May 29, 2017

USER RETENTION: The Problem That Never Goes Away


If you are an app developer, you are probably well familiar with this uncomfortable statistic about user retention: 75% of users uninstall an app within 90 days.

At yellowHEAD, we hold a holistic view of online marketing. It is our experience that good user retention will work to benefit acquisition efforts such as PPC and ASO. User retention numbers are getting an increasingly more integral part of the app stores’ algorithms, so concentrating efforts in user retention will ultimately gain you better ROI for your acquisition campaigns.

At Google I/O 2017, there were a number of insightful sessions dedicated to boosting user engagement and retention by applying behavioral economics principles. The true value of those principles is that they offer ways to understand and address users’ needs better and help see opportunities to monetize each user after the initial UA campaign.

I will share the most important information from those sessions with you in this article.

The User That Keeps on Giving

Let’s start with one important question you need to ask yourself:

What is the one key action you want users to take in your app?

This may be completing a tutorial, returning to the game within a certain period of time after the initial onboarding process, using a specific feature or making a certain in-app purchase. By analyzing your user behavior data, you need to spot the one pattern that your most valuable users follow, and find that one key action that can signal that pattern.

The guiding principles, which you can follow to make this particular action a reality, are:

Step 1 – Simplify the decision

The easier it is to perform a certain behavior, the more likely people are to do so.


Because every decision we make requires overcoming some barriers.

Let’s take you, for example, and the fact that you decided to read this article. Perhaps you had to overcome a lack of time and you had to debate whether the article would be worth your time by just looking at the title and short description.

So ask yourself this – why haven’t more users carried out that one specific action you want them to? Maybe it takes too much time to complete that action, or the purchase involved is too costly, or choosing to do it among other choices simply requires too much mental effort.

Identify those barriers with a detailed funnel analysis. And while you do this, remember that, in the middle of analyzing so many things your users do, it’s easy to overlook the reasons they perform those actions in the first place.

So instead of only finding out WHAT your users are doing, or rather not doing, try to figure out WHY they’re doing it. The Play Console offers some great tools like Review Analysis to help you identify your users’ pain points. Sometimes data by itself is not enough to answer the WHY question, and you may want to consider running additional usability tests.

Step 2 – Trigger

As you probably know, it’s important to place powerful and actionable triggers in the relevant moments for your engaged users. These triggers can be in-app messages, email campaigns or push notifications.

But how do you actually move users with those triggers?

There are a few key factors, according to Nir Eyal, the bestselling author of the behavioral design book called Hooked:

  1. Triggers can be external (coming from the outside) and internal (stored in users’ memory).
  2. Triggers must be present at the same time as that in which the user has sufficient ability to take action (e.g. time, money, physical effort).

Push notifications, for instance, are a perfect example of an external trigger that is prompted by the developer to get the attention of the user.

This trigger will have the most powerful impact and drive the user to take the desired action, if it is aligned with the user’s internal trigger. This internal trigger can be curiosity or a fear of missing out on something obtainable in limited time or quantity.

What’s important here is for the message to be persuasive enough to signal that internal trigger. And, obviously, the messages have to be variable and personalized, so make sure you don’t send the same message twice.

Step 3 – Motivate

Before we dig deeper into motivation, let’s discuss 2 types motivation we should be taking into consideration:

  1. Intrinsic motivation – where the act of doing something in and of itself is the reward (e.g. collecting a trophy)
  2. Extrinsic motivation – where someone is doing something just to get the resulting benefit (e.g. incentives)

Games are, in many ways, the ultimate motivational product. The reason is that they create this genuine level of engagement when tapping into our intrinsic motivations. The act of playing the game is the reward itself.

Here’s a 4-step framework called the RAMP framework to help foster intrinsic motivations within apps:

Relatedness – is all about building social connections, feeling a sense of belonging and being connected to the community (e.g. collaborating with real and virtual friends to complete a mission).

Autonomy – is making sure that users have freedom to make their own choices and decisions. With a certain level of autonomy, your users will feel that they at least have some control over what they are doing (e.g. exploring the virtual world at their own pace, customizing their avatar, etc.).

Mastery – is a process of perfecting a skill in order to level up.  It is important for the required skill to increase with the level of challenge (e.g. tutorial levels, unlocking the next level, making it on the high-score board).

Purpose – there has to be meaning to users’ actions; something that adds value to a cause larger than ourselves.

Principles for your User Retention efforts

As you can see, you don’t have to be a behavioral scientist to understand what your users want – you just need to gain general knowledge of some of the principles and start experimenting. It is also important to mention that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so you have to figure out what works for you.

Here are some books that offer many principles you can apply to your app today to boost your user retention:

When it comes to driving engagement, motivating and influencing users, having a look into the mind of those users can help you go a long way with your product.

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