User acquisition is a prerequisite to startup success. Startups often see user acquisition as an act of sourcing traffic to a destination and converting traffic to users.
Almost every web business has a destination: a website, an app etc. The destination is often seen as the product in its entirety. Talk to a startup about their product and they will often think of it as a website or an app that the user goes to.
However, the destination is just one manifestation of the product.
Destination vs. Distribution
An internet service can be delivered to users in two broad ways. It’s often important to think through both the routes to figure out how your user will best interact with your service. The two modes are characterized as follows:
Destination: How do the users get to where the product is?
Distribution: How does the product get to where the users are?
Any service can be delivered as a combination of these two.
What are they?
Destinations are the online address of the product that users remember and visit.
Most common forms of destinations are websites, mobile apps and downloaded software (that syncs with the cloud).
This is the go-to place for users to interact with the product. Whenever you think of Facebook, you have a site or an app to go to to use the product.
- Destinations are not always available in the context of the users. For example, Flickr is a great photo hosting service but it wasn’t available at the point of photo capture for a long time. A user had to click a picture and then undertake another series of actions to upload the picture on to Flickr.com. In contrast, Instagram’s service could be accessed right at the time of photo capture.
- Destinations, by definition, require users to come to where the product is and this brings with it the challenge of user acquisition.
What are they?
Distribution delivers product functionalities in the context of the user making it easy for the user to interact with the product.
Most common forms of distribution include widgets (Yelp), code embeds (Quora, YouTube), API provisioning , browser extensions as well as apps (especially apps that deliver you a feed from a product, for consumption).
- The product is available where the users are. Hence, it helps direct traffic back to the destination. Yelp used widgets very effectively to gain users by allowing users to showcase widgets on their blog. YouTube gained traction by allowing users to embed videos on their MySpace profile and directing traffic back to the destination. Flickr, similarly, gained traction by allowing users to embed pictures in their blog posts.
- The product is available in the context of the user. This is especially true in the case of ‘curation as creation’ tools like ScoopIt. ScoopIt allows anyone to create a magazine by combining a set of links. The creator can either create the magazine by visiting the ScoopIt destination and manually adding all the links to the magazine or she can install a browser extension that plucks the web page she is visiting and adds it to the magazine. In the second case, the user never needs to leave her context to use the product. Evernote uses a similar extension. Social sharing buttons work on a similar dynamic and allow the user to share content without having to visit the actual social media destination.
- Distribution helps engage the user and encourage repeat visits. Email updates have been used since the early days of the web to bring back users to the destination. In recent times, this tactic worked especially well for Groupon.
More often than not, distribution is limited to certain functionalities. A news feed delivered to the user or a browser extension to capture a web page exhibit only a slice of the functionality that the product offers. However, that is the exact slice of functionality that is needed in the context of the user.
Ultimately, destination and distribution are determined not by their physical manifestations (although that helps understand the difference) but by the use case.
Destination requires the user to move into the context of the product. Distribution enables the user to use the product in his active context.
While the two are different, there is an overlap between the two as well. For example, the Instagram app acts as a destination in consumption mode where a user can view photos and participate in discussions but it also fits into the context of the user (using the phone as a camera) in production mode. An offline downloaded software (e.g. Dropbox, Evernote) that syncs with the cloud serves as a destination (user specifically opens a software and uses the product within that context) as well as distribution (the native context of the product is geared towards online usage but the offline piece fits into the user context who might not have access to the internet at that point.
As shown by these examples, the manifestations overlap but the use cases are different. Hence, it is important to think through possible use cases and identify usage contexts where a destination makes more sense than distribution or vice versa.
In summary, when planning an internet product, it is important to consider the mix of Distribution and Destination that it requires:
- List out the use cases. How will the user use it in production mode? How will she use it in consumption mode? It helps to separate the production and consumption modes because user contexts are very different in the two modes.
- Are any of the use cases best satisfied in the existing context of the user?
- For every action, are you making the user do extra work by coming to a destination?
- Can Distribution direct traffic to Destination?
Often, distribution can be the difference between a product that is convenient and engaging and a product that is difficult to use.
How have you split your product across distribution and destination? If you haven’t do you feel some distribution touch points could help improve product usage?