Student Acquisition, Engagement, and Retention: Analogies from tech startups

a16z is a podcast from Andreesen Horowitz, one of the leading venture capital firms in the US. Their portfolio has included Airbnb, BuzzFeed, Facebook, Twitter, and many many other big companies—they know what they’re doing!

Two recent episodes on the podcast feature Andreesen Horowitz general partners, Andrew Chen and Jeff Jordan (some of the people who make investment decisions). They are interviewed by host Sonal Chokshi about how to think about user (or customer) acquisition and user engagement and retention. (You should also be able to get these episodes using any given podcasting app, searching for a16z, and grabbing the two recent episodes titled The Basics of Growth.)

I’ve listened to these episodes a couple of times since they came out a week ago. There’s a lot of terminology and concepts to parse—they explain it all well, but it took me a couple of tries to wrap my head around all of it. Given what I’ve come to learn so far, though, is that the two episodes seem like a (free!) one-oh-one masterclass in growing or scaling any given initiative. Despite being less than an hour long in total, the conversation goes way beyond “number of users”. Andrew, Jeff, and Sonal dive deep into the kind of patterns we should hope to see (and find ways to encourage) in order to garner genuine growth, engagement, and retention patterns. It is super sophisticated while still being kinda simple.

That said, they’re talking about startups, customers, and technology-driven businesses. Applying those lessons to initiatives in public post-secondary—co-curricular leadership development programs, in my case—is not straightforward.

So, that’s the challenge: how do we generalize their insights into the world of post-secondary student services? Here I explore that question with more questions. There’s probably no simple answer for these, but thinking about these concepts could deepen how we grow (and evaluate the growth of) post-secondary services.

Question 1: Lifetime Value vs. Lifetime Impact? The first episode focuses on user acquisition. The analogy for us is when students first use our services, tools, or go to their first event or program. Jeff and Andrew describe organic growth—word of mouth-type acquisition—and inorganic growth (paid ads and other campaigns). They talk a lot about the tension between the “cost” of acquiring users and the lifetime value (LTV) of a given user.

How should we think about these ideas in student services? “Student Acquisition Costs” have a direct parallel. Is there a useful analogy for LTV? (I.e., “Degree/Career Impact”?) The implication is that acquiring certain students might cost more, or at least demand different strategies, but have a greater impact.

Question 2: Semesterly Active Users? The podcasters reference a variety of “active user” metrics: Daily Active Users (DAU), Monthly Active Users (MAU), last-seven (L7) and last-twenty eight (L28)… What is a useful and realistic “active user” metric for post-secondary student services? We don’t actually want our students to use all of our services daily. As the podcasters put it, there’s a certain ideal cadence to the way they should use our services. But what is that cadence, and how do we ensure we’re meeting it?

Question 3: Network effects? Jeff, Andrew, and Sonal talk about the “network effect” in both episodes. This is the concept that a service becomes more valuable/powerful the more users it has. Is there an analogy to the services we’re already running, and are we taking advantage of it? Or, are we missing an opportunity to build in a network effect or similar positive acquisition, engagement, or retention feedback loops somehow?

To be clear, I don’t think it’s a good idea to translate directly from the high-growth profit-driven startup world into post-secondary services work and life. The organizations have different motives and needs, incentives and costs, and—most important—different stakeholders, with different obligations to those stakeholders. Still, there may be powerful, creative opportunities hidden in the lessons we borrow from one another.

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