Need to Boost Mobile App Engagement? Here’s how to do it.
So you’ve built a sweet new app.
The tech’s on point. You’ve tested the hell out of it.
You hold your breath. Release it on the app store.
You know your app will make your customers’ lives easier, so why aren’t they using it?
It's a common problem. You work hard to get those downloads, yet 1 in 4 people who download an app only use it once. And 75 percent of users uninstall an app within 90 days. 
So how can you break this cycle of disengagement and get your customers to engage regularly with your app?
Simple. You have to make using it a habit.
Habit Forming: A 2-Minute Tutorial
Let’s quickly look at the science behind habit forming.
Almost every habit is formed through this basic 4 step process:
Cue — something grabs your attention and tells your brain to initiate a behaviour
Craving — the motivational force behind the behaviour (what you desire)
Response — the actual habit you perform
Reward — the contentment & relief from craving
Each of these steps are critical to habit forming — if any is missing or is insufficiently motivating, a habit will never form
Let’s look quickly at a real-life example. Most of us habitually drink coffee in the morning to wake up. Broken down into these stages, that habit was formed by:
Cue - you wake up
Craving - you want to feel alert
Response - you drink a cup of coffee
Reward - you satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up.
That’s a fairly simple example, but you can see how each stage is vital to forming a habit.
As marketers, our job is to actively promote all four of these steps in our adoption campaigns. Let’s look at how we can apply this process to our campaigns.
Using Marketing Campaigns to Build Habits
To build habits, we need to sufficiently promote each of the four stages of habit forming. We have to actively change behaviour.
James Clear (author of New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits) provides the following framework for designing habits, which he calls the Four Laws of Behaviour Change:
Make it obvious (cue)
Make it attractive (craving)
Make it easy (response)
Make it satisfying (reward)
We can apply this framework to our marketing campaigns to effectively change consumer behaviour.
1. CUE - Make it Obvious
A cue is a bit of information that predicts a reward. As marketers, we need to consider what cue we want to remind customers to use our app.
Remember, the cue is what prompts a desire for action — and it typically continues to do so (forming the habit). It can’t just be a one-time reminder.
This is why promotional materials like direct mail flyers, TV ads, and even sponsored social media ads don’t form habits. If the cue is receiving a flyer, when a customer stops receiving flyers, the habit dies.
This means we need to design cues that are repeatable and related to our app.
2. CRAVING - Make it Attractive
This is one of the more important parts of designing adoption-focused marketing campaigns. Too often we assume that the added convenience a digital product offers is enough of a motivational factor to prompt action.
But cravings are a direct result of problem solving; we take action to either obtain something desirable or relieve pain. Most of the time, people don’t see change as desirable — the way they’ve been doing things has worked, so why go through the effort of changing?
To overcome this apathy, we have to make using the app seem attractive; we have to offer a reward. Rewards could include chances to win prizes, a discount on services, etc. But it has to be valuable enough to prompt action. It has to trigger a craving.
3. RESPONSE - Make it Easy
Once we’ve triggered a desire to act, we need to make it easy to do so.
This means not only making it simple to download your app (like including the app store link), but educating customers on how to use specific features after downloading.
If you make customers work too hard to take action, then they won’t do it.
4. REWARD - Make it Satisfying
The final step of the habit forming process is making it satisfying to use your product.
Typically the craving you satisfy is directly related to the action you take. However, when we run marketing campaigns, we create extrinsic rewards that don’t exist within the app (ie the perks that are part of your campaign).
That means that while the campaign is running, the customer’s craving will be satisfied (they want to earn a perk, and they do). But what about once the campaign ends?
To ensure the habit continues after the campaign ends, we need to design campaigns that gradually shift the craving and reward from an extrinsic perk to an intrinsic motivation.
How do we do this?
First, run campaigns for a longer period of time. Research has shown that it takes an average of 66 days for an activity to become a habit, so adoption campaigns should run at least that long to give habits time to form before taking away the reward. 
Secondly, ensure there is also an intrinsic benefit that can replace the extrinsic rewards of the campaign. This is where the product benefits come into play.
Beyond prompting use of the product, adoption campaigns should educate consumers on the product’s benefits. This helps customers understand (and feel over the course of the campaign) why they benefit from using it.
The extrinsic reward is required to spark initial use, but the intrinsic motivation that’s developed over the course of the campaign is what will get customers to continue using your product long-term.
Example: Using Game-Based Marketing to Drive App Adoption
Let’s say you want to get customers to use the bill pay function on your mobile app. To develop the habit you decide to create a game-based marketing campaign and run it for 3 months.
You first cue customers to use the feature by adding a callout on their bill. The callout encourages them to pay their bill using the mobile app for a chance to win $10K.
The chance to win $10K triggers a craving, prompting the consumer to take action. They click on the link in the email (or scan the QR code on their printed bill) and are taken to the promotion registration link.
After registering the customer completes a product demo, which walks them through how to use the bill pay feature, and earns 5 chances to win. They also play a short game that educates them on the benefits of mobile bill pay and earn 5 more chances to win.
Once they’ve completed those challenges, they’re prompted to download the app and use bill pay for 10 chances to win.
The game then reminds them to come back regularly, take more challenges and use bill pay again for even more chances to win.
The campaign’s habit forming process looks like this:
I get my bill (Cue)
I want to win $10K (Craving)
I register and use the bill pay feature (Response)
I earn chances to win $10K, thus playing the promotion & using bill pay is associated with getting my bill (Reward)
You can see here that the initial motivation for engaging (the promotion & the $10K) play a vital role in developing the habit. The concern then is: what happens when you stop running the promotion?
That’s why the educational factor of the promotion is so vital. The promotion doesn’t only prompt customers to use the bill pay feature — it also promote learning about the benefits — so as customers use the app, they also start to understand and feel the intrinsic benefits.
Over time the process becomes:
I get my bill (Cue)
I don’t want to forget about it and incur late charges (Craving)
I use mobile bill pay (Response)
I can forget about my bill. Using mobile bill pay becomes associated with getting my bill. (Reward)
The cue and the action are the same, but the craving and reward shift over time from extrinsic to intrinsic, helped along by the educational features of the game.
The Bottom Line
To get customers to use your app (or any other digital product) your marketing campaign has to actively and sufficiently promote all four stages of the habit forming cycle.
You need to make using your app obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.
Use external rewards like prizes or discounts to spark the initial craving. Then run your campaign for a few months (at minimum 66 days) so customers have enough time to understand and feel the intrinsic benefits of your app.
- Amartya Baidya. "Mobile App Retention Challenge: 75% of Users Uninstall an App Within 90 Days [REPORT]. Dazeinfo, 2016. ↩
- James Clear. "How to Start New Habits That Actually Stick." JamesClear.com. ↩
- Phillipa Lally, Cornelia H.M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, and Jane Wardle. "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world." European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 40, issue 6, 2010. ↩