohort Analysis.

Here Ash Maurya talks about the difference between actionable metrics vs vanity metrics. The latter per Mr. Maurya  –

“only serve to document the current state of the product but offers no insight into how we got here or what to do next “

Couldn’t agree more.

So let me summarize some of the stuff he states because a) it helps me internalize these nuggets b) hopefully it gives anybody reading my post an overview. Definitely read his post!! And then I’ve tried to apply this to my own area of interest further below.

He offers three rules for actionable metrics –

1. Measure the right macro – Key things to know – How do users find you; Do users have a great first experience; Do they come back; How do you monetize; and Do they refer you.  Most importantly, don’t waste effort on simply driving signups when customer retention is already a problem. Focus on getting people a great first experience (getting what they want) and then getting them to come back.  This to me means, find out what your users are looking for, what they always download, make sure they can get it fast and at the point where they are converting, make their experience so good that they will want to do more or will come back for more. Sounds obvious but how often do we pay attention to what users really want and how good a first experience they are really having?

2. Create simple reports – We’re all impressed by the various charts and graphs and pages of information that many analytic tools produce or reports created on spreadsheets. But honestly, how many of us really digest every bit of information. I always save these off for later reading  but never get to them. Now compare that to a simple one page report (like the executive summary) or simple reports that speak to a specific problem; now that simplifies everything. I will definitely consume that immediately. So Mr. Maurya suggests looking at funnel reports based on Cohort analysis (or groups of people who share similar characteristics). For example a funnel report of users who are in different types of market segments or maybe different user types (guest vs logged in). Why do this? It tells you how any event or activity you did affects each cohort. Simple!

3. To make these metrics actionable, tie them back to specific user or users. This way you can find out who your activity worked for and who it didn’t. This enables you to contact these specific users for follow ups and feedback and thus get specific insights that you can act upon.

Feels so much like things we already do but the simplicity part is key here.

OK so let’s try an example specifically to the publishing industry. You have content that readers want to consume and they pay for it. More than likely users come from Google or some other search engine. When they arrive at your landing page, are they able to quickly consume the content. What is their first experience? Do they actually spend time consuming the information on your site or do they just download the PDF and go away? You probably want them to stay and read more. So focus on improving first experience – simple reading, fast page load, easy navigation, easy to understand functionality, etc. What do you measure when trying to improve the experience? User engagement perhaps. Additional page visits per session perhaps? Reuse of functionality? Revisits? Any thing else?

OK once you figure out what to measure, think about what kind of reports you want to see. Cohorts to me are by market segments – academic, corporate, government. Then there are guest users vs subscribers. What is in the funnel report here? #User visit page ->#User downloaded content->#user engaged with page->#user signed up for alerts perhaps (or something else) OR #user visited other pages.

Alright, once you have that and start getting reports, you then have to find specific users within each cohort that you can survey or email or talk to.

I think I got this. Any comments? Or other thoughts?

The key question is – What is the user trying to do

If you’re in the business of producing anything for anybody; I’m sure this question may have popped into the back of your mind every now and then – What is the user trying to do? Perhaps it has always been there but just hasn’t come to the forefront.

I have great respect for people at work and outside of work who just simply seem to be able to focus in on that question so often. We all get caught up in the daily fire fights, focusing on resolving the issue of the day that we forget the big picture. What problem is the user facing? and are we solving that? or are we just trying to get stuff out the door?

Every time we decide that something is good enough, are we really thinking – Is it good enough to help our users solve what they are trying to do? or is it just good enough to satisfy our immediate need to declare success?

This could apply to politics or product development or research or what have you. For example – Politicians should ask themselves – What are our citizens trying to do? or what problems are they trying to solve? and how can we help them solve their problems?

The question of course is not – Can we solve it for them? Its how can we help them or how can we enable them or how can we provide them tools that can help them solve the problems by themselves.

In the coming days there will be some news on Elsevier’s effort to provide people the tools to solve some of the problems for themselves. More specifically related to finding and using scientific articles. Hopefully that’s more along the ‘what is the user trying to do’ line of thinking and I sincerely hope people see it that way. Will be great to find out.

How to innovate

Innovation is a funny thing. You have all sorts of ideas that spring into your mind at weird times – in the shower, during your morning jog, when you’re ready to go to bed, etc. You get excited, you want to immediately tell the world about it and get it implemented. Of course reality strikes. You either forget about it, or the idea loses steam or you are not able to sell it. OR you are able to sell it, build it and take a shot at making it successful.

The question is – is that really innovation? What is the basis of innovation? Just a crazy idea that pops into your mind? Maybe but its got to be more than that. For instance – You have to know it will sell. How would you know that? It has to based on some facts. The internet is filled with resources that will tell you how to innovate and there are countless blogs, courses, webinars that do that same.

Here’s are some methods i have read, learned and practiced in my day to day work.

Method 1: (inspired by this podcast on the Product Management Pulse blog) This is the best and most valuable approach. In your industry (or area of interest), meet with as many users of your solutions or services, as you can. Not to find out how they use your product or service but instead focus on their situation. What is they day like? What is a good day? What’s a bad day like? What frustrated them? Think about how you can help them. Remember – the ideas to build your business lie outside you office. Get out, talk to people.

Method 2: Conferences, seminars are a gold mine of ideas. I’m not talking about sitting in your booth and making presentations or just visiting the competitor’s booth. Talk to the people who are attending the seminars. Why are they there? What are they looking for? Now i haven’t personally done enough of this but i have been to a few training sessions and public seminars where i have met and talked to a few people. I can only imagine there is a lot more focus and broader range of people at conferences related to your industry.

** The next 2 methods are more internally focused and certainly not the best way to come up with useful ideas. But if you dont have enough support to routinely engage with users or attend seminars then these would be alternatives. **

Method 3: (Inspired by the Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge) For your business or personal interest, identify what your core strengths are. Look into the past and identify your key success factors. Think about the factors that led to those successes. Keeping in mind where you are now, think about where you would like to be a few years from now. Now think about how you can extrapolate your core strengths and past success factors to get to where you would like to be. While doing this exercise you might stumble upon ideas you need to implement today to get where you want to go.

Method 4: Talk to sources inside your company. Your sales force, your customer service people, your marketing folks, your usage research/business intelligence folks. They all interact with users or study/influence user behavior. They can give you valuable insights that you may want to consider as well.

Last but not least is social media. Pay attention to what people are talking about on Twitter, Facebook, Blogs about your company, your product, your interests. Try and learn from them. Of course take everything with a grain of salt and dig deeper if you find a nugget of information.

These are just some thoughts but the point is the more you can learn about your users/customers the more you can innovate successfully. You should be passionate about getting close to your customers… to genuinely try and help solve problems for them.Find ways to engage with them face to face or when all fails at least over phone. While the Apples of the world may innovate behind closed doors those are very few success stories. You will have far more chances of successes and innovative ideas if you engage closely with your users.

Focus on facts and go make it happen.

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Michael Nielsen » Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?

This is a very insightful entry by Michael Nielsen.  Due to my bias, I had to immediately skip to Part II before i came back and read Part I. Some of the things i might question – Automatic spelling correct/relevancy ranking/alerting service, etc are indeed offered on Scopus. But whether they are good (I believe they are competitive) is certainly something the users will judge and Michael would qualify as one. I haven’t heard from any of the users i talked to that any of these feature are poor but again it could be my bias.

A great search engine for science: ISI’s Web of Knowledge, Elsevier’s Scopus and Google Scholar are remarkable tools, but there’s still huge scope to extend and improve scientific search engines [6]. With a few exceptions, they don’t do even basic things like automatic spelling correction, good relevancy ranking of papers (preferably personalized), automated translation, or decent alerting services. They certainly don’t do more advanced things, like providing social features, or strong automated tools for data mining. Why not have a public API [7] so people can build their own applications to extract value out of the scientific literature? Imagine using techniques from machine learning to automatically identify underappreciated papers, or to identify emerging areas of study.

via Michael Nielsen » Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?.

Read the article in its entirety. It  is very insightful and several pointers can be taken away as always.

Simple ideas lead to useful solutions

Sometimes the simplest of solutions can be most useful. For example, if you are out looking for a house and want to calculate how much mortgage you can afford, one simple solution would be look up a mortgage calculator online. I’ve used this tool from Bankrate in the past and found it useful.

Anyway – my point is – sometimes simple tools that focus on a niche area can be very helpful. We are always looking for the next killer app, the next ‘cool’ idea that will solve problems for a lot of people. While we’re trying to build that one solution fits all, we can often get lost in complexity.

Twitter, in my opinion, is a really simple app. I remember years ago, i built a silly little VB client app to post updates on tasks I was working on for this dot com startup. My team mates could also get on the same app running on their machines and post their updates. None of the updates were lost since we stored them in a central dB. Didn’t think too much of it and it got lost in time as we all moved on with our careers. Goodness me… if only I knew.

Here’s another example of a simple app that will have its uses. Kevin Marks is a former Google employee (Read news about his departure). Brilliant guy who worked on all kinds of stuff – Orkut, OpenSocial, Microformats, what have you. You can check out his blog (Epeus’ epigone) for more gory details.

A couple of days ago he put together this application in 12 hours. Amatwit. Using Amazon’s API and the Twitter’s API users can search Amazon for items (currently defaulting to books) and from the search results you can tweet links to those books. Nice.. simple.. useful.

Do you have any simple and useful solutions? Maybe you already have something and just don’t realize it.

Shake things up – find new stuff

Sometimes you spend time and resources building features into your product only to find that customers don’t notice it. It can be frustrating.

For the past 7 years i had been shopping at the local Walmart. I knew where everything was and in which aisle. I didn’t have to think too much about it. Quick zip in and zip out process… a guys dream.

So last week, they closed the local Walmart and opened a Super Walmart nearby. Oh the frustration trying to find things. I must have spent at least an extra 15 minutes trying to find what i wanted (time i could have spent lying around on my couch). I did notice one thing though… I found and bought products that i didn’t know existed or were even sold at Walmart. They’ve probably always been there but i never went to those sections or aisles. How about that?

So let me draw a parallel and deduce that every once a while, you need to shake things up with your product. Move things around so people spend just a tad bit more time on your website/product and they may notice features that were always there but hitherto did not notice.

New product strategies for publishing companies

Love this presentation from Judy Sims… Very nicely summarized at the end of her post and i’ve quoted below. There are specific themes I’ve take the liberty of highlighting below that traditional publishers need to pay attention to –

The economics of media have shifted. Scarcity and abundance have flipped. This has caused hyperdeflation in media value and the end of the blockbuster era. Hyperdeflation can be countered by creating snowballs. The old media blockbuster economy was built on exclusion. The new snowball economy will be built by being open to aggregators, micro-platforms and re-constructors and capitalizing on economies of distribution, coordination and production.

This part i really like

In media 2.0 there are 3 sources of value creation.

Revelation – what’s good. (My comment: includes anything that helps our users get what they want – links from competitors, blogs; anything relevant to users – we should provide it.)

Aggregation – bring elegant organization to the huge amount of data I’m exposed to and

Plasticity – let me get my hands on your content to see how I can add my own value to it. (My comment: i.e. via API, etc)

This new economy requires radically different product strategies: letting the outside in, curation rather than ownership, becoming a part of an ecosystem, moving from mass to vertical content and viewing the site as a service instead of a product.

via The New Economics of Media and thestar.com – SimsBlog.