Driving Activation using the THEME Matrix

One critical element on the journey to finding product / market fit, is to get people to use your app — not just to simply sign-up, but to actually perform the key behaviors that drive value in the product. Here I’ll describe a framework to help you brainstorm, organize, and prioritize such initiatives.

Understanding activation

There is a nice metaphor out there (sorry, can’t remember where I heard it) that links getting customers to use your app to building a campfire. Starting a campfire, requires time, effort, and patience; you can’t simply pour lighter fluid on a big block of wood and hope for an inferno to occur. Instead, it requires lots of kindling, tweaking the air, and generally lots of fiddling over time to get it burning on its own.

That moment when the fire catches, can be likened to when customers take key actions in your app and then begin to truly experience the value of it. For instance when a user sends their first tweet, or posts their first photo, or create a playlist. This is what Dave McClure calls “activation”.

Activation is the lynchpin of product / market fit

Getting to this point is a big milestone en route to finding product / market fit, as it is really the first time customers begin to tangibly experience the value of using your product, whereas a signing up is based on the expectation of value.

Product / market fit does not necessarily mean you have a self-perpetuating, viral user acquisition machine, rather that you have created something that delivers value to a definable, and sizeable group of users. So, it’s quality over quantity, and “activating” a customer is really the first part of the process where you have that indication.

Activation is hard

Activation is often one of the hardest parts of the metric “funnel” to conquer. While it’s tempting to employ the clever tricks found in other apps, such as Dropbox’ referrals or Mailbox’ queue, those techniques may drive new users initially, but getting those users to perform the key behaviors in the app (posting something, replying to others, etc.) is another matter.

What compounds this challenge is knowing what actions to take, and understanding how they may improve activation. Early stage products have many potential levers, and at the outset there are not enough data for valid A/B (or multivariate) testing. Moreover a number of factors are cross-functional ones, so coordinating those can be challenging.

To help with this process, here’s a little framework I’ve used to focus those efforts.

The THEME Matrix framework

Each release cycle is an opportunity to learn, and move the needle on your activation metric. While I won’t go into measurement tools or techniques here, there are many good resources out there, such as the Lean Analytics Cycle, whereby you can judge whether your initiatives have sufficiently improved each iteration. However, in an early stage product, it’s important to brainstorm, organize, and prioritize all of the things you “could” do, across all of the functional stakeholders.

The matrix below, represents a basic model I have used to help our team brainstorm, organize, and prioritize the “levers” (or experiments) we could take on, as well as to tell us “who” in the organization could execute them, and how they could impact the customer experience. So let’s break it down…

Click to enlarge

Dimension #1: Consumer Decision Stages (the columns)

The columns of the matrix each represent a stage in the customer’s decision / action process that they follow, in order to execute the desired activation action in your app.

  • Target: What segments are you recruiting? What method are we using to recruit them?
  • Hook: What is the value proposition that engages the potential customer (prospect)?
  • Educate: How do you convey information to the prospect, so that they can understand the potential (rational) benefits of the product / service?
  • Motivate: What is it that compels a customer (emotionally) to act?
  • Enable: Can the customer successfully, and frictionlessly accomplish the task they set out to do?

Dimension #2: Process Stages (the rows)

The rows of the matrix document all of the steps in your “activation funnel”. I advise that you be as granular as possible, at first, in defining these steps. You can find ways to collapse these later as you work through the process.

Example: Activation Funnel for a generic messaging app
To help illustrate this concept, you can imagine a very standard messaging app, where the step to get someone “activated” requires them to eventually post a message (and hopefully receive a response). These steps may unfold as:

  1. Go to landing page for app / site
  2. Go to App Store
  3. Download
  4. Install
  5. Sign-up / register
  6. Invite / connect with friends
  7. Have friends accept their invitation
  8. Post a message
  9. Friend receives the message

Dimension #3: Experiments (the cells)

With the rows & columns defined, in each cell try to come up with both technical (product), as well as non-technical (marketing / messaging) initiatives (experiments) you can do to help improve the activation conversion. This will provide a good framework for brainstorming various initiatives. In practice, your matrix may look “lower triangular”, since the earlier parts of the consumer decisions tend to be influenced by marketing / messaging initiatives, such as segmenting and communicating the value proposition, whereas enabling behaviors and those parts tend to be more product / tech driven.

Filling this matrix out as best as you can will provide you with a cross-functional strategy for all touchpoints in the customer journey. The idea is then to select the most efficient steps you can take to drive activation and then after each iteration, deploy those features, and then measure the lift on the activation metric. Then, “rinse & repeat” until you feel that you’ve dialed in your activation funnel conversion.

Some practical notes from using this framework

Using this in the past there are a couple of things that we’ve learned from that process:

  • Works for enterprise products: While much of this has been written from a consumer-centric lens, that this process can work very well for enterprise products as well.
  • Don’t split the atom: While it is tempting to take a very scientific approach to trying to measure the incremental lift on a single feature / experiment at a time, that’s a luxury for products with scale and / or time. For instance, in a given sprint / iteration if you can change email copy and fix a bug, and that improves activation, are you really concerned about how to attribute that gain? Probably not. Think of this process as “guided hacking”, instead of something Google would do.
  • Make it collaborative: As this process is designed to tackle cross-functional issues, there are opportunities to involve a larger group. Sessions to brainstorm the matrix, determine which experiments to tackle “next”, as well as reviewing results are great ways to align a larger team.
  • Make it visual: Keeping a large visual representation (physically and virtually) of your matrix is a helpful tool to keep everyone focused on the journey at hand, and to track progress.

Fun Footnote

It was only after staring at a giant one of these matrices on the office wall for a couple of days did I notice the uncanny similarity between the T.H.E.M.E. mnemonic and the A.I.D.A. “framework” presented in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, so here it is for your benefit (caution: NSFW)

Always be activating!

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