For five years, Meenal Balar's job was to figure out how to get more people to use Facebook — everywhere in the world. In 2009, as the growth team was just coming together, the company already had its eyes fixed on a billion users, and Balar was one of the key players that would get them there by answering questions like: How do we onboard mobile-only users? Okay, now how do we do it in the remotest corners of the globe?
"In the early stages of growth, my team cranked on generating awareness and testing our core product experience, but honestly, so much of what we did was about understanding the path people needed to take before they even got to our front door," says Balar, who — as Director of International Growth — set her sights on landing users in Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, India, and many more countries where Facebook was yet to become a household name.
Now as VP of Marketing at startup Remind (helping teachers, students and parents connect safely and securely via mobile messaging), she's applying these growth superpowers to convert millions of these people into faithful users. In this exclusive interview, she provides the frameworks and advice to help startups of all types stop guessing — or "hacking" as it were — and start growing.
"All prospective users for any product or service fall into three buckets," says Balar. "First, you have users who have never heard of your product ever; second, you have users who know about you but aren't using you; and third, you have people who know about you but don't want to use you. Most growth work focuses on those first two segments."
Bucket one requires generating awareness through the usual means — figuring out how people discover your product and then manufacturing those encounters by focusing on product virality, advertising, and partnerships that expose your product to more audiences. Bucket two is more complex but offers a ton of opportunity. "You want to dissect that second category of people who know about you but haven't converted. That will drive you to understand your audience more deeply, including how they view and experience the product end-to-end.”
For example, when Balar's team was trying to boost signups in other countries, they would look at Facebook's initial registration flow and observe how much friction people encountered in each locality. In parts of Africa especially, many users didn't have email addresses, just phone numbers. To attract those users, Facebook needed to make it as easy as possible to sign up without an email address, and the impact of this change was huge. In her experience, several tactics have worked best for diving into that second bucket:
Partner with experts on the ground: Facebook was able to hire local generalists with strong product intuition and analytical ability who helped recruit users in key markets, and partnered with local organizations to better understand the ecosystem in new geographies. For startups without this type of capability, this can mean working remotely with users who represent a larger group you want to bring in. The important thing is having an expert on the ground to provide real insight into the local community. Assumptions will only get you so far.
Test your product, constantly: "You have to keep diligently testing your core product flows even in periods of significant growth," says Balar. "When you’re looking at a dashboard from headquarters, everything could seem like it’s working fine, but different conditions lead to different user decisions and flows. You have to make sure your product still makes sense in all contexts."
A few years ago, Facebook’s growth manager in Asia shared that many users in Indonesia were primarily using the platform to post goods for sale. They would publish pictures of items and tag all their friends and acquaintances, generating notifications that would drive purchases. While data showed positive engagement, with Indonesian users amassing a lot of friends, sharing photos and tagging others, the reality was that this spammy, more commercial behavior negatively impacted Facebook’s brand and product value long-term. Through more advanced analysis and user testing, Balar and her team were able to understand what was happening and collaborate with teams across Facebook to encourage more authentic interactions in Indonesia.
Analyze users across all dimensions: You need to examine your data set for cohorts you might not have noticed before. For example, mobile users could be distributed geographically, but they also represent a distinct group where the product has to workdifferently. "When you talk about a mobile-only user, there's a lot that affects their experience — from type of device they own to the size of your app to the cost of their mobile data plan. Data can show you where these groups are most likely to drop off so you can bridge those gaps.
"Winning those users who haven't converted yet is dependent on your ability to paint a picture around who they are and what they have to go through or experience before going to your site or downloading your app," says Balar. "Things picked up dramatically at Facebook when we started to focus not just on in-product friction but the friction in people's lives outside the product that influenced their actions."
This is how you can start to think about growth as something much bigger than your product. In addition to this mindset, you need to nail down retention before putting a defined strategy in motion.
User acquisition doesn't really make sense unless you already have healthy retention.
As soon as you see that early users are coming back and you're successfully engaging them, you can think about growth more systematically. Before that point, you've got an issue with product-market fit and your energy should go into dissecting and fixing that.
"The Facebook growth team was incredibly disciplined about retention — we were all trained to think about retention as the sign of real product value. If you push people into an app experience that they're just going to churn out of, you're going to lose more than you think," Balar says. "Those people are nearly impossible to ever get back.”
These first users should come in from generating basic awareness — through your personal networks, maybe an early press hit, but not much more. If you feel like you need more data, then it makes sense to pay for an initial user stream (this doesn't count as paid acquisition), just to get a more holistic perspective on what you can actually do to improve the product experience. Try something. See if folks stick. Repeat until at least some are coming back again and again, and qualitative feedback is positive. Then you can shift gears into driving organic growth.
Growth Is a Cross-Functional Sport
"I see a lot of startups with one person dedicated to 'growth,' but I'd encourage every founder to think of it as a team effort," says Balar. "At Remind, there's a dedicated team for growth but it constantly works with point people on marketing, engineering, product, support, the CEO. We're all tasked with figuring out how we can get more people engaged on the platform. It's the whole company's job."
Only through speaking to all these other people do they know what areas to explore next — and more importantly, to execute. "Often, our growth team will surface new ways teachers are sharing Remind to create new tactics — habits that could be leveraged more broadly as features built into the product," says Balar. As a startup working off one central roadmap, they're only able to build and test these features with buy-in from product and engineering.
"When we want to go after a new market segment or have an idea for a growth feature, we know exactly which resources we have to make it happen, and how to prioritize it based on projected impact and what others are doing," she says. "Growth teams can generate powerful insights all day, but the only way to move the needle is if you set clear goals and have people across the organization willing to chip away at them together."
Execution is so critical. Sometimes you just need to try something, see what works and move forward.
Even if your company's not at a scale where you have multiple growth professionals, you can make it a shared responsibility. Don't sequester your growth team off on its own. If it's prioritized by leadership, then people will be far more willing to share ideas, help validate hypotheses, and build features that feed user acquisition.
Create a Culture of Measurement and Big Bets
"Growth is rooted in iterative improvements — and you can't do that unless you have the data to inform that process, and help direct and prioritize your work," says Balar. "Engaging more users is all about testing, iterating, optimizing, and scaling winning ideas or tactics. All of this starts with a measurement framework that surfaces the right data and makes it available to the growth team and the rest of the company. At Remind, especially during back to school, all of us know exactly when we’re going to hit our peak of 400,000+ users a day, and what this looks like against our overall goals for that week. Making good data accessible is the first step to establishing a data-driven culture, so everyone is thinking about ways to fuel growth, remove friction, and constantly improve user experience."
Working at Facebook, where all measurement tools were built in-house, reinforced exactly how important these capabilities are for Balar. At Remind, the team relies on Chart.io for data visualization and formerly used Optimizely for A/B testing before building their own tool in-house. These solutions have worked nicely side by side. Other than data accuracy, the two most important tasks your infrastructure needs to accomplish: Making it clear where users are coming from, what they're doing, and when they're leaving — allowing you to test out new theories that could change this behavior for the better.
"In my experience, great instrumentation and visualization will reveal a lot of low hanging fruit right away — gaps in your funnel that you can prioritize and test your way through to get an answer. If you’re evaluating performance of your invite emails, you can hone in on opportunities like where should these buttons go? What color should they be? Where should we place the links to make them more clickable?" says Balar. Starting early, Remind prioritized data infrastructure before features. This foundational work helped them become much more disciplined about product development and operations.
Having this data stream also helped both Facebook and Remind take some big swinging bets over the years. "Yes, these are bets that had an almost equal chance of being amazing or failing, but when it comes to hitting really aggressive targets — especially as a startup — you have to take some big risks." To run this exercise at Remind, all the teams get together to determine what their next priorities should be to enable growth and define what the most impactful bets should be. Those turn into the projects everyone is willing to put resources against.
At Facebook, one of the biggest bets they made according to Balar was acquiring Snaptu, a Java-based development firm in Israel. While a big part of the company was focusing on Facebook’s smartphone applications, this bet came out of the fact that a majority of new users around the world were signing up on a clunky mobile site, with limited ability to find friends or efficiently load photos or messages. Snaptu offered a faster, more engaging experience on feature phones, which mapped to Facebook's long-term priority to deliver an awesome product experience across all devices. It turned out to be a really great bet, with over 100 million users on the interface each month.
"The Snaptu bet was the combination of local growth managers seeing the mobile-first opportunity, the friction that existed when using Facebook on basic phones, and our business development and leadership teams seeing a strategic opportunity to drive our next wave of growth," she says.
In addition to iterative improvements, a culture of measurement yields a culture of big bets that, in turn, lead to step changes in your business. The takeaway? Invest in the tools, time and people it's going to take to capture quality data. Get software that helps you and multiple teams within the organization not just see but understand this data. Use it to empower your company to continually test what's working and make actual changes as a result. And, most importantly, use numbers paired with real-world insights to validate big risks that will capture sizable marketshare.
The Steps to Sustained Growth
Growth isn't just about user acquisition — in fact, that's just the first of four steps to real, meaningful expansion. Here's the progression every company should be looking for:
Acquisition: How do you get people in the door?
Activation: How do you get them to start using your product?
Engagement: How do you keep them using the product and make them willing to come back?
Virality: How do you turn engagement into people inviting others to join them using your product?
Each of these steps has a handful of facets. When you break acquisition down, for instance, you need to think about product discovery, app installations, pricing considerations, etc.
"At Facebook, when we started studying our mobile user base in emerging markets and where they were coming from, we realized how many people were on prepaid data plans, and as a result, how price sensitive they were. This had major influence on our growth tactics," says Balar. "At Remind, we've observed how a majority of teachers discover us through word of mouth, so we've spent a lot of time thinking about how to build that sort of sharability into the product. Acquisition is largely about understanding how people discover and share, and mapping your product tactics to match the specific behavior you want to be driving."
Similarly, activation requires extensive usability testing and investigation into user friction both inside and outside your product.
"One thing we kept seeing during usability testing at Remind is that teachers would try to download Remind on the App Store, but they'd forget their password and wouldn't be able to get it," says Balar. "We saw a pretty significant drop off at that step in the process. And it makes sense if you think about teachers and everything they’re managing. A majority of them are always juggling a million things at once and have so much to remember."
Teachers who forgot their passwords would next go to the company's mobile website, which — early on — didn't serve up the best experience. There was no way for them to get an accurate sense of what Remind could do for them, so they'd bounce. Seeing this negative trend, the team invested the resources to build a responsive, super fast and lightweight version of the service for the mobile web. This experience was designed to hook teachers immediately, so they'd either continue using Remind as a web app or take the extra steps to download the mobile app.
"We were able to act on basic insight about minimizing friction for people journeying into the product," she says.
Usability testing is often unsexy work, but it's critical to snagging those users who have demonstrated some interest before clicking away.
Usability testing comes in many shapes and sizes. For a more scalable solution, you can use a site like UserTesting, which allows you to expose your product to people who have never seen it before, and get video of how they use it. There are several like it. But Balar recommends backing that up with an in-person strategy if you can.
"At Remind, we've spent a lot of time building local relationships with schools and teachers who we can invite to our happy hours or social gatherings. It's a chance for us to talk to them offline and watch them take very low-lift usability tests in between drinks or talking to our staff," she says. "We usually test a very specific flow in the app — something like the mechanism to invite non-users. We've gotten a ton out of it — not only product insight but also the opportunity to strengthen a relationship with teachers who end up feeling like they have a stake in the product experience. They often invite other teachers to following meet-ps and make a point of talking to the engineers and other folks about what they'd like to see."
When you're able to directly witness how your users interact with a product and why they like it, you can apply those lessons to speed up activation. What features do people gravitate toward first? Maybe you introduce those earlier in the app experience. Why do people come back a second or third time? Juice those attributes to retain even more new users. As you'll see in the next section, the more users you activate, the more you can engage — and that's where things really start to take off.
"The root of organic growth? Engaged users who help you spread the word," says Balar. But how do you actually create engagement? What are the nuts and bolts of virality? Two factors stand out above all else:
Are you showing the right things to users at the right time —creating "aha moments"?
Are you leveraging their social graph in a way that makes it easy for them to pull in people they know?
"We've seen in our data at Remind that when a school has just one teacher on the platform, that's when the momentum starts and many others join," says Balar. "So, from a product perspective, we thought long and hard about what that moment was and where we could optimally ask a teacher to invite a colleague. We're constantly thinking about which moments are right to trigger prompts that surface the behavior we want."
You want to streamline the action it takes for someone to share your product with another. One or two taps is all you get in most cases. Facebook benefited tremendously from being able to populate people’s contacts immediately.
If you don't have access to a concrete graph of contacts (which many don't), you need to get creative. Remind, for example, knows their strongest user networks exist offline. "A lot of what we do is provide easy ways for people to tap into their existing social networks. We also need to make it super easy for students and parents to add themselves into classes to connect with teachers, which further builds out our own home-grown social graph. Ideally there are existing graphs you can leverage to drive growth, but you may need to crowdsource your own to get started," she says.
Push notifications are another critical tactic for reaching the right users at opportune moments. Balar cites Instagram as a company doing a great job with push notifications that cleverly tie into people's social networks. "If you’re new to Instagram, you may not be connected to many other users on the product right away. But if you’ve connected your account to another service, and you get a notification that someone you know just shared a photo, you’re probably going to check it out. Relevant push notifications, delivered to users that need the extra nudge, draw people in and drive more engagement."
For app engagement and retention, almost nothing is as important as a targeted push strategy.
There are four things you have to keep in mind to succeed at push notifications:
Content: It's very easy to get spammy with push and email, and spam translates into people opting out of push, unsubscribes and churn. You have to make sure you're delivering messages that create real value for end users.
The Trigger: When are you generating these messages? How can you use timing to habitualize behavior you want from users? If you trigger people wisely, you can train users to think a particular behavior or action is important.
Audience: What do people actually want to see? "At Facebook, we found that the notifications we were sending to our most engaged users didn't make a huge impact — they were coming back to the site every day anyway. By limiting those and being really thoughtful about which messages to send to which users, we focused more of our resources on engaging users that were likely to churn.”
Delivery: Notifications can only do their job if they get to the right person at the right moment. "A lot of companies forget to think about whether messages are actually getting to people in the window they want them to," Balar says. "It matters. You have to have measurement infrastructure that allows you to track those delivery points. If this is off, your data on how people are reacting to things will be skewed."
"Aha moments" are also connected to milestones in the user experience. On Facebook, people tended to become engaged users after gaining a certain number of friends within a short time span. At Remind, teachers have their "aha moment" with the product when they see the students in their classes join. "As students and parents add themselves to classes on the app, the teachers see their names populate in a list, and that's when they tend to get it and why this product will be so powerful for them," says Balar. "Those are the moments you really want to capitalize on in order to move users beyond just trying things out."
You have to anticipate what emotional experience your users want to have and then deliver it to them immediately.
"Data and user observation can show you where those moments are in your product flow, but it's up to you to juice them as much as possible," she says. "It's also up to you to then change your product or alter the experience so that people get to these points of 'just getting it' faster and sooner. How soon can you showcase all the possibility your product has for them? That's the real challenge."
As you grow, and more and more people learn about and use your product, your audience will begin to change. It's inevitable. For example, Remind knows that the first million teachers it onboards will probably look very different than the next million.
"Our early users are likely the teachers who are already out there using tech like Twitter in their classrooms all the time," says Balar. "We need to be thinking about what that next million will look like in order to roadmap the right things today. They'll probably need a bit more support, and to understand ‘what’s in it for them’ in a different way. Our growth strategy will need to support that direction."
It could be that this next wave of teachers will have different concerns as well. It's possible that they could be more wary about privacy, safety or security of their data. Those are also areas where Remind could market their strengths since safety and security are core parts of the product. "We're always thinking through what the profile of our future audience will be and making informed predictions about the value they’re seeking — anticipating how we will need to tilt our messaging and offering in one direction or another."
Once you hit your stride with organic acquisition, it might also make more sense to integrate paid mechanisms as well. "Once you have healthy retention, I think it's a good idea to test both organic and paid," says Balar. "I think you should obviously still invest in organic acquisition as your primary driver, but testing out paid can gain you real efficiencies. Paid is often most useful when you're under time pressure and you really need to accelerate growth. That's why you see a lot of gaming companies using paid boosts at certain times."
You can have a great growth plan, but it won't work if you don't have the humility it takes to understand your audience and the truth about how they're using your product.
For Balar, the overarching takeaway from her time at Facebook and Remind is that there's no silver bullet.
"No matter how much progress you make, you’re constantly understanding, learning, and testing," she says. "Set big ambitious goals, meet them, and then set higher ones. You're doing growth right if you accept that your work will never be done."