How to survive the mobile engagement crisis

crisis post

Grab a customer’s attention in the five second window, and you’ve got a shot at turning looky-loos into customers. How? With a killer mobile app. Or at least, that’s the thinking for the past few years.

But here’s the ice bucket in your face: There’s talk of a “mobile engagement crisis.” And to survive, you may need to rethink your mobile strategy.

In a March 2016 blog post, Localytics CEO and co-founder Raj Aggarwal opined that we’re in a mobile-engagement crisis. Whether you agree with this or not, there’s no question it’s harder than ever to engage with customers on mobile these days. Why?

Too many friggin’ apps

Apple’s App Store has about 1.5 million apps. Google’s Play Store has about 2 million. Windows Store has…oh, who cares? Too many apps, too little time. In fact, one in four mobile device owners will use an app only once, says Localytics.

As my all-time favorite viral goes, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Similarly, the average Android app loses 77 percent of its daily active users within the first three days after install, reports mobile intelligence firm Quettra. Within 90 days, the average Android app loses over 95 percent of its daily active users. (Fans of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” who caught the latest episode, aptly named “Daily Active Users,” will get this right away.)

Smartphones and tablets no longer novelties

There’s clearly app fatigue, but could there also be smartphone and tablet fatigue?

The iPhone was released in 2007, followed by the iPad in 2010. New possibilities, new ways of communicating, new opportunities for brands to engage with consumers. Such exciting times!

Not surprisingly, mobile devices changed how we spend our screen time. In 2013, U.S. consumers spent an equal amount of time—2.3 hours per day on average—on mobile and desktop/laptop screens, according to KPCB data. Then in 2015 Google announced a mobile-maturity bombshell: More searches were happening on mobile devices than desktops.

Smartphones and tablets are mature products now. They’re no longer amazing. We’ve grown used to them. By now, most of us probably take them for granted and are perhaps even a bit bored with them. That’s certainly true for tablets. Research firm IDC recently said tablet sales declined for six consecutive quarters, partly due to an “overall disinterested customer base.”

So now what? What marketing strategies can help keep your mobile engagement with customers ‘sticky’? Here are three ideas:

Less is more. Less is more. Less is more.

Some believe adding lots of app features creates value among users. But lots of app features can just as easily create a sense of confusion.

If you want an example of what not to do, consider Apple’s disastrous Music app. When Apple recently announced it was going to streamline the app with this fall’s iOS 10 release, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal wrote, sarcastically, “Due to popular demand, Apple Inc. is adding a new feature to its Apple Music streaming service: user-friendliness.”

Cluttering the users’ experience with too many options is a sure-fire way to get them to abandon your app.

Real value, not bells and whistles

Many app developers think they’re offering value to users when, in fact, they’re not. Real value makes users’ lives easier, better.

Case-in-point: Starbucks, the gold standard among branded mobile apps. With Starbucks’ app, I can order my drink ahead of time, swing into the store, grab it and go—and earn points toward free stuff, too. I can add songs I hear in the store to a Spotify playlist with a couple of app taps, find nearby stores and navigate to them, and pay for food and drinks.

Starbucks’ app is the only branded mobile app I use multiple times per week. Yes, it has a lot of features, but they’re well-thought-out and offer real value to me. They remove friction from my transactions with the brand. And collectively, they’ve helped make me a loyal Starbucks customer.

Another example of a brand offering real value with a mobile apps is Capital One’s CreditWise, which provides free credit score monitoring tools for anyone (not just Capital One customers). Also, Progressive Casualty Insurance’s app features popular television commercial character Flo, who helps consumers get information about their existing policies or shop for a new one, process claims, store a copy of their driver’s license and VIN number, and handle other insurance-related tasks.

The next big thing in mobile

To survive in the frenetic mobile race, you must be ready to shift gears quickly and get ahead of trends or risk being left behind.

Just in the past few months, there’s suddenly a lot of attention on mobile messaging apps as platforms for brands to engage customers in new ways. Messaging app bots, such as those from H&M and Sephora on Facebook’s Messenger app, aren’t highly useful yet, but it’s clear messaging apps are evolving into ecommerce ecosystems. They are also among the few apps consumers regularly use every day.

Apple just announced it was opening up its iMessage platform to third-party app developers. Google’s new messaging app, Allo, isn’t currently open to third-party chatbots, but that could change. If you want to seriously engage with consumers on mobile, you’d better be thinking about how you’re going to play in the messaging arena.

You also need to think about ways to ‘deep link’ your mobile app with other mobile apps. Think: Uber integrating with Google Maps and other apps. How you can leverage Siri, Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and other voice-activated assistants? What role should your brand play in a smart home and Internet of Things?

Crisis averted, hopefully

These integrations and technologies are adding some of the ‘wow’ factor back to the mobile experience. More importantly, they can significantly improve the customer’s experience with your brand.

Is this a lot to keep up with? Absolutely. But in times of a mobile engagement crisis, you need a crisis management plan. Once upon a time, a cool mobile app brought many downloads. Today, an app delivering real value leads to active daily users.

So ask yourself, “How will this feature make our customers’ lives better?” Because if it does, customers will make time for that.

James A. Martin is an award-winning, San Francisco-based journalist. He started covering mobile technology sometime after the Apple Newton bellyflopped but before the PalmPilot went viral. You can reach him at

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