Goal setting is hard. And yet, so important.
It’s one of the 8 critical decisions involved in building great products. If you get it right, you and your team can charge hard at the goal, ignoring everything else, to good result.
If you get it wrong and you do this, you often race down the wrong path.
What are some effective ways for setting strong goals?
Start From the Top
As part of your clear vision, you defined what success looks like. Go back and revisit that. Remember, you defined success not in the context of revenue or registered users, but in the context of when your user or customer is successful.
Hopefully, you identified a user outcome that indicates they’ve had success on your site. For Craigslist, this might mean they sold their old stereo. For Monster, it might mean they found a job. For Google, it might mean they got an answer to their question.
These types of outcomes can be hard to measure, but they are your true measure of success.
For now, stay away from measures like time on site, page views, number of connections, and so on. These are your product’s measures of success, not the users. We will be looking at product success measures as a means of driving user success in a bit, but they aren’t the end goal..
How do you know when you’ve found the right measure of success?
Ask yourself, so what? If the answer is something along the lines of “my user lives happily ever after” then you are on the right track. Take a look at these examples:
Wrong measure: The user posted a for sale item. So what? The user might sell their stuff.
Better measure: The user got more than 2 local replies to their listing. So what? The user probably sold their stuff.
Even better measure: The user confirmed they sold their stuff. So what? Hurray, we solved their problem.
Once you’ve identified your true measure of user success, you can start to look at what behaviors drive user success.
Define the Path to Success
At this point, you either have some users who are having success on your site or you have a theory of how users will have success on your site.
If you are in the former camp, take a look at your successful users and work to understand the path they are taking to get there.
If you are in the latter camp, sketch it out on paper. What do you think they will do to get there?
For example, If I’m Craigslist, my success funnel might look like this:
- Visit Site
- Start create a post process
- Write compelling copy
- Add a photo
- Post to the right category
- Collect responses
- Pick the best person
- Sell my stuff
How do you identify this funnel? Compare the people who are having success to the people who aren’t having success. What’s different?
Do ads with photos get more responses? Then adding a photo should be part of your success funnel. Does shorter (but not too short) ad copy drive more responses? Then optimizing for the right ad copy length should be part of your success funnel. And so on.
If your product is brand new, you won’t have data yet. You will have to guess. Whether it’s explicit or implicit, you probably have some idea of what path your users will take on their way to success.
Write it down. Get it out of your head. Commit it to paper.
Once you start to get real data, compare it to your theory and evolve it.
Understand Your Points of Leverage
Now that you’ve identified your success funnel, what goal should you set?
You need to understand your points of leverage.
Where can you have the biggest impact on the total outcomes?
Start by taking a snapshot of how this funnel is performing.
For example, let’s suppose this is what our funnel looks like:
Looking at this funnel, there are a lot of things we could impact. Suppose we want to triple the number of people who sell stuff. We could try:
- tripling our site visitors
- tripling the number of people who create an ad
- tripling the number of people who write compelling ad copy
- we can’t triple the number of people who add a photo, because we are already at 50%
- nor can we triple the number of people who post the right category, as we are already at 80%
- almost everyone collects responses so that’s not a point of leverage
- we could improve the % of people who identify the best person to sell to, but that alone won’t get us there
- and we can make it easier to actually make the sale and go after that last 20%, but that’s not going to triple our outcomes either
You can see, we either need to focus on the first couple of steps in the funnel or we need to focus on more than one area for improvement.
Why don’t we just set our goal as tripling the number of people who sell stuff and figure out the how later?
That may be the right goal, but it’s not the right approach.
If you set a goal without having an idea of how you might get there, it’s not a goal, it’s a dream. – Tweet This
So what should you pick?
The answer is everybody’s favorite: It depends.
You might think your biggest point of leverage is the second step. If you could just jump from 1% of your visitors creating content to 3%, you’d be all set. It certainly seems compelling.
However, this might be your hardest metric to actually move. There’s a long standing pattern in online communities – a very small percentage (usually around 1%) create content and the vast majority of your visitors will only consume content. In a marketplace, this might even be desirable, as all those consumers create value for your sellers.
It might be time to focus on the top of the funnel and start growing your user acquisition efforts. Or it might be time to shore up those middle steps and increase the overall percentage of high quality ads.
It’s a judgement call. And only you can make it.
The point here is to make sure that you play with the numbers. Mix and match target conversion rates to get the outcomes you need. Then ask yourself, are those conversion rates possible?
Know Your Stage: Baselines, Growth, or Maintenance
So you know how to measure success, you’ve outlined your success funnel, and you’ve identified your points of leverage, now what?
(I realize that each of those is hard to do and could warrant its own blog post. Share your questions, obstacles, and concerns in the comments and I’ll try to tackle them in future posts.)
How you set your goal will depend on what stage you are at with that particular metric. There are three different stages to consider:
Baseline Goals: Do you have a baseline of data for this goal? Do you have a trend over time? Let’s be clear: a trend is more than two data points.
Does this number fluctuate? By day of the week, month of the year, your PR efforts?
If you don’t have a good handle on how this metric changes over time already, it will be very hard to predict how you can impact this goal. Rather than setting a numerical goal, set a baseline goal – your goal should be to collect data and understand what impacts this measure., not to hit a specific number.
Growth Goals: If you have a baseline and your focus is growth, then a growth goal is right for you. Growth goals might be:
- 3x site visitors
- 3x the number of people who write compelling ad copy
- Grow the % of people who pick a person by 25%
Most of the things you already think of as goals are probably growth goals.
Maintenance Goals: Sometimes you get to a point where further investment leads to diminishing returns. It might be hard to get more than 80% of people to post to the right category. You might decide this is good enough. In this case, you probably want to set a maintenance goal to make sure this percentage doesn’t slip.
With time, you’ll have goals in all three stages. You’ll have a set of maintenance goals that really act as constraints on future development (i.e. increase compelling ad copy without negatively impacting posting to the right category). You’ll have a set of growth goals which are your primary focus and you’ll have a set of baseline goals that act as your pipeline, as these will eventually turn into growth goals.
Setting Growth Goals
It can be really hard to know how to set a growth goal. How much growth should you aim for during a specific period of time?
This is one of the hardest questions you will have to answer.
And there are no right answers.
But here are some tips.
First, extrapolate out your current trend. If you made no changes whatsoever, what number would you hit if time just passed, given your current rate of growth?
For example, if you currently have 1,000,000 registered users and they are growing 3% week-over-week and you are setting a quarterly goal, without doing anything differently, you should have 1,425,000 registered users at the end of the quarter.
Your growth goal needs to be higher than that.
Beyond that, I’m a big believer in setting aggressive goals. In this post, I explain how I get to a specific number that leads to exponential results. Take a minute to read it. And when estimating the impact of your activity plan, be sure to follow these estimating tips.
I’m a firm believer in the following:
Incremental goals lead to incremental results. Exponential goals lead to exponential results. – Tweet This
Which do you want?
Set your goals accordingly.
Have you identified your success funnel? Your biggest points of leverage? Have you set the right goal for driving product success? Please share your experience in the comments.
On Thursday, we’ll shift our focus from engagement to growth. Don’t miss out, subscribe to the Product Talk mailing list.
Dave Dirks says
This is really a great read Teresa. I know many of our clients are facing these challenges while growing their business. Again and again making clear, like in the lean principles, that doing something without knowing as exactly as possible what you are trying to reach and to measure, is rather useless. In the speed and buzz of the moment and the hype, when indeed it sometimes comes down (not in the last place, promoted by early stage investors) too much on number of users instead of building a solid ground to build on further.
Teresa Torres says
It sounds so simple and yet is so hard to do. Thanks for the great comment, Dave!
Roger L. Cauvin says
Good stuff, Teresa! As product managers, we should be working with the team to define these funnels and ensure the product is “instrumented” to track them. It should go hand-in-hand with defining and implementing use cases. One helpful tool for tracking funnels is MixPanel.
karthik KP says
Another great post Teresa! More often than we get caught in the vanity metrics loosing the focus. Customer value focussed goals helps to build a truly valuable product.
Can you explain more about baseline goal, not sure if I understood that part clearly ?
Teresa Torres says
Sure. Let’s stick with the Craigslist example. Let’s say you want to set a goal to increase the number of people who write compelling copy in their posting. You can’t set a goal, if you don’t currently know how many people write compelling copy. You might need to define what compelling copy means. Then you need a way of evaluating posting copy – automatically categorizing it as compelling or not. Then you need to understand what percentage of posts currently get categorized as compelling. And you want to understand this over time. Does it vary from day to day, week to week? What’s the range? Maybe on Monday 30% of posts are compelling, but on Tuesday 50% are compelling. If you only looked at Monday’s data, you might set a goal to get to 35%, but then on Tuesday that now looks like an easy goal.
Often times we don’t have the data we need to set an appropriate goal. So we need to define our goal based on getting that data – what I refer to as baseline data. So in this case, our first goal might be: Categorize all posts as compelling or not. After completing that goal, we might want to set another goal of: Track compelling post data for 30 days to understand our baseline. Both of these goals are goals related to understanding our baseline.
After we’ve completed these first two goals, we should have the data we need to set a growth goal. Does that help?
KP Karthik says
Got it now Teresa! Thanks for the detailed explanation! So, it’s a step to identify the status quo data without changing any of the variables… Can I call it as baseline data rather than baseline goal, I generally consider goals as something I strive to attain in the future. Is that right ?
Sure. The reason why I specify it as a goal type is I see a lot of companies setting goals before they have the baseline data because they are required to set a goal. But setting a goal without baseline data isn’t really a goal, it’s a hope or a dream.
KP Karthik says
Totally agreed! Just that it requires some effort and discipline to get the baseline data before working towards the growth goal, and hence the step is mostly undermined and foregone.
I’ve to admit that I regularly missed it when I used to work in an early stage start-up not so long ago. Glad you pointed out!
.Caito! (@rscattini) says
Using OKR’s to set the goals clearly, is a very good option. If you have identified the KPI you must follow and the goal you should reach as well, it’s a piece of cake. Is VERY important to have that KPI’s accesible for everyone and up to date