KPCB Product Fellows 2017 Challenge Question

Here is the challenge question: “Describe, in a blog post or video, the last product you used that took your breath away. Please explain what the product is, why you loved it, and any broader analysis or information you think is relevant. This cannot be an Apple product. You can provide your submission as a link to your blog post or video.”.

Hello, KPCB! I am here today to talk about Yik-Yak, the anonymous social media application that took the U.S. by storm. In this blog post, I will discuss what Yik-Yak is, why I loved Yik-Yak, and how a miscalculated product decision deprived Yik-Yak of its untapped market potential.

What is Yik-Yak?

Yik-Yak is a free mobile social media application that served as a local forum by enabling users within a 10 mile radius to anonymously contribute to the forum by writing, responding to, and upvoting and downvoting short posts called Yaks. The more engaged a user was through posting, responding to, and voting on Yaks, the more virtual points, or Yak Karma, they would be awarded, which could be exchanged for prizes when Yik-Yak visited town. It differs from its competitors like Whisper in that Yik-Yak focused on fostering communication between users that are in close proximity to each other. In short, Yik-Yak helped forge a community centered on anonymity and location proximity.

Why I Loved Yik-Yak

Before Yik-Yak, there was no way for an entire community to connect in some way to exchange thoughts and foster honest, open discussions without the fear of personal ridicule. Not only did Yik-Yak often serve as a safe medium to express my thoughts, but it also provided a comical yet informative outlet for news and local events. Here are some of the types of Yaks users typically posted.

The community involvement on Yik-Yak is incredible!
Many Yaks are clever!
Life hacks on Yik-Yak!

One of my favorite features was the peek feature, which allowed me to see (not post) the Yaks in other locations. I have lived in four major locations in the U.S. (D.C, Blacksburg, Boulder, and San Diego), and I really enjoyed this feature’s functionality because even after I left those locations, I was able to stay connected with users there. Furthermore, if there was a major event such as the Olympics or a breaking news story, I would be able to see top Yaks about that event. For example, almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage, users flocked to Yik-Yak to post about the event, and below is one of the top Yaks I saw that day. That particular Yak illustrated one of the beauties of Yik-Yak; it made me laugh while still informing me about a major news event.

Yik-Yak’s personality is comical yet informative.

Furthermore, I was also able to set my “herd” to a particular location so that even when I traveled during the summers or moved away from my primary location (Blacksburg, VA), I would be able to engage with other users back at home. This way, even if I moved to a more remote location in the future, I would not only remain connected, but would also continue to enjoy rich, high quality content.

Another aspect I really loved was Yik-Yak’s sign up process. Out of all the social media applications I have used, Yik-Yak had the simplest sign up process. To start using the application, all I needed to do was provide my cell phone number to register with the application. Once I activated my registration through a text confirmation code, I was immediately able to start engaging with users around me. Unlike other social media applications, Yik-Yak asked me only one question, which also discouraged me from dropping off during its sign up process. At the end of the sign up process, Yik-Yak not only displayed an exciting page of high quality content, but also illustrated steps on how to get started using the application. By doing so, Yik-Yak clearly demonstrated its value proposition to and eased me into the application. Thus, Yik-Yak’s streamlined sign up process not only significantly enhanced the user experience, but also bolstered user acquisition, retention, and engagement.

Yik-Yak also boasted an incredibly simple and elegant user interface with only the essential elements. The intuitive user interface made the application easy for me to navigate and use starting from the initial download.

Yik-Yak’s simple and elegant user interface.

Unlike other anonymous social media applications such as Whisper, Yik-Yak did a wonderful job of using anonymity along with its location proximity to help people connect by continually providing rich, honest content to its users. Yik-Yak’s anonymity offered a special way to connect; although communication was through a phone screen, it felt so personal to me at times since the anonymity stripped everyone of any prejudices and stereotypes they may usually have of a person, and allowed them to communicate and engage with others around them in an honest and empathetic way. As a minority studying at a conservative southern Virginia school with predominantly caucasian students, I was able to use Yik-Yak as an equally leveled communication channel for my thoughts.

All these features not only made Yik-Yak a great application to use, but also with its increasing popularity among college students, Yik-Yak was uniquely and competitively positioned to become one of the most lucrative platforms to market content to college students.

The Miscalculated Product Decision

In August 2016, the Yik-Yak founders drastically made a poorly calculated product decision by coercing users to create a handle (basically a username) with a profile, a move that removed anonymity, alienated much of Yik-Yak’s user base, and eliminated Yik-Yak’s competitive advantage.

After the update, Yik-Yak’s rating on the Apple App Store had plummeted from 3.5 stars to merely 1 star. Yik-Yak’s primary advantage was ingrained in a user’s ability to be anonymous; when users like myself were anonymous, we were more honest with each other and thus, the Yaks were richer in content. Yik-Yak created a unique environment where I was able to confide in complete strangers with my thoughts and avoid judgement. It was refreshing to offer genuine opinions about anything without the fear of judgement or being personally victimized for having unpopular opinions.

Although there were sometimes threats and hate speech on Yik-Yak, Yik-Yak did a good job of filtering and removing those inappropriate Yaks. I also specifically remember when this happened at my school, Yik-Yak fully cooperated with law enforcement. Yik-Yak also has a feature to warn users before they post something that could be offensive and also allows other users to flag and report offensive Yaks (only 5 downvotes were needed to remove a Yak), so removing anonymity was unneeded. Yik-Yak could have continued those efforts and even have introduced new filtering features that would not have dramatically weakened their user loyalty.

Yik-Yak’s Yak checking feature.

However, the update made users practice high levels of self-censorship, which has not surprisingly led to much fewer wittier, creative, personal, and high quality Yaks. Hence, users not only stopped signing up to use Yik-Yak, but were also not being engaged like they once were so ultimately, they abandoned the app. Although the founders later apologized and made the handles optional, their costly product decision caused Yik-Yak to go from the 9th most popular application on the Apple App Store to an application that is in severe decline.

Yik-Yak’s Untapped Market Potential

Yik-Yak could have been a mobile advertising platform and provided advertisers the opportunity to learn about users’ wants and interests, and then tailor the information presented accordingly. The first and most obvious way Yik-Yak could have harnessed this potential was through location-based advertising. By using data analytics and natural language processing, Yik-Yak could have analyzed Yaks and based on location and certain keywords, could have provided targeted and contextual advertising. This concept could have also been easily extended to include sponsored advertisements.

Yik-Yak could have also allowed the alternative option for advertisers to reply to specific Yaks with advertisement offers. This way, Yik-Yak could have not only avoided diluting its feed with advertisements, but also have allowed advertisers to directly target a specific post, thus making it more likely to increase user engagement and turnover with the advertisements.

Finally, since Yik-Yak had millions of daily active users, Yik-Yak could have also provided valuable information about user demographics (not personally identifiable information) to advertisers through a subscription based API service. Through the API service, advertisers would have gotten real-time data on what users were talking about and based on users’ posts and sentiments, advertisers could have used Yik-Yak to formulate effective and targeted marketing strategies.

Yik-Yak primarily catered to college students such as myself, and given our demographic, we are incredibly active on social media, want to constantly be immersed in and connected to what is going on around us, and are usually on tight budgets. With over 4000 universities and over 20 million college students in the U.S. alone, Yik-Yak could have adopted the features discussed above and integrated itself into universities around the world to not only become the primary mobile advertising platform for college students, but also become a fundamental component of the college experience.

Parting Thoughts

Until August 2016, Yik-Yak was a fantastic application to use. As an avid user of Yik-Yak with a Yak Karma score of over 68,000 amassed in just a over a year, I loved how Yik-Yak gave everyone an equal voice and offered a beautiful, simple, unique, and an unrivaled way to connect with the community of users around you. However, when Yik-Yak removed its anonymity, it unfortunately alienated most of its users (myself included) and decimated its potential to be future leader as a marketing platform.