Customer Support Product Management | 6 min read

Ways to Increase User Engagement


The definition of an “engaged user” varies from product to product.

For a to-do app an engaged user should be logging in every day to add and complete items whereas for an invoicing app an engaged user might only log in once per month. There is no consistent quantifiable definition of engagement across different products.
Unlike page views, visitors, returning visitors, and conversions, there’s also no analytics app that can instantly tell you what you need to know. But ignore engagement at your peril.

Google+ claims 170,000,000 users, which gets them a few news stories, but ignores a very real problem. Almost none of their users are engaged. They’re just people who clicked a link titled “Ok” when faced with Google+. It’s similar to newspapers goosing up their page views using hacks like slideshows. At some point you have to wonder who you’re really fooling.

Why is engagement important?

Most customers who sign up will use a product only once. This is true for every product with a free trial. This isn’t surprising; it’s the fallacy of funnels in action. When you strip every barrier away from signing up, what you get is lots of sign-ups. Unfortunately lots of sign-ups doesn’t translate to lots of customers. Customers are the result of a series of events. Here is a simple overview:

Engagement is just one piece of the puzzle, but it is so frequently ignored that there’s lots of quick wins to be had. Here’s four ways to increase user engagement.

1. Make a Strong First Impression

Every day a potential customer is seeing your interface for the very first time. This can be forgotten within teams that are always designing for themselves. The first screen your users see has 3 important jobs…

  1. Explain how your application works.
  2. Motivate your users to get started.
  3. Let your users know how to get help, if and when they need it.

Web applications that do none of the above get the exact behaviour that they designed for. The users will log out and most likely never return.

There are lots of great ways to welcome a user to your app and show them around. There are blank slates, tutorials, dummy data, etc. A good first step that we encourage Intercom customers to do is to post a welcome message to greet each new sign up personally. This works great for starting conversations, which in turn increases conversions.

Always Show a Welcome Message

In Intercom we show the above welcome message to users after they sign up. It is a personal note explaining that we are always available to help. This single message is responsible for over 400 conversations that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Some people just write thanks, and we reply. Some ask how to set up a welcome message, and we reply. Some ask questions, and spot bugs and, again, we reply.

Simply communicating with your users is a great way to encourage them to ask questions, try out features, and stick around. By starting a dialogue they’re far more likely to say things like “How can I do email inactive users” or “How should I use tags?“.

At best you’ll win yourself more customers, and at worst you learn what’s missing or misunderstood in your application.

2. Gradually expose the depth of your product

Every worthwhile application has features that aren’t immediately apparent or useful. These can include quick-wins such as email notifications and alerts, third-party integrations, export features, and even small optimisations like keyboard shortcuts.

These deeper benefits can’t be called out immediately. After all, who cares about data export before they have data, or keyboard shortcuts before they’ve used any features?

Most product owners tend to try to expose these features either through badly timed email blasts, documentation, or an FAQ. None of these approaches work well.

Emails arrive out of context, out of time, and are more likely to interrupt a user than to interest them. Their response is to archive your message and stop reading future emails.

Leaving features explained and promoted in your FAQ or help sections means their only chance of exposure is when a user has experienced an issue with a part of your product. This isn’t the ideal time to distract them with other features.

Define a Message Schedule

We advise our customers to create message schedules to gradually promote certain features. When you have good insight into your userbase you can work out which secondary features delight users and at what point they’re useful. Once you’ve done that it’s just a matter of timely communication. Intercom lets you stagger messages over a series of sessions. This means each time a user logs in you’re showing them more and more reasons to stick around.

Here’s an example engagement routine from one of our customers:

Always end each message by letting your customers know that you’re there to help if they have any questions. This is key to getting feedback, which helps you tweak your engagement routine.

3. Announce features and improvements in-app

Users don’t notice when your product development slows down. They’re logging in to use your product, not monitor your development progress. However, if things go quiet for long enough, they’ll be easily distracted when a competitor releases a new feature, whether valuable or frivolous.

The only time your users care about features or improvements is in your application, so that’s exactly where you should be announcing them.

Anecdotally, we see a 10x increase in communications (as do our customers) from in-app messages over email announcements, and there are other, softer, benefits too. For example when we announced the map and gallery features in Intercom, our users clicked straight through, were immediately impressed and started tweeting screenshots. I can’t imagine an email achieving a similar effect.

4. Talk with customers during trials

Startups tend to fall into two categories: those that solve a problem people experience, and those that are nice to have or fun to use. Don Dodge famously labeled the two categories as vitamins and painkillers. If your product is a painkiller, then you can learn lots from your trial users.

There are two types of users in your 30-day trial. There are tyre-kicker who might sign up after seeing some praise on Twitter or a link on Hacker News. They don’t have your problem, and are only here to have a quick look around at the solution you’ve created. These guys aren’t prospects, and will rarely have valuable feedback for you. Never listen to theoretical customers.

Start Increasing Engagement

We’ve seen first hand the effect of these four simple steps towards engaging with your customers. Each takes no more than an hour and pays back many times over. What other tips and techniques have you seen? Let us know in the comments.