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“The technology needs to be invisible. The consumer experience has to be seamless.” This sage advice comes courtesy of Kirti Varun Avasarala, Chief Product Officer of Meesho, the breakout shopping app that’s disrupting India’s ecommerce market. Under Avasarala’s expert product guidance, Meesho is on a path of hyper-growth, having boosted app downloads by 5X in the past year.
In this episode of the Mobile Presence podcast, our host Peggy Anne Salz interviews Kirti Varun Avasarala on how a simplified user experience, a deep understanding of users’ “habit-formation point,” and personalized messaging all play roles in winning and retaining ecommerce users. This is the second of a two-part discussion with Avasarala about how Meesho is working with CleverTap to help bring ecommerce to the masses. (Read Part 1 of the discussion here.)
At Meesho, Avasarala leads product management, product analytics, design, user research, and talent branding. His perspective is informed by more than 15 years of multi-functional leadership experience, including key roles at major players like Amazon, Flipkart, and ShopX.
Lightweight, Simple, Familiar: Meesho’s Design Tenets
Beyond Meesho’s commitment to delivering price-based value, Avasarala says that customers appreciate the app’s simplicity, including its lightweight size. “Many of our consumers use low-end smartphones, which have very little storage space,” he explains. The Meesho app is sized at “14 Mb on the Play Store; this is the lowest-sized consumer internet app in India.”
Additionally, many of Meesho’s core users “are new to ecommerce; they are relatively less tech-savvy. When you go through the Meesho app shopping journey, it’s much simpler, less cluttered. [There are] visual iconography and visual cues which help people shop. That makes the UX design very simple.”
Finally, many Meesho users are accustomed to vertical scrolling on app feeds like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. To maintain familiarity, Meesho uses only vertical scrolling. “A lot of these consumers have been brought up on these social apps and now they’re migrating to ecommerce,” says Avasarala. “We need to make the UX easy for them.”
Guiding Customers Towards the Habit-Formation Point
When Meesho acquires a new user—one who likely has little experience with ecommerce—the first step is to educate them about the process. “After that,” says Avasarala, “there’s a journey towards what we call the habit-formation point, which is the point after which the retention of that consumer becomes stable.”
How does Meesho identify the habit-formation point? “We ran multiple experiments with different consumer segments and [determined] there are consumers who do about four orders in the first four months. That is what we have seen lead to stable retention—the habit-formation point.” He adds that this metric is not static: “It changes based on the market context, your competition, your own value-proposition evolving.”
According to Avasarala, the Meesho journey towards the habit-formation point starts with onboarding. “When you come in, [we ask] how can we assist you to place your first order? How can we show you merchandise which will appeal to you based on which part of the country you are in, what we know about your demographics? How can we curate the experience for you?”
Fine-tuning for Relevancy and Personalization
Meesho uses CleverTap to power its communications strategy and deliver highly personalized messaging to each consumer segment. “India is a very heterogeneous country; there are many micro-segments,” notes Avasarala. “That’s what led us to data science-related efforts in personalizing our push notifications and overall communications. Different kinds of content in push notifications appeal to different consumers differently.” Relevant messaging “has helped us engage and retain these consumers in a significant way.”
To hear more insights from Kirti Varun Avasarala, including his takes on product-led growth and his golden rule for user retention, tune into the entire interview. And listen to Part 1 of the discussion here.
PEGGY: Welcome to Mobile Presence, we are back with my guest today, of course, Kirti Varun Avasarala, Chief Product Officer at Meesho. We were talking about how you treat customers as individuals, you give them individual journeys, you talk to them, listen or die, as you said yourself – indeed, I’m going to remember that one, that’s a t-shirt if there ever was one.
Technology always has to stay invisible but it is decisive. Tell us about the customer experience and how you achieve this.
KIRTI: Yes, I think it’s a very good question and often tech companies need to understand the technology, while it’s such a big enabler, it needs to be invisible, the consumer experience has to be very seamless. At Meesho, again, we’ve sort of leveraged technology very deeply and I think we’ve done it across a few different areas which actually add a lot of value to our core consumer experience.
I’ll talk about maybe a few things which probably differentiate us a lot. The first one is actually the size of the Meesho app, right, so it’s actually 14Mb on the Play Store if you want to download it, and this actually is the lowest sized consumer internet app in India and probably also in many countries across the world. And if you look at other ecommerce apps or other consumer internet apps, they will be 40Mb or higher in terms of the size.
And the reason why we made it a very lightweight app is also coming again from that listen or die insight of our consumers. So, many of our consumers are in the low to mid-income segment, they use very low-end smartphones which have very little storage space so often what happens is if you have apps which require higher storage space, a lot of these consumers will use the apps a few times and then uninstall them and use another app, right, because of the size constraints they have on their phones.
So, that’s one of the reasons why we optimise the technology behind our app so much that we’ve sort of become a very, very lightweight app and then we see our consumers never uninstalling our app for the most part, right, so that’s one thing which is very, very unique about Meesho which we figured out fairly early in our journey.
The other thing which is very unique the Meesho app is also the simplicity in our UX design. So, again, a lot of these consumers that we saw, many of them are new to ecommerce itself, so people who’ve been just shopping offline before and now are buying online, so they are relatively less tech-savvy so their ability to sort of understand their shopping journey which is very complex is low. So, when you go through the Meesho app shopping journey, it’s much simpler, less cluttered, a lot of visual iconography and visual communication, visual cues which help people shop as opposed to writing a lot of text which they have to read. So, that makes the UX design very simple.
Another very unique insight that we found in our UX design is a lot of the consumers who start buying with us are people who have got introduced to technology through apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and in all of these apps, one unique thing that you will notice is most of them have only vertical scrolling, right, so you keep on scrolling vertically on feeds. There is very little horizontal scroll whereas if you look at regular ecommerce apps, most of them have a lot of horizontal scroll, right, whereas if you see Meesho, almost all of the scrolling that we have is vertical, right?
So, this again was a very conscious UX design choice because we know that a lot of these consumers have been sort of brought up on these social apps and now they’re migrating to ecommerce and we need to make the UX easy for them, right? So, that’s another unique design choice we made which is very different from most other ecommerce apps.
So, a lot of these elements also make the app very simple to use and often a lot of consumers tell us when we talk to them that when we ask them why do you buy on Meesho apart from low pricing etc, this is one of the reasons they quote most, right, your app is very simple to use which is not the case with some of the other apps.
So, I think that’s a second thing which I think is quite unique.
PEGGY: I just want to interject for just one moment because that is such an important point. A lot of marketers, again, everywhere on the planet, it’s about keeping it simple, it’s about making it an enjoyable experience and something as simple as just understanding that it has to be a vertical scroll or that there have to be simple calls to action and what a difference that has made in your app – I think that that’s just a point, you’re being a little humble about what you’ve made actually, Kirti, because that is, it’s lightweight, easy to use, those are probably two very, very important points.
KIRTI: Yes, absolutely, I think those have really helped us penetrate the market and get people who had a lot of barriers in shopping online to actually come to Meesho and shop, so it helped a lot and a lot of those insights again have come from us being very closely connected to consumers, listening to them, talking to them and so on.
Another aspect I will also highlight which I think is quite different about Meesho is our overall communications strategy, right, of how we engage consumers. So, while all the channels that are typically available, we leverage them just like any other ecommerce app, but the area where we have invested a lot is in the push notifications and the core communication infrastructure behind it.
So, we do have inhouse infrastructure, we use tools like CleverTap as well which power a lot of our communications but one of the unique things that we’ve done is to also figure out how to personalise that communication, how to figure out what consumer segment would require what type of communication, what would be most relevant for one consumer segment versus the other.
And the reality is the overall market that we’re serving of these 600 million people I was talking about, there are many, many micro segments in that, India is a very heterogenous country, the demand patterns vary a lot. So, that’s what led us to sort of a lot of data science-related efforts in personalising our push notifications and overall communications. That also actually has helped us engage and retain these consumers in a very significant way.
PEGGY: Share some of those learnings because it would be very interesting. You’ve obviously worked on segmentation, listening to customers has also allowed you to put, if you will, overlay that with a rich layer of not just implicit but sort of explicit personalisation. They know what they want and you’re listening to them – what have you learned, for example, around how to give different customer segments the messages they will accept and appreciate because there’s a big difference between assisting shoppers, for example, and then some might feel annoyed. There’s different tolerance levels. What can you share?
KIRTI: Yes, I think there’s been a big learning journey for us over the last few years. As we analysed more and more data on how our push notifications are being received by consumers, I think what we realised is that different kinds of content in push notifications appeals to different consumers differently, so that relevance changes a lot which you look at through metrics like click through rates and so on. It varies a lot.
So, the same message if you send to a bunch of different consumers, their click through rates are very different and the reason why that is the case is because their category affinity is different, their gender is different, even of the time of the day when you send that notification, different people are doing different things at that point in time, so their mind space towards a notification is very different.
So, I think the entire content piece, I think making it relevant was one thing that we realised that we have to solve.
I think the second thing which also was quite interesting is the volume of notifications, how many notifications do you send and there I think there is a sort of spectrum. On the one end, there are consumers who like more notifications and these typically tend to be women consumers we’ve seen in our market who are housewives etc who have time on their hands, who like actually looking at fashion items and for them more notifications is better.
But on the other extreme you also have consumers for whom, if you cross a certain threshold of notifications, of number of notifications, they actually uninstall the app. So, for us, it was about figuring out that sweet spot of the right volume so that you can maximise the relevance and click through rates but at the same time minimise installs which meant we had to figure out who the consumer is and then send the right type of notification and also the right volume, so that actually has been a very complex data science-led personalisation exercise and I think now we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve sort of become very, very advance at our overall communication strategy, so all of these insights around uninstalls, relevance, different consumers having different affinity towards them, I think these are learnings that we’ve sort of built over the last few years.
PEGGY: Just curious, is there a range that you can say sort of like on average if you go over, I don’t know, 7 in a certain period, it’s a no-go?
KIRTI: Yes, the actual range also by the way depends on a lot on the kind of consumer internet app you are, so just to give you an example of a different sector, if you’re in social networking, right. So there the threshold is much higher, so there you can send 20-25-30 notifications a day and still probably it’s okay.
Now, when it comes to ecommerce, there I think the range is much, much smaller, but having said that, different consumers are different ends of the range. For example, roughly a good benchmark to think about is something like 6 notifications a day to something like 15 or 16 a day. So, that sort of tends to be the range so the consumers who are very okay with lots of notifications, maybe they’re okay with 15 a day, but the folks who have very little tolerance for that, maybe they’re okay with 5 or 6 a day.
So, I think that’s sort of the range we have found but even within that range, different micro segments, we have tuned the volume at different levels for them. So, yes, that’s sort of how we figure this out.
PEGGY: Another thing you’re figuring out is something that all marketers are talking about, maybe even now more than before. The hook, you know, you have to make certain your app is habit-forming. What is the hook, how do you get people to come in and stay there. Reforge talks about it all the time but what’s really surprising is you have come up with a formula for understanding when retention kicks in which is very exciting. So, I just want you to unpack that for us and tell us how you make your app habit-forming.
KIRTI: Yes, this is actually a very interesting concept and in the last few years I think has become sort of the holy grail that marketers are chasing, which is the habit-formation point. I think we’ve also understood the concept and then tried to figure out how we apply in our context and, again, what we realised after a lot of experimentation which our Growth team has done is around saying, okay, if we acquire a new consumer, first is we need to make them understand what online shopping is in the first place, which is to get them to place the first one or two orders.
But then after that, there’s a journey towards what we call habit-formation point which is basically the point after which the retention of that consumer becomes stable, after which you can be confident that this person has built a habit. And then if your experience is good enough, then they won’t churn out.
So, how do you analytically figure out what that habit-formation point is and that’s where I think we sort of ran multiple experiments with different consumer segments over a fairly long period of time and then came to the conclusion, at least on the Meesho app, there are consumers who do I think about four orders in the first four months, that is what we have seen lead to stable retention, right? So, therefore that sort of is the habit-formation point, so four orders in four months.
So, our goal then was to figure out every new consumer we acquire, how do we get them across this hump of four orders in the first four months and that led us to then finetune multiple things. First is the onboarding user experience, so when you come in, how can we assist you digitally to place your first order? How can we show you the right kind of merchandise which will appeal to you based on which part of the country you are in, what we know about your demographics and so on.
Then we also spent sort of a lot of effort in figuring out how do we optimise your early experience to that habit-formation point, how can we curate the experience for you? How do we ensure that you don’t face any negative experience? Sometimes also ensuring that we give you some incentives to cross that hump as well.
So, all of these different initiatives help us get to that habit-formation point which then leads to stable retention and the basic starting point for all of this was to figure out what the habit-formation point is because if you don’t know that, then you wouldn’t know how long to put all of these initiatives on and how much to invest behind it and as a marketer, you also want ROI on the money that you’re spending.
So, I think all of that I think we’ve been able to sort of figure out over time through this habit-formation point and making it very practical and real in that context.
PEGGY: And you’re also making it very applicable, something that other marketers can apply to what they’re doing because you come up with the point, you come up with the action that signals that’s when retention will kick in and then you reverse engineer it from there. If you find out that it’s four purchases in four months, then you make, as you said yourself, make everything work so that you are leading customers to that optimal outcome, so really it’s something that all of the marketers who are listening in, all of our audience listening in, can think about and apply and make work for them.
KIRTI: Absolutely they can and one more thing that we’ve figured out about this habit-formation point is it’s not static in time which means that this also keeps changing and a lot of it also changes based on the market context, your competition, your own value proposition evolving. So, it’s obviously an exercise that you do to discover it but at the same time it can change, so one of the attempts we’re also making is how do we revisit this every six months, every nine months, to see if that is still the habit-formation point or has that shifted forward or backward, right?
It’s something not very static in time so that’s something that we’ve also figured out now and we’re trying to constantly define it as well as we grow in scale, we now have more than 130 million active users. So, as we grow in scale more and more and more, obviously every new user that we acquire, it becomes much harder to retain them because just the scale is so large so obviously some of these habit-formation points may shift. So just being able to look at the data and constantly calibrate this I think is also very important.
PEGGY: So, you’re looking at the data all the time and that gives you insights. I want to delve into some of those insights, some of your opinions, informed opinion, edgy opinion, by throwing a concept out there and I want to hear the first thing that you answer back or what comes to mind when I say it. So, I’m going to kick off with thinking about where you left us off, thinking about growth – what is the thing you think of when I say the marketer’s most important growth engine?
KIRTI: I think for me it’s product-led growth, right? I think the way the consumer internet sector has evolved, product-led initiatives are playing a much, much larger role in every aspect of growth beyond just the performance marketing and branding which almost every company does.
Now, it’s about the kind of things we discussed, figuring out the habit-formation point, figuring out the right core product onboarding experience, sort of nailing all of that – I think that’s all, to me, is the growth engine for every marketer if you want to get to scale.
PEGGY: So, you personalise your experiences, you also match them to your segmentation, everything is about the customer, What’s the biggest myth about personalisation?
KIRTI: Yes, it’s a good question. I think one of the things I’ve observed, at least in a lot of consumer internet companies, is the perception that personalisation is a one-time thing that you do and it’s done and dusted, right? Even there, if you look at every feed of items in an ecommerce app or a news feed in a social networking app, there you apply personalisation but your personalisation models, the data science models also need to evolve with time because consumer preferences change, your competition changes and you get more data about consumers, right?
So, even your personalisation models need to evolve and you need to revisit them again every six months or so and refine them as opposed to assuming that, hey, I have personalised this feed so it’s done, now let me go to another project.
So, this has actually been a learning from what we’ve done at Meesho where initially we had that mindset and then we realised that as we personalised it again, we got inclemently much, much more impact, so to me I think that’s one big myth which definitely I think has been busted with our own experience.
PEGGY: Everything you’re talking about is about evolution, customers evolve, data formulas evolving, nothing is static. That means that everything is moving and in that, you yourself, your career, your lessons – what’s the hardest lesson you have personally had to learn?
KIRTI: I think the hardest lesson for me has been adapting to the demands of the role that I’m in right now, especially when you’re in a senior leadership role at a very high growth company. There are many things that you need to optimise for, right, for example, hiring great talent, building great culture, driving the product vision, driving seamless execution, building trust with your stakeholders.
So, there are many demands of this job and one of the biggest learnings for me has been how to balance all of these at every point in time as opposed to over-indexing on one or two things because you feel that this is what is important for the next six months. And when I have done that, then I’ve realised that it is actually, while it may in the short term yield results, in the long term it becomes detrimental so just balancing all of these different demands of the job at every point in time I think is a big lesson, especially if you’re in this role then there is no way out. You have to do all of this at every point in time.
PEGGY: And all of those points come together, I mean, product is marketing so being Chief Product Officer puts you in the middle of all that action and activity as well and also the talent that you need to bring together to do the job.
You’re taking commerce to the masses which is another goal, which is another focus, which is also something difficult to do – how do you do it?
KIRTI: Taking commerce to the masses, I think at least the biggest myth that has emerged is, if you are an ecommerce company and you’re serving sort of the upper tier of the market, then the only thing that you need to do is do a lot of marketing to the masses and give them discounts and all of them will start shopping on your app, right?
So, that myth has been busted and Meesho is actually the example, classic example of that. So, I think what is really needed is for you to rethink the entire business model and core product experience for this segment, right, as opposed to trying to replicate what you did for a different segment and hoping that it works. So, this is something that I think we’ve sort of realised first hand and this has been the basis of Meesho’s success to now.
PEGGY: And finally, short answer only, your golden rule of retention? What is it?
KIRTI: The golden rule of retention which at least I’ve figured out is to think of businesses in flywheel terms as opposed to linear systems, and just to maybe explain this quickly.
Flywheels are basically systems where there are feedback loops, so if you basically optimise for one metric, then that gives you some feedback and then that helps improve the system overall. So, in ecommerce, for example, if you get pricing selection convenience right for consumers, it automatically creates more supply and more supply coming in creates more consumer demand and so on. So, it’s a flywheel.
So a big lever of retention is to ensure that your consumer side, your supply side, both are working in tandem and you optimise both of them together versus thinking of them in isolation. So this actually has been the biggest sort of realisation we’ve had and this is actually the golden rule of retention.
PEGGY: And you’ve shared it with us, that’s excellent. People are listening and saying, yes, I have gotten a lot of value out of this show. I know I have and I really do appreciate everything that you’ve shared today, Kirti.
If people want to continue a conversation, maybe you’ll be writing that blog about that habit-formation point, how can they stay in touch with you?
KIRTI: Sure, I think we’ll figure out about the blog as well but you can sort of, people can reach me, I’m there on LinkedIn and again sort of search me out there. I’m also on Twitter as well, again, easy to search me out there. So, those are the two channels I use the most and people can sort of email me, email@example.com if that’s something that they want to do as well.
PEGGY: Perfect, lots of ways to connect with you and I encourage everyone to do that because I have to say that I do a lot of interviews, Kirti, but yours was in many ways outstanding because of your approach to what you do is so well thought through, a very valuable interview indeed. Thank you again.
KIRTI: Thanks a lot, Peggy, and it was great having this conversation.
PEGGY: And of course, Kirti has shared his journey and to help marketers and organisations drive customer connection, conversion, results for their business, CleverTap has curated the latest presentations from CleverTap Quarterly for you on YouTube. It’s the company’s flagship event, it offers insights around the state of the industry as well as best practices you don’t want to miss, so if you want to learn from the best, it’s all over at the CleverTap Quarterly Playlist on YouTube.
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