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Strategy

How Mobile App Retention Is Evolving

There's so much more than downloads to mobile success, and push messages alone simply won't cut it. Here's what you can do

Ben Jacobson
July 19 2018

The days of someone downloading and actually using your mobile app just because “there’s an app for that” are long over. “There are hundreds of apps for that,” and yours is just one of them. Your new app needs to be ready to fight. For years now, the saturation of the app market, coupled with changing user behavior, has made success a challenge. With millions of apps competing for attention and search results in the app marketplaces, it’s enough of a struggle to get noticed and downloaded. As of last fall, there were over 2 million apps available on the iOS App Store and 3.5 million on Google Play. New products continue to roll out at jaw-dropping rates, with the iOS App Store’s listings growing 2.5% and Google Play’s growing 4% month over month.

And that’s just the pool of app publishers as a whole. Remember that there are huge companies creating apps with serious marketing budgets behind them, and Gmail and Facebook are at the top of the “popular apps” charts week after week.

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App Annie’s 2017 report found that some 80 apps are installed on the average person’s smartphone, only half of which are used on a monthly basis. Even once you do manage to get a download, though, there’s only a slim chance that someone who’s downloaded your app will become a long-term user. Three months after installing a given app, only 29% of us continue to use it, meaning a lot of new downloads become short-term relationships that fizzle out quickly.

If you do beat out the other apps and win over your new users, you’ll need to find ways to keep them engaged despite changing relationships with technology.

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More awareness around the psychological and neurological impacts of smartphones can make users hesitant to introduce your app into their lives and regular routines. And who knows what Facebook scandal will make users question their tech privacy next week. Is your user retention strategy designed to overcome this shift?  As optimistic app marketers, it’s easy to overlook the skepticism and new behaviors users have built up or to just say, “Well, our app is different – they’ll want this one.” But you need to be aware of what’s changing and make sure that you can keep customers around throughout it all.

Here’s what’s happening and how you can adjust.

Push Notifications Aren’t the Answer

For several years, mobile industry thought leaders have talked about push notifications as a quick way to get long-term engagement. They’re direct and noticeable, and you can send them at any time. You can just push out a message whenever you need to increase engagement and retention, right?

Definitely not.

While push notifications done well are capable of keeping people engaged with your product, they’re not a quick fix or instant engagement boost if the rest of your strategy isn’t aligned… As PostFunnel has said before, “Push notification permissions are a privilege,” PostFunnel contributor Matt McAllister recently noted. “Users can take them away at any time.”

You’re in trouble if someone’s only interaction with your app is dismissing your push notifications. Advisor and investor, Andrew Chen, is adamant that “notification-driven retention sucks.”

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This is because if you haven’t figured out how to engage your users, sending more messages won’t do anything. You’re just ramping up an unsuccessful strategy. Instead, focus on figuring out how to provide value. Given the retention curve for mobile apps, the best way to increase retention is upfront. After all, “bending the curve happens via activation,” notes Chen, “not notification spam.”

Demand for More Personalized Experiences

To keep users around and engaged, you’ll also need to start providing more personalized experiences for them. When you’re trying to build a long-term relationship through your app, you need to get to know your users and treat them accordingly.

As noted earlier, they’re sick of disruptive apps that feed off addictive behavior. If your app is relying on an experience that involves distractions, push messaging, and one-size-fits-all marketing, users won’t keep it installed. It’s the reality when people have so many interruptions coming at them from so many platforms and devices. The best way to personalize your app is to make it as easy as possible to become part of your users’ lives. Instead of trying to disrupt their existing routines to create new obsessive behavior around your app, make it easily fit into and enhance existing habits and preferences. The easier your app is to adopt, more people are likely to enjoy it.

For example, note Starbucks’ last 2016 redesign of their mobile app and rewards program to focus on personalization. Instead of offering a basic loyalty e-card or mobile wallet, they used their app to incentivize behaviors based on someone’s personal preferences and past buying behavior.

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With an increasingly diversified menu and a wide range of shoppers, this gives them the opportunity to optimize their app based on whether a user prefers, say, buying a muffin in the morning or coffee in the afternoon:

“Starbucks draws from factors like customers’ established purchase history, listed preferences, account info, and even the local weather — think an iced coffee deal on a hot day,” Business Insider’s Kate Taylor wrote about the rollout. “The company says the new program, which began its mobile rollout two weeks ago, is already leading to increases in how often customers are visiting Starbucks and how much they are spending.”

This experience gives customers what they want when they want it, making it easy and appealing to engage.

Shifting Tech and Integration Needs

Finally, as other technologies around mobile apps change, you need to adjust how our apps interact and integrate. As your users continue to adopt new tech that isn’t yours, you need to continually fit into their behaviors and preferences as noted above. Take IoT and smart home trends. App marketers need to consider how those will change the ways people interface with all digital products. For example, if you have a media streaming app, you need to think about integration with smart TVs and streaming devices. And all apps should consider integration with voice commands and services like Siri and Alexa.

For example, check out how IoT garage door solution Garageio positions the value of its hardware kit and mobile app. If we ignore for a moment the large “Buy Now” button in the homepage’s hero image, the very first call-to-action on the company’s website is to learn more about how “Garageio Plays Well With Others,” leading us to a landing page with listings of integrations with existing popular IoT platforms.

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By jumping into these new techs along with your users, you make it easier for them to adopt your app long-term. More integrations, or ways to use your service, makes for multiple touchpoints for users to engage with your app.

When you’re looking to retain smartphone users long-term, it’s obviously helpful to get ahead of trends that show promise. But it also provides additional retention channels for you to experiment with.

Respect and adjust to users’ interests

Given the attachment, so many of us have to our smartphones, we become connected to the apps we use. If someone has chosen to carry your business around in their pocket or purse, respect their interests.

Going forward, focus more on retention strategies that fit their habits, instead of trying to cause as much disruption in their lives as possible for the sake of attention.

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Ben Jacobson

Ben Jacobson is a marketing strategy consultant who specializes in content, social media and influencer marketing for B2B firms. He contributes regularly to publications including MarketingLand, Search Engine Journal and the Orbit Media blog.

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