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7 Tactics for Your Civic App That You Can Learn From Twitter and Airbnb

BY Susannah Vila | Wednesday, October 2 2013

If you are looking to improve your civic app, don't be afraid to look at non-civic models like Twitter (petesimon/flickr)

It may sound obvious, but without users, it’s not possible for software to do much of anything - let alone facilitate social change. As we explored in our last post, a few organizations and individuals have started hosting ongoing conversations among technologists and people who can use data and applications to address civic issues. (For examples of the usefulness of data in civic efforts, take a look at New York City Code for America brigade’s CivicHack nights, Chicago’s LISC and the Open Knowledge Foundation’s community mailing lists.)

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Engaging the right people at the right time requires a variety of different tactics. Many of these tactics can be borrowed from user acquisition teams at non-civic applications like Yelp, Airbnb, or Dropbox.

Civic Innovation Meets Growth Hacking

There is an art to developing a user base. One set of best practices and tactics for getting users is called “growth hacking.” Technology writer and entrepreneur Andrew Chen writes that growth hackers:

“look at the traditional question of ‘How do I get customers for my product’ and answer with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modelling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries.”

The goal of growth hacking is to transform people from potential users into power users. So what’s worked for growth hackers that might also work for civic applications?

1. Product to market fit

This ethos is well-attuned to the needs of civic application creators, since they almost never have one person (let alone a team) of people who are dedicated to marketing. The idea is pretty simple: don’t create a product and then start thinking about marketing it. Think like a marketer from the beginning: create a product that at least one group of people actually wants to use. For example, in the open data world, lots of new projects wrongly assume that users want more information or features when, actually, they don’t. What they want is the minimum amount of information necessary for making better decisions about things like where to request a property transfer or send their kid to school.

2. Ask questions in the real world

The best way to figure out what people want is to find them where they are and ask. This allows you not just to create a useful app but also to save money on things like PR, social media outreach, ads, and media partnerships. Airbnb started its user acquisition efforts by doing something that cost almost nothing: they went door to door in New York, recruited new users and helped existing ones improve their listings. This tactic would apply to pretty much all civic initiatives. Some of the projects that I’ve spoken to recently about their citizen engagement efforts - for instance India’s Transparent Chennai and Pakistan’s Punjab Model - saw the most engagement when they went directly to people in their homes and asked them to use their platforms.

3. Create A Ladder of Action (or a funnel of user states)


The trough of sorrow is a phrase coined by Paul Graham to explain what happens to a product after it gets an initial interest bump from launching: first time visitors never come back. If this happens to companies that aim to make it easier for you to, say, find great restaurants on your block or get a date, you can imagine how hopeless the trough might seem for people whose software facilitates the monitoring of air quality or service delivery to slums.

One way to try and get beyond the trough is to design a ladder of actions that guides the user from a really easy action, like visiting your website, to progressively more time consuming (and rewarding) ones. The growth hacker’s version of this ladder is called the lean marketing funnel. The funnel has 5 states to guide users through. They are: acquisition, activation, retention, revenue and referral. It makes sense to put less effort into get lots of visitors (acquisition) and more into activating the users you do get, since you get more reward for less effort this way. For instance, if you spend lots of money on PR and get 10,000 people to visit your site you might only end up activating 100 of them, whereas if you spend no money on PR you might only get 1000 visitors but still manage to activate 100 people. It’s just of question of using the right tactics (see below).

Paul Graham's Startup Curve

4. Make it as easy as possible for people to climb this ladder

One way to do this is by showing, not telling, people how to use your product. For an example, take a look at Twitter’s onboarding process:

It requires a new user to go through a series of steps as soon as they register. With each step there is a clear process and next step. You create a timeline of interesting information by following celebrities and brands according to your interests. Then you pepper it with the Tweets of people you know. Next you personalize your profile page so people know what you are interested in and can follow you back. These steps guide you through a learning process that increasingly exposes you to more information about the product. They’re designed to get you to do things that will make you realize how useful the product is and, by virtue of that, less likely to abandon it. The tiered onboarding process also gives Twitter control over each step so they can see when people drop off, and then iterate.

5. Turn every new user into an advertisement

Dropbox gives you free space if you refer a friend. When Hotmail started, they put the phrase "P.S. I love you...get your free email at Hotmail” automatically at the bottom of each email that anyone sent. That way, every time someone used their service they were also advertising it. A Mexican civic application called Tehuan learned through experience that traditional PR (the kind that will direct lots of casual visitors to your site) didn’t work nearly as well as word of mouth. So they started putting more energy into encouraging users to share their reports with friends online. Did you just report a pothole or a robbery in your neighborhood? Share it on Facebook and Twitter and ask your friends to help you to get local authorities to act. “Without social media, word of mouth requires people to be in the same room talking. With it, a lot more people can share recommendations and experiences with one another,” Tehuan’s Patrick Kane Zambrano told me.

6. Don’t let people forget about your app

Reminders are a common tactic in tech services. If you sign up for Dropbox but don’t download the software, they’ll email you. Path makes it easy to ping your friends if they haven’t been posting recently. One benefit of having a smaller community of target users (this is the case for civic apps, since not that many people are actively engaged with issues of public concern) is that you can directly contact early users and encourage them to share their experience with friends, colleagues and family. It’s even better if you can build this reliance on networks into your application. For example, a LinkedIn profile looks fuller (and more credulous) if someone’s asked their former employers to join and add recommendations.

7. Constantly improve based on data

The backbone of growth hacking is its emphasis on data collection and iteration. It’s pretty rare for a civic application to have a marketing guru on staff, but there are a host of applications that make it easier for tiny teams to process empirical information about how users are experiencing their application and how they can change it to make a better. For instance if you have a website, use a landing page measurement effective tool like Optimizely. Use tools like Mixpanel and Kissmetrics to understand which of your users are moving up the ladder you created for them, which users aren’t and why they aren’t.

All of this adds up to a lot of work and it may not be realistic for civic technologists and non-governmental organizations to put time and money into such activities. However, a lot of the tactics mentioned here represent a way of looking at the process of creating a civic application as much as they represent hours of additional work. For example, building features and providing information that you know your market wants and needs doesn’t require extra human resources. It merely requires you to be conscious of your market throughout the entire process of creating a civic application. With that in mind, it might be possible for civic app creators to be growth hackers in spirit even if they don’t have the budget for it.

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