Follow the users: How Trover morphed from travel to entertainment app

What do you do when your users aren’t using your service the way you intended? If you’re Trover’s CEO, you wake up and make some adjustments. As a result, the mobile app that debuted about a year ago as a social travel planning tool has morphed into something that doesn’t really look like a travel app today. And that should position Trover much better for long-term success.

When Trover arrived it was a tool for friends to recommend off-the-beaten-path travel destinations. But a few months ago, CEO Jason Karas noticed that his users weren’t friending their real life friends on the service that often. And they weren’t building itineraries as much as tabulating beautiful architecture or beaches they wanted to see someday, pulled from photos uploaded from all over the world. The collections weren’t, in other words, immediately practical. They were far more aspirational.

“This is a big change. It’s not originally how we designed the service,” Karas told me in an interview earlier this week. “We’re finding that people are ‘snacking’ on this instant or virtual adventure-type content. And when we’re looking at our stats, it’s reflected in the stats: people view more than 20 images in a session, and they’re not looking for a specific thing. They’re just consuming.”

Trover users started adding my Greece pictures to lists with titles like “Dream Destinations.”

Those stats show that in the past 45 days, when Trover had begun testing out some updated features (more on that in a minute), page views were up 35 percent, and in the last year, up 300 percent.

As regular readers know, I’m a fan of apps for travel. I truly enjoyed Trover in its first incarnation — but that’s likely because I fit the profile of people who consider travel and discovery a hobby and I mostly just uploaded photos I took on trips. I did start noticing back in the spring, however, while uploading pictures to Trover during a trip to Greece, that many users, none of whom I was friends with in real life or virtually, were “thanking” (the equivalent of liking) me and adding my pics to their lists. The ones that stood out to me the most were lists titled “Love to Visit” and “Dream Destinations.”

And, as Karas explained, those are the norm now, not the exception. The number of lists created every day has doubled in the last month. And at least half are these kind of aspirational or pleasure lists. To respond to its users’ wishes, in July Trover started rolling out subtle but important feature changes. These include giving a human editor the job of populating the app’s landing page with the best or most interesting content on Trover to pull users in right away; improving the search function and making it prominent so users can immediately jump to a location or group of images they may want to browse; and adding the ability to scroll through full-screen photos more fluidly — previously you had to click on a photo to view it full-screen and close it before advancing to the next photo.

All of these moves are about increasing users’ engagement in the app, which is far more entertainment-based than trip-planning, Karas said. “It’s kind of like NatGeo … a wisdom builder [app],” he said. “You’re learning a little bit. It’s not fully lean-back entertainment, it’s just [someone thinking] ‘I just want to be a little bit wiser about something.'”

Pivoting in the right direction

This is all actually good news for Trover. As anyone working in online travel search or making a travel tool knows, it’s a really, really hard business. Because very few people are always looking for a discount flight. No one is always planning a family trip to Disney World(s dis) or a honeymoon or a road trip. So it’s really tough for new, small companies that are not named Kayak or Priceline or Orbitz to get a foothold because they have to constantly try to engage new users over and over again.

That’s why moving from being a tool that people only use to plan trips to an app people use to build collections of things they like (a la Pinterest) and engage in because they feel a part of a particular community centered on exploration, is a stroke of luck for Trover. Sure, it has to compete with the Pinterests and the Instagrams of the world for places people go to kill time or discover new things. But if it is able to eventually grow its user numbers beyond the 200,000 it has right now, they’ll be able to sell ads that are highly targeted because each user is giving them so much information about the things they like and the places they want to go.

And they have time. Trover was spun out of Travelpost, another Seattle-based travel company, and has the funding to tinker around while it finds its sweet spot.

To engage Trover users even further, the company does have more new features planned very soon, including lists that multiple users can contribute to and a desktop web portal so users can upload images not currently on an iPhone(s AAPL) or Android(s GOOG) device.

Karas admits lists weren’t the element he’d previously imagined he’d be building his app around. “Who would’ve thought when we started this? But that’s the way we’ve been playing it: experimenting like crazy, seeing what people want to do.”