Health and fitness apps have been gaining popularity for some years and the arrival of Covid-19 only accelerated this trend. While gym memberships became redundant, the home workout emerged as a lockdown lifeline and fitness apps and technologies played a key role in helping people to maintain healthy lifestyles.
But even with the support of the latest tech, we know that sticking to health and fitness goals can be difficult for many. And in a highly competitive market, app designers face the same challenge in establishing long-term user engagement.
Attracting new customers is of course a crucial part of the process. But, to keep them coming back again and again, with the ultimate aim of creating long-lasting lifestyle change, requires an understanding of the key stages of engagement and the incentives that can encourage people to trial and start forming new habits.
App adoption: The art of attraction
The world of health and fitness technology continues to expand, and today there’s an app to suit the needs of all individuals, whether they’re a keen Crossfitter on the hunt for workout plans, a yoga newcomer, or simply wanting to track sleep or water intake.
The initial period on any journey with a health and fitness app is known as the adoption phase. And, to get people on board, apps look for ways to differentiate themselves from competitors. High-ratings, attractive UX, and features like social sharing capabilities are at the forefront of the user’s mind when choosing which app to invest their trust and time in.
Much like embarking upon a new year’s resolution, when the decision to make a lifestyle change acts as a major motivator, it’s in this first phase that user engagement peaks. But like a child’s excitement with a new toy that’s soon cast aside, there is no guarantee that this will translate to sustained engagement, and many users will begin to log in less frequently before losing interest altogether.
Health and fitness apps have proven themselves adept in the art of attraction, bringing users on board for the adoption phase, which can range from a few days to several weeks. However, retaining users beyond this phase is no mean feat.
Habit formation: Maintaining health app engagement with rewards
An often underappreciated, yet vital step in the user engagement journey of a health app is the habit formation phase. Taking a health or fitness aspiration and integrating it into our lifestyle or routine on a consistent basis does not happen overnight. Indeed, studies indicate it can take anywhere from 66 days, to 6-9 months for a new behaviour to become ingrained.
One way to achieve this is by using incentives to maintain user engagement after the initial adoption phase. Here, where the risk that users might abandon their relationship with an app is at its highest, loyalty concepts can be an effective means of incentivising individuals to keep up new habits. Gamifying the process by giving users the chance to collect points with the prospect of a financial reward for example, can help to bridge the gap between the tentative trialling of an app and fully fledged, frequent engagement.
Rewards can be integrated using two different approaches: gain-framed and/ or loss-framed incentives.
Gain framed incentives are centred around the simple concept of earning a reward for commitment and hard work over-time. When a user regularly engages with an app or plan, they can earn points which can then be converted for a reward once a target is achieved. These rewards can also be customized depending on what works best for the individual. For some, a big reward (one that’s worth lots of points that have been accrued over a longer period) might be best form of motivation. But for those who may be new to app, the chance to win small prizes early on using fewer points can be a more effective way to establish healthy habits and avoid early drop offs.
On the other hand, with loss-framed incentives the process is inverted. Individuals are given a reward right at the outset but must achieve their goals to keep it. In practice, someone might be offered an aspirational reward – a Fitbit for example – to encourage them to sign up to an app. If they maintain their commitment for a specified period, they don’t have to pay for it at the end, but those that drop out will incur the cost.
Loss-framed incentives are completely different in the way that they tap into the psychology of users. And while they may be less commonly deployed as an engagement tactic, their effectiveness is neatly captured by Kahneman and Tversky’s well know maxim that “losses loom larger than gains”. A more recent study from the University of Pennsylvania doubles down on this thinking to show that loss-framed incentives were the most effective method of increasing physical activity levels in overweight adults.
And whether by loss or by gain, it’s important to remember that the type of reward will chime differently with different individuals depending on their personal motivations.
Goal achievement: New lifestyle unlocked
Matching the excitement instilled in users at the point of initial adoption with the effective use of loyalty incentives can lead people to form habits that they will then stick to in the longer term. When individuals put in the hard work and are rewarded for doing so, new lifestyle choices become automatic, and as a result, the chance of disengagement is significantly reduced.
The challenge for health and wellbeing app designers is made clear by the sheer volume of apps that emerge but fail to hold the interest of users. But when individuals are guided through each step of this process, it’s possible to create long lasting lifestyle change for a community of users that will in turn become advocates, thanks to their own experience.
Train then treat
Ensuring sustained user engagement remains a challenge for health and fitness app developers, especially those that aim to deliver long-term positive outcomes for their customers. For those businesses that want to change lifestyles rather than trends, they should look to incorporate smart incentivisation into their user journey.
By Dominic Hofer, CEO & Founder at Loylogic, the leading loyalty platform for global engagement solutions