Francesco Bovoli is a CPO/COO at Emoticast, a UK-based startup whose apps generate music-based entertainment GIFs for mobile messaging. Francesco has been part of reputed organisations such as Accenture and has helped spearhead start-ups such as Karhoo and Import.io. Last time, we met Francesco to discuss user growth, optimising experiments and the secret to increasing opt-in rates in push notifications. This time, Francesco talks about acquisition, engagement and ‘must-have’ features…
Interviewer: Great to have you back again, Francesco! How have you been doing?
Francesco: I’m doing great. Thank you!
Interviewer: Starting off from where we left last time, I’ve noticed you use the terms ‘user acquisition’ and ‘engagement’ interchangeably. There are times when we treat them as two distinct things and at times they seem quite similar. How are the two related, according to you?
Francesco: Well, the simplest way to understand acquisition and engagement is through the leaky bucket analogy. Your product is like a bucket with holes at the bottom. You want to fill the bucket with water, which is acquisition. But water’s constantly leaking from the bucket so you’ve got to handle that problem. If you are able to ensure enough water in the bucket despite the leak, it means your engagement strategies are working. In other words, acquisition is how you add more water from the top and engagement is how you prevent the leaks at the bottom. They both directly affect the key metric, which is how many users you’ve got.
Interviewer: If I want to increase my users, do you think it’s a good idea to equip your product with built-in user-acquisition features? Maybe a feature that enables existing users to invite new users, for example…
Francesco: Well, a viral acquisition channel is the way to go. We partnered with Kick among others, which is a popular messaging platform in the US — it has three hundred million users. Although almost non-existent in the UK, it is huge in the US, where we are also quite big. And we try to barter with them quite closely and they told us that we do really well on viral retention and viral acquisition. About every three users that comes in through the acquisition funnel brings in the fourth one for free. It works really well in games. Candy Crush is obviously the case study here. You need to connect to Facebook and then with just one click you can invite others. We’re thinking of doing the same. A user likes your product, and he can send invites to his friends to come join. Then, you tie it to a reward mechanism — like in games, where you get an amount of coins which help you clear the next stage. That works. For example, if you had more friends, we give you ‘promoted to the next status’ or ‘more followers’. You know, some reward for bringing in more people. There are mainly three types of new users — and I’m quoting Eric Reese here —the organic, the paid and the viral. People who have found out about your product on their own come under organic. They might have stumbled upon it, or read about it somewhere and they are curious enough to try the product.
The paid ones are those users you pay your marketing genius to get on board.
Under viral are the ones that are acquired by the existing users.
Interviewer: Interesting. Ok, tell us how you decide on which features are ‘must haves’. Many-a-time product managers believe certain features are ‘must have’ but their team thinks otherwise and it is tough to convince all the stakeholders. How do you work around those situations?
Link to full audio interview [here]
Francesco: Well, it depends. If it’s the CEO who comes in and says, “I spoke to this very influential person and he said we have to try this”, the team will not be in a position to say no and will have to try it out.
The way I look at it, the decision for a ‘must have’ feature can either be ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’. The way to dealing with the problem is different for both.
If it’s bottom up, what actually works for me, is voting as a team. We have an open discussion on what makes sense — the team decides.
I’ll give you a real life example.
We were discussing how to improve speed and I was all about, “Let’s develop five different types of solutions, so that right kind of gif is served to the right audience, with the right speed.” What I meant was that if somebody is in India, where the connection is slightly poor, you serve the lower resolution feed, and if your guys are in Hong Kong and they’re all about 4K and super crisp clear pictures, then hit them with the highest quality video. Although, it requires heavy features to build, which you can’t develop overnight, I believed that was the way to go.
That’s when a new engineer in our team raised his hand.
“How about we switch on the CDN?” he suggested.
CDN, for a non-techie, is Content Delivery Network. It is something you must have if you do fixed content, particularly if you have videos.
We had never even thought about it. It was a great idea. It took him about two hours and he saved a lot of time just by developing that one feature.
It’s much better if it’s a conceived effort from the team. If I have a team of engineers coming up with something they believe is revolutionary and I’m not convinced, I’m willing to go along with them even if I don’t believe it if they are really committed. I believe that unless it is really expensive or you’re convinced it’s really bad, I’d go along with the team. So, that’s the thing with bottom up requests.
Interviewer: Ok. And what about top down requests?
Francesco: Top-Down is different. It is imperative that you make sure you are working with the right CEO. And equally important how you manage his or her impression of you.
I typically report to the CEO. The product manager is usually the single wringable neck in this industry. He is the one who normally gets fired if the product doesn’t go well.
So, you need to have an open, honest conversation with the CEO when you start a new job. And, look for the quick win. You look for something that you can do well, that’s really fast, deliver it, and use it to build a reputation — something that makes your CEO think this guy knows what he’s doing. It need not be a big thing, but something you can deliver, something that moves the needle, because the first thing you have to buy is trust in your team and then trust from your boss. Once you get those quick wins, you can buy enough leeway. Then, you are in a position to opine about the features that you do not agree or identify with. Then, you will be able to say, “I am sorry but I really think this is not a good idea for this and this is what we’re going to try instead” or “if you don’t mind I’m just going to do it this way because that’s what you hired me for”.
Interviewer: It makes sense. Well thanks a lot Francesco it was a pleasure talking to you and we hope to see you again sometime. Thank you.
Francesco: Thank you.