7 Golden Rules To Make Your App Stick

Making products habit-forming is a must-have in the ultra-competitive world of apps and digital services. Apps must become so sticky that users keep coming back for more without even thinking about it.

Creating a sticky app is all about engagement. Engagement revolves around the features, content and design that help to hook users so that they keep coming back. No matter how experienced the entrepreneur, no matter how clever the business model, no matter how much funding is secured, success is not possible without engagement.

Yahoo and Twitter are companies under great pressure. Yahoo has struggled to find a buyer and is trying to pivot on emerging product innovations. Twitter is now seen as the new Yahoo when it comes to diminishing growth and may soon be the largest startup failure in recent times. Large companies need to maintain a focus on engagement if they are to survive.

Many startups ignore engagement until it is too late. Passion about an idea can blind entrepreneurs into thinking engagement is guarenteed.  Some of the best ideas never reach the tipping point because they fail to engage users once the hype subsides. Engagement must be considered and implemented from day one.

7 golden rules to make your app stick:

1. Delight users with variable rewards

2. Keep content relevant

3. Make use of rewards

4. Embrace simplicity in design

5. Treat content as king

6. Define trigger points

7. Avoid annoying in-app advertising


More details:

1. Delight users with variable rewards

The most engaging apps elicit joy, inspiration, and excitement when used. Rewards provided on a random basis build great anticipation. This anticipation compels users to open an app more frequently. The concept of random, changing reward is known as variable rewards.

Apps such as Instagram & Snapchat have variable rewards inherently built in. This makes them highly addictive. Every time they are used, a new video or image appears from a stream of changing content. The expectation of finding something new and the fear of missing out (FOMO) is a powerful human emotion that is created using variable rewards. Users are compelled to use your app on a regular basis in order to receive their reward in the form of new content, features, information and social reputation.

Apps with less changeable content must work harder to build variable rewards. Netflix provides content suggestions based on your viewing habits in order to achieve variable rewards. This compels users to see what’s new.

2. Keep content relevant to the user

If content is not relevant, users disengage. Content that is irrelevant or generic will not entice users back to an app. Snapchat and Instagram have a huge flow of new content but it still needs to be made relevant. Content is filtered based on follows and friendship networks. News apps capture topics of interest in order to push relevant news. City Guides apply ratings, location or highly-curated content to ensure relevance.

Advertising has a systemic relevance problem. Without relevance, adverts disrupt and cause great disengagement. If an app fails to keep content relevant to its audience, they will suffer the same fate as the advertising industry. They will be ignored by the very people they need to engage.

Capture relevant data about your users and use this to give them relevant content.

3. Use rewards

Rewards are important to hook users into an app. They promote loyalty and reduce the likelihood that a user will switch to a competitor.  Rewards help drive positive user behaviour such as purchasing items, engaging with the community and sticking with your app for longer. For commerce-based apps, stored spending credits or loyalty points that can be redeemed for products help encourage further usage. For community-based apps, reputation and achievements keep users engaged.

Selecting the right action-reward combination is critical. It should not always be based on a monetary incentive. Quora offers no monetary incentive for answering questions. They reward users with online reputation and status as an expert. Rewarding a user for an action that is not natural user behaviour will cause a reward program to fail.

Loyalty is an important aspect of app rewards that is often overlooked. Uber and Grab Taxis are two highly experienced and well-funded taxis booking services in Singapore. They are in hot competition for market leadership. Becuase they both offer almost identical service from a consumer perspective, users will switch between apps depending on which one will provide a taxis in the shortest time. Loyalty would reduce the tendency for users to switch.

Loyalty can be implemented without losing margins or applying discounts. Partnering with other companies to provide gifts can be just as compelling. For a city guide app, a private dining experience at the new restaurant could be rewarded for users with the most ‘check-ins’.

4. Embrace simplicity in design

Apps that are more complex are less engaging. Apps with a ‘wow factor’ may impress upon first use, but do not entice users to come back again.

When flash animation first came to the web ecosystem, many websites become unusable. Designers were showing their artistic digital skills instead of focusing on function.  In the app ecosystem, there is also a tendency to over-complicate app design using an increasing array of design features such shading, blurring and animations. Take the Yahoo News app or Comfort Delgro taxis booking app. Both these apps are substantially more ‘fancy’ in design than many of their competitors yet they are not as easy to use.  If we contrast this to apps such as BBC News or Uber, we see a stark difference in simplicity and usability. Many billion-dollar companies avoid the temptation to spend money on overly fancy app designs and instead focus on usability. Airbnb and Slack are great examples.

This does not mean design and branding should suffer. Designing for simplicity is a skill in itself. The most beautiful and successful designs are often the least complicated.

5. Treat content as king

Products that fail to focus on content will die a quick death. With the exception of productivity apps, almost all other major app segments much focus on content.

The true value of a product is not defined by the technology or designs that bring them to life. When it comes to apps, product value is often defined by their content. If Airbnb had poor listings, no one would use it. If Uber had no taxis’, no one would use it. If Quora had no answers, no one would use it. Content really is king.

The amount and type of content should be aligned to the markets and audience that you serve. If you misalign your content to the audience you are trying to serve, stickiness of your app will decline. Groupon has suffered in recent years and some argue this is down to poor content that can not be trusted.

For mass-market products in large-scale ecosystems like China, curation of content can be lower given the sheer scale and long-tail of the consumer base. That said, it is still the scale of content and continuing efforts to ensure trusted content that drive its eyewatering valuations.

6. Define triggers to remind and pull in users

Nir Eyal defines two types of triggers in his best-selling book Hooked. External triggers include messages, notifications or other prompts that drive people to an app. Internal triggers are emotional or action-based prompts that form in a user mind and keep them coming back automatically.

Instagram grew because it directly aligned to the internal trigger point of capturing a moment in time. When a user sees something they want to capture and save, it is Instagram (or maybe Snapchat) that automatically comes to mind. Instagram linked the emotional trigger point of ‘never missing a moment’ to the main action of the app.

To create a mental connection to an internal trigger, external triggers are needed to build this behaviour. Instagram made social sharing very easy in the app and placed a tag on every photo letting people know it was taken with Instagram. This meant more and more people started to build a connection to Instagram and linked the app to sharing beautiful photos and capturing moments.

External triggers, such as push notifications, are all the rage. They play on the fear of missing out (FOMO), which is one of the most powerful emotions born from the social-app reputation ecosystem.  If a user turns off these notifications, FOMO acts like a nagging voice inside a user head and so users keep the alerts coming in order to maintain their digital zen. With so many apps applying the same strategy, it is worth thinking about how you can be clever with notifications. Maybe mixing in AI so that alerts actually become more useful, instead of simply inundating the users with every like, comment and post under the sun.

Defining external and internal triggers is one of the most useful mechanisms you can use improve the chances that users engage with your product.

7.  Avoid annoying in-app advertising

Digital advertising is broken. It is distracting, unhelpful & often pointless. It creates little provable value to big business or SMEs. There are ways to make digital advertising better, but sadly most products continue to stick with the same annoying methods. When it comes to your product, in-app advertising can kill it.

The BBC News app is great. It is simple, has great content and keeps users coming back. I personally open it every morning and at least 5 times a day, every day. The BBC news app recently started adding unskippable ads, banner ads and in-story ads to its content. Now I forgo reading the news to avoid seeing irrelevant video ads. I still use the app but I spend less time using it and am building a weaker external trigger to open it.

Generating revenue from apps can be tough but this is not an excuse to follow the broken state of digital advertising. There are many ways to earn revenue in much more natural or positive ways. It requires a bit more thinking and less adherence to follow the crowds, but it can be done. Be careful about how you implement ads as it can weaken your stickiness to the point of no return.

Stephen Barling. MD and Chief Creative @ Greyspace
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