A Focused Approach to Data Can Fortify Your Digital Platform’s Early Success
From the outset we monitored the numbers—and, at least at first, it was hard not to feel kind of giddy. For more than two years, with the help of a group of designers from IDEO, we and our colleagues from the Drucker Institute had been planning and developing Bendable, a lifelong learning system that would allow the 100,000 residents of South Bend, Indiana—regardless of their age or background—to acquire new knowledge and skills through online courses as well as in-person classes. The goal was to foster a significant increase in better jobs, civic participation, and overall well-being for the community.
In June 2020, we finally unveiled the system. And month by month, backed by an aggressive marketing campaign, we watched the tally of unique local visitors to the Bendable digital platform steadily climb: from 2,161 to 5,160 to 8,040. Our plan to tackle the first order of business—bringing eyeballs to Bendable—was working. By mid-November, we’d crossed the 10,000 mark.
But as we headed into 2021, we began to notice a different trend taking hold: Growth was slowing.
This wasn’t totally surprising. We’d launched Bendable in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, rendering a nonstarter our elaborate plans to supplement the online learning with a slew of face-to-face events. But Covid-19 couldn’t explain everything. In this way, we found ourselves in the same situation that many organizations do when they bring a new digital product into the world: a meteoric start that quickly fades. To try to reverse the slide, we needed to look in the mirror. And that meant getting more serious about how we’d leverage the metrics we were collecting.
Over the past nine months, we have implemented what we call a 4-D approach to continuous improvement: data → decision-making → design → deployment. Now, our team from the Drucker Institute and the St. Joseph County Public Library—our key partner in South Bend and the home of Bendable in the community—gets together every four weeks or so to dig into the metrics, discuss what they mean, figure out what we should do about it, and assign a champion to be accountable and follow through.
To be sure, the numbers alone can’t give us a fully rounded picture; we always temper the quantitative data with what we are observing and hearing from Bendable stakeholders on the ground across the city. But the stats have become the place to start, giving our team a common way to frame whatever situation we are sizing up. We have used the data to shape our strategy for attracting new users, as well as for making Bendable stickier for those who've checked out the platform—goals that every digital product team can relate to.
Tracking the right data
Before we could take full advantage of the data, we had to make sure we were scrutinizing the right stuff.
Our first instinct—and likely the one many teams lean into—was to pull in all of the data that we could from Google Analytics and our own platform. What we ended up with was a mountain of metrics, but not a lot of meaning.
It didn’t take long before we realized that a better place to start was to sharpen our objectives for the program and then find the specific metrics that would shed light on whether we were getting there. We eventually landed on four overarching goals for Bendable in South Bend: to activate learning, drive a depth of learning, cultivate in people a habit of learning, and ensure that Bendable is inclusive of the whole community.
Today, we track statistics across 13 different areas (through Google, along with a few add-ons put together by our own software developer and key performance indicators passed on by our content providers). Each is organized under one of our four main goals.
These include things like the number of South Bend residents coming to Bendable both for the first time (activating learning) and returning (cultivating the habit of learning). We pay close attention to how much progress they are making through content providers’ courses, as well as through Bendable Career Collections—employer-backed learning pathways intended to prepare people for some of the most in-demand jobs in South Bend.
We also analyze the range of resources that people are clicking on. One of our theories is that if people are able to rely on Bendable to unearth all sorts of content, it will help instill in them the habit of learning. And so we assess how many South Bend residents want new work skills and how many are looking to enhance other aspects of their lives (by finding a class on, say, personal finance) or fulfilling a passion (like music or art).
We also pull information from our account sign-ups and parse which zip codes Bendable learners are from, which helps us make sure we’re reaching traditionally underserved areas.
Turning insight into action
From the data, we’ve learned that marketing matters—a lot. When the library lets up on its social media posts about Bendable, traffic to the platform falls, sometimes precipitously. When it leans into social media, traffic swells.
This is a crucial lesson: You have to sell a social innovation not unlike the way you would sell toothpaste; just because something meets a genuine need doesn’t mean that interest in it will magically materialize. It takes a real push.
As we delved into the data with the library, we discovered that to have the greatest impact, Bendable must be timely, which caused us to adjust our plans. One way we do this is by highlighting various Community Collections—personal learning playlists put together by local residents on a wide variety of topics. For instance, in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, the library promoted a Community Collection titled “Discerning fact from misinformation online.” More than 100 residents clicked on it that week, nearly nine times more than the next-most-opened Collection. As the weather started to warm this spring in South Bend, the library put the spotlight on a Community Collection called “Getting started as a gardener,” and it became the most popular.
Thanks in part to this insight, we have started to see our unique visitor growth pick back up, rising from its nadir of 481 in March.
“It’s the combination of pushing trusted learning content along with its relevance to our community's day-to-day life that brings more value to our patrons and translates to more engagement," says Norah Alwalan, who oversees the library’s Bendable outreach.
Turning visitors into regular users
The data also turned our attention to another challenge: getting people to sign up for a Bendable account. To date, about 1,500 have done so—just 10 percent of the nearly 15,300 unique local visitors who have now come to the platform.
Account sign-ups are tricky terrain for many digital products. You want to give a certain amount of freedom so that users can get a taste without potentially alienating them by coming on too strong and asking for their personal information. But you need that information to follow up with them and maximize their experience.
In the case of Bendable, this tension is especially pronounced. We want people to have friction-free access to much of the content on the platform so they can jump right in and begin learning. And yet if they don’t sign up for an account, we can’t communicate with them through email or text, making it difficult for us to support their efforts. What’s more, without an account, Bendable users can’t obtain course seats that have been pre-paid with philanthropic dollars, including a lot of the meatiest content that can help them advance in their careers.
So, how can we inspire more people to sign up for a Bendable account?
Thus far, we’ve tried several tactics, including an email blast to library patrons, urging them to make an account. In March, we added a welcome video to the top of the Bendable homepage, helping onboard new users to the platform and encouraging them to create an account from the get-go.
The pace of account sign-ups has shot up since April. But we know that we need to do much more.
Getting out into the community
As South Bend residents have gotten vaccinated and things have started to open back up, we have been working with librarians to get those walking into the 10 branches around the city excited about Bendable. We ask these people about their learning dreams, and then put their aspirations up on the branch wall, along with each person’s photo. (At the LaSalle Branch recently, we heard from men and women who were eager to re-learn math, become proficient in Photoshop, start a business, see their houseplants flourish, and more.) We then ask them to sign up for a Bendable account and give them guidance on how they can use the system.
Of course, we know that the toughest thing for many of these learners and any others who use Bendable will be persistence.
It’s not that Bendable users aren’t committed to learning. According to several of our content providers, including GCFGlobal and LRNG, those coming from Bendable.com consistently spend about twice as much time on their sites as do those who find their way there through a general search engine.
But it’s a different story for the courses that require hours of dedication to get all the way through, including those offered by Penn Foster, edX, and others that can lead to industry-recognized credentials or college credit. Of the 340 or so of these classes that have been started, fewer than 20 percent have been completed.
If the data has proven one thing above all, it’s that learning is hard.
On some level, we knew this going in. Adult learners face myriad barriers, including juggling work and family responsibilities; anxiety about being back in “school,” even if they are now in an alternative learning environment; and struggling with childcare and transportation.
But seeing the numbers has reinforced the fact that to drive a depth of learning—one of our four strategic goals—we need to get beyond the digital platform and equip the community to support Bendable learners. It’s a good reminder that the most important thing that a piece of technology can do is connect people in a meaningful way.
And so, we are now collaborating with stakeholders across South Bend—employers such as Beacon Health, the big hospital system in town; nonprofit organizations like Goodwill; government agencies, including a summer youth jobs program run by the city parks department; educational institutions, including the public schools; and others.
With our help, these partners are weaving Bendable into their everyday activities, seeking to further their own missions by assigning specific courses on the platform to their employees, clients, students, and so forth. To help these cohorts of learners get through the material successfully, we are now running a bunch of experiments that have been designed with input from a social science researcher. Among them: sending out text messages to nudge learning along; making available online coaching; using local university students as in-person coaches; and sharing data so that organizational leaders have visibility into learner progress.
In the end, building a better Bendable—as with any initiative trying to have a deep social impact—will be neither fast nor easy. We anticipate that it will take five years or more before we have a good sense of whether we’re getting anywhere toward our paramount goal: making South Bend more resilient by building a true community of lifelong learning.
Meanwhile, we will also be expanding Bendable through a partnership with the Maine State Library. Although Bendable will be hyper-localized for the people of Maine, with content and features that meet their particular wants and needs, our long-term aim remains the same: boosting the resilience of residents throughout the state.
Which is why we will, once again, rigorously track the most pertinent data. “The idea of resilience can be nebulous,” says Lex Dennis, the Drucker Institute’s director of lifelong learning. “That’s why focusing on the metrics as we go along is so critical.”