When I started Avelist I knew nothing about building an Internet Consumer product. Actually maybe that’s not fair to say — I was working in the technology industry at the time with a focus on social media analytics, so I did know a lot about the market. I’d read a lot of articles, watched videos, and talked to other founders. I knew words like traction, stickiness, and organic growth. I knew what I needed to achieve, but the how was still a little murky.
So I did what all entrepreneurs do—I leapt into the unknown. Version 1.0 was ugly and buggy and embarrassing and exactly what we needed it to be. (Beta, baby.) We decided that “time on site” was a metric we wanted to focus on improving, using it as an indicator (among other things) as to whether people liked our site. And we were successful: In nine months we increased time on site from 1:30 to 4:30. How’d we do it? I’ll be the first to say that there definitely isn’t a magic formula to get people to use your website, but here are some things that worked for us:
1. We removed barriers to entry.
Our site was a closed site at first. That means that in order to see the content within our platform, people had to sign up and create an account. We quickly realized there were people who came to our landing page and never signed up. Bounce central. Not cool. What if we could engage them a bit more? What if we removed the wall and let people use Avelist without signing up? It seems so obvious now but at the time it was a big decision. We gave it a shot and took the landing page away. We let people browse Avelist content without creating an account. This move drastically increased time on site. We still required a sign up if someone wanted to add content to Avelist, but a newcomer could now check us out with no strings attached. Lesson #1: People are scared of commitment. Ease them into it.
2. We marketed to the correct audience.
Originally we thought our target audience would be 18-35 year olds (a fairly traditional social media demographic). Our first test group was full of people in their 20s and 30s. After a while we decided to do some testing in the college market. And that’s when we saw our time on site go down. You read that correctly. College students spent less time on Avelist than people in their 20s and 30s.
Why? We have our theories. Avelist is all about learning from other people and college students didn’t have as much of a pain point in that regard. Learning from their peers was already easy for college students because they were in close proximity to friends. If they were going abroad, they had a study abroad office to go to. If they were looking for classes, they could ask their friend in the cafeteria.
After college people move away from their friends. They have more of a need to connect with their peers online because they don’t live next door any more.
Anyway, regardless of the reason, we quickly learned that college students were not our target demographic and moved on to the “post-college” crowd. And guess what? Time on site went back up. Lesson #2: “Everyone” is not your target demographic. Find out who is and find out ASAP.
3. We added pictures.
When we first launched there were no pictures on Avelist. That was intentional. Our reasoning was that pictures weren’t core to our product. Our product was text, content, advice. We didn’t want to be confused with Pinterest. Text was one of our biggest differentiators. But here’s the thing, people love pictures. In fact, studies show that people process pictures 60,000 times faster than they can read text. Sixty thousand times faster. It sounds insane to me every time I say it, but apparently it’s true. So we finally decided to add pictures to Avelist and there was a major increase in user engagement. Lesson #3: Don’t fight science. If research says it works, it probably works.
4. We watched and listened.
Quality content is critical to Avelist. When we talked to content creators (bloggers, writers, etc.), many of them said they loved the idea of their content being on Avelist, but that it required a little too much effort to retype it on Avelist since they’d already published the content elsewhere. They were, however, interested in having content from their blogs imported into Avelist in order to give their blogs greater reach.
After these observations and conversations, we created a button that lets people pull text from other sites into Avelist. The result? Ease of use led to more content created which led to more content consumed which led to more time spent on site. Boom. Lesson #4: Build your product to fit people’s lives instead of expecting them to change their lives to fit your product.
5. We gave users more of what they liked.
Over time we noticed another pattern. People would read an article on Avelist (the whole entire thing) and then leave. They liked the article, sometimes commented on it, and appeared to have a quality experience, but they still didn’t take the next step of clicking back to their home feed and browsing more articles.
In order to draw people into Avelist for longer amounts of time, we created an engine that shows people content that they might like based on their previous activity on our site. And sure enough, our page views went up and our time on site went up.
We realized that most blogs and websites have those “you might also like” sections for a reason—they work.
Lesson #5. People walk down rabbit holes, so give them a rabbit hole.
6. We weren’t scared to backtrack.
Remember how I told you that we removed the landing page so people could access the site without signing up? Well, it had a side effect. A bad side effect. Without a landing page we saw people were confused about the purpose of Avelist. A few honest users asked, “What is Avelist exactly?” (As a founder that question makes your heart sink. Ha. Only my life’s work).
Anyway, long story short, we put the landing page back. But this time we included two buttons — sign up and browse first. This allowed people to read about Avelist, learn the purpose, and then decide if they were ready to sign up. If they weren’t ready to sign up after reading the text on our landing page, they could click that handy little “browse first” button, but at least they had a base knowledge from the landing page to help them understand what it was that they were browsing. Lesson #6. Do what needs to be done. One step back and two steps forward is still progress.
“We spent a lot of time building that” should never ever be your reason for keeping a feature.
7. We built a community.
After seeing the value of pictures, we started thinking more about human nature. What else draws people in? Relationships, personal connection, transparency—all of those things seemed like obvious answers, so we struck out to make Avelist a more personal experience.
We decided to feature some of our power users. I would interview them, tell their personal story, showcase their Avelist content, and help them connect with other users. By this point I had learned the value of testing features manually before building them out (I could write an entire article on that lesson alone), so I started testing this idea by featuring members on our blog.
The response to our “featured member” test was undeniable. Time on our blog increased. When people talked about Avelist, they talked about the featured members. Social media activity increased. People shared the member stories with their friends. Word. Of. Mouth. And that’s when I knew it would be worth adding these member stories directly to the website itself. Lesson #7. Think like a user, not like a founder. That’s the best way to figure out how to make your product appealing.
8. We iterated.
Some things work and some things don’t. You can’t know til you try. And if something doesn’t work, you scrap it and try another angle. This is the life of an inventor and/or founder. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Again and again and again. Don’t be scared to fail. Because a lot of your tests will fail. Failure is part of the process. Each failure brings you one step closer to overall success.
As far as Avelist goes, we have a good baseline of user engagement, but there’s still a ton of work to be done. I’ll keep you posted on our progress. (More articles to come, I’m sure). Until then, do me a favor and check out Avelist.com. If you like what you see, tell your friends. And if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Lesson #8: Talk to people. Ask for help. Work together.
Jody Porowski is the Founder & CEO of Avelist. She believes in people helping people. Sound like your kind of thing? Head over to Avelist.com to share your knowledge and learn from others. Want to follow the Avelist journey? Jody and Avelist are both pretty active on Twitter.