A Different Approach to Mobile App Retention No One Told You About
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Any company with a mobile app aspires for “sticky,” but pulling it off isn’t easy – or, at least, that’s what you’ve been told. Yes, the numbers are often discouraging. Studies on the matter show that roughly 79 percent of users abandon a product after day one, and by three months that number can plummet to nearly 98 percent. It’s no wonder that retention strategy is one of the most talked-about topics in mobile app development and typically low retention rates indicate a problem, but the problem isn’t necessarily what you think it is. 


We’re going to share a secret. Low retention isn’t entirely a marketing problem; poor retention rates are a foundational planning problem. There are countless articles listing stacks of marketing strategies for improving mobile app retention, and while all these strategies are worthwhile, if you build a retention strategy into the core of your app, the product will be inherently sticky. So, if you want to release an uncommonly sticky mobile app, here’s what you do. 

Mobile app retention is proactive, not reactive 

We can’t stress the importance of proper planning for mobile app development, enough; and retention is no exception. An in-depth understanding of a product’s users is essential to mobile app retention. Users download mobile apps for a number of different reasons, but there is still one critical component necessary for winning the mobile app retention game – a basic understanding of the human brain. No matter who your users are, this insight will result in stickiness. Your product can literally be for anyone and this knowledge will drive repeated use. 

 Newness is the indispensable ingredient for mobile app retention.

The average mobile user will check their phone 47 times a day or more, and a majority of people check their phone immediately upon waking up. Why? The prefrontal cortex of the human brain has what’s called novelty bias. In other words, our minds create a compulsive dopamine response loop for every new thing we direct our attention towards. Newness is the indispensable ingredient for mobile app retention. 


Social media apps are a true testament to this psychology. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok all exploit novelty bias. One can even argue that TikTok’s explosive success (800 million installs and 500 million active users globally in only one year) is directly related to indulging novelty bias. Every time we open one of these apps, we’re exposed to something new – new content, new people, new conversations, and a continuously replenished reward system of likes and shares. Spotify is another prominent example of this concept; the app constantly supplies users with new music, reshuffled playlists, and entirely original ways to experience music. Think of any sports score application, media streaming, or news publishing product. Newness is a commonality in all of the world’s most popular and frequently used mobile apps. 


When a mobile app is designed to deliver a valuable solution and a steady stream of new content (of any kind), mobile app retention is inevitable because the product capitalizes on our mental hardwiring. 

Updates vs. Newness 

Maintenance is crucial for mobile app retention, but there’s an important distinction to make between product updates and the concept of newness. After launching a mobile app the project is definitely not finished. You will still have to release updates, fix bugs, add new features, and improve functionality. In other words, an app should be seen as a living thing that needs continuous attention to grow, and this process certainly perpetuates the newness factor, but newness is more organic in nature. The concept of novelty needs to be baked into the design and functionality of the mobile app. Newness is not a feature, instead, it’s a disposition that prevails independently from the strategies in place to maintain the stickiness of the app. 


Let’s take the dating app, Bumble, as an example. The intrinsic character of the app leverages novelty bias by presenting the user with a succession of new people to meet. The fundamental make-up of the product creates the dopamine response loop that keeps users coming back to the product. Now, when Bumble released an updated version of the app that expanded the breadth of people a user can meet from potential partners to friends and career mentors that change falls into the update or maintenance category. However, the concept of newness is still independently present in each variation of that update. At this point, marketing strategies (like push notifications) come into play to trigger our inclination to gratify novelty bias. Irrelevant push notifications do nothing for mobile app retention, instead, push notifications or other marketing tactics need the conviction of newness to evoke action from users. 


Instagram is another easy example. The social media platform has an impressive user base of over 1 billion people, so it’s safe to say the app doesn’t have a retention problem. Again, the reason is novelty bias. If you take a look at how Instagram evolved over time, newness is built into every feature release from stories to following hashtags to including shopping tags in posts. Instagram is so sticky push notifications are dispensable; users don’t need a push to open Instagram, they just use the platform. 

Push notifications don’t guarantee mobile app retention 

When it comes to push notifications, this is where mobile app retention gets tricky. Push notifications are undoubtedly an invaluable marketing tactic for driving engagement and retention, but many companies are guilty of abusing the notification layer. As a result, there are significant repercussions for mistreating a user’s attention. People are very much aware that mobile products hijack productivity, and that’s why a push notification strategy should only convey what’s meaningful and beneficial to the user. Again, aligning with the idea that an app should serve a purpose in a user’s life. There are long-term consequences for irrelevance, and mobile app marketing needs to emphasize user experience with every message. Marketers need to consider whether or not particular messages are contextual and valuable to their target audience.


If your product is designed to incorporate fresh content, push notifications won’t be imperative to mobile app retention. By using this concept, marketing can serve a more contextually significant purpose to prompt engagement at times when retention dips or fluctuates. 

Final Thoughts

Mobile apps that dominate the industry weren’t built overnight. Exceptional mobile app retention starts with planning a mobile product that incorporates the psychological reason users pick up their phones in the first place. By leveraging the concept of novelty bias, companies can intelligently plan sticky solutions to evolving user needs as they become apparent, maintain long-term retention, and sustain competitive leadership.