#ProTip: How to get users in the habit of using your app

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Sally Shepard was speaking at AltConf about how to get users to actually use your app.
Sally Shepard was speaking at AltConf about how to get users to actually use your app.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Cult of Mac is at WWDC and AltConf fishing for ProTips. It’s a rich hunting ground — it’s the world’s biggest gathering of Apple developers, the alpha geeks, experts par excellence. What’s a ProTip? A ProTip is a nugget of knowledge, a little bit of expertise from someone in the know — a pro.

It sounds counterintuitive, but for many iOS developers, the easy part is getting people to download their app from the App Store. The hard part is getting people to use the app. Ideally, developers want them to use the app regularly. They want them to get into the habit of using it.

How do you do that? Sally Shepard, an app consultant who spent many years working with big publishers, has a great little tip.

Based in London, Shepard spent many years helping Dennis Publishing, a magazine giant best known in the United States for Maxim and Stuff, get users to actually read the company’s magazine apps.

The magazines were buried in Newsstand — Apple’s failed experiment in creating an iTunes for periodicals — and users would quickly forget they were there.

Shepard and her team tried everything: push notifications, SMS messages, even TV advertising, but nothing really worked, except … email.

Shepard discovered that boring old email was the most effective means of getting people to fire up your app.

“Emails are the best triggers,” she said, “by far.”

Push notifications didn’t work as well as email. Readers ignored them, probably because they got too many. Email, however, had great “conversion” and was perfect for getting readers into the habit of reading a publication.

Why is email so good? People read it. It’s deeply personal and often jealously guarded. People are vigilant about spam and picky about what they invite into their inboxes. If you make it, they’re likely to pay attention to your message. Plus a lot of people use email as a to-do system; they send themselves reminders, and the stream of messages are things they have to act on.

Even if users don’t act on the emails, they see them in the stream — and that can help keep an app in mind.

The magazines sent emails based on all kinds of different schedules — daily, weekly, bi-monthly and monthly. Some were even random, or semi-random. The emails were usually simple reminders that there was new content in the app. The Weekly, for example, started off by sending a weekly email — it’s a weekly, after all. But when it started publishing a daily digest of headlines, an email about that went out too — and it drove a lot of readers to open the app.

Based on her studies of  the scientific literature about forming habits, Shepard tried to persuade Dennis to offer free 40-day subscriptions to its magazines. She had learned that it takes about 30 days to make a new behavior a habit. She tried to persuade her bosses to offer 40-day trials of all apps (30 days plus a cushion), but they balked. As a compromise, readers were offered a two-week free subscription with another two weeks free if they volunteered their email.

After that, readers were emailed whenever there was a new issue. They also received an email if they had’t used the app in a while. (Shepard recommended signing up for MixPanel, a paid app analytics tool that has the ability to send reminder emails to dormant users).

The hard part for App Store developers is getting the email addresses in the first place. Lots of apps don’t ask for them. Shepard advised developers to figure out ways to get them — and then use them religiously after that.

You can find Shepard on Twitter at @mostgood.

Tune in for more ProTips here. We’ll be publishing them from WWDC all week.