Journey to the first 200,000 users (Numberplates)

23, Apr 2020

How we engaged the first 200,000. users in a developing country on a shoestring budget

Building a solution  (or service) has enormous challenges that needs on-ground knowledge and deep insight with innovation to address. While working on several web applications and mobile apps, time and time again we came across the need for accurate user demographic information. We needed to gather this information to develop profiles of our user and identify our potential  customers and stakeholders better.

We decided to carry out a survey in 2015 but soon realized there was actually no data of internet users available; the ones available were from the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and those were treated like grants from gods that only those in “high places” had access to.

So we wore our thinking caps and chose to work with what we had around us; the challenge was that we needed to attract young. internet active Nigerians, that were not that tech savvy but at least had a smartphone or computer and could read and write. We formed a simple definition of our user, and we proceeded to the next challenge; to design and develop a product/service that would

  • attract our intended users, 
  • get them to complete a simple task, 
  • and get a reward

This led to the journey of what became Number Plates; on the surface this looked simple but when you think about it, a lot of people wanted this seemingly “simple tool” but no one bothered building it. We understood that Nigeria has its own set of challenges as a developing nation, just  like most African countries. Some of which are

  • There is low internet penetration 
  • Majority had feature phones with edge and 3G connection for data access (not computers)
  • Internet access is expensive for the average person especially when you consider the low purchasing power of the economy and this affects the model of service that can work for the populace.
  • Low awareness (Knowledge gap)  and the “Awoof” factor (people believing anything technology is FREE )
  • Financial Constraint (I was broke, living in an apartment in Okota, Isolo, not working on any freelance tasks because I wanted to build and manage this)

My experience selling T-Shirts with people’s names written on license plate images made me understand the sense of identity and joy this brings to users.

Coupling this, with some innovation, led to the creation of the number plates app that lets you create your license plate with your name on it as an image and share on Facebook. It was initially built as a Facebook app and it went viral with over 10,000 users within the first week, I was surprised, as I didn’t realise there were this many people out there who picked interest in such a “vain toy” (the image of a name on a plate) .

All it did was ask for details like your name and a color you wanted your plate in and voila; you get an image with your name on it written on a license plate of Lagos in a color of your choice. 

There was a lot of feedback and responses online,  (positive and negative) A few creatives and professional “designers” felt “this was a stupid idea” while over 10,000 users in 1 week were saying something else “WE LOVE IT”; the data itself was speaking and it was going viral.

This app helped us leverage a lot of Facebook’s social graph features, allowing us to get demographic information and permissions to post and share on user’s walls. We leveraged this and got a lot of users to leave their emails and basic contact information while they also were happy to share their creation.

When we saw that most users liked it, we decided to include more options for other states in the country. This decision led to people creating plates to reflect their states of origin and not necessarily if they were living there which in turn brought actual users from other states of the country beyond the commercial capital of Nigeria, Lagos.

Soon, people residing in these states / regions were active on the app and started to create plates with the states that they identified with and they also shared this on Facebook to show off their plates.

This worked well as we soon gathered accurate data that effectively reflects where users that created the plates were located. Using Google analytics, the data eventually showed how sparse and condensed users were in each region and what kind of devices they used in accessing the internet.

This was very reliable information and this justified what we needed to focus on, making our sites, products & projects more responsive, lightweight as we soon realised the potential number of users out there. The data helped us make decisions, if to build a mobile app or what platforms to target first. This information was not only for Number Plates but influenced all the projects we worked on henceforth (internal and client projects). That was also how I got to understand the impact of building responsive web applications and apps as we realized for the first time a lot of our audience were on mobile.  

A few weeks later, now having over 60,000 new users, I decided to include some ads on the app to leverage the audience and make back some money; this was after trying alternative ways of making money locally (which is “Another story for another day”). This meant we had to change the user experience and walk through how people interacted with the web app to choose where ads would be placed before they could continue. We decided each user that visited had to experience at least 3 points of ads (3 impressions) before getting a free plate. This move worked for a few weeks before we started to notice a drop off in the engagement rate, the number of people who completed creating a plate started to fall compared to the number of people who actually visited the site because now, we had increased the number of steps it took to create a plate.

This was a problem (amongst many) so we had to retrace our steps and weigh our options.We were spending money on Facebook ads but the users were not completing the steps, so we decided to scrap the user registration process.

We had the data we needed, from Google analytics (i.e unique users, location and device type or browser) without necessarily having to ask users to leave private information like email or access to wall posts; what we did was to take the app out of Facebook to a private domain (http://plates.onefirm.net), directed users there to create plates without having to register or login. This reduced the number of touch points for creating a simple plate by half and ended up increasing the rate of plate creation & completion from 25% to over 80%.

This decision to take it out of Facebook and reduce the points of interaction brought about an increase in engagement as people engaged to create more plates and completed the process. We observed the ads were working too and all looked good until we started to see a pattern within the data. 

The  numbers of unique users that created plates was lower compared to the number of plates created; this meant we were starting to have a growing number of returning users (which is actually a good thing) but it felt odd as from the onset, we knew the type of service this was. It was nostalgic and a “nice to have” kind of tool, people just loved it as having your custom license plate brings your ideal dream of a car closer to you; it was not something we expected users to come back repeatedly to use but there it was; we had over 20% of the users coming back to create new plates on the average of up to 5 times.

This was good but at the same time mind boggling as it made us curious, what could spark this trend and behavior from users? Perhaps we could leverage that.This discovery I will continue in the next part of this article here.

Journey to the first 200,000 users (Numberplates)...

Continuing from the previous article where I started this story. The numbers of  plates that were created continued to rise on the...

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