6 Easy Retention Hacks For Startups

Retaining a user is a lot cheaper than acquiring an active user. Retaining a user doesn’t cost advertising dollars, and doesn’t require expensive sales reps. These are people who have already decided to invest into your signup form, have already partially bought into your product vision, and have already invested a degree of effort into learning your product and how it could work for them.

Once you have a good activation rate, focussing on retention is critical to make your app sustainable.

If you’re retention numbers suck (which is a relative term depending on your app type) there are a few quick hacks you can setup that will dramatically increase retention. Here’s 6 hacks that every scrappy startup should be doing to keep users coming back.

1. Weekly Digest Emails Of App Activity

Providing users an option to receive a weekly digest email is an awesome way to pull them back to your app. Have some form of analytics within your app? Users love to see their stats, because everyone loves analytics & metrics, especially about themselves!

Sending a weekly email containing amount of times their profile was viewed this week, responses to their posts, their total invoicing amount, average ticket response times, campaign performance… etc. There are a number of cool and fun metrics you could be sending to users depending on what your app does.

Essentially, a weekly digest is a summary of all the ‘best bits’ they missed. Someone doing this really well is Quora:

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 09.10.21

Quora doesn’t just focus on your own activity, but sends an email with stuff that’s relevant to your topics but mixed with one or two posts that are just smashing it in popularity.

Until your engineering team can setup something transactional and personalised within your app, run a single weeks blast with a digest of activity within your app globally (if possible). Make sure to do at least one A/B test, so that you can inform the engineering team on the best content for the email.

2. Activity Notifications From Within The App

If you don’t have transactional emails, or push notifications, for significant real-time activity within your email, you should add them now. But first read this warning:

Too many notification emails will cause your users to hate you!

Ensure you add proper controls to user’s accounts very clearly, and add a link to adjust these settings in every email, ideally with one click. No one likes clicking a ‘Unsubscribe from these emails’ link that requires you to login. If a user wants to stop receiving emails, let them. They’ll like you for it a lot more than the frustration caused by not easily being able to stop them.

Notifications might be “You just received a message”, “You just gained a new follower”, “Your ‘Funny Cats’ campaign is currently trending”. The important thing about these emails is that they need to be interesting. A user should be intrigued by these emails enough to click and find out more, prompting them to come back into your app.

Make sure you’ve setup event tracking on these emails so that you can track how they effect your retention rates.

Great tools to use for sending activity notifications include Mailjet or Mailgun.

3. Onboarding Emails

A common overlooked issue are users who activate, and then immediately fall off because they just aren’t getting the real value from your app. Your activation process probabaly includes an intensive email course, perhaps 6 emails over 7 days explaining how the app works, plus a call from your support team, plus in-app wizards to get a guided setup.

But your retention onboarding emails are a little different. They might be 6 emails over 6 weeks, each email explaining the benefits of different features in the app through case studies and videos.

A series of onboarding emails can be setup in advance, delivered automatically, and dynamically change content based on activity your user has performed in the app.

Great tools to send behaviour-driven onboarding emails are Userfox or Customer.io both of which can integrate to trak.io’s API – email us on support@trak.io for help.

4. Product Update Newsletters

You might be blogging about each significant feature, but are you also sending those out in newsletters? Well, you should be!

Divide your list into 3 segments – Active, inactive, and prospects. Prospects are users in your list, perhaps through a blog, but not yet signed up. We wont cover that here. Your active and inactive users will need to be told about new features in a different way – for active users, they’re already engaged and have more investment into the product, so you can give them the details and really dig into the feature.

For inactive users, you’ll want to keep it brief and stick to the topline benefits of the feature – why does this feature significant change the app from before? Why is it worth coming back and checking it out again?

Product update newsletters are a chance to show your app is going places, you innovate fast and your staying current.

5. Add A Basic Loyalty Program

Adding loyalty programs can be hard. And expensive. Expensive to implement or expensive in software fees. But we’re looking for quick hacks, so where are the quick wins with a loyalty scheme?

Basic points of course. And points mean prizes!

A loyalty scheme can be as simple as awarding a number of points (or any virtual currency) for certain actions. Completing a level. Creating a new post. Adding a comment. Uploading a design. Voting on an idea. Whatever the actions are within your app, you can award points for them.

With a simple points allocation, and an even simpler league table, you could easily use this data in digest emails, activity emails, and weekly or monthly newsletters. The most loyal users receive free upgrades that month. Or swag. Or enter a prize draw for an iPad. Or invitations to private webinars with the CEO to discuss the next round of product development. Or simply get bragging rights (like Klout).

However you use your scheme, and whether you call it gamification or a loyalty program, remember to keep it SIMPLE. A lot of startups invest too much resources into huge, complex and silly loyalty schemes, with childish badges and annoying popups each time you get a new one. Don’t be that guy. And make sure your loyalty program allows points to be exchanged for something cool.

There are lots of loyalty program startups, but for most early startups you should build it into your core product in a simple way, and worry about using one of the bigger programs later when the costs make more sense.

6. Automated Emails For Inactive Users

Similar to automated onboarding emails, you should also setup automated behaviour emails when a user has been inactive. These should be a series of emails, allowing you to use different copy and tactics depending on how long the user has been inactive.

A great example of inactive emails in action is Buffer’s “Your buffer is empty” email:

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These might be the ‘gentle reminder’ emails, perhaps after 7 days of inactivity (or whatever seems appropriate for your app). But what about at 2 weeks? A month?

After a while, you should start being a lot more personal and inviting the user to offer qualitative feedback while also hopefully getting them re-invested into the product again. Here’s a ‘last chance’ email from a fictional startup called PropWizard:

Dear Liam,

I noticed it’s been a while since you used PropWizard, and I just wanted to ask why? We want to make the lives of Property Managers as easy as possible, and if you could take 2 minutes to just hit reply and give me your thoughts about what we should be done differently, it would really help to make PropWizard more awesome!

I’d be happy to add a months free credit to your account as a thankyou for giving us feedback, and hopefully giving us a chance to make the changes needed so that you can go back to enjoying PropWizard again!

This is my personal email, so just hit reply or add me on skype: John_Smith

John Smith

In this email, it isn’t the offer of a free month that’s going to get the user active again. It’s because we’re giving them an opportunity to shape the app. To be a part of it. To own it. If we try offering them a chance to give direct feedback, in an informal conversation with a senior team member, then a portion of our lost users will bite, give great feedback, and come back as active users. They could even become evangelists!


Once you’re activating users, your next challenge is going to be retention. Retention is the place where huge ROIs can be made on time and effort – a simple automated email campaign for inactive users might bring back 20% of your inactive users. The same results would require a significant increase in your advertising spend!

Most of the techniques here rely on either email or push notifications. Not every app suits this style, for example an iPhone game is unlikely to be able to send many (if any) ‘pullback’ emails for inactive users. But stay creative, A/B test everything, and make sure everything is tracked in trak.io so you can measure how effective each method is on your topline Retention metric.

Published by

Liam Gooding

Liam is the cofounder and CEO of Trakio. Previously an engineer, he writes about growing subscription companies using data-driven techniques and inside glimpses to Trakio's own growth journey. He wrote a book, "Growth Pirate!" which discusses data-driven growth strategies for startups.

  • Loved this post, Liam. It has given me so many ideas for the vocal training wordpress membership site I run with my wife. With track.io, would we be able then to see a log of individual user activity?

    • Hey BJ,

      Exactly you can explore individual timelines for every customer. And as we add more product integrations, the idea is that we’ll be the timeline not just of how they use your WP site, but also which support tickets they’re on, which emails they opened, which products they bought in your shopify store… etc.

  • Amul Patel


    These posts are tremendous! Very actionable and concise..
    At SHC we have to do the “weekly email digests” for sure!

    – Amul