5 Jedi mind tricks for insane app retention rates

By John Koetsier May 17, 2024

Everyone wants insane app retention rates. Most people get single digits, grumble, and put more money into the growth slot machine to keep. on. finding. more. new. users.

UA merry-go-round, here we go again and again, round and round, round and round.

Think about it for a second:

  • Would a 10% app retention rate make you smile?
  • Would you blast dangerously through the endorphin roof if your app hit 20%?
  • And would 30% probably give you a heart attack of joy? 

Only one app I’ve come across has a retention rate of 56%, however … and it’s achieved that even in the extremely challenging fitness, health, and wellness space. The app is Welltory, and I recently had a chance to check in with the brand’s VP of strategy, Asya Paloni.

(And no, I can’t pronounce her first name either.)

Hit play, keep scrolling. We’re going to highlight Welltory’s 5 Jedi mind tricks for insane app retention rates below …

I met Paloni backstage at MAU, Mobile Apps Unlocked. We started chatting, and within 3 minutes I knew she needed to be a guest on the Growth Masterminds Podcast. (Well, to be honest, I needed her to be a guest.) Within 3 minutes of listening, I think you will see why.

Why wellness apps have horrible mobile app retention rates

Part of the reason is that the wellness category is notorious for awful app retention rates.

Here’s why:

“The fitness, mobile health and wellness category has atrocious retention rates,” says Paloni. “Typically all of these apps follow the same kind of mechanics: you’re just a regular user, and something happens in your life that makes you say, you know, it’s time to change my life around, I’m gonna download a health app and I’m gonna get super healthy.”

So far so good.

Cue the energetic music, the happy busy part of the movie where the strike team is getting everything ready for the mission, the pleasant anticipation of imminent success.

But wait … there are rapids in the future.

“It’s going to analyze all of my data,” says Paloni. “It’s gonna give me a personalized plan and tell me exactly what I need to do to get in good shape. But then, of course, people download the app, they buy the personalized plan that it gives them … and then they don’t do it.”

Uh oh.

In other words, wellness and fitness is the gym membership of apps. And nothing is more common than people buying a gym membership, then dropping out. On January 2, all the New Year’s resolution newbies hit the gym and no one can find an elliptical machine. On January 31, it’s back to the regular old crowd, and everything’s available.


“What happens is you’re tired at the end of the day, you know you’re not gonna meet your goals,” says Paloni. “So then you’re not gonna want to open the app because it’s just gonna tell you you’re not doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing and that’s gonna make you feel bad.”

So …

  1. You don’t open the app because it has bad news.
  2. You don’t want to pay for something you don’t use.
  3. Therefore, you churn.
  4. You drop out.
  5. You become just 1 little part of a very big and very depressing statistic about mobile app retention rates.

Welltory’s entire journey, Paloni says, is about how to avoid that. One big key that sounds simple but is too often ignored: people like apps that make them feel good, she says, and they don’t like apps that make them feel bad.

5 Jedi mind tricks for insane mobile app retention rates

So first off, I have to be honest. I’m the person who called them Jedi mind tricks. Paloni definitely doesn’t go around thinking she’s a mind-controlling master of human behavior.

But they are pretty cool.

And, if they deliver retention rates like 56% … they at least seem supernatural.

So here they are …

1. Make magic

Make something magical happen in your app.

“I don’t buy like a bath bomb to make progress in my life, right?” says Paloni. “I buy a bath bomb because it’s magical and it turns my bathtub into a magical spaceship. And I think that’s cool and fun.”

So when Welltory analyzes people’s data, it doesn’t provide raw data or spreadsheets. Instead, it gives you a “beautiful, magical fuel tank that changes color and behavior depending on how your body is feeling.”

More stress? Red.

Calm? More blues.

Lots of energy? Green, with a lot of fuel in the tank.

The result is a more engaging, interesting — dare I say magical? — experience that helps build higher app retention rates.

2. Hyper personalization

Welltory enables connection to over 1,000 data sources, Paloni says, because stress isn’t just what your Apple Watch can detect from your heart rate and movement. 

It’s also about your job, your relationships, your commute, and much, much more.

So Welltory’s CEO has her Stripe revenue connected to her instance of Welltory.

“When I talk to her and I’m like, Jane, your stress levels are a bit high, I’m a lot more likely to get a positive response if I remind her, ‘Hey, Jane, your stress levels are actually correlated with your Stripe revenue,’” says Paloni. “‘We sent you a correlation. We built you like an entire research paper and sent it to you personally to show you that you need to take care of your stressors.’”

If Slack is the thing that triggers you, Welltory can know that. Or maybe it’s messages in WhatsApp. Once identified, Welltory can help you deal with it, and that hyper-personalization makes the app super-sticky. 

The reason is obvious: the more things connected to an app, the smarter it can be and the stickier it gets.

3. Novelty & little rewards

We are all dopamine addicts. Even an app dedicated to your wellbeing recognizes that and works with it, not against it.

To illustrate the point, Paloni brings up Nir Eyal’s book Hooked:

“He makes a great point that people find products like TikTok and Facebook and Instagram super addicting and they keep coming back because you get a little reward every time,” she says. “You know, you never quite know what you’re gonna get. You’re gonna get some new content, you’re gonna get into an argument with your uncle … you never know!”

People associate that with negative impacts because that’s what we tend to focus on, but the same dynamics can be used for good goals too.

“We were really committed to the idea of showing users something new every time they open the app,” Paloni says. “So even long before generative AI, we built our own janky generative AI, and I swear it aged me like a decade, but our users see something new every time they open the app, and it really worked.”

Novelty and rewards equal occasional hits of dopamine equal higher mobile app retention rates.

4. Make sense in real time

We all have a ton of data inputs, and people who are focusing on their wellbeing have those too. The challenge is that most human brains are not built very well for the purpose of constantly assimilating a flood of data from multiple sources and making it all make sense.

So Welltory tries very hard to provide simple, holistic, and instant insights.

“So people wear a lot of wearables and data trackers, and I really love how wearables are getting more and more accurate,” Paloni says. “I really think that they’re doing a really good job of showing trends and like visualizing people’s data … the challenge for users is that you don’t really know what 10,000 steps means for you … it depends on your age, your fitness level, how quickly you walk those 10,000 steps, how much stress you’ve built up in your cardiovascular system that day.”

One solution in Welltory is a pressure gauge … showing you immediate visible impact of stressors as well as immediate visible impact of activities that calm those stressors away.

“So anytime you open it throughout the day it won’t be like, you walked 10,000 or 12,000 steps,” says Paloni. “It’ll actually infuse all that data with meaning and create holistic sense out of it.”

What that translates into in different apps is hard to say, although I’m sure most publishers could immediately think of applications specific to their apps. One that comes to mind in a game I often play is components in this complex game that I don’t use, which means I get freebies and power-ups that I don’t understand and bonuses for things I don’t do.

In a productivity app, maybe that means I’m never left wondering what I should do next, or never wondering what my current status is.

Whatever it is for your app: make sense in real time.

5. Don’t make your users feel bad

We’ve already teased this one above: don’t make users feel bad if you want high app retention rates.

That means not shaming people, even when there’s somewhat bad news to share.

“If you think about the way that most fitness trackers function, they kind of have a really fixed interface where you open it and you’re like, okay, my steps are here, my heart rate’s here … if you have a really bad day, all of those things are gonna look bad.”

Instead of making people look bad, and then feel bad, and then not open the app, Welltory strikes a balance between showing people the data they need and entertaining them. The justification, of course, is that if people just ignore their wellness data entirely, they’re likely to be less well. In addition, this strategy is more likely to keep people using the app.

There is some nuance here, of course.

Games generally have winning and losing, and combat games will have winners and losers. Elad Levy, who sold a game to Playtika, told me that the art of building a great game is to balance pleasure and frustration.

But that’s a slightly different feeling, and smart game apps will find ways for everyone to feel good about something, even if they’ve just lost a match.

Results: insanely great mobile app retention rates

5% D30 retention might be acceptable for some. 25% or 30%, as I mentioned earlier, might feel like mainlining testosterone (or estrogen!).

Welltory has 56% after 3 years.

That doesn’t mean everyone keeps paying the whole time, Paloni explains.

“Our usage retention rate is about 56% over the course of three years,” she says. “I am talking about usage retention. So a lot of people churn, they unsubscribe, but they keep using the app because we have a really nice freemium thing and then they resubscribe later and we get more and more value out of our cohorts the longer they stay with us.”

That’s impressive.

“Our strategy is to keep them with us for as long as possible, even if they do unsubscribe, because we can always get them to resubscribe later.”

And that makes sense.

Now the question is: how do these 5 Jedi mind tricks for mobile app retention rates apply to your app?

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