How to hold on to your app’s subscribers

Insights to help you nurture your subscribers and make it easy for them to stay engaged

Danielle Stein
Oct 13, 2017 · 8 min read
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In the US, it costs over $2, on average, to acquire an app or game install on Android (LeanPlum data). Acquiring a loyal user (someone who opens the app more than three times) can cost more than $4. Given the time and money spent acquiring active users and subscribers, making sure you keep them is vital.

Here at Google Play, I’ve had the good fortune to work with developers to devise, implement, and refine retention and win-back tactics that have protected their investment in subscriber acquisition. I hope that by sharing some of the best practices I’ve come across, you’ll find ways to protect your acquisition investment too.

Make a strong first impression on new subscribers

The moment after conversion is a great opportunity to reintroduce users to the features in your app that keep them engaged — your “sticky” features. To identify your sticky features, consider:

  • What product features do your most engaged users adopt with more frequency than your churned users?
  • What product features have you introduced to ease friction to frequent engagement?
  • What do your power users praise most in user studies?
  • Do retained users consume or create a certain type of content more than churned users?
  • Do retained users personalize the app by providing certain data more so than churned users?

For example, MileIQ helps its subscribers track and classify work-related drives for expense and tax purposes. Users are encouraged to name the drive locations that MileIQ records for them. After each location is named once, it is automatically labeled on all past and future drives, reducing the amount of work users need to do to accurately classify their business drives.

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MileIQ invites users to name their drive locations

You can introduce new subscribers to sticky features in a brief new subscriber welcome tour, contextually relevant and actionable tooltips or by walking them through a profile builder.

And finally, test, test, and test again. Leverage A/B testing to test the effectiveness of your new subscriber experience: test the “sticky” features you’ve chosen to highlight and the way in which you present them. Run a cohort of subscribers through the new subscriber experience and compare its retention to that of a control group.

Nurture your new subscribers

You should keep in mind that just because a user has tapped ‘subscribe’ it doesn’t mean your job is done and that your new subscriber has been fully converted. In my discussions with various developers, many have noted that nearly half of users who cancel their subscription do so within the first few days of subscribing. Subscribers are using their first week to decide whether they’ll remain for another period. Extend the conversation with new subscribers by running a nurturing campaign in the first few days of a subscriber’s lifecycle.

A/B testing can tell you the ideal frequency and marketing channels to use (such as email or push notifications) for your subscriber base. However, remember that the goal is to educate your new subscribers and free trialists about your subscription’s value proposition and to encourage the adoption of “sticky” features. A starting point for a campaign can comprise three of four communications that span the first 7–10 days after subscription.

Fitness membership app Class Pass sends new users a series of five emails over their first 10 days. The emails use animations and screenshots to introduce app features and offer tips and tricks for using the app.

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Emails introduce new subscribers to Class Pass features

Drive engagement with personalized notifications

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A thoughtful approach to notifications should absolutely be part of every developer’s subscriber retention strategy.

Effective notifications are personalized, referencing the user by name or alluding to in-app content they’ve interacted with or actions they’ve taken. The most useful notifications are actionable, deep-linking the user into the app to complete an action or engage in the relevant content.

By making re-engagement notifications more personalized and actionable, language learning app Busuu increased its open rates by 300% and its revenue 10X on Android.

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Busuu’s personalized notifications quiz users about vocabulary from previous lessons

Push notifications can be further personalized by sending them at the optimal time for each user. Sending push notifications at the time of day the user most frequently engages with an app can boost retention by 7-times, according to LeanPlum.

Pinpoint the optimal time to notify a user by:

  • Sending a notification 24 hours after the user’s last session.
  • Giving users the option to personalize the time of day they want an engagement reminder.
  • Using the Awareness API to notify users based on their context, for example “You just got home, maybe now is a good time to…”.

Notification copy, frequency, and time sent are all things you can and should A/B test. Beyond measuring open rates, make note of the impact on engagement and subscriber retention.

Headspace users can set the time and frequency they want to receive their meditation reminder; they can also add reminders directly to their calendar.

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Emphasize new content and features in engagement marketing

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For subscribers, content is king. When we surveyed Google Play app subscribers recently, 44% cited content value and freshness as key reasons why they keep their subscription. However, it’s not enough to simply launch new content regularly; you need to make sure you tell your subscribers about it!

Highlight new content launched:

  • Signify new content in the app with badges or in-app notifications.
  • Reach out to subscribers using email updates and push notifications.

This applies to new features as well. Notify subscribers of new features with tool tips or in-app takeovers.

Make your email or push notifications for content updates even more effective by allowing subscribers to personalize which content they want to be notified about, or by using past content consumption to infer interest in new content.

Netflix uses in-app notifications, in-app badging, screen takeovers, and email to alert subscribers to new features and content. Content updates are personalized to each subscriber.

Keep subscribers from “graduating out”

We have found that 18% of users who cancel their subscription say it’s because their needs changed. Consider the value proposition to your advanced subscribers and how you can keep them from feeling that they have exhausted an app’s usefulness:

  • Keep subscribers on track. Goal-oriented apps can add a maintenance mode to help subscribers maintain their achievements.
  • Make what’s old new again. Content-oriented apps can remind subscribers about old favorites or repackage content in new ways.
  • Get smarter and show off what you know. Leverage what you’ve learned about a subscriber through their in-app engagement to improve the app experience. Such personalization creates an opportunity cost to canceling a subscription.

Once a subscriber to Weight Watchers achieves their goal weight, the app provides tracking tools tailored to maintaining goal weight. Along with stored recipes, progress reporting, and a trophy case of milestones, these tools maximize the app’s value even after subscribers achieve the goal that initially motivated them to subscribe.

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Weight Watchers helps users maintain their goal weight by, for example, tracking healthy eating.

Busuu subscribers can chat in-app with native speakers or correct peers’ written translations, creating a hub for advanced learners that is constantly filled with new content.

Offer longer subscription durations

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Consider offering longer subscription durations to increase the average lifetime value of subscribers, especially if you currently only offer monthly subscriptions.

To give this approach the best chance of success, make annual or quarterly plans available at a cost savings relative to monthly payments. In promotions and marketing campaigns, direct subscribers to these longer-duration plans to drive the most value.

When A/B testing the number and duration of subscriptions you make available, don’t forget to monitor lifetime value in addition to conversion. New subscription reports in the Google Play Console can show you the retention of each of your subscription SKUs.

When Spanish language media app Univision introduced an annual plan alongside its monthly plan, it found that annual subscribers were four-times more likely than monthly subscribers to be active after a year.

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Univision offers an annual subscription at an obvious discount to monthly payments.

Make sure the subscribers and trialists who want to stay, can

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Subscribers who don’t intend to cancel their subscriptions can lapse for a range of reasons related to their payment methods: credit cards expire, Google Play balances get used for unexpected purchases, etc. These cancellations are referred to as “involuntary” in new subscription reports in the Google Play Console. Google Play billing has released a feature that helps you retain these subscribers through ‘grace periods’.

Grace periods give the user an extra three or seven days to fix payment issues when their renewal payment declines. Apps and games businesses which allow for grace periods recover 50% more renewal declines than those which don’t.

Implementing grace periods is easy: simply flip a settings switch in the Play Console.

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Grace periods are implemented from the Play Console

Keep the lines of communication open with your lapsed subscribers

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Don’t assume your churned subscribers have uninstalled the app; they may still be addressable with personalized push notifications. Subscription cancellation reports in the Google Play Console show you what percentage of your lapsed subscribers have uninstalled the app (“Voluntary + uninstall” and “Involuntary + uninstall”).

The release of new content is a great time to win back lapsed trialists and subscribers, so notify them of notable content updates using push notification and email. Also, remember to include them in notification of any subscriptions sales.

Brain training app Lumosity has found that emails notifying churned users about new content have a better open rate than emails with discount offers.

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Lumosity emails current and lapsed subscribers to alert them to new content in the app.

Hopefully, these insights and best practices will help you develop campaigns and methods to keep your new subscribers engaged and win back those whose interest in your app has declined. If you would like more tips on creating successful subscriptions businesses check out my teammate Niko’s post on ‘Building a subscriptions business for all seasons’. Also, you can discover more information on our developer website to get started with subscriptions on Google Play.

What do you think?

Do you have any comments on subscriptions retention? Continue the discussion in the comments below or tweet using the hashtag #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.

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