Impact of HealthKit on mobile health

Posted on September 23rd, 2014

How HealthKit with solve the two major issues plaguing health apps

Health Apps have been on a tear off in the year 2014 growing at a staggering rate of 62% in first 6 months of year. Funding in this sector has also been a phenomenal with companies taking in about $2.3 billion in the first six months.

With momentum like this one would expect engagement stats off the roof but that has been lack luster.

Multiple issues plague health apps! Two of which can significantly contribute to better engagement numbers.

The Death valley of on-boarding!

Have you ever tried to signing up for any of these apps? The process is long and laborious reminding you of the visit to the doctor’s office. Only in this case long forms replaced by screens of questions that you need to answer before you can even find out if the service is valuable. Here is an example of an app that has gotten a ton of downloads.

On- boarding of MyFitnessPal

There are other apps where the signup process is about 12 steps long! Imagine that! While some of these questions really don’t need to be asked in the first sign up flow most apps do! A number of these questions are simply preferences that you could ask the user in subsequent sessions or as they engage deeper in the app.

The drop offs in the sign up funnel increases you get deeper in the funnel. The deeper the funnel the lousier your on-boarding numbers will be.

As health apps start to unbundle do app developers seriously expect the user to pay the on-boarding tax every time that a user signs up? Imagine entering your zip-code for each app you use. What a nightmare! No one does it anymore! Well thats precisely what happens with health apps today!

The user goes through a similar long on-boarding process for a Weight tracking App (MyFitnessPal), Nutrition app (Rise), Recipe App (Yumly) & Fitness App (Fitmob) — Painful isnt it.

HealthKit permission dialig

This is where HealthKit is a godsend!

Instead of getting the user to input each the app developer has the opportunity to import data entered in other apps. A couple of clicks a voila! The app developer has the data that they need & user has the ability to control what data they share with the app developer. Yes, this is a double edged sword — gone are the days of the wild wild west of gathering every piece of data that you wanted that you never used. As a developer you need to watch out for this!

This also assumes that the data is already available which means a popular apps have to support HealthKit. Even though the Apple has delayed the launch of HealthKit due to a last minute bug — there is word that a good number of popular apps will be supporting HealthKit when it launches!

Here is a partial list — MyFitnessPal, Fitstar, Lifesum, Noom, LoseIt, Strava, Runkeeper, Withings. Not a bad start!

If you are building an health app you would be at a disadvantage if you end up having a long sign up flow. Bigger apps might get sneaky like MyFitnessPal making users to enable HealthKit instead of enabling it by default. Regardless kudos to them for supporting HealthKit.

Recommendations & Context resulting in a much better engagement
Behavior modification is key to a healthy you.

Behavior modification is the holy grail of any health program. How do you nudge the user into better habits leading to a healthier mind and body.Human body is quite complex and is impacted by a multitude of factors like food & nutrition, water, activity & exercise, sleep, mood & many more. Expecting one app (including the Health App from Apple) to help us understand the impact of these factors is unreasonable & unlikely! Especially on mobile with apps being unbundled & where attention is low.

Given this constraint the apps are limited in their ability to get the user act on recommendations and truly enable behavior modification.

Lack of Context leading to user apathy & bad engagement

Data is currently locked in data silos within these apps and given the lack of context you end up with scenarios like these

  • Automated notifications at a certain time to log foods
  • Asking the user to walk 10K steps a day even if he has already gone for a bike ride or if there has been a snowstorm.

Its hard to expect users to engage when presented with scenarios such as these. Of-course a developer can ingest data from other apps by supporting different API’s (be it wearables or fitness apps) — but thats like building bridges between islands.

For the first time the developer has the ability to ingest a lot more data and provide contextual actions/recommendations to the user. Imagine the following possibilities

  • Your on-demand nutritionist guides you with food recommendations as he notices your weight increasing.
  • A healthy eating out guide that offers you suggestions based on what you have eaten during the day.

So what are you waiting for! The two week delay gave you an opportunity to opportunity to increase engagement & get more users in the door quicker!

Feel free to leave a comment on engage with me on Twitter.



How we got 25K downloads in 2010 using Twitter, Datasift & Bit.ly

Posted on May 4th, 2014

A chance experiment that could have been a Twitter Ad network

This post has been a long time coming — Apologies to those that have been waiting for it.

2010 was early days of mobile in India, we had recently pivoted from being a automated curator of publisher content (@Taazza) to a local aggregator of information on mobile (@Localbeat) .

We were betting on the mobile market in India. Sub 250$ android phones were starting to get into the market and we expected the price points to get lower and for the mobile market to take off in the next 12-18 months — something that would eventually take 36-48 months while we ran out of runway!

Finding mobile users in India in 2010 was painful and unscalable.

We tried google ads but the conversion rates very pretty low. Getting press coverage without a significant announce was practically impossible.

We needed to find a way to expand our early users and do it soon.

Initial Experiments

I was an early user of Twitter and was using it at the time to connect and network with folks for business development — also keep up with what our competition was doing across the globe. The audience was fairly engaged and my tweets about @Localbeat would resonate with my audience. Especially ReTweets — which had a multiplier effect. In fact this is how we got our first 200 users.

Twitter broke the news about the aircraft landing in the hudson in 2009 — which lead to it taking off in various parts of the world including India -where it had grown from a few hundred thousands to a million or more.

We knew we had to find a way to engage this audience in India. One of the lesser known features was the meta data that was exposed with every Tweet — Which client did they Tweet from! And most of the clients were either platform specific or had a unique name based on the platform — “Twitter for Android". This is exactly what we needed!

So in the early days of this experiment, I tried a few options

  • Search for city names and send tweets to folks
  • Search for a hashtag and find people to send a tweet to

The results were mixed and quality of the responses weren't great. Finally, I ended up using Twitter advanced search functionality and filter by client name and screen the stream manually to look for folks in certain cities and Tweet them.

“@[username] Hi! Looks like you are an avid user of Android and are from Bangalore. Here is an app that you would find useful"

A majority of the users would actually click the link. We needed to track this click so we ended up using Bit.ly (Found John Borthwick through Twitter). Our initial results were fantastic —

Folks were clicking our Tweets and more importantly downloading the app. More importantly they were recommending it to their friends on Twitter and rating the app high.

The Solution

We needed to automate this. At this point, Twitter had licensed their data to two different companies Gnip & Datasift. We didnt have a lot of money — We were bootstrapped. We ended up picking up Datasift because it seemed to have a querying engine built on top of Twitter stream. Datasift at the time allowed any one to try a few queries for 50 or credits.

The more I dug into Datasift the more excited the prospect was! One could filter the real time based on multiple criteria.

This meant that we could filter tweets from folks who were using a certain Twitter client and the location in the bio was in a certain city! Voila just what we were looking for.

Thankfully John & his team at Bit.ly had just launched bit.ly for custom domains. John was gracious enough to lets us try this. Bit.ly statistics were real-time and would let us see how folks were clicking our links.

All we needed to do now was to code this sucker and try it out. My amazing co-founder Rajat (@urajat) whipped up a quick script in ruby and we were off to the races. We had to tweak the script a couple of times for the following reasons

  • Datasift had a few bugs that Nick & his team were working through.
  • We had to play nice within the limits of the twitter API.

Exciting Results

Eventually, we worked out our kinks and the results were quite fruitful.

  • 8 out 10 people clicked
  • 2 out 10 people RT’ed (some of these folks were influential)
  • 1 in 25 complained of us spamming them (In some cases this was a manual error as I was doing this by hand early on)

What started as a simple experiment was quite valuable to our business (regardless how it ended). Our initial loyal user base was built using these tools and built quickly.

I believe @nihalmehta eventually built something which turned out to be a LocalResponse. We didnt have the foresight to pivot from Localbeat to built this.

Twitter was invaluable as business development tool for me, we were able to connect with folks at Datasift & Bit.ly sitting in Bangalore.

Sincere thanks to @Borthwick & @nik and who provided us with the tools to put this together. It was one of the fun things that we did at Localbeat.



Cycle of Entrepreneurship — Contributing back!

Posted on April 19th, 2014

Why I’m advising Remote Garage!
http://b-i.forbesimg.com/lizadonnelly/files/2013/09/mentor-someone-to-do-list.jpg

A few years ago I decided to leave my comforts in Wall St and Manhattan to embark on a journey of entrepreneurship. It was the most educational and humbling experience of my life. I can honestly say that I learnt a lot more about business in the few years that I was an entrepreneur than the previous years put together.

Having going through the journey, I know how hard & lonely this journey can be.

I have been looking for meaningful ways to help someone who is the same shoes that I once was.

During my brief stint at San Antonio, I happened to meet Jaakko Piipponen, at Geekdom (What a well done place, check it out if ever get to SF or San Antonio).

Here was an young immigrant entrepreneur who was building his company (Remote Garage)! His passion & maturity impressed me early on.

As we continued talking, I realized that the problem that Jaakko & his team were targeting needs experience in local distribution. A problem that I wrestled with launching our service in 40+ cities. Jaakko needed my help with product/market fit & distribution.

I decided to jump on the opportunity last November and join as an Advisor.

Remote Garage is in the on demand storage space.

As Urban population grows leaps & bounds, the problems that city dwellers face is creating a huge opportunity for on demand services.

A problem that I’m quite well aware of living in the New York City area. The Sharing Economy is real and here to stay! Jakko and his team are doing their bit focussing on apartments & urban storage. Look for them in a city near you soon …

I look forward to making a meaning full contribution to this journey! Please follow our journey on AngelList or Twitter.



Unbundling of Health Apps — Medium

Posted on February 24th, 2014




Unbundling of Health Apps

The road ahead in 2014 for #mHealth apps

http://www.allayo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/infographic.jpg

With an onslaught of wearables & fitness services, health apps are going to be front and center in 2014. Growth in health & fitness apps is staggering & mobile incumbents with small and nimble firms are taking on big publicly traded companies. Health is so popular that every firm from Apple to Bing (I know Bing from Microsoft) is venturing into it.

Mobile rewards apps & services that do “one thing" and one thing extremely well! Very few aggregator services have done well on mobile.

Even the likes of Facebook are being unbundled.

Aka each of the use cases are being broken into simpler apps like Instagram (Camera) & Whatsapp(Address book). The same thing happened with Craigslist over the many years.

The form factor, sparse attention and the reach of mobile can be attributed to acceleration of this trend. The upside on mobile however is that an average user is looking at her phone about 150 times a day.

The current market leaders in the health apps (MyFitnessPal, MapMyRun, LoseIt) have all seen phenomenal growth over the last couple of years! Just take a look at this report from Citrix

Citrix report on mobile health apps

If you look closely they are starting to seem like Facebook’s (circa 2012) in the health apps space.

Most apps successful apps currently track nutrition (Logging) & fitness (Wearables) and provide some basic reporting in the name of progress. Even the likes of Samsung do the same. Aka one app that rules the is an aggregator of all the information for health.

However an interesting trend is starting to emerge in the mHealth space as well. Unbundling!

Take a look at two new companies that have taken simple use cases and are trying to build businesses.

  1. 1Fitstar — which is focussed on building a personal training app. Think fitness & workout DVDs built for mobile.
  2. 2Rise — A nutrition market place where you are paired up with a nutritionist.

Neither of these apps have umpteen use cases! While its really early to tell if they end up building promising businesses, the trend lines are looking good. Fitstar for sure has gotten good traction thanks to Apple’s promotion within the App Store!

Now imaging a suite of mobile health apps that are focussed on nutrition, fitness, mental health, habits & more. You will start to realize that there are big voids that are waiting to be filled in this space. I for one am excited about the prospects of this unbundling.

2014-15 promises to be an exciting time to be in the health tech space.

Two interesting pieces of data that I found interesting

Google Ventures is all over this space, they are behind both of the companies mentioned above.
Looks like some of the market leaders have already taken note of this trend — MyFitnessPal bought Sessions.


10+ Mobile Patterns to improve your app engagement

Posted on October 18th, 2013

Most mobile apps tend to lose their users before the users can see value. Its vital to get the value proposition of the app right! The steepest drop in users is in the initial seconds/mins before the user can see the value proposition of the app and then it starts to taper. There a lot of simple patterns that an app can employ which can go a long way in minimize that drop off. I have experienced this at my startup as well. Here are mobile patterns that can help out.

Using mobile apps is a lot like dating - loads of similarities! While you have to provide value quickly a.k.a be interesting enough to date, you dont play all your cards on the first date! aka unviel your features as the user engages more.

As a recent returnee to the iOS platform, the examples below will focus on iOS. However the themes are quite similar on Android and can be extrapolated to the platform.

Frictionless First Time Experience

A good number of apps make the cardinal mistake of putting their content behind a wall. In a good number of cases there is a high chance you lose the customer unless you have a familiar brand or quite a compelling ecosystem (like whatsapp) that the user knows about. So even while you might want to tie most of your content, offer the user the ability to play with your content as a guest. For instance App Annie (on the left) could have offered statistics for a common app like Facebook to allow folks to get a feel for their service. Contrast this to Kicksend (on the right) which allows users to experience the service as a guest and sounds inviting!


Introduce the app quickly

Introduction to what the app can do is part of the frictionless experience. In a good number of cases the mobile user is experiencing your service for the first time. Think of it as a 5 second pitch of your app. While AnyList (on the left) expects the user to keep swiping through 6 screens to review all the features, Square Cash (on the right) introduces the 3 features in one screen. Guess which set of features are you going to remember? One on the right!

Mobile user isn't just focussing on your app.

He/she is most likely multitasking as they open your service! Mobile apps aren't web apps. Stop asking me to fill out forms! I can't stress this enough! Do you really need a person's full name for your service to work? Do you really expect the user to use a safe password and type in twice in the midst of what he/she is doing? And to top it off you want him to click on the right field to start typing? Even worse you expect this person to read the terms of service & privacy policy which run into pages?

Don't get the user to fill all of this information out because your web service demands it! Ask for what you need the least.

Remove roadblocks & offer alternate pathways

Not everyone has every sensor or setting enabled when your app is fired up. And it some cases you haven't earned their trust yet. In some cases not every service needs to know the exact location to provide a good experience. Don't make this a road block! TripAdvisor does just that! You might lose the user and will have to work extra hard to get him/her back. Instead look at how KickSend provides the user with a simple alternative (zip code). Get the least information you need to provide the best experience you can. Its vital on mobile!


Ask for whats needed & Tell them why you need it

How often have you opened the app for the first time and you get a barrage of permission requests! I would like access to notifications, contacts, location services and more! All during the first opening instance of the app! Now what would you do if on the first date the woman asks you about your ex-gfs, your habits, your mom and more! You would run for the hills! The likelihood of a user doing the same is high! So pare down to what you need to get the user to experience the app.

Even after you pare down to what you need, ask them nicely and tell them why you need it. Uber (on the left) asks for it blindly while Circa (on the right) explains why it needs it.

Guide them through unfamiliar territory

As smartphones start to permeate through the populous, not everyone is a mobile savvy user. A good number of them are usually quite overwhelmed by the barrage of permissions & instructions when using the app for the first time. Use this constraint as a opportunity to guide them through it. MyTime (on the left), while telling the user how to enable the location services doesn't make it easy enough for the user. IFTTT (on the right) on the other hand guides the user through how to enable the settings. A simple change that goes a long way in encouraging the user!

Nail the main screen experience

By now the user is a excited to experience the app. Will he/she want to land up on Patch (on the left) or Pocket (on the right)? No brainer! Mobile app experience is like peeling an onion. Let the user peel it layer by layer instead of being overwhelmed with everything that you want them to see! Dont Stuff the screen with information because you can! Show them enough to keep them interested and excited!

Every Screen is an opportunity to delight & communicate

Especially early in the user's interaction, its an opportunity for you to delight them and effectively communicate with them. They have enough on their plate already. Communicate in the simplest of terms and in a manner that they can understand. Typography and Icons go a long way in helping communicate with the user but it can be a double edged sword if its not used right. Feedly (on the left) uses a barrage of icons some of which even the most savvy mobile user will not comprehend. Compare this to Evenbrite's (on the right) use of icons & Typography, an absolute joy! I have seen many mobile leadership teams ignore typography and iconography to their own detriment. Its because the in most cases these aren't measurable. Apps that have paid attention to detail and design have been rewarded by AppStore features. KickSend, Eventbrite, Pocket, IFTTT have all been featured. Don't ignore it.

Reward users so they engage more

Most apps cater to extremes when it comes to their demands from their users - either beg to spread to word(etc) or right on the face "Sorry you have to pony up" to use the advanced feature! While this has worked till now, users have been much more conservative in catering to these offlate. The quintessential comparison that is often made with apps is this - people are ready to pay 5$ for a coffee while they think many times to buy an app. While this has largely been true, it boils down to perceived value. Many mobile apps don't reveal their value before encourage users to upgrade. Apps like Evernote do a commendable job getting users to upgrade. I have had to upgrade to Evernote premium to pen this blog entry (as pictures have caused me to overshoot the monthly upload), I gladly did so.

Lisgo (below) probably has one of the best ways rewarding users while getting them to do something for the service. Lisgo is a text to speech app which supports Pocket. I migrated from Android where Text to Speech is supported by default in Pocket. Lisgo fills this void on iOS. However the free version of the app provides certain number of minutes to listen to every day. When one hits the limit, most apps would have asked me either upgrade or try again the next day. Lisgo gave me the option to evangelize while offering me something in return. Win-Win for both parties. I was more inclined to upgrade. Look for opportunities to engage users!


Engage them with Insights not Data!

Notifications are most often the first opportunities to engage users with your service yet again. In the dating world, its the time that you call the girl after the first date to ask her out again. Don't squander the opportunity by calling her and asking her if she can meet you tonight (without context). Unless you are a stud (a.k.a a brand in the app world) or you did something right (aka nailed the first experience right) the answer is likely NO! Use insights & contexts as hooks to get the users attention to lure them back on a second date. Insights go a long way than data, especially for notifications! More and more apps screw up this opportunity. Lift (on the left) loses this opportunity by providing some useless data. Do I really care that I got props from Stephen Keller for good posture? Look at how Argus(on the right) approaches notifications, urging me to have a glass of water as it has been 3+ hours since I updated the app or I have forgotten to drink water. I am most likely to act on that insight and update the app that I had water. Mission accomplished.

Asking for feedback too early!

In the eagerness to climb the app store rankings quickly, there are a long list of apps that have fallen by the wayside by asking for "Ratings" too early. Just because I used the app a couple of times or for a few minutes doesn't mean I am going to rate you. And most times Apps ask for ratings at the most inappropriate times and too early. While you might get away with casual daters you are most likely to get incorrect ratings/comments from others. Take Umano (on the left) for instance, the app asked me within the first few minutes of using the app! Sorry but Im not a casual date! Pocket (on the right) does it perfectly right after an update. User has some affinity towards the app & has taken the step to update (in iOS7 with automatic updates this can no longer be assumed). Also the user has opened the app after an upgrade, the likely hood of rating the app is quite high! Find hooks like those to ask the user to provide feedback to your app.


Feel free to share any of your experiences/thoughts below. In the next post I will be looking at 5 ways to increase app retention -a holy grail discussion these days.

Inside Stories - From Siri to Google Autocomplete!

Posted on October 18th, 2013

Quite often the real story gets lost in speculation. The real comes out much later. Here are a couple of real interesting inside stories.

  • 'I'm the original voice of Siri' http://pocket.co/sYWMi - The lady who was recorded her voice only to realize that she was the voice of Siri years later ;)
  • And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone’ http://pocket.co/sYW8X - Inside story about the weeks leading to the first demo of iPhone. Fascinating read!
  • Uber’s Founding http://pocket.co/sYWI1 - How uber go off the ground!
  • From “Can We Talk?” to a Coffee-Table Mishap — The Inside Story of Microsoft’s Nokia Deal http://pocket.co/sYWIr - Enough said!
  • Nearly a Decade Later, the Autocomplete Origin Story: Kevin Gibbs and Google Suggest http://pocket.co/sYWIk - Amazing how quickly the product was iterated early on.
  • "Inside the fall of Blackberry" http://t.co/AoiqkQ7NK4 - Fascinating read what really happened in the post iPhone era at Blackberry. Amazing that they almost pull off trying to launch BBM as a cross platform service. Alas!


Profiles Fridays - From Rick Ross to Napoleon Chagnon.

Posted on October 12th, 2013

A couple of interesting gems this week. Enjoy!

  • Say Hello to Rick Ross http://pocket.co/sYWMF - Story about Rick Ross. Amazing story of how an L.A kid looking for an opportunity, brought crack to the US.
  • How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist http://pocket.co/sYWQa - Fascinating profile of Napoleon Chagnon and anthropology. (Thx @rohit_x_)
  • This Is the Woman at the Heart of Everything Google Builds http://pocket.co/sYWQs - Profile of Melody Meckfessel and how google builds its internal tools. Interesting tidbits about wine making too.
  • Meet Jeff Johnson, Patagonia's Pro Adventurer http://pocket.co/sYWQ7 - Interesting perspectives on travel and his climb within Patagonia.


Everything you need to know about Apple iOS 7 & the new phones

Posted on October 11th, 2013

Update: Added more articles.

Update II: More articles on design, marketers & more

Once a year Apple releases its operating system and new hardware. This year was interesting is a couple of ways. Here are the must read articles with the most interesting perspectives of what this release means for Apple and how the landscape has changed. Enjoy! Design

Hardware (iPhone 5s & 5c)

Finger printing

M7 & Motion Tracking

AirDrop

iBeacon & Payments

Enterprise & Ecosystem

For Developers

For Marketers


Patch - The Road Ahead

Posted on October 9th, 2013

Local has been the holy grail for internet companies since the early days of the web. This has largely been the case due to the size of the local market (running into the tune of billions) - which was once owned by the local newspapers. However the road to this market online is littered with lot of failures. No one has nailed a replacement for a Local Newspaper as yet. There have been some companies that have seen successes in some silos (Marketplace (Craigslist), POIs (Yelp), Ads(Google), Maps(GMaps, Waze), Services(AngelList)). Some major companies like Facebook have folded location as an attribute into their services while others like Yahoo have given up. Scale has been a major impediment in the success of companies in this space. The failures thus far can be largely bucketed into one of three categories - lack of investment, lack of product focus and product distribution/biz model.

The battle for local web is largely open! The quest for a replacement continues.

The Players

Three companies (excluding local news sites, independent bloggers & google) are still in the battle field:
  • Topix - The google news like content Aggregator with locality pages & discussion boards.
  • NextDoor - The neighborhood social network startup with a Facebook like focus for neighborhood (much smaller geographic area than a locality).
  • Patch - The online neighborhood destination aka The Local newspaper replacement.
Topix is an algorithmically driven web crawler that aggregates content from the web and organizes it by locality. The quality of the content is not great as its largely based on keywords. However, the cost of content curation is not very high. Discussion board content added on by its users can add value in some cases while has been detrimental (being sued for bad content & defamation) in others. Product Distribution has been through SEO largely but quite effective given that it appears among the top results on searches. Topix’s revenue is largely from display & google ads.

NextDoor focusses on building a social network for the neighborhood and provides its users tools to add content on. It is starting to add more structure for the content that is added on. The key to the initial success of NextDoor has been its product distribution. It has taken an offline route to get a minimal number of folks onto a neighborhood network (10) and then it largely spread due to engagement of those 10+ folks. The startup has also realized the potential of mobile and has taken the painful step to imbibe mobile into its staff. Early signs on mobile look positive. App has been featured by Apple on its AppStore. For a startup that didn’t have mobile talent this turn around is highly commendable. Distribution is viral and has been built into the product (like Facebook). NextDoor is currently focussed on increasing its product iteration & distribution ; It hasn’t focussed on revenue as yet. It has raised a large rounds of funding The success of this endeavor is yet to be determined although the traction thus far is admirable. It has managed to get cities & local institutions(police departments, etc) to engage on the platform with its users.

Patch on the other hand took the right decision to focus on quality content for its offering. Content is created by editors/journalists on the ground and distributed largely through the web site. Patch has also built great content (local news, local events & more) and a lot more variety. It also has a central team to curate content. Distribution on the web has also been executed well as Patch appears in the top search results when a neighborhood name is searched. However the cost of content creation is quiet high. Mobile efforts have largely been minimal and have lacked focus. Patch has also enjoyed the backing from AOL and has had the opportunity to scale (although too quickly for its own detriment - 20/20 hindsight is always easy!).

Current Issues & The Road Ahead

The current predicament of Patch boils down to the following: Cost of content creation is high (around 150K as reported). Local sales is being scaled up. However, Product engagement needs to be multiple times higher but that depends on product execution & distribution. Its a cyclical problem that needs to be addressed quickly!. Its akin to changing the tires of a vehicle while its still running!

The pruning of the number of sites into 14 Designate Market Areas is a very good start and will help focus. Its a start and a foundation that needs to be built on!

For Patch to overcome its current predicament & build a solid foundation for it to grow, it has to address the following issues (at the very least):
  • Cost of content creation (Content Strategy)
  • Nailing Product Execution (Product Strategy)
  • Product Distribution

Content Strategy

For a local web to succeed, quality of content is vital. This is arguably the most important question facing Patch at the moment.
  • Content Creation vs Content Curation vs A Combination of Both
Most of the hyperlocal endeavors have tried pure play models (extremes IMHO).
  • Content Aggregation (outside.in, Fwix, Topix)
  • Content Creation (most of the hyperlocal blogs, The Batavian and others aka “Local can’t SCALE" camp)
Success (in terms have revenue) for Content Creators has averaged at about 4K a month which is tiny!

The truth lies in the middle.

At Patch, finding a trade off between cost and quality will be key to figuring out the biz model for success. Cost of content creation is currently high and finding ways to reduce is not only welcome but critical for survival. Most of the content models that have have some success have found this balance.

The key has been content curation + content augmentation.


Patch has employed multiple strategies for content augmentation; One of the more successful ones has been the ability for its users to post information (be in the ability to post on boards or add garage sales or blog posts). It also made early moves in acquiring outside.in - it turned out to be a talent acquisition. I would seriously consider bringing back Outside.in aggregation.

Aggregated content with curation can significantly impact content costs while minimally impacting the content quality, if done right.

  • Empower curators
One of the key ingredients of getting good quality curated content are the tools that are needed to empower curators. Editors & curators will need appropriate tools to filter & promote content; Be it improving the quality of Blog posts (For instance, I see a lot of recipes - it would make sense if the Local produce/contents were part of the recipe but alas! Even worse is being spammed with iOS development & an indian wedding! Both with links to spammy sites) or featuring content from local bloggers (from outside bloggers) or local news media.

These tools should be mobile allowing editors/journalists to engage quickly and natively with users in their respective mediums.

  • Build vs Partner vs In-source
One of the important aspects of the content strategy is also deciding on build vs buy vs partner. Which strategy to implement would largely depend on the use case that is being addressed.

Lets take the example of Points of Interest (POI). One of the most important aspects of local is what's happening with businesses in the area that you live or work in. While POIs have largely become a commodity, building this database at scale where quality of content has to be near perfection is hard and a costly effort. In this use case, what matters is what you can build on top of the POI data instead of the POI itself. More importantly what has changed with the business - be it a new business opening or a business getting popular or activities around the business. While Patch has made several attempts to address this it never got it right. AOL internally has 3 different databases (mapquest, AOL local and patch's own database). Quality of these databases is not unto par and hence in-sourcing isn’t an option right away. In the interim, partnering seems like the best option to pursue.

Specifically partnering with Yelp or 4sq would give Patch access to good quality POI data while providing the ability to address the product use-case.

Thankfully in Patch's case that are quite a number of sister companies(Mapquest, MovieFone & Huffington Post) that have local content that can be leveraged if done right. In some of these cases In-sourcing might be the best option.

Product Strategy

The big elephant in the room still is what Patch is as a product and most importantly how its perceived by its users. Is Patch trying to be a next generation local newspaper for the web? or Is it a local destination for a neighborhood built for the Web/Mobile/Tablet generation? For instance is Danbury Patch, a better Danbury NewsTimes online or re-built from the ground up for online?

While the former might have been the intention to start the company, I believe its imperative to be the later for Patch to be successful. The following issues are vital to get the product right. This will help in getting the product roadmap right for the next 12 to 18 months and building a better foundation early on.

  • Nail Use Cases
The current incarnation of Patch appears to be suffering from the "Wishlist Web Design" problem. As in it is trying to cater to most use cases (from Blogs, Biz Listings to Real Estate & Jobs?). Page Views/Mobile downloads haven’t been growing at a healthy rate; Obviously this approach isn't working as expected.

Its time to prune use cases that aren't haven't found engagement. Pare it down into 4-6 basic use cases that are vital to local. I would suggest the lowest common denominator for local - News, Points of Interest, Events, Boards to start with. I'm basing this based on feature engagement (from the outside) & whats vital to a local destination for today.

  • Design & Nail Consistency across mediums
Users today expect a consistent experience regardless how and where they use your service. Design plays a central/vital role in assuring this experience. At the moment this is an achilles Heel for Patch. Experience across the web app to iOS app to newsletters is inconsistent to say the least! For instance you can find out weekend events on the mobile app on iOS that a user might have seen on the web site.

While it is important to tweak & change how you engage natively on the platform the strategy has to be consistent across platforms. It should be seamless experiences for the user from web to mobile to social platforms.


page4image720
  • Experiment, Iterate early but Focus
It appears that a lot of ideas are tried but not given enough time to be iterated on and making it work. This is evident from multiple mobile apps (Patch Places on Android to Patch Perks on iOS).

Experimentation is key to finding engagement! But there needs to be a method to this madness. Obviously some experiments will work while others will not. Its imperative to ruthlessly prune failed experiments & focus on ones that get engagement. Most importantly iterate with ones that are getting engagement and give it enough time to blossom.

A good number of experiments might appear as failure early on its important to focus on the use case and metrics and work with users to make them successful.


  • Mobile First
Whether one likes it or not, the mobile tsunami is here to stay. While multiple efforts have been made to get the mobile strategy going, its imperative to have a mobile first strategy (be it for internal tools for editors or the end users) and pursue it aggressively.

Porting a web experience to mobile doesn’t work! Experiences like Cir.ca are changing how content is consumed on mobile. Mobile presents an opportunity to engage users (be it using timely alerts for news or ability to add events to phone calendars) and increase content augmentation. More importantly its important to iterate often on mobile (at the very least 6-8). Patch iOS for instance didn’t get an update in all of 2012!

Establish a beta testing program with users and engage with them early. Analytics from this program can be vital and help tinker and fix problems early on.


Product Distribution

As someone said "Content Is King, But Distribution Is Queen and She Wears the Pants!". Regardless of how well you have executed the product, getting product distribution right is key to a company. Product distribution evolves in some cases faster than the product so its imperative to keep on top of it.

  • Communicate product iterations
First step to increasing engagement is to communicate with the user about them knowing whats changed with the product. Successful products & product teams get product communication right! There is enough evidence that product communication at Patch needs more work. Case in point - the new shining release of the product on Android! After 2 weeks on the Android Store, the app has garnered less than 5-10K downloads This with an audience of 9M visitors on the web! There was no official communication nor was there any press coverage of the same. Nor did I get any notification on my iOS app telling me about the same. A good number of engaged users would have liked to have bring their friends/family on android

Establish a central place to communicate product updates and make sure you communicate once every two weeks. Unless its major launch. The best example of this approach is Skift which has a product log for its users.

  • Native experience on distribution channels
Social Platforms provide an opportunity to significantly increase distribution many-fold; However the key is to engage natively on each of these platforms rather than use them as a dumb pipe to reach users. Patch has repeatedly made this mistake on multiple platforms - be it Instagram or Rebelmouse or more. Further more the experience between different Patch accounts on Twitter can be entire different. This can be achieved by providing tools to the curators while given them liberty to tweak the experience for their locality.

Here are some use-cases that could increase engagement within these channels.
  • Responding to comments in articles.
  • Soliciting tips/stories from Twitter/Facebook.
  • Posting breaking news stories/photos on Twitter/Instagram.
  • Promoting SMB’s natively on social platforms. For example, tweets or RTs - Friday follow of SMBs on twitter?
  • Increase mailing list support by supporting Twitter Cards.
Techmeme has successfully implemented some of these strategies that has enabled them to find more engagement and make money.

  • New Distribution Sources
While its easy to stay engaged with traditional distribution sources, there are other forms of distribution that can yield surprisingly good results. Here are few that will help:
    • App Store Promotion: If the app is done right & executed natively, the chances of App Store promotion get a lot higher! This significantly increases downloads. With features like “Apps Near Me" this medium needs to be exploited.
    • Offline Promotion: One of the favorite spots where the community spends time is in the coffee shops/eateries. A lot of local content ends up in the noticeboards at places like Starbucks. The kind of content that Patch is craving for. While Patch has a link up with Starbucks on their online portal once you enable Wifi, its largely hidden. I am willing to bet that the conversion rates on this experiment are fairly low. There are simpler tactics that have been enabled by folks like NextDoor(like the one below). Now imagine doing this in all Patch neighborhood using Amazon Mechanical Trunk or GigWalk!
Team Structure & Dynamics

Here are some glaring issues that are visible on Patch at the moment:
  • Jobs - career builder shows jobs 19 miles away! Aka not hyperlocal content.
  • Email - Why do I have to sign up to get a sense of what an email would like? Bugs - Resend confirmation email breaks the product.
  • Footer - Multiple ways to provide feedback - zendesk & feedback.aol.com for the same use case. Yet there is no way to submit a tip to the editor. Sadly this is on the main page of the site.
A number of issues mentioned here are low hanging fruit and in some cases glaring. Some of these issues point to a larger problem with the Team. Its difficult to make a judgement from the outside in, it suffices to say Its important to get the team structure & dynamics right.

Analytics

I have not delved much into Analytics other than to address pruning of features & use cases. While some of this can be gleaned from systems like App Annie & Quantcast, it can be misconstrued quiet easily arriving at drastically wrong conclusions. Suffice to say Analytics is vital to any product organization and reviewing it to make decisions is vital.

Conclusion

It is clear that there is a ton of work that needs to be done and done quick to get Patch on the right track. And most importantly do it quickly!

Contrarian Views

Posted on September 24th, 2013

One of my lessons over the last couple of years is to carefully listen to the nay sayers but more importantly take the time to understand why the believe what they believe in and take the time to tinker my thinking. I used to be dismissive about the nay-sayers; On the contrary they solidify your thought process.

This is the very reason sometimes I toggle between CNN, MSNBC & Fox. Gives one a better perspective!

Here are some contrarian views on some popular themes/topics

  • The Norwegian prison where inmates are treated like people http://pocket.co/szkKj - Amazing experiment where they are trying to address root causes and focus on healing.
  • With The Tesla Model S, Elon Musk Has Created A Nice Fossil Fuel Car http://pocket.co/ssNKv - How the energy taken to create the Telsa is based on Fossil fuels - specifically the batteries.
  • No Henry, you need to get real about Yahoo. Here are the facts http://pocket.co/ssFxI - Om's rebuttal of the last 12 months of Yahoo. Here is another view of why the stock is so under valued - Yahoo Investors Should Watch For Triple Cash-Rich Split Scenario http://pocket.co/ssFxa
  • Apple offers 21st Century technology with 19th Century ethics. http://t.co/Tz7WiEYSzn Piece by @GeorgeMonbiot where he accuses Apple & its suppliers of buying Tin from an area where ecology is being destroyed to mine. We all need to care more about where the ingredients come from and pay a little more attention.


Arjun Ram

Head of Product, #mHealth, Advisor @RemoteGarage Prev: Founder @LocalBeat. Love building businesses with delightful products; Dog Lover!