Sifting through the noise of ‘unique visitors’: Focusing on what counts for startup success

By Editor December 19, 2013
Courtesy of Slader.

Courtesy of Slader.By Kyle Gerrity, Slader co-founder

Every day, millions of websites are born on the web, vying for consumer attention. Sites like Buzzfeed or Pinterest are just two of the latest to take up space in the minds of the Internet audience—each with more than 177 monthly uniques combined (130 million for Buzzfeed, almost 47 million for Pinterest). For the better part of our first two school years since Slader launched, I can’t tell you the number of times that individuals—whether they were potential strategic partners, investors, or even friends—would hear our number of monthly unique visitors and express disappointment. What they didn’t realize was monthly unique visitors are a misdirected, perhaps even false, measure of success.

It’s easy to get lost in the noise of analytic metrics—monthly uniques, retweets, page views, bounce rates. While some of these metrics are vital to understanding the progress of your startup, many are simply vanity metrics—numbers that are easy to fudge and make you feel good about yourself, but don’t indicate the overall health or progress of your company. Here are some of the strategies we employed at Slader to sift through the noise, allowing us to focus on the numbers that matter, and let go of the ones that don’t.

1. Know your target audience. It seems so simple, but it’s number one in contextualizing your startup’s progress. Who is your target user? How many potential users do you have? What mediums do these people use to interact with each other? At Slader, our core audience is students between the ages of 13-and-20. They’re a tricky bunch, difficult to pin down, hard to communicate with (what’s email?!) and they change their preferences daily. We do our best to infiltrate the networks they frequent and understand the language they speak—sometimes with more success than others! Whomever your audience is, get to know them, learn how they think, and figure out why they should want to use your product.

2. Identify the ideal user behavior for your startup. For an online publisher, this may a visitor engaging with two articles per week. For a brick-and-mortar retailer, it may mean a customer browsing the store twice before making a purchase. For Slader, we identified an engagement loop: An ideal path through which a user experiences our site and then returns. When users fall off out of this loop, it’s either because the path is inefficient, our user interface was delinquent, or our product was not what our intended user was looking for. We continuously tweak our expectations in this vein due to the changing nature and demands of our user base. Set specific goals for how your users will interact with your product—these might change over time as you learn more about your audience and their behavior, but you have to start somewhere.

3. Track and achieve your engagement loop. Ensuring our users completed our desired engagement loop was the single most important focus of Slader’s first two school years as an active platform. We understood the fickle nature of teenagers, and discovered (often times the hard way) that they aren’t the most forgiving bunch. If they don’t discover what they’re looking for when they first hit our site, we’ll lose that user. Initially, our engagement loop was a user would hit our site, consume useful content (viewing specific homework solutions), register to consume more content, and return within seven-to-14 days. As time went on, we added further goals into the engagement loop, such as a threshold of content consumed (10 solutions) and social behavior (sharing Slader with a classmate or friend).

Most analytic platforms offer the ability to set clear goals and track achievement of those goals. Consider using a platform like Mixpanel, which allows you to create specific tasks, goals, and funnels, and to monitor the specific cases where your engagement loop is failing and where it is successful. Although difficult, try to ignore the ‘popular metrics’ that outsiders typically ask you; because what good are monthly uniques if those users stick around for only twenty seconds? And what good is a customer who never returns to your store?

4. Observe the growth and magnitude of your startup with metrics that matter. Once you’ve nailed your engagement loop, the most representative metrics make themselves apparent. At this point, the metrics you track should directly drive revenue or greater brand awareness. If your startup is an online platform, Google Analytics is agile, comprehensive, and easy-to-use. As you refined your engagement loop, what measurements showed the most improvement? These are the metrics to watch and track.

5. Sometimes, anecdotal evidence adds up. Go to where your users are. And listen. We spend quite a bit of time on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Kik and other platforms that are native to today’s high schooler. It’s valuable to understand how your user base (and potential user base!) communicates about your platform to their peers: Is it negative? Positive? Non-existent? And why? Anecdotal communication with your core demographic is beneficial, and the more you communicate, the less anecdotal and more fact-based it becomes. Understanding progress in this arena is less quantifiable—it can be challenging to chart the tone of tweets or the degree of enthusiasm with which your users speak about your product. But, if you’re listening, you’ll know success when you see it.

# # #

Before Slader, Kyle worked in M&A at Morgan Stanley in Sydney. He graduated from Georgetown with a degree in History. Kyle was born and raised in Cardiff by-the-Sea, California, and after spending the majority of his adult life in Australia, now holds dual citizenship. In his free time, Kyle enjoys medium-format photography and has been featured in several gallery exhibits.