Leading the Buffer mobile acquisition squad

In the Buffer’s marketing team, we have been experimenting with a new squad format for the past few months. Here’s how I ran the squad for a recent product cycle.

While the marketing team continues to work on our ongoing projects, such as the blog and social media, the marketing squad focuses on a specific meaningful metric and try to move the needle. We focused on churn for six weeks (the length of our product cycle, which we also follow in the marketing team) and mobile acquisition for another six weeks.

For that two cycles, participation was voluntary. Anyone can opt in or opt out before a cycle started. I joined as a member of the squad for the first cycle and was offered an opportunity to lead the squad for the second cycle. This was the first time I’m leading a team at work so I was really excited about it (though I very much saw it as helping to organize and coordinate things in the squad to keep it running smoothly).

The squad processes

Here’s an overview of how I ran the squad, iterating from the previous cycle with the things we learned.

We followed the growth machine model by Brian Balfour. Even though the model is meant for growth teams, we found it useful for us. (I’m sure our processes aren’t perfect. If you have any suggestions for us, I would love to hear them!)

1. Planning

First, we decide on the metric and plan for the cycle.

In between each product cycle, we have a two-week period for reflection, rest, and planning for the next cycle. During this time, I worked with my team lead, Kevan Lee, to decide on the metric for the squad. We eventually decided on mobile downloads for new-to-Buffer users for a number of reasons:

  • After looking at the breakdown of our Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) growth components, we discovered that the two areas that would make a meaningful impact on our MRR growth are new paying customers and churn.
  • The way our marketing team is set up is more suited for top-of-the-funnel, awareness and acquisition projects than bottom-of-the-funnel, retention projects, which we tried in the previous cycle.
  • As a marketing team, we have always been focusing on acquisition for Buffer’s web application. So there might be some hidden opportunities around our mobile apps that can make a meaningful impact.
  • We had several good sources of data to rely on, such as Looker, Apple App Store analytics, and Google Play Store Console.

Once we decided on the metric, I created a document with all the information we required for the cycle. This served as the backbone of the cycle, a place where everyone can come and find out what’s going on. It included the context of the squad (who’s involved, what’s the duration, etc.), our goal and projection, the data and data sources we have, and a brief timeline.

The main bulk of the document is where we state and track our processes, which are brainstorm, prioritize, test, implement, analyze, and learnings. Here are a few screenshots of the document:

The context of the project

Squad context

Our brainstorming prompts

Squad brainstorm

2. Kickoff and brainstorm

On the first day of the cycle, we had a kickoff sync (our term for a video call), where I shared the document and the key information and we brainstormed.

The approach I took with the brainstorm is this: Everyone brainstormed on their own for 10 minutes before adding their ideas to the document. Then each of us presented our ideas while the rest chimed in whenever we saw an opportunity to build on the idea.

Research has shown that brainstorming alone leads to more ideas, and more good ideas, than brainstorming in groups.

The idea of the brainstorm was to get creative and list as many ideas as possible first. We also recognize that we might not have the full context of an idea without researching into it. So we avoided criticizing ideas at this stage. This also prevented us from creating any stop energy.

It’s only in the next stage where we evaluated the ideas.

3. Prioritization of ideas

Next, we prioritized our ideas using the ICE score system.

The ICE score system is a framework by Sean Ellis of GrowthHackers. Here’s what ICE stands for:

  • Impact is the predicted amount that this idea, if done successfully, will mean to our metric.
  • Confidence is related to how probable we expect our success; low is for things we’ve never done before and high is for things we’ve experimented with.
  • Ease relates to resources — what do we need to implement? Time? Money? Engineering help?

We scored each ICE element on a scale of 1 to 5 (low to high) and then totaled the points (maximum 15).

Here are some ideas that I scored and ranked:

Squad prioritization

(☝️ One thing I learned during the cycle is that I could craft more specific hypotheses and be more quantitative about the predicted impact.)

This step is to help ensure that we would work on the most impactful idea, given the number of resources we have. In the previous cycle, we picked ideas to work on before scoring them with this system. I felt that this might mean that we weren’t working on the most impactful ideas first. So I swopped the sequence — prioritize before picking the ideas.

4. Experimentation and learnings

Then, we ran experiments, analyzed our results, and recorded our learnings.

This stage takes up the bulk of the cycle. We picked experiments to run based on their ICE score to ensure that we are working on the most impactful ideas first. For smaller experiments, one person would usually run with the idea himself. For bigger experiments, a few of us would collaborate.

We were lucky to have Matt Allen, our data analyst, who allocated 50 percent of his time to help with marketing data. He helped us with our experiment planning, getting the necessary data, and analyzing our results. Oh, and making sure that we weren’t p-hacking!

The most important part of this stage and the entire cycle is recording our learnings.

As mobile acquisition is an area that we have not explored before, we expected that many experiments would fail. But the main focus for us is to maximize our learnings. How does the app store (listing, ads, etc.) work? Why did an experiment succeed or fail? How can we improve the experiment based on what we have learned?

To help us be more intentional about maximizing our learnings, I created a document (linked from the main document) for us to record our learnings every week.

Squad learnings

5. Retrospective

At the end of the cycle, we had a retrospective sync to reflect on the cycle, discuss our learnings, and suggest ideas for the next cycle and beyond.

While the cycle wasn’t spectacular in terms of the mobile download numbers, everyone in the squad seemed to be encouraged by the learnings and potential ways for improvements we took away from the six weeks. (I’m impressed by what we have learned.)

An experiment on its own

The squad itself was an experiment to see if this team structure would work well for us. Overall, we are happy with this structure as it made ownership of metrics clearer and led to more collaboration between team members. Hence, we are implementing this structure for the entire marketing team. The marketing team will be split into two squads to focus on branding and acquisition.

Of course, I don’t think we have everything figured out yet. We’ll be learning and tweaking the system as we go. But I’m excited about what we will achieve in this new team structure.

I’m honored to be asked to be the liaison for the acquisition squad, helping to set goals, manage projects, and keep things running smoothly. It’ll be great to get any advice on this. If you know anyone who is doing something similar, I’ll be grateful if you could introduce me to the person. Thank you!

The awesome featured image is by William Hook, taken from Unsplash.


writing-an-article-is-like-creating-a-product

Today, I had a random thought about writing, and I’d love to explore it with you all.

The thought: writing an article — or even a book — is like creating a product.

To write something that people would want to read many times, we can think of the process as creating a product.

Let me elaborate.

Start with a problem

The top reason why startups fail is because there isn’t a market need for their product.

These entrepreneurs usually start with an idea. The idea feels so promising that they want to execute it and create the product. They think it’s a good idea but they usually don’t know if anyone needs the product. After they have created the product, they have to search for people who would use the product.

After reading up more about startups, I learned that the better way is to start with a problem. Find a problem a group of users has and then build a solution for that problem. If the product solves their problem, I’d have already found my users. (Of course, it’s harder than I seem to imply it is.)

This is the same for writing. When I’m eager to share an idea, I write a piece without thinking if anyone would need or want to read it. I admit this is the case for this article. The concept hit me this afternoon, and I felt compelled to share it.

That is alright if I only want to share an idea with others. But if I want to write something people would read, I have to start with their problems.

The better option is to know who I want to write for and write according to their needs. At Buffer, we created four personas based on our researchers’ interviews. This gives us a better idea of who we writing for and what problems they have.

buffer-personas

Introduction as onboarding

A good onboarding process guides users to find the core value of the product as soon as possible. Once users experience what the product can do for them, they are more likely to keep using the product. For instance, for Facebook, it was getting new users to 7 friends within 10 days.

If the onboarding process is too confusing, users might stop using the product then. It doesn’t matter if the product provides people a real value. If the onboarding process doesn’t convince them about that, they might not keep using the product.

The introduction of an article feels like an onboarding process to me. It tells the readers what they can expect from the article. If the introduction convinces the readers that the article would be valuable to them, they will read on.

Even if the article has valuable information, people might not read it if the introduction doesn’t hook them.

Design for usability/readability

Good design isn’t only aesthetically pleasing. Good design allows users to achieve what they want intuitively and easily.

An article can be well-designed too. There are two parts to the design of an article — the formatting and the visuals.

1. Formatting

Research has found that people tend to only scan through articles.

On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

But, if the formatting can convey the key points of the article well, readers might be more likely to pick up the key points. Here’s an example of the difference formatting can make (image by Ash Read):

formatted-text-vs-unformatted-text

A technique we use at Buffer is to highlight the key point of a section using a H3 subheading immediately after the H2 heading.

formatting-with-subheadings

People who scan through the article will notice the subheading — or key point — easily and immediately get an idea what the section is about. If it interests them enough, they would read the section.

This post by Ash Read goes into more details about formatting, but here are the 3 key points:

  • Use eye-catching subheadings
  • Make it scannable
  • Write short paragraphs

2. Visuals

Another part of design is the visuals. I’m guilty of using images and graphics just to break up a huge chunk of text. A huge chunk of text can be hard to read as seen in the image above by Ash Read.

Using images is a common practice to give readers breaks while reading the article. But it’s best when the visual is actually explaining something. This post by Jason Fried does it really well.

jason-frieds-post

The article is about how Andrew Mason described Meetup.com. The image explained the idea really well. I could even understand Jason’s point just by reading the title and seeing the image.

To me, that’s a great use of visuals. A picture says a thousand words. While it might not always replace a thousand words, a visual should help explain an idea I want to communicate so that I can use fewer words to describe it.

Solve the problem

At the end of the day, a great product solves the problem of the users.

That is the foundation for the product. An onboarding process can’t be effective if the product doesn’t provide a value in the first place. Great design wouldn’t save a product that isn’t valuable to the target users, too.

Like a great product that users would use repeatedly, an article has to be valuable enough for readers to want to come back and read it again. It has to solve a problem the readers have. There are articles which I read over and over again.

The content of the article forms the foundation of the article. The introduction and design build upon the content. If the content isn’t valuable to the readers, it doesn’t matter if it has a great introduction or if it’s well designed. People might read the article once but never again.

What do you think?

Great products solve a problem that users have, have an onboarding process that lets users experience the core benefits, and are easy and intuitive to use. People use such products over and over again.

Great articles solve a problem that the readers have, have an introduction that attracts readers to keep reading, and are easy to read and understand. People read such articles over and over again.

To me, writing an article is like creating a product.

What do you think of this idea?


how-im-learning-to-become-a-better-content-marketer

I recently became a content writer at Buffer. Buffer is a tech startup relatively well-known for content marketing, among many other things.

(Disclaimer: We gained that reputation before I became a content writer.)

I used to focus on community building. Recently, I had the opportunity to venture into the world of content marketing. A big part of content marketing is writing, and I don’t consider myself a great writer.

So I’m thankful for the opportunity, especially being able to learn from and work alongside some of the best content marketers in the industry.

At the same time, I also know there’s a lot of work ahead of me.

What I Have Been Doing

For the last three weeks, I have been working much harder to improve my writing.

I wrote at least 750 words a day.

I worked on the basics of writing such as spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.

I took notes in my Evernote whenever I learned something new.

But I know that if I want to become a better content marketer faster, I need to do more.

Figuring Out A Plan

When I was thinking of what I could do, I thought of my university days.

My grades were pretty good but it wasn’t because I’m smart (I don’t think I’m smart). It was because there was a great system for learning. And I like to think I’m rather diligent in following the system.

Because I trusted the system, I did everything the system had planned for me. I attended (almost) every lecture. I did (almost) every tutorial before the seminar classes. That served me well.

When I stepped into the “real” world, I realized things are different. No more syllabus, no more lectures, no more homework. I became a little lost.

I thought about it, and I think I might have found an explanation.

Back in university, instead of having to figure out how to learn, I was focusing on learning. With the system, I knew exactly what to do to become better.

Now, without a system for learning, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I have been learning in a disorganized manner.

My gut feeling was that having a system would be beneficial to me if I want to learn faster.

info-vs-knowledge

(Graphic by Hugh MacLeod)

Defining What I Need to Do

Before I dive right into creating a system, I thought it’d be great to define what I need to do.

To become a better content marketer and writer, I know I need to do more than writing regularly.

My hunch is I have to go through the full process of creating a content. Many times. While I have been writing daily, I haven’t been publishing my writing. I haven’t been editing and refining my writing, too.

I’m sure I’m missing out valuable lessons there.

Having considered that, there are two major things I need to:

  • Publish more online
  • Learn more about content marketing

Creating A System for Myself

After I’ve defined what I need to do, I could start creating a system to speed up my learning.

Like the system in my university, I want to have a system which gives me a clear idea of what I need to do to become better.

Thankfully, Kevan Lee, a great content marketer (and my team lead), generously shared how he got into content marketing. I decided to follow his approach.

Here’s the system I’ve come up with:

  1. Publish twice a week: This can be on the Buffer Social blog, our Medium publication, here, or other blogs as guest posts. By publishing articles, I’ll go through the full process of content creation — from ideation to research to writing to editing to promotion.
  2. Create a playground: This blog will be my playground. Apart from publishing articles, I can experiment with new things. I thought of experimenting with email newsletters, re-publishing onto Medium, and more. Also, since few people know about this blog, it takes some pressure off me.
  3. Read more articles and books: One thing I noticed is I can’t tell what a quality article is and what makes it great. I believe reading more will help me improve my judgment. More specifically, I want to read two articles a day and finish one book every two weeks.

my-content-marketing-learning-system

Bonus: To add structure to my learning process, I’m taking HubSpot’s content marketing course as well. It includes about four hours of videos and an exam at the end.

While passing the exam doesn’t necessarily make me a great content marketer, knowing that there’s an exam usually has a psychological effect on my mind to work (even) harder.

I believe this system should adapt as I progress further so I expect it to change in the future.

Keeping to the system

A challenge for this would be to stick to the system.

It’s much easier to say that I want to do all that than actually doing them.

So I thought of a few ways to help me:

  • Writing this post and publishing it is in itself a way. I hope by doing so, I’d feel more accountable to keep with the system.
  • At work, I found that when I tracked the progress of a project, the project would tend to be at the top of my mind. So, I created a spreadsheet to track my progress. (It’s public if you want to check it out!) I kept it simple as I want it to be easy to update.
  • For the last three weeks, I have been tweeting about my daily writing streak. Receiving encouragements from others has motivated me to continue. So, I’m going to tweet about my progress for this too. Perhaps wanting to be able to share my progress with this system could keep me going too.

Over to you

Do you use a system to speed up your learning? How do you keep yourself accountable?

I’d love to hear and learn from you!