Mobile user retention in an ATT world, with Storyly VP Daniele di Nunzio

By John Koetsier November 7, 2022

It won’t be shocking or controversial to many in the mobile growth industry that user/customer/player acquisition is getting tougher. Nor will it be controversial to suggest that keeping more of the users you do acquire via better mobile user retention is a good solution to spending a queen’s ransom on mobile user acquisition and continually, repeatedly, agonizingly losing 95% of them every single month.


Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is one definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein.

So finding a way to keep 10 out of every hundred new people who install your app instead of just 5 is a pretty attractive proposition, no? Especially in a post App Tracking Transparency world, where finding and acquiring new users is harder than ever.

User acquisition is tough because the attention economy is a zero-sum game

If someone’s playing your competitor’s game, they’re not playing yours. And even if all of us mobile thumb-flipping zombies are spending 5 hours a day on our phones, it doesn’t mean 10 minutes of that can automatically be allocated to your app.

“Even if we install around 80 apps, we just use maybe 20 or less per month,” says di Nunzio. “And actually many users, they just use one app and they use one app on a daily basis … and this first spot is already taken. Sorry, guys. Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat … it’s really hard to compete with those giants.”

A particularly painful challenge in mobile user retention: 75% of the people who install an app never make it past the first day.

They may not even open your app.

Or they may open it once, like I did with an app last week after a (probably expensive) Apple Search Ads click, and then decide the App Store listing wasn’t upfront enough about what functionality the app has by default, and what you actually have to pay for.

There are, after all, millions of apps, and only a finite number of minutes in each of our days.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” says di Nunzio, quoting a 1971 (!!!) quote from Herbert Simon, the developer of attention economics.

Mobile user retention via proactive engagement: onboarding

So what do you do?

It’s simply absolutely essential to have an intelligently-designed onboarding experience.

“Mobile teams who proactively engage with consumers … they see double [retention] rates compared to industry average,” says di Nunzio. “And 90% of consumers, if they come back once a week, they will stick around.”

The number one mistake he sees: poor onboarding experiences that lead to poor mobile user retention. The worst, according to di Nunzio, is the typical product walkthrough you see in so many apps, with 1, 2, 3 or more labeled steps that you tap through: here’s where you do X, here’s where you do Y, and here’s where …

“We call this feature dumping,” di Nunzio told me.

The trick to avoiding that is to really clearly identify the core reason a new user has installed your app and home in on that specific thing only. Your app might do 5 things or 105 (maybe it’s a super app?) but there’s one core reason TODAY why a real live human being tapped one of your ads or searched for a keyword and then made that magical decision to install.

Understanding this key initial psychological driver and creating clever ways to know or at least assume what it is will boost initial time in your app, which will drive engagement, which will boost retention.

None of this means you can’t tell new users about additional features and capabilities. 

Just don’t do it right away.

“We have a bunch of the super apps globally, especially in Latin America and Asia,” di Nunzio told me. “We work with some of them and what we find out is, onboarding is clearly complicated for them because they offer so many things. You can shop, you can book an Uber, whatever, right? So if someone comes to my super app because they’re interested in second-hand shopping, the onboarding process should cover that part. That’s it. I’m interested in that. Offer me the value.”

But you have more to offer?


Tell them about that too. But tell them next week.

“If then I have also food delivery or other things …  I can present the future step by step, like in a second time, third time, or whatever is the right time for it. When we bombard users with different messages, the result is just confusion, and at the end, I will abandon the app: it doesn’t do what it promised.”

Also bad for mobile user retention: too many opt-in asks, including ATT

Another bad practice: immediately asking for the ability to track users. (I just changed phones, requiring a re-download of all my apps, and I literally see some of the biggest apps do this.)

“We are obsessed with opt-ins today,” di Nunzio says. “But this just creates noise.”

Worse, it’s noise that is essentially asking for a favor before we’ve preemptively and proactively been helpful first, and done a favor or 2 or 10 for our new users or players. 

Much better: wait until an occasion comes up natively and naturally in the process of using your app where it makes sense to ask for the ability to send a push notification (a delivery is coming) or enable live activities (the game is on) or say yes to ATT (ads that don’t suck).

“Everything starts from the proper onboarding,” di Nunzio says. “And then moves into right message, right time, right channel … it seems really easy [but] is extremely complicated, especially today where users are not really willing to share their data easily.”

And much more in the podcast …

ATT and (eventually) losing both third-party cookies and GAID means mobile growth pros need to keep more of what they find. There’s so much more to share from our conversation, but you’ll have to watch the video or listen to the podcast to get it all.

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