The mobile app industry has a lot in common with brick-and-mortar stores when it comes to the importance of consumer engagement. It’s not enough to get people in the door, you want them to stick around for a while — and hopefully spend some money while they’re there. 

It generally costs more money to gain customers than to keep them, and this is especially true when it comes to today’s crowded mobile marketplace. With the freemium model becoming the norm, developers have to make sure users spend enough time engaging with their programs to lead to a decent profits.

There isn’t a magic formula to guarantee that your app will be become a mainstay on your users’ devices, of course. A 2013 Mixpanel breakdown shows that retention rates vary widely across the mobile app spectrum, with different genres consistently performing better than others.

App Engagement - Retention Graph

Those findings certainly don’t mean you shouldn’t release education or media-focused software, just that you should do everything in your power to encourage as much app engagement as possible, no matter what type of program you plan to release.

Don’t Make Them Work Too Hard

It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that the best way to get consumers to engage with an app on a consistent basis is to include uncomplicated features they’ll want to use over and over again. Typically, a successful app focuses on doing one thing in a simple and enjoyable way. You don’t have to break entirely new ground to pull in big revenue, just find a way to make your users’ lives a little easier, and/or more fun.

“Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar Internet company. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time. Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps,” Twitter co-founder Evan Williams said at a recent XOXO conference.

So how do you ensure that your users will have an easy time navigating your app? Start by designing the program to fit the devices on which it will be accessed. By going the native — or possibly hybrid — development route, you can incorporate interface elements that will be familiar to your users. There’s no reason to include unrecognizable back and menu buttons when you can rely on tried-and-true operating system-specific standards.

Even with native development, however, you’ll still likely add some unique gestures or icons to the app. Luckily, you can allow your users to easily get the gist of the program’s functionality by including onboarding screens. These serve as brief tutorials that show people how to use the program. If you’ve ever played “Angry Birds” (And who hasn’t?) you’ll recognize their onboarding screens as the graphics with the finger that show you how to flip your birds in the most devastating way possible.

App Engagement - Angry Birds Onboarding

But just because you include some onboarding screens, remember that you don’t have to pack them full of instructions. As Williams said, the most used apps are effective, but simple. Keep in mind that consumers like to pull out their phones while they’re waiting in line or riding buses and cabs. Take advantage of those small windows of opportunity by providing an app that can be used in short increments.

Give Them What They Want

Of course, it doesn’t matter how simple your app is if no one wants to use it. Focus only on features that encourage and/or incentivize engagement among users, like social integration and rewards programs. 

In 2013, Facebook officials claimed 81 percent of the highest-grossing iOS apps, as well as 70 percent of the top Android apps, featured integration of their network. By including elements of Facebook, and other popular social networks like Twitter and Instagram, you’ll enable instantly recognizable methods of sharing and commenting that can drive up engagement rates and provide plenty of free promotional opportunities.

App Engagement - Facebook Integration

Adding some fun to the mix can also boost an app’s engagement rate, so you may want to consider including a game, even if that’s not the main function of the program. Research firm Gartner has predicted that gamification will be the default model in the mobile world by next year as businesses seek new ways to make their apps unique. 

Kendall-Jackson Wines reported a noticeable spike in actions and session frequency after adding quizzes and learning missions to their app that lead to the awarding of badges and points. Companies like Badgeville specialize in gamification, and can help you add some incorporate these and other elements in your software.

App Engagement - Kendall Jackson

Games are great for fun, but convenience is also a big factor in user activity. The inclusion of features that can save people time can help ensure that they’ll keep your app on their devices for the long haul. 

Flooring company RiteRug is in the process of building an app that will allow a user to get an idea of how the carpet or tile they’re considering will look in their home without ripping up what’s already there. The user simply picks his or her preferred styles, and the app takes care of the rest. 

App Engagement - RiteRug

Fashion app StyleWhile takes a similar approach with clothing, using models as paper dolls in order to let users determine how an outfit will look on them before they hand over any cash. As with the RiteRug app, the program is simple, and saves consumers a lot of time and effort by providing thorough shopping experiences from mobile devices.

App Engagement - Style

For consumers who already know what they want, easy payments and rewards programs can guarantee not only consistent use of a mobile app, but continued purchases of a business’s products. Starbucks’s oft-praised app is a great example of a program that’s been thoroughly integrated into everyday business practices, leading to impressive engagement and retention rates.

Whatever features you choose, make sure security is a top priority during the development of your app. Users are becoming increasingly concerned with the potential vulnerability of their information (due in large part to a recent celebrity hacking scandal) so you’ll want to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible when they interact with the program.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection advises that developers evaluate the mobile ecosystem before determining the extent of their security measures. Officials also recommend the designation of specialized security personnel if your app requires the gathering of users’ important personal information. 

Security might not be much of an issue when your app is in use offline, but a lack of compelling non-Internet-dependent features could be a different story. One of the benefits of native apps is that they can be used without a connection, so making the program highly usable in that situation can go a long way toward ensuring a high retention rate.

Most games are playable offline, but other apps also boast features that can provide information or entertainment to the unconnected. The makers of Pocket accomplished this by giving consumers a quick and easy way to download web content and store it for offline reading/viewing. The app works across platforms and device types, so users can save articles they’re reading on their desktops and finish them later on their smartphones. The downloaded articles are available offline, so even travelers in mid-air can use the app.

App Engagement - Pocket

Don’t Wait Around, Grab Your Users’ Attention

While it’s great to pack your app with amazing features, you shouldn’t wait around for people to use them. There are many ways to get your users’ attention in order to gently nudge them to engage with your app.

One of the most fruitful of these methods is the use of push notifications, which allow you to send messages to users informing them of offers or updates, along with links to the app. Push notifications not only drive up engagement, but can bring in significant amounts of revenue by offering coupons, mobile-only deals, and reminders of points accumulated through reward programs. 

Push notifications are also extensively used for purposes that don’t directly involve revenue accumulation, such as updates about social media account activity, as well as the actions of your friends in games in which you’re also involved.

Developers who choose to include location-based services in their offerings can use push notifications to send information to users physically present in a given area. These alerts are often important parts of in-store mobile app marketing efforts, and use installed beacons to recognize users’ mobile devices and send news, coupons, or other bits of information only to those consumers most likely to click on the notifications. Retailers like Home Depot also encourage engagement among in-store users by providing maps and other location-specific information directly to mobile devices.

For many developers, especially game creators, all efforts to inspire user engagement are designed to lead toward the king of user actions — the in-app purchase. 

In-app purchases accounted for 76 percent of Apple App Store revenue in 2013 — the majority of that made in freemium apps. That number is even more impressive when you consider Swrve’s finding that only 1.5 percent of mobile game users make in-app purchases in any given month. 

But while the number of users making in-app purchases isn’t high, those who do so go on to make second such purchases 50 percent of the time, according to the Swrve findings. Knowing this, developers should seriously consider making a determined effort to use push notifications and other proactive methods to encourage users to interact with their offerings.

Analyze This (and That)

Your efforts to increase engagement will only be effective if you utilize methods that work well with your audience, while avoiding those that don’t result in user interaction. The best way to accomplish that is to use analytics software to identify what works, and what doesn’t.

Venture capitalist Dave McLure coined the term “pirate product monitoring” to refer to his method of analytic examination, which focuses on the following areas: acquisition, activation, retention, referral, and revenue — or AARRR (get it?).

Pirate jokes aside, keeping track of users’ interactions in those five areas should enable you to craft your engagement strategy in the most efficient way possible. There are a variety of analytics tools that can help you keep track of that information, many of which Apptamin examines in detail here. But for now, we’ll take a quick look at a few of the most popular options here.

PushSpring

PushSpring’s proprietary technology and machine-learning algorithm enable the easy creation of behavioral, demographic, and intent-based personas to assist publishers in the development and marketing of their apps.

PushSpring users also benefit from the service’s analytic insights and push marketing capabilities to drive re-engagement, retargeting, and customer acquisition.

Engagement, PushSpring - FBombMedia

Flurry

One of the most well-known and frequently utilized analytics tools is the free service from Flurry, which has been used to monitor more than 540,000 apps. The software supports a wide range of platforms, and provides users with access to detailed information about sessions and audience engagement, all at no cost.

Flurry enables its users to create funnels that allow for the customization of conversation tracking, while also breaking the consumer base down into smaller groups.

App Engagement - Flurry

Google’s Universal Analytics

Google’s service provides similar engagement information for mobile apps, but also offers users the opportunity to combine those details with analytics from any other platforms on which their programs operate. 

The popularity of Google’s website analytics tools means that many developers are able to jump right into monitoring their app’s engagement without first learning about the tracking software from scratch.

App Engagement - Google Analytics

Localytics

Localytics software is used by thousands of companies to track tens-of-thousands of apps with a freemium program that offers an impressive variety of services at no cost. Localytics sets itself apart from many of its competitors by adding marketing elements to its list of services, including push notifications.

Localytics also features typical engagement information, like session numbers and length, as well as conversion and retention rates, though many of its advanced elements must be purchased.

App Engagement - Localytics

Conclusion

Like other important phases of the app entrepreneurship process we’ve covered — the decision to create, audience identification, development, marketing — maximizing user engagement is a vital part of any successful mobile release strategy.

By making your app simple, enjoyable, and convenient to use, while also taking an aggressive approach to the solicitation of user actions and carefully tracking that engagement, you can maximize your app’s success well after the its initial installation.

Do you have anything to add about the importance of engagement in mobile apps? Let us know what you think in the comments section.