Aaron Brennan, the Director of Product Marketing over at airSlate, joined us on the show to get up, close and personal with active users. From what they are, how to measure them, and what tactics to employ to keep users active, we chat about it all - and more.

Full transcript:

Bryony Pearce - PMA  0:00

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to the Product Marketing Life podcast brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name's Bryony Pearce, and I'm the Content Manager here at PMA. As part of this series, we're connecting with product marketers all over the world about topics they're super passionate about. And in this episode, we'll be speaking to Aaron Brennan, Director of Product Marketing at airSlate about all things active users. Aaron's been at airSlate since December 2018, and before that, held director level positions at LogMeIn and HelpLightning too. Going back to 2011 to 2014, he also spent a little over three years at a company you might have heard of - Google, for anyone who missed it, Aaron was also featured in our top 50 Product Marketing Influencers of 2019 report at the end of last year, congrats again for that, Aaron. Anyway, enough from me. First off, welcome to the show, Aaron. And secondly, could I ask you to please give everyone a bit of an introduction to you, your role, and airSlate?

Aaron Brennan  0:56

Yeah, of course. So I am the director of product marketing at airSlate we are a business processing and workflow automation company and also own two other products which are SignNow which is the number two e-signature worldwide as well as PDF Filler which is a online PDF editing tool product that you can just upload PDFs and fill in and send them off without having to print scan and all that other stuff. So airSlate was just launched in October and we're very excited for what we launched and we're seeing some great interest from it as well as some great usage from it and use cases and things like that since then, but we focus on all our products just as equally but airSlate's the brand new one that just rolled out. As far as my background, I have previous experience with LogMeIn launching products like LastPass and LogMeIn Central, and LogMeIn Pro, as well as launching Google Plus and Google Glass.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  2:05

And then what does your team at airSlate look like?

Aaron Brennan  2:08

So currently, I have one team member underneath me as well as one sales enablement person that rolls into me. The goal is right now to hire two other product marketing managers. So the way that I typically set up my teams at companies, depending on the size of the product, is at least one product marketing manager per product. And then underneath them a sales enablement manager that focuses on working with the sales team, enabling the sales team, and the product marketers really focused on being product experts.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  2:42

Okay, awesome. Thank you, and then moving on to active users. So for anyone who's new to the topic, could you just please give us a bit of an overview of what active users actually are?

Aaron Brennan  2:52

Yeah, so active users is a little bit of a loaded question because it depends on what kind of product you're talking about. But active users are people that are actively using it within your product on a defined basis that you put in to. So, for instance, an active user for us, is somebody who logs in twice a week, to the product, and does one of the following actions either sends out a form to be filled out, either edits a flow they've already created, adds a team member to their workspace, pretty much almost any kind of function within that, that would create building and engaging with the product itself. For a product like LastPass, our active users were daily, we were expecting that the daily usage to be high. So it was anybody that logged in every day and did a series of actions and we wanted them to do multiple things like save a password, share a password, log in to a site and so it was a multiple things that happened at the same time. So really it's the definition of how you describe it. But the crux and the core of what that is, is somebody that logs in and is active using the product daily.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  4:11

And are active users something that you're measured on in terms of KPIs?

Aaron Brennan  4:16

It is something that we're measured on in the form of KPIs, we call them OKRs, is driving active usage. So for us, it's making sure that people are coming in, using the product, re-engaging with people that fell off, making sure they're using the product, becoming active every single day.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  4:36

And in terms of actually measuring those active users, how do you do that? And what sort of tools do you use?

Aaron Brennan  4:42

Yeah, so that gets super hard, especially when you get to a product that's critical mass, you're losing and gaining people every day. So we actually, typically at almost every company that I've been at, we end up building out a dashboard. Either using Tableau or Google Analytics, or we build our own dashboard from scratch, where we have a view into what's happening. So we can see new users that are becoming active over a rolling 28-day basis, people who have lost and come back. And then we also have an active usage on what we call deepening product adoption, which really focuses on even if these users are coming back, what's the percentage of them that are actually going deeper into the product and learning more and becoming experts, we want to make sure that customer journey, from I don't know what the product is, into the product keeps going, so their journey keeps getting deeper and deeper into how the product works, how they can use it, different ways they can use it, and things like that.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  5:51

And then in many ways, I guess measuring active users is much easier for B2B SaaS companies than for example, those in B2C consumer goods. Is there any way the concept can sort of be applied to those sort of setups? So for example, a B2C consumer goods product marketer, could they class an active user, as someone who re-orders a box of the month, every month?

Aaron Brennan  6:15

Yeah, that is definitely one way to do it. You know, it's always a lot easier when you have access to the person and what they're doing. So, like you said, in an app-based culture where you can see people logging in, you have traction, you can see what they're doing within the app, and you can track how that works on a daily basis it's a lot easier. But there are those functions like delivery boxes and things like that, as well as on-prem products or thin clients that are on a computer that you don't always have access to the data that you're grabbing from them. That is always a great way to find out. So the first level of that is obviously did they renew or did they continue getting the box, or, the thin client or whatever you were working with. The next way that we did this, and I did this at an old company where we did an on-prem service, we started doing monthly surveys to segments of the users that we thought was reasonable. Asking them, how many times do you log in a week, what features and functions do you use, and so we started gathering surveys, that would say what our active users are about. And when those would come back, we didn't do them as regularly as we would want, like every day, but once a month, we would then realign what our numbers were from an active user standpoint.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  7:41

And if someone's listening right now, who's sort of in the process of setting up or reviewing those parameters, active users, what would be your do's and don'ts for them?

Aaron Brennan  7:50

Oh boy, the do's would be to make sure you define what an active user is. And don't define your active user based off of somebody else's metrics. What I've seen a lot of people do before is like, "Oh, well, Amazon has this as an active user. Or I know what an active user is at this company, or this is how I use Google". You really have to look at your product and define it. And that's always the first step, being honest. Is this a product that somebody would log into every day? Is this a product that somebody logs in once a week? Is this a product somebody will log into once a month? Right? And then defining what are the key functions and features that need to happen in order for someone to be an active user? So if somebody logs in and just checks out their profile, but doesn't actually do anything, in airSlate, we don't actually count them as an active user. They actually have to do something. So that would be the first thing that I would suggest to do. The second piece is, how do you want to drive people to be more active users? How do they come in? And how do they do that? Would be the second piece that I would suggest doing. As far as the don'ts, I think you heard my don't of don't classify it based off of somebody else, right? Like, classify it, based on the expectations that you think the user will come in. Don't stay rigid in your definition of an active user, your active user will change over time as the product evolves, as your expectations of the product evolve. As your customers get more used to the product, an active user will change and make sure that you're always looking at that definition, and changing it as the product continues to move forward. Those are the probably four biggest things that you need to pay attention to.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  9:57

And in terms of those definitions changing would you say that's something you look at periodically? It's something you're just constantly keeping on top of? And then to give people an idea, how many times either in LastPass or at airSlate has your definition of active users changed?

Aaron Brennan  10:15

Let me step back, I'll answer that question a little differently. So as far as how often you need to change your active user definition, it's not set in stone. But I typically am on the cycle of every other quarter, I check my definition of an active user. I check the measurements to see, 'okay, are the measurements correct in this active user, and how do they actually do it? Are they doing what we want them to do?'. And so from that standpoint, not every other quarter do I have to change the definition, but I'm getting a sense of the pulse of like, 'okay, we're still on the right track. I'm not seeing any changes or anything like that'. When we did have to change them, yes, we had to change them at LastPass once,  where our expectations of active users, active new users, changed. We were bringing people through a customer journey. And the first journey was very rigid, where we just wanted them to log in and do one thing. But we made changes to the product so much that we couldn't count them as active if they came in and did that one thing anymore because the customer journey had actually changed so much. So we actually had to redesign our whole front-end onboarding system, how we placed ads, how we position the product, and how we did everything to align to the newest customer journey, to then redefine active usage so that we were being honest with ourselves about the metrics. So if we had stayed with our old definition, our metrics would have been super high, but we wouldn't have been honest with ourselves that these were actually active users based on what they were doing, because we had to make the change to the product so much.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  12:15

And then when you're changing those definitions of active users, what does that process look like? And kind of who did you need to communicate it with? And what sort of steps are involved?

Aaron Brennan  12:24

Yeah, so that's a great question. The thing that I love about product marketing is the cross-functional basis of it. So when I'm working with my team and my expectation on my team, it's that we work cross-functionally across teams, and we collaborate with those teams, and we set the clear guidelines and expectations of what the customer journey looks like in order to make people an active user. So for us, when I typically am looking at this stuff, I'm looking at it weekly, just as a track change with my product management peer. So typically we sit down and we say like, "Okay, how does this look? Does this look exactly how we want it to look, do we want to make a change to anything?". So when we get to that point where we want to sit down and look at it, typically the product manager goes off and he looks at the numbers and the definition and says, "Okay, do we feel that this is the right one?", I go off in another corner, and I look at it by myself, and then we come together, and we actually talk and say, "Okay, what are our feelings on this?". Sometimes an argument ensues that says, we need to change it, we don't need to change it. But ultimately, after that meeting, we decide whether this definition actually gets changed or not. Once we change the definition of active users, typically, my product managers will go off and they will work with the engineering team, with the user experience team, and then I will go off and work with sort of the marketing team, the customer support team, or sometimes we'll call them all together and say this is the new definition. And then we will work with those teams to facilitate building out the customer journey on either side in order to move forward the new definition.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  14:18

Okay, great. Thank you for that. And then what kind of tactics do you employ at airSlate to ensure new and old customers stay active? And then are you able to share some case studies and results with us around that?

Aaron Brennan  14:29

Yeah, so since airSlate is still such a new product, we haven't run into the problem of creating active users out of you know, old users, and keeping old users active. We have done a similar thing within PDF Filler where we started to get an understanding of how other people are using the products and sharing those case studies with our users. So for example, one of our users was using it to integrate with Zapier and he was using it to automatically fill out a lot of forms through information that Zapier was plugged into, in order to automate a lot of the functions across his cake making business, which was really cool and kind of interesting for us, for PDF Filler, it's really just a single-use, like, I use this and then I send it to one person rather than pulling in information from everywhere and automating it to other places for an SMB because typically, it's on the SMB side. So for us, we created a use case and wrote it up and created a nice little visual for it, and ended up sending it out to two other PDF users that kind of looked like the same user as the cake maker. It was really exciting for us because, you know, we saw other people start to engage with PDF Filler a little differently after we sent out that email. What we find and what I've found over my career is that most people will use a product the exact way that they use it. And they will continue to use it the same way over and over and over again. And it isn't until you actually start to position them new and different ways that other users are starting to use the product, that they start to get creative in how they use the product in different ways, and how they position it in different ways. I always think of technology as a tool and you can use it in many different ways. So, for example, or an analogy, a screwdriver not only screws in a screw, but it can open a paint can, right? If you didn't use it for something else you would never know and if you never saw what else it could do and looked at it as a tool to continue to do other things, you would never realize it. I view our technologies as very similar sort of things. But I need to show people that there are other uses for it and get them creative and thinking of how else can I use this product in my life?

Bryony Pearce - PMA  17:04

And then in terms of those tactics, how much if at all, do you segment them?

Aaron Brennan  17:10

It depends on the use case and who we're sort of positioning that to. So when I'm working with B2C clients, typically I don't segment them at all, I really try to do a wide swath and say, like, 'look at all the other ways that everybody else is using this'. When I was at Google, we ran a study that was really interesting, where if we showed one view of one way to do something, they typically use the product to do just that one thing over and over again, very similar to a screwdriver, right? If we showed them at least three different ways that you could use the tool, they would typically start thinking of multiple ways that they could use the tool in their life rather than just one which was really exciting. So for us from the B2C side, I typically try to show them as many ways as they can because I want them to get creative, see how many different spots they can actually put that into. When I'm getting onto the B2B side, typically, I try to segment those users based on functions that look similar, so similar size companies, similar usage companies, things like that. And then I segment use cases to those people based on those particular functions. The other thing that I typically do is I work very closely with the product management team in order to suggest features and functions for those users. So, we segment out those user groups to say like, 'oh, other people are also using this feature. Have you tried using this?', and we segment people out that way. We typically do a similar thing on the B2C side where we segment people on usage-based and suggesting features within the product, based off of similar types of use that people are doing it, but pulling them deeper into the product, but from a use case perspective, when we talk about use cases, we segment on the B2B side, but we don't take segment on the B2C.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  19:11

Okay, cool, thank you. And then what’re the most common mistakes you see or maybe read about when it comes to measuring and optimizing active users?

Aaron Brennan  19:22

Oh boy, the biggest one I see, and I'm not opposed to money - I had an old manager that said I hated money, but that's not true at all, I'm okay with money, and I like making money, I promise everybody out there - but revenue is the one that I see people mistaking for active usage all the time. So it's guiding people to a point or to a paywall, or to some sort of hindrance where they have to pay in order to get across and into that active user mode. People will buy if there's good value, and people will buy if they see great things within the product and it's a good experience. But if you focus on the revenue part before the active user part, you typically see active usage actually go down, because then you start optimizing for running people into walls and not running people into great experiences that will get them to pay and also become lifetime customers. So for me, that's probably the biggest mistake I see people make is saying like, 'well, they're not active until they're paying us. So nobody counts in a free trial', and things like that. But the problem is, if they're not active users, they're not going to pay you. Revenue comes from something which is typically active use.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  20:58

And is that something you think or is it anything you've struggled with in the past, getting that buy in to look at active users before revenue? Because I guess sometimes other departments outside of product marketing might be focusing on the revenue whereas product marketing is trying to focus on active users and there's a bit of a clash there?

Aaron Brennan  21:14

Yeah. And I would say that some product marketing assumptions are very focused on revenue too, and yes, I think it's very hard. If you look at any goals of any organization or any company, if you're looking for what they're trying to do, they're trying to drive revenue, and they're trying to drive business, which is good, you need to drive revenue, and you need to drive business. But that needs to come from something, and so oftentimes, what a lot of people are held to are standards of revenue, especially when it comes to sales teams, marketing teams, customer success teams, if you're looking for add ons and buy-ins and stuff like that, so for us, it becomes a very hard conversation. And this is where you have to ask people to be very honest with themselves across... the companies will say well, what makes people buy? So it's usually a very long drawn out sort of conversation that you need to keep banging on that drum that active usage and active users is what drives real value and what makes people pay in order to get people to buy into that.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  22:27

And then I guess we sort of touched on them throughout already. But if you had to narrow it down to a few points, what would you say the core benefits of active users are?

Aaron Brennan  22:37

Oh, boy, so the core benefits of active users. Active users lead to revenue, so that's a really easy one. So that's one of the main core benefits for us. The second piece is active users leads to more customer success stories. This leads to more information and analytics of how people are using the product, my product marketers are typically very in tune with the analytics and the pulse of what's going on. And so by having more users, it gives us a greater sense of what's happening in the market. So we can see trends quicker, we can pick up on what's happening, we can see what makes people do things, what makes people not do things. And then lastly, the third thing is, active users give me a better customer journey and a customer story. As a product marketing manager, your job is to build, be the voice of the customer, and build those customer journeys and really say what the value is, by having more active users, it really gives you more of a sense of what is their journey, and what is the value that they get out of this, which gives you a better position when you have to position what that story is and how you're going to be positioning it to the company, across the board when you have more numbers and say like, "Look, we have this many users and this many of them are active and they're doing this". So really driving active users gives us better ammunition to be better product marketers.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  24:11

Yep. And then you mentioned customer success stories there. Do you kind of directly correlate your active user analytics to say, client x is a heavy active user we'll approach them for a case study?

Aaron Brennan  24:25

Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, when we see people that are really active users and deepening their product adoption, we really go after them and want to understand their cases and use them for case studies. We also use them a lot for product feedback and things like that. What's interesting about us is typically the products that I've worked on, we've actually segmented our users, our active users into certain buckets. And usually, we would call them lax users, novice users, power users. And the goal is to pull people from a lax user to a novice user to a power user. That deepening product adoption piece. So for us the higher that we drive our power user numbers, those people we go after for product feedback for case studies and things like that, and they're very great at it.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  25:25

And then I guess, inactive users are somewhat of a given in any company too. But what approaches do you take or would you take to turn inactive users back into active users?

Aaron Brennan  25:38

Yeah, so it's always easier keeping a user than turning an inactive user back to active, so there's a series of things that we do that help drive that. So, one of those is typically studies into what made them inactive. So we send out a series of surveys if there are product features and functions that we're missing for them or that weren't great, or they had a bad experience, we then work on those on the roadmap and when those come out, we actually invite them back into the product. So piece one is understanding why they dropped out. Piece two is understanding that, if its product, we pull them in. Piece three would be understanding that sometimes they just don't understand the value of it. So as we change messaging as we go through cycles of changing the definition of users, as we understand and change the definition of what the product positioning is, what the messaging is and what the value comes out of it. We will sometimes try to reengage them through email, SMS, sometimes in-app or push notifications through apps to get them going. This is really kind of an art and a science at the same time because you don't want to overload them and say like every quarter send them a message, but really have an understanding of why those users dropped out and have a plan to get them re-engaged.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  27:07

Yep. And then looking at these surveys that you said you send, to find out why they became inactive, do you struggle getting response rates for those? Or how does that sort of work? And do you incentivize those surveys?

Aaron Brennan  27:19

Yeah, so typically, we incentivize the surveys through either an Amazon gift card or raffle for an iPad or something like that, we determine that if it's in the budget, and we can actually get that done, it depends on what's in the budget for it. Sometimes we just send out surveys and see what the response rate comes back as and then if we don't get the response rate that we want, we wait a couple of months, and then we send out the one with the gift attached to it. But typically, we try to attach something for their time. What's even better is if they offer to get on the phone with us. That's much better. So, typically during that survey, we say, 'Would you be interested in a call with us? Don't worry, we're not trying to sell you anything'. One of the great pieces about being in product marketing is you're not held to a sales number. So you can hop on a phone with somebody, and they're not going to think that you're gonna push them to buy again.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  28:22

And then we talked about the definition of active users at the start. Do you define inactive or lost users at airSlate? And then what does that definition look like?

Aaron Brennan  28:31

Yeah, so we do look at inactive and lost as two totally different things. And again, we define those things at the very beginning, what is an inactive user? And so at LastPass, it was somebody who hadn't logged in in two weeks, and we kept them as inactive for four months, and then we considered them lost after that. So if we couldn't get them back within four months, we considered them lost and that they wouldn't be coming back. For airSlate, it's a much longer ramp. So we would consider you inactive after a month instead of just two weeks, and we would consider you lost after a year.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  29:14

Okay. And then I guess are these definitions that are constantly changing as well?

Aaron Brennan  29:19

Constantly changing. And it's very much looking at the product and looking at how the users use the product and their expectations, that we look at in order to make sure that we're looking at things the right way.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  29:32

Yeah. And then final question if any product marketers are listening to this, and they're 100% sold on active users and the importance of them, but they're struggling to get buy-in from the wider business. What would your advice to them be and what can they say or do to get that support?

Aaron Brennan  29:51

Yeah, so that's a good question. So getting buy-in is typically very difficult. The way that I've typically gotten buy-in at all my company's so far is, the most important voice in any company is the customer. So getting understanding from those customers, reach out and talk to your customers as a product marketer, you should be talking to your customers weekly. Getting that understanding that driving their value is extremely important will make your executive teams and things like that buy-in. They will always listen to the customer. So use your customers to your advantage. They'll talk about how active usage will make their retention better, talk about how it'll make them convert more if they see the value, things like that. Use your customers to your best advantage.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  30:46

Okay, that's great. Thank you so much for taking some time out today to answer these questions, Aaron, it's been really nice speaking to you.

Aaron Brennan  30:52

Thank you.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  30:54

For everyone still tuned in, thanks so much for listening. And if you enjoyed the podcast, please help us spread the word to other product marketers. Before we leave you to get on with your day, if you want to get involved here are a few ways you can. If you're a product marketer and you want to come on the show to speak about your day, a specific topic or just your role in general, that's one option. If you want to flex your podcast hosting skills, being a guest host is another And finally, if you or your company want to sponsor an episode, there's a third. Thanks again and have a great morning, afternoon or evening wherever you are.