A simple habit drives App user retention for Tinybeans (Podcast)

Feb 19

A simple habit drives App user retention for Tinybeans (Podcast)

In this podcast series we ask experienced Appreneurs for one success story and one fail.

In this episode of the Mobile Engagement Podcast:
Stephen O’Young is extremely humble but I think what the Tinybeans team has achieved is great. They have a 40% MAU and 500,000 downloads. Their Tinybeans App in the Appstore and Google Play has consistently high user ratings and Stephen assures me these are actual user ratings.

Tinybeans screenshot

Engagement Score

For all our interviews we score the anecdotes based on 3 axes of: acquisition, UX and retention – There is quite a few actionable tips in this podcast and so it was challenging to pick one – but with high retention I’ve chosen the Tinybeans core message of “One photo per day” and then driving that as a “habit” (I’ve written about habits elsewhere) with a simple photo-taking action and a celandar view of pictures reinforces app user retention. So Stephen’s story scores 0,6,8.

I’d score 10 for retention if they had implemented more “active” engagement – Stephen mentions how this is a phase they are moving into. Using Mobile engagement automation to activate the habit – we’ll be doing a followup with Stephen in a while on this.

Let us know on our Twitter account how you score it.



Here are valuable few takeaways I jotted down:

  • An email summary is sent to grandparents. There are  an essential part of the social network and engaging them in the child’s growth is a key to retention.
  • Get “In and Out” easy – take a picture everyday but because Stephen was a “lazy parent” the call-to-action of “One photo a day” is supported by the UI. (Just a couple of taps to add a photo)
  • Like most Apps, the usability got better with subtraction. Usability is paired back to be in-sync with the Apps overall value prop/position (see previous point)
  • User acquisition has some interesting dynamics, they acquire family members easily but have “islands of small social networks” rather than one big network – this means that “word-of-mouth” acquisition is very manual and unmeasurable.
  • They’ve tried mobile user acquisition via: paid, SEO, content marketing. But competition for paid has too much keyword competition for parent topics.
  • Facebook worked well initially but again competition is making this prohibitive.
  • Analytics without action is useless. The need for actionable analytics at a personal level is their priority. This leads to mobile engagement automation.

Transcript Detail

DAVID: Gidday! Today’s episode is all about families. I’ve got with me Stephen O’Young. He’s with a company called Tinybeans. Hi, Stephen, how are you?

STEPHEN: Hey! Hi, Dave, how are you?

DAVID: Very well. Tell us a little bit about Tinybeans.

STEPHEN: I guess the easiest way to explain Tinybeans is it’s like a social network for families, where they can easily share their kids’ photos and videos, and basically just to get the grandparents and uncles and aunties involved in the child’s life.

DAVID: So do you compete with Path then?

STEPHEN: I suppose in a way. I guess Path and Facebook, they’re more generic social networks, so in a way they’re the substitutes, but our service is a lot more tailored for children. So, for example, we also have things like milestones and it allows the parents to record the weight and height of the children, and so on and so forth. So we basically target a very specific vertical: families.

DAVID: Right. So you’re laser-focused on kids growing up. What sort of ages do you find that’s a real sweet spot?

STEPHEN: Well, a lot of our users’ kids are between 0 and 2 at the moment, but we’re targeting from 0 to 6.

DAVID: Okay. Nobody really jumps into the thing at 4 years of age. They always jump in at the start?

STEPHEN: Well, they can. I mean, look, I’ve got three kids. I’ve got three boys. One’s 10, one’s 8, and the other one’s 4. I use it every day and I know people who also do that, but I think the sweet spot will be the newborns because that’s when the excitement of the parents is at its highest and they want to share every moment with the grandparents.

DAVID: Once you get past the terrible twos, then people start to lose interest in the kids, is that right?

STEPHEN: Hmm, a little bit, but I guess what we find is that a lot of people like the completion aspect of it. So once you start a journal, you want to continue to collect the memories and the moments. I guess with the older kids, they have different milestones—first day at school, first day at childcare, first time to do a times table—so there’s always moments, regardless of how old or young your kids are.

DAVID: Do you prompt the users for those kinds of events or are you using any other kind of gamification at the moment?

STEPHEN: Yeah. At the moment, no, but we do have the Milestones in the app so that parents can “pull”. They can basically go through each child’s profile and we would show them the milestones that are appropriate for that age. That serves as somewhat of a prompt but I guess there is work that we’re doing to make that more a “push” approach, where we prompt the parents, to say, “Hey, take a picture of your child doing …. kind of experience.”

DAVID: Yeah. So at the moment, do you see a drop-off in terms of people not picking up those later-stage-type things?

STEPHEN: Funny thing, we’ve got people who have been with us since we started two or three years ago and they’re still very, very active, so I think that boils down to the whole completion aspect of the calendar. I guess if you go online, you’ll see that the way we represent the photos is very much like a calendar format. Basically the idea is you can see your child growing every day in a calendar collage format. This kind of prompts the parents to take at least one photo a day essentially. Once that becomes a habit, it’s pretty good and people stay around.

DAVID: Right, okay. Does it always require a photo? Is that like a basic element of the usage of the app, or are there other daily entries you can actually add, like a quick note or something like that?

STEPHEN: Yes, you can. You can just do text moments or you can also do video as well.

DAVID: Okay, great. So you mentioned there briefly you’ve been going for a couple of years. Where are you at as a business, the number of users and all that sort of stuff?

STEPHEN: I guess we’re just over 500,000 users, but in terms of active, well, 30-40% of that.

DAVID: Wow, that’s great. From that particular process, these are the people that are actually kind of still in that 0-to-2 age stage, so if you can hang on to them for longer, then you’ve got a really growing user base.

STEPHEN: Yes, you’re right. A lot of the parents have actually grown with us, so that they started at zero when we started and now they’re still taking photos of the kids for years on.

DAVID: Okay. So let’s drill into how you got to this number of users. You launched something, it sounds like it’s suitable to families but it’s not like where you basically keep on inviting more and more people. Tell us a little bit about how you actually get that social network interaction happening.

STEPHEN: Yeah, I guess it’s quite interesting. I think, on average, our users invite 2 to 4 people per account. But there are outliers, you know, we’ve got people who have like close to a hundred followers, right?

DAVID: Right.

STEPHEN: But like you said, what’s interesting here is not a traditional viral loop in that the parents would invite the grandparents but it’s very unlikely that the grandparents would invite other people, so I guess it’s a very shallow invitation system. As a result, a lot of our work is around trying to get parents to recommend our App to other parents.

DAVID: Right. So you don’t have a natural sort of situation where one parent actually shares something with another parent by default because it’s quite a private sort of thing, but you’re looking for a way to kind of bleed across between one family to another; otherwise, you’ve got tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of islands basically.

STEPHEN: Exactly. Having said that, moms do talk, so a lot of our users come from pure word of mouth, which makes it incredibly hard to track, but we do see a lot of chatter on forums and things like that where the moms would recommend us to other parents.

DAVID: So do you feel as though that’s how you’re growing? What do you think of being the kind of key growth things for you?

STEPHEN: Organically, definitely word of mouth, and I guess just inviting followers, close friends and family, but I guess our biggest growth so far has been with partnerships. We’ve got a couple of partners where they are like “fire hoses” to us. They’re in a similar market to us, so they will help us acquire users and we basically have a partnership arrangement with them.

DAVID: Right. Does it also open up areas for partnership in terms of magazines? because, you know, people are fanatical readers of certain types of websites if it’s in childhood because there’s so much they don’t know. Has that been something you’ve explored to date?

STEPHEN: Definitely. Originally the whole idea was actually around the children’s milestones and their development. It was only later that we decided to go towards the whole photo-sharing aspect. The reason we did that was milestones for kids don’t happen very often, so maybe you hit one or two milestones a month at the beginning of their childhood, but it doesn’t happen very often, so we just couldn’t get that kind of regular engagement we wanted. So what we did then was we expanded into the photo-sharing site and then we encouraged our parents to take photos every single day. So what happens now is we’ve got really high engagement for the parents, and now we’re trying to slowly re-introduce the whole milestone concept back into the product.

To tie that back to the magazine and the content, what we’re trying to do now is to recommend content to the parent at the right time because we know how old their children are, we know roughly where their location is, we can really kind of curate the right information to the parent at the right time, rather than… because a lot of parents have so many books and resources out there but it’s just too overwhelming. I guess our hypothesis is that by slowly drip-feeding them information, that creates more value for them.

DAVID: Yeah. So value then is really based around context, where they are, where they are in the life cycle with the child and other kinds of signals such as personal preferences or “product likes”.

STEPHEN: Exactly, yeah, and then especially like what milestones the child has completed or not.

DAVID: Right. They’re very interesting. So for you, in terms of, you know, we talk on these podcasts about the three axes of growth or acquisition, user experience, and retention or engagement, it seems to me that you’ve got retention or engagement really nailed just by the basic thing of what people are doing but you want to do a lot more in there in terms of moving from a passive approach to a triggered approach.

STEPHEN: Mm-hmm. That’s for sure – yes.

DAVID: Right, okay. So which one, do you think, is the best thing to talk about today?

STEPHEN: Like I said, word of mouth is really hard to quantify but forums is an easy one where we can do a Google Alert and then we can see when someone talks about us. Even then, a lot of forums are half-private, so Google Alerts won’t even raise a signal. But normal word of mouth is practically impossible to track. So I guess we do focus a lot on user acquisition, but at the moment, number one is actually on the user experience because the way we figure is we offer a great user experience and people naturally talk about us anyway.

DAVID: So with that user experience side of things, you’ve gone for a sort of minimal touch type thing or has it been really about having a beautiful interface. What’s kind of like the key UX thing that you’ve learned has really worked for people?

STEPHEN: Yeah. I guess because of our demographics, they’re not necessarily very tech savvy, so it has to be easy, as in really easy, unambiguous. Also, we serve kind of two audiences: we serve the parents who mostly use the app to take photos, and the other audience is the grandparents or the uncles and aunties and the close friends who mostly interact through the website or email.

DAVID: Okay. So there are two very specific user modes there.

STEPHEN: That’s correct. And when it comes to grandparents, the user experience issues are very unique. Because they can’t see as well, the colour choices have to be very specific, the fonts have to be bigger. Also, a lot of them are very tech “unsavvy”, so really we just have to make a lot of decisions to really dumb down the user interface.

DAVID: Do you make an assumption that those people are using web, or do you make an assumption that those people are using iPads?

STEPHEN: Yeah, we do measure all these different channels. But for the grandparents, by far, yeah, email is the key one. So what happens is that the parents can take photos every day, and at the end of the day, the grandparents will get a summary, an email summary, of all the photos. So really, the grandparents can be very passive; they’ll just get an email every day. They really enjoy that because they don’t have to log in and they don’t have to worry about passwords and whatnot. I guess the parents are also good with that because they don’t have to support the grandparents. So I say, “As long as they can get email, they’re happy to continue to receive the photos every single day.”

DAVID: Right. I think once you go down that path of doing grandparent tech support, you’re in deep trouble.

STEPHEN: Oh, yes, there’s nothing more torturous than that. We still field a lot of our customer inquiries and it’s quite interesting how many different issues that we never thought about, as tech savvy users, that arises because of grandparents.

DAVID: It’s like 90% of your support load are actually coming from grandparents.

STEPHEN: Well, not that bad, because they can’t even get to the support!

DAVID: Oh, it works. They’re filtering. That’s great.

STEPHEN: Yeah. But, you know, we try our best to make it easy for everybody. So I guess from the parents’ side then, the usual interface is all about being quick and easy, so in and out easily, take a picture every day, because it is quite an ask to get people to take photos every single day of their children. Parents are very busy and whatnot, especially new parents, so we try to make the user interface very, very easy, like basically a couple of taps at a photo and grandparents can be notified straightaway easily.

DAVID: So what did it take for you to actually get to that particular thing? Was that obvious right from the start when you actually launched that? Did you get there in six months or did it take quite a while to actually really nail that?

STEPHEN: I guess I’m a parent as well.

DAVID: But you’re a technical parent and a programming parent, so you’re in the minority.

STEPHEN: Yes, but I’m also a lazy parent. [Laughs]

DAVID: Okay, all right.

STEPHEN: So simplicity was always a high for me. In fact, one of the reasons why it is just “do one photo a day” at the beginning was because my third child was due to be born and I wanted a very painless and easy way of giving him something back. I knew a lot of friends who had blogs and all that kind of stuff and I was really always very jealous of them doing that. I could never bring myself to write something about them every day, so I just created something really simple which was to take one photo. I could commit to that and make that as easy as possible to get out of my way basically.

DAVID: So was that basically the call to action for the app or was that the key message of the app when you launched, that you said “one photo a day”?

STEPHEN: Yes. And I guess the whole calendar format instilled that as well.

DAVID: Right. I know you were talking at one stage about actually doing printed calendars. Did that come to pass?

STEPHEN: Yes. So we do photo books now, not because we really wanted to but a lot of parents wanted a physical copy of it. But, yeah, we definitely do plan to do more innovative type prints, like bigger format prints or infographic type prints as well.

DAVID: Right. So what was the one big thing in the UX side of it where you really went, “Ah, it’s a game changer!”?

STEPHEN: It was just incremental improvements. I mean, if you look at the app three years ago to where it is now, it looks very, very different.

DAVID: It’s probably like a lot of people make that joke about, you know, it’s the longest overnight success ever.

STEPHEN: Yes. Well, it’s not even a success yet, but anyway… [Laughs]

DAVID: I think you’ve got an incredible job. That’s an amazing amount of user downloads and user engagement for something that’s not a game.

STEPHEN: Because it is like a happy type of app where people like to share baby and all that kind of stuff. I guess our users have been very nice to us as a result. Yeah, that’s good. So, yeah, in terms of the UX, it’s really incremental tweaks. At the beginning, we had a tab approach and we found that a lot of people were confused about where to find certain things. Now, if you look at the app, it’s basically one big plus button on the bottom and it’s really hard to mistake what you need to do. Having said that, there’s still ways to go because we still got a left menu and a right menu, which we want to collapse, and our timeline is currently, in a way, with two clicks and we really want to get rid of that. I guess our users are also quite open with their feedback, so we definitely just take into account what they suggest and we incrementally include or adopt.

DAVID: I know that you say that your users are very friendly and positive because of happiness, but I think it’s amazing you’ve got such great ratings on the App Store. That’s obviously a well-loved app, no matter how nice people are. When you see how beat-up people can be or how brutal they can be with ratings, I think there’s so much positivity around your app, so you must be doing something right, regardless of whether you got two menus.

STEPHEN: Yeah, it might be. I don’t know. I hope so.

DAVID: All right. So tell us about one big fail you had in the whole process.

STEPHEN: Oh, I don’t think we’ve had a huge fail but there’ve been lots and lots of little fails, like “death by a thousand cuts” kind of thing. You know, acquisitions, we try a lot of different ways. We tried pay, we tried SEO, and we tried giving big giveaways and all that kind of stuff. It’s quite hard because it’s hard to get parents, because parents are a very sought-after demographic, and all the whole SEO, all the AdWords, the price bids are all very, very high. So we tried a lot of the paid advertising and I didn’t think that really work for us at all.

Facebook used to work well at the beginning. When the mobile apps were coming out, that was really good, but then now because it’s way more competitive, it doesn’t really work for us either. Then we tried some content marketing and partnerships, like we said. Yeah, I guess now we’re looking into member-get-member. We’ve done so many different things it’s hard to pinpoint one massive fail, just lots of little…

DAVID: Yeah. Like any true startup, it’s really about actually just failing very quickly on those things and making sure you don’t shoot yourself on the foot along the way.

STEPHEN: Yes, I suppose. I mean, as a matter of fact, we recently just did a fail. We were going to bring out a new product, and after quite a few weeks of working on it and developing it, we went to some user testing and it just wasn’t very well received at all, so now it’s been kind of like parked. In hindsight, we definitely should have done the user testing first.

DAVID: Was it a different product or was it a different way of utilizing the existing product?

STEPHEN: It was like an offshoot. In hindsight, yeah, we definitely should have passed our users first. You know how it is – 20/20 vision in hindsight.

DAVID: Yeah, exactly. All right, very good. Actually I’m curious about your transition from being passive to more actively engaged, so would it be possible to catch up again in the future sometime to chat about that?

STEPHEN: Oh, definitely, yes, sure.

DAVID: Yeah. That would be really great to hear how you go with that because I guess at this particular stage, you’re up to the point of actually doing things and measuring them at the same time and being scientific about it.

STEPHEN: Hmm… yeah.

DAVID: That didn’t sound convincing. [Laughs]

STEPHEN: Look, it took us a while and, yeah, the data aspect, we’re only just catching up now. We are tracking a lot more. We are more diligent with analyzing data, rather than just collecting it. It’s easy to collect a lot of data but it’s really difficult to actually make use of it.

DAVID: You really want actionable analytics, don’t you?

STEPHEN: Exactly, yeah. So I think we’re slightly getting better at that.

DAVID: Yeah, it’s one of the things we always struggle in StreetHawk. We struggle with what’s the right kind of message, because people have Google Analytics and they might be using Mixpanel and all sorts of things like that, but it’s about what you can do with that stuff and how you’re actually really moving people through the lifecycle. It’s been hard – if you use the word “analytics” you end up going down a hole to do with GA or Flurry or something like that when it’s really completely unrelated.

STEPHEN: Yeah, definitely. I mean, because it’s so easy to capture data, I think most people do it “just in case”, but the problem with that is you get so much data you just get completely lost – and the cost involved in extracting the facts from all that excess of data is actually quite expensive.

DAVID: So that would be great if we can catch up sometime in the future and just talk about what you’ve achieved in terms of your retention, going into a more active management of your user life cycle.

STEPHEN: Definitely, yup.

DAVID: Okay, mate. Well, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

STEPHEN: Okay. Thank you, Dave. It was a pleasure.

DAVID: Thanks. Cheers!

STEPHEN: I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.

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