Monday, July 23, 2012

Want to make your App Sticky? Look no further than yourself. Nine traits that drive app engagement.

Be engaging! This is often the stated criteria for apps. Easier said than done. Actually, if you are looking to build or grow a business, the bar is even higher. A few weeks ago, in my Twitter feed, I saw a reference to a Fast Company article that described John Lilly's "first filter" investment criteria. John Lilly is the former Mozilla CEO who joined the prominent VC firm Greylock in 2010. The article described his guiding principle as "Lately I obsess about whether a product can be one of the 20 icons on my iPhone homescreen," he says. "That's my essential question right now." 

Utility and relevance are the table stakes component of an app-based business model. If I look at the current list of Top 25 apps in my smartphone app store, beyond the game apps, SMS-alternative apps, organizer apps, flashlight app etc. are some of the top apps. Clearly, utility and relevance play a big role. But beyond the app providing utility to us, what drives us to return to our apps? Think about it. You are standing in the line at an amusement park ride, at the DMV etc., you are bored or even panicky about unexpected 'empty' downtime, so you pull out your mobile device... What top 2-3 apps do you visit? In this scenario, utility is not the factor in your choice. Stickiness is. Successful apps are sticky, they engage users and this engagement is deeply rooted in our traits. And by appealing to our inherent traits, apps can compel us to keep us coming back. Let's take a look at nine traits that drive app engagement.

Serendipity - We love desirable discoveries by accident. My personal examples are discovering long lost high school classmates through Facebook's " People You May Know" feature or getting back in touch with former colleagues through LinkedIn's "People You May Know' feature. Or the more exciting nature of discovery through Twitter's public conversations and hashtags. In reality, serendipity in apps is not really an accident. By sharing our address books, educational and employment information and in general declaring our interests, this sort of discovery is expected and only a matter of time. In this Tech Crunch articleHenry Nothhaft, Jr. provides a discussion of the dimensions of serendipity and argues that serendipity is not really accidental. But, again, even if anticipated, these desirable discoveries are fun and keep bringing us back.

Personalization - Me, me and more me.  Whether the Pandora model of providing the name of an artist, genre or song and enjoying the personalized radio station or actually the ability to set up multiple personalized stations. Or the recommendation engines that Amazon and Netflix offer such as It's "Your-Name-Here's Amazon". Or personalized news/content apps or declared preference-based news discovery apps. There is a reason why people love to hear the sound of their own name. Apps that target this gratification are sticky.

The effect of Social Proof. The obvious phenomenon of the social network and the outstanding success of engagement of social media apps is well understood. Instead, I will attempt to offer how an app can tap into emerging themes or consumer preferences derived from social influence. For example, there is increasing comfort with location services such as social check-in found in social media products like Foursquare, Facebook etc. As individuals, we are nervous about declaring our location because privacy and security considerations are in the back of our minds. However, since there is a trend in increasing user comfort around declaring location, I believe we are relying on social proof and are influenced by those we consider similar to ourselves. Tap into the trait of social influence to determine influence trends and drive app engagement.

Reputation Scores and Gamification.  Gamification here does not refer to apps of the enraged feathered animals variety. Rather it refers to the application of game design techniques and game mechanics to a non-game context such as in this case, business. If winning doesn't matter, why do they keep score? This quote is attributed to the football coaching legend, Vince Lombardi. We are inherently competitive in nature and the social effect draws out this trait even more. For example, apps like Klout generate engagement by providing changing social media impact scores, the encouragement to share these scores and a view into the scoreboard that includes people in our network. Like us on Facebook. Really? Engage users by having them participate, leverage their expertise, provide them reputation platforms for their achievements and make them the hero.

Aesthetics - Looks Matter. Apps that are visually appealing and a delight to use are sticky. Since beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, I won't cite a specific example. However, I will suggest that the evolution and competitive dynamics of map apps are a good example of how visual dimensions of realism, the excitement of viewing places/roads less traveled, delightful performance etc. can make the difference between active engagement and simple utility. Mapping apps are thus increasing engagement on top of the utility they already provide. 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Push notifications, intriguing updates, well timed digests bring users back. Even inactive users (termed lurkers) on Facebook will act on a birthday notification. If you learn through a LinkedIn digest that a colleague changed a job, you are tempted to go back to the product to learn more about her new company. Breaking News on Twitter is another example. The 2012 Olympics will be underway soon and real-time updates are what we will consume versus the primetime television based consumption patterns of the past. Give your users the opportunity to set preferences and you have an endorsed mechanism to engage with your users!

Our Stuff i.e. Data. Apps that provide utility by storing our data such as cloud apps are also naturally sticky.  At one level, social media apps are a rolodex and address books in the cloud. When we need to reach someone in our network, we are drawn to engage with our social media app. File sharing apps like Dropbox is another example of utility apps that drive engagement through providing a home for one of our key possessions i.e. our data. Provide your users with a 'locker' and they will come back to check in on their 'stuff'.

Scarcity - There is a human desirability associated with scarcity. As Groucho Marx said, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member". Whether is an invitation only membership mechanism of Pinterest or a LinkedIn group that will have a maximum capacity/membership limit or providing early access to new releases for a sub-set of users. If it is scarce, we want it! By promoting the relative scarcity of elements of your app and business offering, you can enhance its desirability.

Sense of Community which often translates into the business model of crowdsourcing. Beyond the social connections of our private social circles of friends and colleagues, a bond that unites us is a sense of community based on shared interests and emotions. Find the community's common denominator. Build your business around concepts that people already care about emotionally. An app like Waze draws upon this sense of community to unite strangers with common interests. I also believe there is an undercurrent of anti-establishment/rebellious trait that drives people to contribute information on speed-traps to the community.

There you have it.  The above is not intended to be a top ten list. Nor is it intended to be a comprehensive list of all traits that drive app engagement. Rather, the traits I described above are influences that I am intrigued by and believe can be leveraged as marketing practices to drive higher app engagement.


  1. Very well researched and informative blog! Keep up the great work!

    1. Kopi - Tnanks for reading and thanks for the kind words.

  2. Excellent post. My feedback - Re 'Scarcity' - I will contend that the quality that drives us towards these applications is reliability. We get the illusion that the the vendors have performed adequate due diligence and by keeping the resource scarce, they avoid having it populated with riff-raff. In other words, scarcity in and of itself may not be the sticky attribute. But scarcity as a signal of reliability may be a good outcome, as demonstrated by the gmail invitations.

    Other attributes

    Network Effects - if a bunch of reliable early adopters signal that they're using the app, chances are that you will want to investigate. If you interact with these early adopters, it is highly likely that you will use this app frequently. This is like a subset of your 'sense of community' paradigm.

    Monetary value - Does the app contribute towards savings of any sort? (deals, coupons, discounts) that you will tend to use on a daily or if not, weekly basis. I would love to have a PG&E app that generated push notifications about my electricity usage and allowed me to monitor it regularly. Imagine, if I set a target for electricity usage ($/watt). I would log-on to that app constantly.

    Mobility - Mobile versions of desktop apps. The subtle Microsoft invasion of my iPhone real estate is remarkable since I have Calendar & Outlook as the most frequently used app. Can successful legacy vendors develop mobile apps of their software? (specialty apps for Manufacturing, Medical, Legal, Finance, Supply-Chain/Logistics etc.)

    1. Hi Quizman,

      Thanks for the feedback and thanks for the kind words. Your inputs on Monetary Value and Mobility are what i had in mind when I described utility and relevance. My focus on this article as you know was ongoing engagement and stickiness. Thanks for your thoughts around scarcity being a signal of reliability.

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