The Surprising Ways These 5 Apps Are Engaging Users

Here’s the dilemma app owners and marketers are facing today: App downloads are stalling while app usage is growing.

Apps are growing in popularity, and globally, more and more people are turning to apps as their primary source of interacting with information. But with the growth in usage has come an overwhelming tidal wave of new apps competing for user attention. Typically, once a user finds an app he or she likes, the research and discovery period is over.

That’s why it’s more crucial than ever that apps concentrate on engaging the users they have just as much as they are investing in new user acquisition.

App engagement isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. 

The five apps we’re highlighting in this post have found a way to do just that. Using push messaging, personalization, mobile-specific offers, and other creative campaigns, they have come up with a number of surprising ways to ensure user loyalty and, most importantly, deliver value.

#1. Shopkick

Elements of surprise: Location-enabled offers, social promotions, cross-channel capabilities

The Shopkick app is hugely successful in its effort to bring users “kicks,” or points towards deals, across a variety of shops, redeemed in-store. By browsing products in the Shopkick app or completing in-app activities, you receive more kicks that you can use to purchase goods in stores like Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Crate & Barrel and others. You also receive kicks simply by walking into a participating store.

What's complex about the Shopkick app is the number of channels it works on - you can interact with and benefit from the organization in-app, in-store, and online. This could easily become overwhelming, but where Shopkick succeeds is in prioritizing and marketing the most valuable features: in this case, cumulating kicks (for purchasing) and visiting nearby stores (for immediate kicks).

First, to help new (and returning) users accumulate more kicks, faster, and to prompt a bigger social following for the brand, Shopkick publicizes a fall-themed Facebook contest to win 25,000 kicks. The “Fall Faves” contest has a creative, Pinterest-like element, making it fun to enter, but is also an awesome example of cross-channel promotion originating in-app.

Shopkick is taking app users and driving them to the app’s Facebook presence to create loyalty and draw attention to their social channels. All while offering huge benefits to the app user: excellent tactic.


But it certainly doesn’t stop there. Shopkick strategically enables push messaging to send users personalized and location-aware offers and suggestions. Each message includes one particular place, the exact amount of kicks you receive for visiting it, and showcases a partner store you are close to.

Shopkick understands that push notifications, when used improperly, can turn off users, but that when used well, they are an undervalued tool for engaging users with your app. Keeping things relevant, personalized and simple is a great tactic, and one that is clearly working for them.

#2. Ancestry

Elements of surprise: Interactivity, “hint”-completed trees, easy imports

For an online service that is built on history, the Ancestry app is surprisingly mobile-forward and user friendly. Researching and building your family lineage is not an activity that immediately denotes app usage. In fact, it can seem silly to try and build something so big on a platform that is physically so small. But, Ancestry has proven that even the largest projects can be conquered in-app by strategically enabling auto-completion and providing proactive and enormously helpful “hints” along the way.

In using the Ancestry App, it can be easy to get stalled a few generations back if you have nothing more than names (if that). So what Ancestry is able to do is, with a few details, auto-generate “hints” about specific members of your family tree. These hints provide photos of and information from legal reports, obituaries, certificates, ledgers, and other government-kept documents that might refer to your family member. You can accept these hints as facts (or reject them if they are incorrect or unnecessary) and add those details to your tree.


Ancestry can also pick up from these documents the names of that individual member’s parents, siblings, or other relatives, to further populate your tree with people you may be totally unaware of. This makes it exceedingly easy to track down individual family history and add it to your account records without having to leave the app.

The Ancestry app also allows Facebook imports, and can dynamically incorporate family members from the social network. This interactivity between socially-generated information, auto-imports, and hints interactivity creates an easy and engaging experience for the user. Plus, users receive messages with when new hints and comments are detected, keeping the experience up-to-date.

#3. Target Cartwheel

Elements of surprise: Scoreboards, privacy settings, rewards badges

Target’s Cartwheel app hones in on a proven strategy: providing users discounts and special offers. Not only does it regularly provide in-store coupons (without the cutting and organizing) or “offers” you can redeem, but Cartwheel also houses a barcode specific to each user, which can be scanned when checking out in-store. Essentially, it acts as a central home for all Target shoppers’ savings.

But there are other coupon aggregator apps that can offer similar rewards for a host of stores - so how did Target get customers to use their branded app? Engagement tactics like friend leaderboards for offers scored, for one. And no, I don’t actually believe that Target is tapping into our baser competitive natures to boost app usage - what their scoreboards offer, instead, is a built-in recommendation: your friends are using it successfully, so why not you? When you see how much money your friends are saving using the Cartwheel app at Target, you’re going to want access to those kinds of savings, too.  


Plus, you get badges when you hit certain levels of savings. Sound silly? Not quite. Rewards, even implicit or emotional ones, make us feel good. Cartwheel badges are something to strive for - especially given that they unlock additional offer spots for even further discounts.

Not so into making your shopping habits public? Cartwheel gives you the option of making any and all offers you add private - these aren’t shared with friends who use the app, and keep your Target purchases between you and your cashier of choice.

#4. Simon Circles

Elements of surprise: Actual surprise, which gained notoriety (and users)

I’m going to preface this example with this: we don’t really know for sure if it was purely an accident or tactical guerilla marketing -- either way, it worked.

Simon Circles is a gaming app that “challenges your dexterity and speed.” The premise of the game is simple, which can be attractive to users, but also makes it difficult to market or make memorable. In fact, it’s not a particularly well-known app -- that is, it wasn’t, until Reddit user Time_Wasted_Me user received this push message apparently from a Simon Circles developer:


Needless to say, he posted it to the popular forum site and it has since received a lot of attention.

The Reddit thread “Overly Competitive Game Developer” currently has 538 comments, and consists primarily of users debating whether it was actually an overzealous developer or clever marketing team responsible for the now infamous push (“Chad” and his app messaging tactic was also covered in Business Insider). Surprisingly, a number of Redditors commented that even if it was a marketing tactic, it still prompted them to download the app.

Nevertheless, it is a study in how thinking outside-the-box, or simple human err (when not totally over the line) can be effective tactics in drawing attention and acquiring new users. Plus, if users are expecting funny app messages like this in the future, Simon Circles should learn to take advantage of the situation and further work it into their game plan.

#5. Drync

Elements of surprise: Timeliness, attention to detail, careful curation

It’s an age-old question: how do I find the right wine? Drync app aims to solve this conundrum, allowing you to search and order wine in-app, and provides tasting notes, reviews, and friend recommendations. But this business model can only get you so far. Because what if the user doesn’t know what he wants? Well, then, he simply won’t order.

To solve this, Drync has introduced “collections” for wine browsing and discovery, and have cleverly implemented timely push notifications during peak buying periods to prompt in-app purchases.

For example, they took advantage of the typical Labor Day backyard activity (grilling) by creating a collection of wines that pair well with BBQ recipes and sending a calendar-appropriate push message to users. Not only that, but they complemented the collection of hand-picked wines with a blog post on suggestions for wine and barbeque pairing.


Shipped wines are a tough sell when there’s a liquor store around every corner. What Drync is doing to further engage users (and increase in-app wine purchases), is to act as a companion app: it’s not just about ordering wine, it’s a discovery experience lead by experts to help you find the exact right pairing.

Where’s your edge? 

It can be in a messaging campaign that takes 30 minutes to create, or a new feature that sets you apart from the crowd. The takeaway here is to concentrate your app efforts on engagement tactics that work for you. That being said, don’t shy away from shocking, potentially odd, totally original ideas that make your app better. Use data and insights from your analytics to pinpoint customer desires, and use those as a foundation for new, creative (and potentially unexpected) ideas. Experiment, track what works and what doesn’t, and let your app grow.

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