Who owns User Engagement?

I was recently having a random conversation about User Engagement with a SaaS investor. Eventually, he asked the inevitable question, “So…who in an organization owns User Engagement?

He wasn’t the first one to ask and certainly won’t be the last. This question is asked a lot - and not just in reference to “User Engagement”, but in the context of many important, high-level business metrics (like Leads, Revenue, Net-Churn, etc).

People always want to know - who “owns" each of these metrics?

This question of metric ownership has always confused me and, admittedly, makes me a little crazy. It makes me think of a great quote I heard a while ago in an interview with Stephen Daldry (one of the world’s top film & theater directors). I’m paraphrasing a bit (because I don’t remember the exact quote), but when talking about the collaborative nature of making a film, one of the things Daldry said was:

"I get really upset when I work with actors and they say to me, ‘My character wouldn’t do this or my character wouldn’t do that.’ I don’t know where they get this. Maybe they learn it in some acting class, but my response is always the same - ‘That’s ok. But it’s not your character. It’s OUR character.’"

The point Mr. Daldry is making here is that when producing a film - a highly collaborative art - no one person or one department owns the major elements that contribute to its success as a piece of work. No one person owns any of the pieces that add up to the ultimate goal of telling a great story. No one owns the characters, no one owns a performance, no one owns the plot, no one owns the pace, no one owns the look and feel. In fact, quite the opposite. In a collaborative art, EVERYONE owns some piece of each of these. Ultimately, EVERYONE owns the story. In the production of a film, there are many people, many departments, many roles whose work and efforts are incredibly interdependent and must come together in order to build something great. To try to manage this complex organism by creating artificial ‘ownership walls’ would be a disaster. 

But for some reason, in many businesses - especially early-stage, growing businesses (I say early stage, but that may not be the case - I’m just most exposed to these types of businesses) - this idea of ‘sole ownership’ seems to be a dominant management strategy. 

The idea is that everyone in the company must have “ownership” over some specific, major business metric.

Marketing owns leads.

Sales owns revenue.

Product owns user engagement.

Customer Success owns churn. 

Finance owns profitability. 

Etc

(*of course, ironically, the only people that generally don’t own anything are the ones in management that create these ownership rules…but that’s a whole other post)

The people that create these ownership structures will claim that they create them because they are motivating - people like to feel a sense of ownership…with ownership comes freedom - they will say.

Or they create them because they claim people need very clear goals in order to perform at their best. People need to know for what they are accountable in order to do their best work. 

But really, in the vast majority of cases, they are creating these ownership structures so that they, in management, can simplify their own lives. They want to create a 1:1 relationship between a high-level metric and a person (or department) so that they can force ‘accountability’ (ie - blame) and know who to target if something isn’t going well. It’s a management short cut. 

But I don’t subscribe to this methodology. I much prefer Mr. Daldry’s perspective.

Because, like producing a film, building a business is a highly collaborative, creative pursuit. It requires the skills, energies and efforts of a group of uniquely talented & passionate (crazy?) people.  And the reality is that the results of any high-level business metric ARE NOT the expression of the efforts of any single person or department. These high-level metrics are what I would call output metrics that are the result of the combined work of the entire organization. 

For example, let’s look at the User Engagement metric, since this was the one that started this whole rant. 

Instead of asking, “Who owns User Engagement?”, let’s ask, “What contributes to strong User Engagement?

There are a bunch of things - including (but not limited to):

image

Like I said…a bunch of things. Let’s go through them:

  • The Concept: Starting at the beginning. If you are building a business on top of a concept that just doesn’t provide much value (for example, my recently shuttered app that allowed people to time how long it takes them to brush their teeth and compete against their friends), then it’s going to be tough to drive good User Engagement. But…who owns the Concept? The founder(s)? CEO? The Board? Product? Marketing?

  • Initial expectations: Mismatched expectations can be a killer for user engagement. If users expect something different than what your product delivers, it’s going to be very hard to keep them engaged (even if your product does provide some value). So, what contributes to “expectation setting”? Marketing messages? The Sales pitch? Word-of-mouth? Product?

  • Product-Market fit: This is related to expectations, but a bit different. If you just haven’t figured out what the user pain is and/or how to solve it, then your engagement is going to be low. But what & who contribute to Product-Market fit? The concept? The product - features, functionality? The market? Competition? 

  • Onboarding: More and more, good onboarding is becoming essential for laying a good foundation for engagement. If you can’t quickly and efficiently get users to the value of your product, you’re going to have a hard time keeping them engaged for longer than a month. But who owns onboarding? Product? Customer Success? 

  • Usability: This goes without saying. If your product doesn’t make it easy for your users to derive consistent value…you aren’t going to see good engagement numbers. So, who owns usability? Just UX? Product management? Design? Engineering?  

  • Education: Keeping users educated of ways to continuously drive value from your product is essential to driving engagement. This can take on the form of in-app help/support assets, marketing messages, training webinars, certification programs, user conferences, etc. Education can be a huge deal. But who owns education? Customer Success? Marketing? Community?

  • Social Proof/Network effects: If your app is dependent on the ‘network effect’, the engagement of your users will obviously be highly dependent on the number of engaged users on the network. Chicken, meet egg. But even if you are not a network app, engagement with your app will definitely be highly correlated with social proof. The more people using & talking about your app, the greater your likelihood of driving strong engagement. How do you drive social proof and larger networks? Who manages that? Growth team? Marketing? Community? Product?

  • Emotional attachment: Ahhh…the soft stuff. But maybe the most important contributor to long-term user engagement with your app. If users are emotionally attached to your product, brand, people, etc…they will be more engaged. But how the hell do you manage this? And who contributes to it? CEO? Marketing? Design? Customer Success?

  • Integration: The more your app is integrated into the normal workflow and experience of your users, the more engaged they will be. And this includes both technical and non-technical integration. The technical integration makes sense. If you have an email support app and it integrates with Gmail, you’re going to see more engagement from Gmail users than if you didn’t. If you have a sales-related app and don’t integrate with Salesforce…good luck. Offline, if your product works very naturally into the regular flow of someone’s work/activity/behaviors, you will see stronger engagement (like how Instagram very naturally and easily created a flow for sharing pictures). So, who controls integration? Engineering? Smart UX? Strong understanding of the customer-type & experience? Is that Marketing? Customer Success? 

  • Continuous awareness: This is super important in today’s world. With short attention spans and a zillion apps competing for that attention, simply keeping user aware…let alone engaged…with your product is a huge challenge. But be sure, without awareness, there is no engagement. So how do your maintain awareness? Smart digest emails? Other notifications? Integrations? 

And there are probably several more things that I’m not thinking about that could be added to this list. If you have ideas - go ahead and post them in the comments. 

The point is - there are many, many factors that contribute to good (or bad) User Engagement. And…not surprisingly, many different people, roles and departments that contribute as well. So…if you were to really answer the question, “Who owns User Engagement?”, instead of producing a single person or department, it would look something like this: 

who_owns_user_engagement

While this is of course not totally accurate and will certainly look different for every business/app/company, the point is the same.

Who owns User Engagement? In short - no one. And everyone. We all do. Just like no one person involved with a film production owns the story, in a software company, no one person can own User Engagement. Everyone does. 

Trying to force ownership of a specific metric on a specific person not only is a flawed approach, it’s actually very dangerous. When you make one department/person accountable for User Engagement, you give everyone else an excuse not to care about it. And that is simply bad management. You are ignoring the complexities of the problem and disrespecting the contributions of your entire team. And, in the end, you are making your ultimate goal - driving strong User Engagement - much, much harder to achieve. 

An attempt at simplifying management structures results in the fundamental breakdown of the collaboration that is required for success. Not good.

So, while some may claim that people love “ownership” - I would argue differently. I think people love to feel that they are contributing to something bigger then themselves. I would argue that people don’t like to be treated like Pavlov’s dogs.  I would argue that people like to collaborate on, contribute to and have a voice in the building of something great. 

And if you find people that much prefer individual ‘ownership’ to this, I would suggest that they aren’t great people to have on your team. 

They should play tennis.

Ask a different question

What I’d love to see is for everyone to stop asking this “Who owns User Engagement?" question. As you can probably tell, I don’t think it’s a very good question and a waste of valuable energy. Instead, the question we should all be asking (on a daily basis) is

"How can we improve User Engagement?" 

This is a question that will result in actual actionable answers. This is the question that will make you take a hard look at all the things that contribute to User Engagement and find ways to make them better. This is the question that will break down walls and drive actual business results.

Stop spending so much time worrying about the ‘who’ and get to work solving the ‘how.’

If you must pinpoint an owner of User Engagement….

I realize the above advice is going to be very difficult for some companies with ownership obsessions to handle, so…if you must have an ‘owner’ of User Engagement, I suggest creating a new post/role. A Head of User Engagement. This role could truly be responsible for User Engagement metrics. Well…so long as he/she has the ability & authority to effectively work cross functionally and really drive the initiatives that would contribute to better engagement. 

This would be a much better solution than trying to force this metric on any of your current functional departments, roles or people.

Again…if you insist.

Deep breath :)