The Secret Power of SaaS and Its Dark Side: All You Need to Know About Power Users (And How to Get More of The Real Ones)
Everybody thinks they know one when they see one.
But how well do you really know your power users?
What makes them power users instead of regular users?
And are they always the ones you should chase?
(You must be getting a hint what’s the answer to this one from the title!)
Unlike the popular opinion, determining who your power user is not as simple as counting the web sessions. And the relationship you may have with them is also not always a fairy tale (see the horror story of one of our users, whose ‘power users’ almost derailed their app.)
As we’ll see in this blog, the term “power user” is not quite as straightforward as it seems at first.
- What are power users?
- Why people get power users all wrong
- How to identify and measure power users
- How to get more power users than ever before
What are power users?
Your power users are your “best users”. But what does that really mean?
It’s not the users who use your product most often.
Let’s take a look at the Userpilot granular user adoption journey map.
We split our user journey into these seven steps, each of which reflects higher and higher levels of value and engagement realized.
The two most advanced steps are Pro and Advocate.
And it’s the people at these levels who make up your power user base.
You often may hear that “power users are your oldest users”, or that they are “your most active users” or those “who are best at using your tool”.
But if any of those definitions were true, what would be the benefit for you of having more of them?
We need to look elsewhere if we’re going to find a definition of power user that explains why you would care about how many of them you have…
Three benefits power users bring you:
💥 #1 They increase Average Customer Value (ACV)
SaaS – by definition – works on a subscription model. That’s why retention is a key metric and reducing churn is a key objective.
The longer you keep a customer, the more you get paid.
Pro users drive up your ACV because they are stable, content, long-term users of your product.
What makes people stable, content, long-term users?
Realizing lots of value. Power users are getting a lot out of using your tool.
They’re Pros, in the sense of knowing how to make it work for them with minimum friction and to maximum effect.
💥 #2 They reduce Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)
That review on Capterra you didn’t ask for?
Probably written by power user.
That customer that told you a friend of theirs was waxing lyrical about your company?
Also a power user.
What is so attractive about power users is that they help you to market and sell your product.
They are enthusiasts, cheerleaders and advocates for your business, who will:
- Write positive reviews
- Provide testimonials and case studies
- And – best of all – they will refer your service to people they know
As Advocates, power users help you to get the word out about your product, for free. Their efforts make your customer acquisition efforts more effective, driving down CAC.
💥 #3 They identify new sources of value and help refine your roadmap
Power users may sometimes even…know your product better than you do.
Woah. We said that.
How is that even possible?
Power users are constantly pushing the envelope of your product to get more out of it.
They can uncover use cases that you hadn’t anticipated, pointing you towards future developments that will fulfill the needs of wider and different audiences.
Power users are also often keen to provide feedback and to have their say on the product’s future.
If channeled in the right way, this kind of engagement with your most committed users can be invaluable for product development.
So, these ☝ are the reasons why you want power users.
Got an expert user who’s been on board for years, who logs in every day, and who’s always talking to you?
But he’s not doing the things that give you those benefits?
Sorry – not a power user.
Before we talk about how you identify them, we need to dispel a few myths.
Why people get power users all wrong + The Horror Story
TLDR: because companies take an off-the-peg definition of “power user” and apply it thoughtlessly to their unique needs.
If you are defining, tracking and paying attention to “power users” who do not actually bring these benefits – higher ACV, lower CAC and useful feedback – then you’re being led astray.
This is a big problem for software businesses.
For example, you can have a highly engaged, very vocal group of users clamoring for new features that the overwhelming majority don’t care about and never will.
It’s easy to overestimate the significance of that loud 1%.
The result: the tail wags the dog and you end up needlessly overengineering the product with features that don’t help you grow.
As Roxanne Abercrombie argues in this blog, it’s not those noisy users’ fault. It’s your fault for paying too much attention to the wrong people.
Before you start following a presumed power user’s recommendations or modeling future user flows on their experiences, you need to ask yourself:
Is what I am getting from this person really going to help me grow my SaaS the way I want it to grow?
At the end of the day, users care about their own use cases and their own priorities – not necessarily what’s best for your business.
That’s why I’ve stressed the need for you to classify as power users ONLY those engaged, active, expert users who are ACTUALLY providing value to YOU.
Those people who look like power users but aren’t actually delivering the goods could take you in the wrong direction.
Or a very wrong direction – and downright derail your product.
The Farmville Horror Story – How “Power Users” Almost Derailed Postfity
If you’re reading our blog regularly you may be familiar with Postfity.
The social media scheduler became the user of Userpilot in January 2020. You can use it to schedule posts to different social media platforms with it, shorten links, and edit graphics.
When you log into Userpilot’s dashboard, you can take a sneak peak at the number of web sessions your active users have had since they signed up:
Team Postfity noticed that some users had a lot higher activity than others.
*A lot*. It seemed that some users were logging into the app several times per day!
The first reaction was to cheer at how much the “power users” were enjoying the app.
But it wasn’t long before the reality check came.
Around March, Postfity users started alerting the support that the links they were sharing via the app were not opening on social media or any major browsers.
As it turned out – Postfity’s domain got blacklisted.
The team quickly traced the issue down to…the people whom they once thought were the “power users”.
It turned out that the users who had so many web sessions were actually up to no good.
Looking at their account activity more closely one could quickly notice that despite the high number of web sessions, most of these users didn’t in fact post anything.
Some of them didn’t even add a single social media account.
What did they use a social media scheduler though?!
Spam other people with Gift Links to Farmville, concealed with Postfity’s link shortener.
The got the spam recipients to report the messages repeatedly, and ultimately got the domain blacklisted.
Which obviously took a lot of work to undo, and taught Team Postfity a hard lesson.
While this example is quite obvious – it illustrates a bigger issue: usage metrics are not a good way to identify a power user.
What is then?
How to identify and measure power users
As we get into the common ways of identifying power users, you’ll see why I went to the trouble of warning you about the risks of following the wrong people.
A lot of companies use easy-to-track proxies as a substitute for a bespoke, value-based definition of their power users.
Log-in frequency is one of the commonest, and it’s usually expressed as the ratio of Daily Active Users (DAUs) to Monthly Active Users (MAUs).
I’ve already illustrated what’s wrong with that.
And yet -this figure gives you the percentage of your monthly user base that is in fact accessing your tool every day.
And as Andrey Brych notes in this article, this ratio is so commonly used that a common benchmark for SaaS and apps has emerged:
A 20% DAU/MAU rate is deemed to be good.
But there are a lot of problems with this measure:
- The month is not the best period of time to look at for many businesses. For a lot of SaaS companies, a week is more appropriate – with weekends (when people are not at work) discounted.
- Conversely, some apps don’t need to be used frequently to deliver value. Payroll software, for example, is likely to be used heavily just once a month or once every two weeks – with very little activity outside those times.
- Log-in frequency does not correlate strongly with delivery of the benefits we talked about earlier. Frequent logging-in can often be a sign of something other than satisfaction. Perhaps those users are experiencing bugs or find it hard to complete tasks? Maybe they’re trying to cancel!
- In the worst-case scenario, as was the case with Postfity – your users may be actually abusing the tool. An abnormal number of logins is not a reason for joy.
A much better approach is to use what Li Jin and Andrew Chen call “Power User Curves”:
While the DAU/MAU ratio is just one single number, a Power User Curve shows you the percentage of your MAU base (or weekly active user base) engaging on each number of days in that month. In this example:
- 17% are only logging in once in the month (on the left),
- While 7% are logging in every single day (on the right)
This is a big step up from the DAU/MAU approach, because it makes clear how heterogenous your user base is. Here, it is split into 30 segments.
A “smile” shaped curve like the one above shows the existence of power users: people who come back every single day (even every single working day!) are clearly highly engaged.
And it’s reasonable to assume that people who are coming back every day are getting a lot of value.
That they’ve integrated your tool into their workflows and maybe with other tools they use.
And that they are playing with it, exploring its capabilities and looking at applying it to new use cases.
You don’t need to assume!
Once you’ve identified a group of power users like this, you can begin to explore what they are ACTUALLY DOING through analytics and other tools (like session recordings).
And you can begin to identify what will push those people just outside the power user zone (perhaps 20-25 days’ activity per month) by looking into their behavior.
What’s different about what they do from what the full power users are doing?
By contrast, a Power User Curve (PUC) that looks like this shows you have an engagement problem.
Another way in which PUCs can be used is for Cohort Analysis.
By overlaying monthly periods’ curves starting at different points, you can:
- See the change in rates of engagement over time
- Pinpoint the date at which your numbers of power users begin to pick up (or drop off)
- Identify what variables you changed around that time, which could be the cause of the rate change
But if we want to really make the most out of PUCs, then we can’t just be thinking in terms of log-ins or activity in a general sense.
And that means developing a Product Engagement Score system.
OK, this is the frustrating part of the blog where we tell you that you need to work out “what counts” as engagement, success and value for your users…
Sorry, there’s no way to avoid it!
This video from Patrick Thompson of Iteratively is a great place to start.
Source: Patrick Thompson, Iteratively
A Product Engagement Score allocates a value to a whole range of activities, applies a weighting to each one, multiplies them out by frequency of occurrence and totals all the results into one single score.
So, a log-in could be one such activity that counts – but it certainly wouldn’t be the only one.
Nor would it be weighted particularly highly because it doesn’t necessarily correlate with a high state of engagement.
Inviting friends to use your tool is a much stronger signal of engagement. So this activity would have a higher weight than a simple log-in.
But as we’ve mentioned before, the weightings can’t be the same for every business. If your SaaS has social networking capabilities and offers free accounts, inviting new users in may be a weak signal.
With a tool like Slack, for example, you HAVE TO invite other users to get any value out of it at all!
For some other tools, an invite to a new user is literally the Holy Grail of a new referral and the strongest possible endorsement.
Here’s a sample scorecard provided by Sherlock, from a blog which explains how they normalize these raw scores to a percentage figure and by Winsorizing at 90%. That is, treating everything below the 5th percentile as set to the 5th percentile and everything above the 95th percentile as set to the 95th percentile. This has the effect of dampening the effects of the farthest outlying scores.
But what if you don’t know which activities are most important?
Then you have to ask the users.
A good place to start is with NPS promoters.
That is users who give you a 9 or 10 rating in NPS surveys or micro surveys. The clue is in the question: these are people who are very (or even extremely) likely to provide you with referrals.
Christian Sculthorp of Agency Analytics says that collecting, listening to and acting on feedback from NPS surveys enabled his business to cut churn by a staggering 30%.
If you’re not collecting qualitative feedback about user satisfaction of this sort, you are missing out on critical information that can help you leverage your power users.
With Userpilot, you can deploy NPS microsurveys in-app at the most contextually beneficial points – without writing a line of code! Get a free demo today to see how easy it is.
As a rule, it’s best to rely on what people actually DO rather than what they SAY they do. So you should always cross-reference this kind of data against your analytics.
When it comes to understanding new patterns in user behavior, Heap is perhaps the best tool available.
The key difference between Heap and other analytics packages is this: Heap tracks all in-app events by default. It doesn’t require you to define tracked activities in advance.
This is incredibly useful when you don’t yet know what you’re looking for!
But as a rule, there are some big things you WILL be looking for:
- Feature adoption – including the percentage of all your tool’s features in use
- Speed of task completion (faster points to strong familiarity)
- Integration of your tool with other apps – which suggests your SaaS is firmly embedded in the user’s workflows
All these are strong indicators of users getting above average value.
How to get more power users than ever before
So, the best way to get more power users is to get more users to achieve high levels of value.
Here are five great ways of doing just that.
#1 Remove friction and provide support proactively where it’s needed
The best way to provide this is with contextual in-app training.
- In-app training for each use case and audience segment needs to be distinct, carefully planned and independent of other training
- It needs to be optional, specialized, contextual and – preferably – interactive too
- Only trigger advanced experiences when users have reached certain activity and accomplishment thresholds
- Avoid repeating training if you can see it has been taken on board!
Supplement your pre-programmed onboarding flows with other resources:
- Help documents, a knowledge base, FAQs and other materials that users can find and absorb when they need them. Airtable does a great job of this, keeping its tutorial buttons available but discrete at all times.
- Provide easy access to bespoke help. Your Help Center will be able to deal with the most common and obvious problems users encounter, but your power users will regularly be encountering edge cases that the average customer success operative may not be able to solve. If you’re going to keep power users satisfied, you will need real deep expertise on your Help Desk to help them deal with the hard cases. If you’re going to nurture power users, maybe you could give them a special helpline or set up a discussion forum?
#2 Help users integrate your app into their workflows
When you’re looking at activating users, this is a matter of getting them over the initial hurdle of engaging with your product to achieve value.
That’s why so many SaaS companies provide templates – to make it easy to get started and overcome the dreaded “white canvas” problem.
Shiv Patel talks about this problem in this video – illustrating it nicely with the old welcome screen users had to content with at Autopilot.
Source: Shiv Patel
The white canvas problem needs to be addressed at every level. Don’t just assume that because somebody is an experienced user they will be able to apply what they know to new or advanced features without help.
One of the things that really differentiates power users from the rest is that your app is deeply embedded in their working practices. They use it alongside other tools to achieve their goals.
That’s why to grow your power user numbers, it’s really important to provide off-the-peg integrations with other tools.
For example, if a potential customer is already a committed user of Intercom, the ease with which your tool works alongside Intercom is an important buying and retention decision factor.
If they need a developer to write an API integration to port data from your app to Intercom, that’s a serious barrier to adoption as against a tool (like Userpilot) which has a ready-made integration available.
Speaking of which:
So, making sure your tool fits in neatly to a wide range of tech stacks is important.
#3 Align all teams on user journeys
Make sure that all your different teams – product, customer success, support, developers – know who the power users are and are aware of how they achieve value.
Only when power users are receiving a seamless, contextual experience at all touch points (in-app and outside) will you generate the kind of enthusiasm that will get them referring you!
#4 Build a flywheel
A user adoption flywheel aims to create more power users by carefully guiding users along each step of their journeys.
The theory runs that your product marketing and user experience should generate such forward momentum at each stage that it becomes easier and easier for users to make progress.
Rand Fishkin describes a flywheel as:
A continuously improving set of repeatable, tactical investments that scaled with decreasing friction.
That means making sure that users are primed at each step of the journey for taking the NEXT steps.
#5 Study individual users
Aggregated analytics are great, but when you have identified who your power users are, you want to find out what they do, person by person. What do they do in your app that other users don’t?
Screen session recordings are brilliant for this. Fullstory is particularly good for picking out and leveraging power users.
Not only is it set up to identify and flag your most active and engaged users as individuals…
…but it also allows you to save groups of them as custom segments once you’ve identified their defining qualities (in terms of in-app activities).
That brings us nicely to our final section.
Being a power user isn’t just about what the user is getting. It’s also about what they’re giving back to YOU.
Clearly, providing high levels of value makes a huge difference here. But there is more you can do.
Build individual relationships with these power users.
Offer incentives for providing feedback or referrals. Dropbox is the classic example here, giving 16GB of storage to users who refer a friend.
Invite them to participate in setting your future roadmap. Set up an expert group, engage with them in forums, survey them etc – but most importantly, engage and show that you’re listening. Nobody likes being asked for feedback only to be ignored.
Incorporate a power user’s feature suggestions into your next version and you’ve got a convert for life!
Interview your power users. Dig deep and find out everything you can about them. Here are some of our favorite questions for quizzing power users:
- What happened exactly and why did you start searching for a solution like this?
- How did you choose?
- When did you decide to use our product?
- What was happening that showed you the way you were doing things wasn’t working anymore?
- What drove to use or search for a product like this? What were you trying to solve?
- Did you use any similar solution before this one?
- Before you made a purchase, how did you imagine things would get better with our tool?
Once you understand why and how your best users came on board, you can completely reverse-engineer the user journey to turn more and more people into power users at record speed!
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