Mobile app engagement and retention (Fully re-write)


Dev Cham

March 18, 2021

Release 2 | Smart Story

Mobile app engagement and mobile app retention are two distinct but related metrics that can be measured to indicate the success of an application. Low app engagement and retention are a recipe for failure, while high engagement and retention equal the opposite.

  • Engagement describes how active users are on the application. While this is a somewhat subjective metric, highly engaged users as those that have 10+ sessions per month.
  • Retention while again a fairly subjective term, the industry benchmark is the percentage of an app’s users who return to the app within 3 months of their first session.

The average of these two combined determines an app’s “stickiness” – how engaged and loyal users are for a particular app. For those that are concerned primarily with user conversions and/or monetization, the most important objective is to keep users engaged and ensure repeat usage.

The Engagement/Retention Problem

It’s difficult to achieve adequate mobile app engagement and retention rates. In fact, user abandonment (apps used only once and then abandoned) jumped to 25% this year, up from 20% in 2014. Furthermore, if an app is opened only once in 7 days, there is a 60% chance it will never be opened again. The reality is app developers are up against a competitive market in which users have a lot of choices.

But there’s good news. A number of tried and tested methods have been shown to help increase both engagement and retention, meaning more active, loyal app users.

1. Easier Onboarding 

Providing a seamless onboarding experience can help significantly reduce abandonment rates. The more difficult it is to begin using an app – too many steps to sign up, too many information fields, confusing features/functions, etc. – the more likely users are to abandon it.

The first-time user experience in imperative. Apart from ensuring users don’t abandon the app, effective onboarding has been shown to increase user lifetime value by up to 500%. The following steps can help you create an intuitive, frictionless app onboarding process.

  1. make logins and account creation easy (reduce steps for a signup, offer multiple registration options, etc).
  2. don’t overload users with information from the get-go. Instead, offer feature/functionality education as the user gets to those features
  3. teach through action to expose gestures/actions needed in the app experience

Example of the seamless onboarding process. Image by Helen Park, Hootsuite

2. Push Notifications

Push notifications have been shown to increase user retention, with statistics showing anywhere from a 56% to a 180% improvement. Furthermore, users who have opted in to receive push notifications exhibit 88% higher app engagement than those who haven’t.

 Push messaging serves very specific and important functions. For one, it helps remind users that they’ve downloaded your app, which is important when you’re competing for valuable real estate on a user’s device. Implemented effectively, it can also help encourage usage through targeting messages based on behavioral data and preferences (more on this below). For applications that serve very specific functions and aren’t likely to drive daily usage, it can help engage users by providing them a compelling reason to return (for example, a discount or promotion on a service/product).

Recommended: How To Use Push Notifications To Reduce App Churn

3. Mobile Personalization

 Personalization helps provide a more unique, relevant experience to the user. The more aligned the experience is with a user’s needs and preferences, the more likely they are to continue to use the application.

Whenever possible, personalize the user experience by using known information to display relevant content and material in the app. Including the user’s name on screens and in messaging is an easy way to personalize, but diving deeper to ensure push notifications are hyper-relevant to the particular user is where personalization truly thrives. In fact, push messages that are tailored to user interests have a 54% conversion rate, versus 15% from broadcast messages.

But you need to tread carefully; if you implement push notifications improperly and send users irrelevant messaging or notifications that users deem annoying, they will have the opposite effect.

4. Incentivization

If you want to drive engagement and retention, giving users incentives to use your app can go a long way. Mobile-specific rewards, specialized content access, coupons, special promotions, and other offers will help drive conversions and encourage engagement.

Obviously, the ways you can incentivize users will depend on the nature of the app. For example, apps that use in-app purchasing as a monetization model will benefit from time-sensitive discounts, whereas freemium apps can incentivize users by providing usage-based rewards.

5. Product Iteration

Apps are iterative, whether they are minimum viable products or mature, polished, and fully functional. Ensuring that you update the app experience and add new features and personalized content regularly will help keep users interested and engaged. By using analytics, tracking user behavior, and listening to user feedback, you can determine what your users want and what features of the app are driving usage, which can be used to inform product road mapping and ensure the updates you make are compelling and valuable to your users.

 App engagement and user retention are equally, if not more important than user acquisition. Converting users to loyal, long-term customers will help increase average lifetime value (LTV) and generate more revenue for your app. The above methods can significantly improve user engagement and retention to ensure that your application has an impact in the highly competitive app landscape.


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