Google Analytics for Pirates

Google Analytics for Pirates

Pirate Metrics is a simple growth hacking (business development) framework by Dave McClure. In this article, I provide a detailed guide for startup founders on how we use Google Analytics to track Pirate Metrics. The framework is based on the assumption that every startup needs to get customers through 5 key stages, Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral and Revenue. (AARRR)

Google Analytics, for us, is the best tool to gather actionable data among all our apps and websites. But Google Analytics’ flexibility and power comes at a cost of complexity. It is so not obvious how to get needed insight, even when you completely understand how to aggregate needed information. Here I will provide some very useful recipes, which you could start using while reading the article. Most of the data will be based on our flagship Together app which is a kind of mobile video editor with organizing capabilities. In most common use cases, you just import a recently shot set of videos, splice them into one short video story, add a music soundtrack to set the right mood and impress all of your friends and family with a nice video story. Download it and have some fun.

Let’s get deep into Google Analytics and start using it to get data for your decisions.


Acquisition is the first contact point with a customer and your product. Your marketing has worked and you’ve successfully pulled the user from what they were originally doing and now you have their attention. In mobile apps, there are multiple methods of user acquisition: web landing page, blogs, app store search etc. There are not many app store analytics tools available though. App Store Optimization (ASO) is out of the scope here but you could find some materials on the web. You could get basic acquisition data from App Store reports (downloads). There is not much insight there though, as you have to guess the root cause for the downloads dynamic.

To master your acquisition, I suggest you focus on a web portal analytics pretending that there are some users (market) looking for the solution to their problem (product). The web portal is the place for your landing page and a blog. If there is some User Generated Content in your product which could be published then it should be published and get some traffic for you. The most important Google Analytics report on this stage is Acquisition -> Channels. Here you get the understanding of which channels work, which tactics work better, and you can measure the outcome of your marketing activities.

Google Analytics Acquisition Channels report:

  • Direct – not properly tagged urls (when clicked from the apps) and users who already know your product (a.e. word of mouth)
  • Referral – links from other web portals (i.e. your guest posts, app reviews, news sites, blogs)
  • Search – paid and organic search, often the most valuable traffic proving that there are users looking for your product features
  • Social – outcomes of your social activities and social features built in the product

It is very important to be goal oriented when analyzing. So, go into admin settings and configure Goals for your web portal. After that, you can track conversions. Acquisition channels can shine a new light with conversions data. You begin to know which traffic is «better» – for example some referrals could convert greatly and some could be completely irrelevant. Keywords analysis can bring you insight about which problems are more significant for your audience.

Here is the list of Google Analytics Goals which come to mind and could be useful for you as well (this is the actual list of goals of Together web site):

  • Went to the App Store (your app page) presumably to download the app
  • Subscribed to a mailing list
  • Signed up and created an account (if your product has a web version)

Finally, you should master the acquisition and get a substantial flow of new users into your product. Let’s get onto the second level!


Activation is the stage where people actually use your product. Not all users who download and start your app end up using it. There are numerous reasons for a low activation rate: poor onboarding process, no beginner walkthrough, a complex UI/terrible UX. These can all lead to your newly acquired users leaving as soon as they see a couple of screens. When you have a good enough flow of new users coming into your app it is a good time to polish the activation stage. The main task here is to make as many new users as possible actually start using your product.

The basic approach to measuring activation rate is to have Google Analytics goals configured for your mobile app account. I assume that you had at least one product use case when you were building the app. If you are adept at the Lean Startup approach, then you are most likely to have only one product use case in your MVP. Well, focus is the great thing! So the completion of this designed use case is the checkmark of a user activation.

Go to the admin section of Google Analytics and configure goals. In the case of Together, we identified a couple of goals, Manage Videos and Share Created Movies. Every Google Analytics goal could be described as a target event or a screen with a sequence of screen views leading to it (in this case you could have funnel visualization).

Google Analytics provides a dedicated set of reports for this kind of analysis. Conversions -> Goals. On the main Goals -> Overview report you may check Goal Completions, Goal Value, and Goal Conversion Rate, which in fact is your activation rate if you configured the goal well.

In your analysis, it may be useful to work with a predefined segment «Sessions with Conversions» or its derivative. For example, you may check Acquisition -> New Users report with two segments applied «All Sessions» and «Sessions with Conversions» to get highly informative visualization of all new users compared to users who converted. Also consider having a look at the Behavior -> Behavior Flow report with «Sessions with Conversions» segment applied in order to identify successful behavior patterns and «Sessions without Conversions» to identify patterns of unsuccessful ones.

At the end, I’d like to suggest you marking all app store releases and significant marketing activities in Google Analytics, as it helps to interpret some changes in data dynamics. To do so you need to create an annotation in the Admin section of Google Analytics.

A set of goals which could be treated as User Activation:

  • Signed up in the app / created account
  • Shared a photo
  • Made a video clip
  • Conducted a voice call
  • Searched for something
  • Anything else – the main scenario is so different in different apps

Finally, let me add that the most powerful tool is to actually go through the screens step by step with your app in hands and try to understand which aspects drive users’ behavior. Believe me: pretty soon you will figure out some issues, fix them and get onto the third level!


Once you’ve acquired a bunch of users, and they’ve all used your product (were activated according to previous) you need to focus on getting those users coming back regularly.

Depending on your mobile app the concept of retention is relative. Some apps require daily use, others weekly or monthly. I suggest using the Google Analytics Audience -> Overview report to analyze retention. The trick is to use Day/Week/Month level of aggregation depending on your app usage cycle length. If your app requires monthly use then there is not much data in daily retention rate. Another trick is to conduct a proper cohort analysis, simply saying apply the right segment. In my attempts to understand users I created a segment called «Cohort {N}» and filtered users with a date of first visit between some particular dates, with a particular app version (usually the latest), with «Active User Type» set to «Returning Visitor». With a graph including a dates ranging from their first visit and going beyond for two or three times, you may see an interesting slope stabilizing at some level. That level is your app retention.

Another useful feature of Google Analytics, which in skillful hands could bring a lot of insight, is the «Custom Dimensions» feature. For example, you could have a custom dimension «Pirate Stage» and write a value in the app according to the user’s progress. This will enable you to apply a custom segment of users from a particular stage, i.e. «Activated Users» where you, in the app, define when a user becomes activated. Combined with date of first visit based cohorts this could be your ultimate weapon for Retention Analysis.

At this stage you need to answer following questions:

  • How could you prevent users from leaking from the app?
  • Does the app offer enough incentives to permanently use it?
  • What’s the best way to remind the user about the app?

You approach could be different in regards to improving your retention rate. One could be in sending extra push notifications, emails and other forms of valuable messages. Another option is to introduce some features into the product which will make its usage more regular. But in some cases you just naturally have a long cycle when the user gets into the app less than once a month. For example, a vacation related map or more common travel app could be visited once a quarter.


Word of mouth marketing is the best performing growth hack you could ever have. Referrals coming from people who know each other usually have the highest conversion rates and have the potential to grow your userbase exponentially. Usually to get a lot of referrals you need to delight a user while meeting his expectations about value (as gained from the app.)

In some cases, referrals could be organically built into the product. This is usually true for the apps where users generate content like photo or video. For example, users create short movies in Together app and share them with friends and families as part of their ordinary work flow.

Giving some extra incentives for sharing information about the product could catalyze referrals. It worked for DropBox and could work for you as well.

Here you normally get back to acquisition stage and check:

  • How many visits did referrals bring to your product?
  • How many visitors converted?

Tracking referrals in Google Analytics is usually done via proper shared urls tagging (utm_source, utm_medium, utm_campaign). This allows analysis of urls shared through apps like email clients, Facebook and Twitter. You just need to build this tagging mechanism into your app.

Hey, we are almost done. One more stage to go!


Measuring and optimizing revenue is the final step of the framework. At the end of the day, revenue is one of the most crucial parts of startup success.

Pay attention to the fact that this is the last stage and there is no need to optimize revenue metrics before previous stages are well done. For the revenue analysis, there is a Conversion -> Ecommerce set of reports in Google Analytics. You can also segment sessions based on happened transactions value. There is even a predefined segment «Sessions with Transactions» which you could use to analyze sessions where a user bought something.

Finally here is a Dave McClure presentation and a video about this approach for reference.

Please check our apps and feel free to get in touch – I’ll be happy to discuss your issues.

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