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What it really means to ‘engage’ a mobile user

There are many ways of defining “engagement,” but those working in mobile emphasized that they all are about making valuable connections with mobile users to build loyalty or create content.

Engagement issues form the core of a news organization’s strategy, journalism values and business model.

The word engagement is thrown around so often that it’s easy to dismiss, but drill deeper and the concept actually gets at essential aspects of the relationship between the publisher and the audience.

How do you get the audience to use the mobile product more often and more deeply? How can you get them to take actions that benefit the news organization? These are engagement issues that form the core of a news organization’s strategy, journalism values and business model.

The working group on mobile engagement at our summit listed a spectrum of goals and metrics that may fall under the general discussion of engagement:

  • Contributing content from a mobile device. This could mean uploading photos or video to a news organization in response to a specific request, or more simply applying a designated hashtag to their own Vine videos or Instagram photos. To succeed at this goal, it’s important to know that while desktop web users often contribute text-based responses, mobile users are more likely to submit audio or visual content. Cameras are built-in and easy to use on mobile phones, while typing long messages is harder.
  • Amplifying content. Not every user has to create content to be helpful. Mobile users who comment, share or otherwise enrich and distribute the existing content are very valuable to growing your audience.
  • Session-depth metrics are a way to measure engagement, such as how much time is spent or how much content is consumed per visit. Meaningful metrics include number of content views and unique visitors, the average length of a usage session, and the percentage of the screen the users scroll down.
  • Long-term loyalty, or user retention over time, is another important metric. Do users keep coming back for more sessions consistently? Meaningful metrics include monthly churn, or the rate at which new users come in while old users stop returning. Having your users register and log in helps you track their behavior more accurately over time.
  • Cross-platform interaction, or measuring the different levels of interaction across platforms like mobile, tablet and desktop, or apps and web. Keeping a cross-platform profile of a user’s total engagement helps truly identify the most valuable and engaged users. It also helps the news organization understand users distinct behaviors by platform, and devise tailored approaches for each one.
  • Financial contributions are perhaps an ultimate measure of engagement. Users who feel a deep connection to the publisher are most likely to be subscribers or donors. One way to analyze this is to track users down a conversion “funnel,” or the progression from download to registration to subscription.

How to generate engagement

There are many effective ways to create this meaningful engagement of mobile users. The participants at our summit offered these suggestions.

Think about the first-time user welcome. Our summit working group on mobile engagement said great design can help make a mobile product intuitive to use, but some new users may appreciate a one-time welcome that shows them what the product offers and how to use it. On the second visit, perhaps a different welcome message that emphasizes lesser-known features.

Always offer a next story. When a user finishes one piece of content, the mobile product should immediately present additional things to see next. This could be a list of closely related content, or a list of editors’ top picks, or a list of the current most popular content. This process of “recirculating” a user from one thing to the next is vital to sustaining engagement.

Create mobile-first (or mobile-equal) content, meaning news and interactive content that is optimized for the best mobile experience possible rather than being repurposed from a print or web product.

Personalization of content. Mobile devices are intensely personal — they have only one owner, one user. They are almost always with the owner. And they are navigated by touch and voice — very personal, human interactions. All of this creates a high expectation of personalization for users. Their phone knows them and adapts to them in many ways. And they come to expect mobile content to be geographically relevant, targeted to their interests, and built with their needs in mind.

Use push notifications. There may be no more powerful way to pull users back into your mobile app than to use push notifications well. The power to reach out and grab the user’s attention is tempting. But this power must be used responsibly. BuzzFeed’s No. 1 reason for app uninstalls is the user feeling that they get too many push notifications.

It helps to let users customize which types of notifications they receive, so they don’t feel manipulated or frustrated with irrelevant alerts. Mobile-first news apps like Breaking News and Circa also let users subscribe to updates to a particular story, so they get notifications whenever new information is added.

Offer service-oriented tools, like user-generated listings or classifieds, mapping tools, etc. Mobile products that help a user accomplish a task or save time in some specific way are more likely to be used. (We’ve written an in-depth strategy guide to creating these kinds of niche mobile apps.)

Use the technology features built into the phone. Phones can gather a lot of data (location, movement, etc.) and conduct a lot of tasks (make a call, send a text, share to social media, etc.). Apps can take advantage of this. For instance rather than just offer movie times as text listings, an app can get the user’s location and show nearby theaters.

The revenue connection to engagement

The direct effect of strong user engagement on monetization is complicated to show. But engagement clearly helps your efforts to generate mobile revenue.

On the advertising side, mobile engagement is a great story to tell on a sales call. But don’t forget the engaging capabilities of mobile ads themselves can lead to mobile revenue. Mobile ads can be personalized, interactive and device-integrated the same way your mobile content should be.

For subscriptions, engagement creates the strong relationship and value proposition that a user knows as “loyalty.” And that sense of loyalty to a publisher is what drives membership or subscriptions for paid content.

  • Great article! This gives me ideas for future research.

  • A good, agile UI and UX is central to an application’s success. Moreover, integrating mobile support has become crucial, especially when most customers engage with companies using mobile platforms. A lot of businesses have realized that having a mobile app for their product/brand or service can be extremely rewarding. I believe that having live chat and support built within the app can more convenient for both the developer and the app users. Both parties can interact without having to leave the app and issues can be resolved quickly. We have recently launched a support desk, devContact (, that performs these exact functions. The developers and companies that have integrated this solution to their apps have confirmed that they have witnessed a happier and more loyal app user base. The best part is, it is absolutely free! Great post! 🙂

  • Jack

    Thank you for these nice tips and suggestions, Jeff. You discovered for me new effective ways to create engagement of mobile users. So, I recommend you to try to add this post on the wiki page about customer engagement:

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