The relative success of mobile games over retail and other business apps (both in terms of monetization and engagement), gives valuable insight into what apps need to be doing to acquire and retain users. The average session length of a mobile game is 7.55 minutes, while the average session length of e-commerce and retail apps is 2.85. The disparity is similar for revenue: the average user spends $35 on mobile apps over the course of a year, and $25 of that goes to mobile gaming. Aside from the fact that mobile games are just plain fun, what accounts for this massive disparity in success?

The simple answer is, they listen to their users. Mobile games in general have highly effective customer feedback loops, and will often release beta versions of updates and new games to VIP players in order to garner feedback. As we’ve previously written, EA, one of the most hated mobile gaming conglomerates in the business, effectively remade their brand through a players-first initiative that resulted in increased satisfaction and increased revenue.

Within the broad movement of “players first”, there are several key components to the strategy, all of which can be translated into comparable “users first” strategies for non-gaming apps:

Community Building

While it’s true that mobile gamers naturally form their own communities (don’t even get started on YouTube), mobile games also facilitate this natural tendency, through multi-player games, social media communities, and even in-app chat rooms.

For e-commerce apps you can facilitate this same level of community through in-app chat with specific topics (e.g. makeup tips, outfit ideas, healthy recipes, etc) related to your brand. Make your app a resource for crowdsourced information and ideas.

VIP Programs

VIP programs are one of the most salient ways in which mobile games make money. Yvolver, a platform that automates VIP programs, found that during its test period, the average in-app purchase revenue per user rose by more than 18% where users had access to the VIP Events & Achievements program, with similar lifts for average revenue per daily active user and average revenue per paying user.

The e-commerce version of a VIP program, a loyalty program, should function similarly. You encourage people who are already somewhat wed to your product to spend more and become more loyal by giving them perks. We wrote about what each level of VIP/loyalty should consist of here.

In-App Purchases

On average, US mobile game players shelled out $87 of in-app purchases for free to play games. The mobile gaming industry has done a phenomenal job of profiting off of the most invested users, while making the product free for the least. In fact, 90% of in-app purchases are made by just 10% of mobile game users. In other words, mobile games identify their most loyal and invested customers, and offer incentives for in-app purchases. Long story short: it works.

Where many retail and e-commerce apps have gone wrong, is in assuming that the mobile app is a business extension, not a business in of itself. The app is a product, and you should be identifying your highest-paying customers (aka the ones who are likely to spend more on you in the future), and have them pay to use your product– the app. The trick, is in finding what precisely it is that will motivate your customers to make in-app purchases. Mobile games have figured this out through the rigorous use of analytics, testing, and surveys, and it’s just starting to show in their highly effective VIP and re-engagement campaigns.

Beta Testing

Gaming companies will often roll out a beta version of a new game to their VIP players to garner feedback and ideas. This does three things: it makes VIP players feel privileged, it gives the company feedback, and it provides an opportunity to fix bugs before the game truly rolls out.

Puzzlingly, most apps do not beta test with their most loyal users before releasing a new feature. The majority of mobile users have encountered app issues including freezing, crashing, and slow launches. Couple this with the fact that while 79% of users will give apps a second chance, only 16% will give it a third, and you’ve got a pretty strong argument for making sure your app is truly pleasing users before rolling it out. There’s no race for new features; take the time to beta test your product, garner feedback, and work out the kinks before you release it to the public.

Pure Feedback

A few years ago, an article came out complaining about Zynga’s numerous surveys: “Do you know what time it is? Time for another Zynga survey–that’s what! Like it or not, the creator of FarmVille has posted yet another survey, this time probing FarmVille players for feedback on a feature it’s considering: FarmVille VIPs.” Well, it turns out that having another survey actually contributed to Zynga’s wildly successful VIP program. And while it might be a joke amongst players, in the end the joke’s on the companies that aren’t asking their users what they want.

Feedback can come in three main forms: in-app surveys, intelligent rating prompts, and customer advisory boards (another great way to gather VIP customers and make them feel special). The best companies will use all three. After all, knowledge is power.


Mobile games have successfully engaged, monetized, and retained customers, often across multiple product lines. Through each of the above listed strategies, they have developed a player-first mantra that breeds loyal customers who believe in their brands. Take a few pages out of the mobile gaming industry’s book, and you’ll find that you don’t need to create a fantasy land to build a successful app.

Published April 18, 2016
block background image