Keys to Mobile Growth: Lessons Learned from Hipmunk & Yik Yak with Julie Zhou

Tobias Vogels, Mobile Developer Evangelist

For the 3rd round of our Keys to Mobile Growth series, we met with growth expert Julie Zhou. Julie is currently leading growth efforts at Yik Yak. She’s also a mentor at 500 Startups and an instructor at General Assembly. Before Yik Yak, she was leading user acquisition campaigns at Hipmunk and helped to turn the startup’s new app into one of the largest mobile travel platforms.

Anything in quotes below is attributed to Julie Zhou.

“The thing that I like about growth is that the skills required can be completely different depending on at which company you’re at and what its priorities are. At Hipmunk growth focused around user acquisition and at Yik Yak the focus is on continuing to grow our user-to-user engagement.”

Julie Zhou - Director of Growth - Yik Yak


Growth KPIs: Yik Yak vs. Hipmunk

“Yik Yak has the blessing of being a very popular app amongst millennials. Many people have already heard about it, so we have a very strong top of the funnel.” Since many new Yik Yak users discover the app through word-of-mouth, growth campaigns tend to focus on engagement tactics over UA initiatives. “The biggest opportunity for growth, for us, is to give first-time users even more reasons to think about using the app. For that, we’re looking at metrics that are centered around user activity and engagement.”

At Hipmunk, the growth structure and KPI setup is different. Since people usually book flights only a few times per year, growth tactics are focused on user acquisition over long-term engagement. This correlates with the findings of our app retention study where travel showed the lowest median frequency of use per week across all app store categories. “We were looking at short-term return on investment as the main growth metric.”


Assess your user acquisition campaigns

While cost-per-acquisition is fairly easy to track, lifetime value (LTV) is a very-long term metric, and it can be hard to determine a user’s LTV until they actually had a lifetime. Therefore, it’s difficult to base your product decisions on this metric.

“Instead of using LTV for our ROI calculations, we looked at some early indicator metrics. Usually it’s something like ‘did a user run a search in their first visit.’ If a user takes some sort of action in their initial session, then it’s more likely that they will be a long-time quality lead. For example, when Uber has to acquire drivers, it can be a month-long process for a lead to fill out a form, schedule an interview, pass a background check, etc. So rather than looking at just the success metric of ‘did they actually complete a first ride,’ I’m sure they evaluate success much earlier in the funnel. For something like travel, completing a search is a very strong indicator.” Through those methods, Hipmunk tracked the success all of their different user acquisition approaches.


How to win users as an underdog

With established platforms like Expedia and Kayak, the travel industry is a very competitive space for new startups. Many companies fight for credit for the same flights that users eventually book. “I thought, ok we’re never going to outspend our competition here. They have more money and other resources in terms of manpower to optimize their campaigns to an extent that we’d be never able to. But what advantages do we have? We have the fact that we’re a sexy startup, we’re very small and we’re very nimble.” Hipmunk was able to use these advantages in three main channels for their initial growth.


First Growth Lever: Partnerships

“Part of being nimble was, that we were able to easily change our product roadmap or shift our engineering priorities based on external factors.” As we all know, engineering resources are extremely sought-after and if you can offer to build something for a partner, it can be very appealing. “I set up meetings with Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Our first success was with Google. I sat down with them and basically said: ‘We have the best Android app in the world. What do we have to do to convince you?’”

“At that time, Google was just about to get ready to launch the Nexus 7 and it was a month prior to Google I/O. They said, ‘if you can make a version that is optimized for tablet and follows the new design guidelines for Gingerbread, then we’ll see what we can do’. There was only one person on our Android team at the time, so he worked like a champion and made the changes in one week. We showed them the app and they loved it. They invited us to Google I/O, we got a booth, we got filmed, and we got featured on the front-page of Google Play. Our installs went up like crazy and it was our first big ‘Aha Moment’ for growth. So we did the same thing with Apple and Amazon afterwards.”


Second Growth Lever: David & Goliath PR

While Julie highlighted that partnerships were the biggest growth factor for Hipmunk, another early traction channel was PR. “One of our biggest news days in the early days was when Google Flights launched. Our PR team knew that Google Flights was about to go live and they contacted every reporter who would likely cover the launch and pitched them with a David & Goliath story: Google is about to kill startups and what does the launch mean for up-and-coming companies like Hipmunk. When Google Flights finally launched, every article that mentioned Google Flights, also mentioned Hipmunk.”


Third Growth Lever: Content Marketing

“What I found worked really well in content marketing is data. And travel is really data-rich, especially around ways to save money. People love saving money and they love thinking that they found a deal. Around Labor Day, we always sent out mailers that said something like: Did you know, if you buy your Thanksgiving flight ticket before Labor Day, you can save up to X%. And then we had 2 other mailers in between that said something like: If you buy your ticket before Halloween, you can save up to 0.5X%, and then 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, you can save up to 0.25X%. That way, we basically got three hits out of the same story and each hit would have more and more urgency behind it and people would get more and more excited.”


Focus on your own Goal, Not on Dropbox’s

While we can learn from Julie’s growth strategies, it’s probably not wise to just copy any tactics 1-for-1. Julie notes that it’s crucial to build your growth initiatives based on your own product, your unique situation and your goals. “Ever since Dropbox became very famous for its two-way referral program, every single other app has said: Oh, all we have to do is to set up our referral program and we’ll be fine. But the truth is, most referral programs almost never have a significant impact.”


Julie points out three reasons why Dropbox’s referral program works so well for them, but probably won’t work for your app:

1.) The referral cycle for Dropbox is extremely fast. “Everyone always wants more storage space. All the time. There’s never a moment where you couldn’t use more space. That is not the case for let’s say laundry services. You don’t need to do that every single day.”  

2.) It’s free for both sides. “You just have to invite someone to Dropbox to sign up and they sign up for free. And they both get free space. It’s all free. None of the other referral programs have anything like that. It’s usually, you get this after you spend x amount of money, or after your friend takes their first ride.”

3.) The cost to Dropbox for giving the reward is close to nothing. “Storage doesn’t cost Dropbox much. Whereas every single other type of reward has a very real cost. So if you have to spend money on each reward, there’s a limit of how much you can grow.”


Closing Thoughts

“Don’t expect that there is this one trick that will suddenly change everything. This is the case with all of the wonderful things in life from growth to weight loss to saving for retirement. And that is good. Because that means that it is highly unlikely that there is something you’re missing out that if only you have that, then all your problems would be solved.”


Let us know what you think about Julie’s tips. We’ll continue our Keys to Mobile Growth series with more industry leaders and mobile experts. If you have someone in mind that you would like to hear from next, tweet us @flurrymobile.