Don’t get customers hooked, focus on healthy retention instead

I’m getting increasingly nervous about the ongoing emphasis on getting users “hooked”, which is taking the product world by storm. The latest example (of many) I’ve read over the past few months is Sticky From the Start: How to Create a Sticky Product Experience, which includes advice such as “Create habits to keep them hooked”:

But thanks to notifications, emails, and other prompts, SaaS products have the option to nudge new users to engage in the behaviors most likely to deliver initial value. In-app messages can build awareness of features, spark usage, and beckon users back to apps even when they’re not using them. They’ve been found to increase user engagement by 4X and when combined with push notifications can increase engagement rates by 30-40%.

Thinking only about engagement rates without the impact that has on users is a short-sighted and unethical way to build a lasting product. Think about the proliferation of chat widgets on websites that ask you if you need anything before you’ve even had a chance to read a few words. What thoughts go through your mind when that happens? Or when a site immediately asks permission to send you notifications, before you’ve been able to figure out if you’re interested in what they have to say. My guess is that you are as annoyed and turned off by those tactics as I am.

I am way more interested in the idea of healthy retention, which is based on the principle of “fewer but better interactions”. We don’t need to get people hooked or “increase engagement” to make them happy customers for life. Emile Ledure makes that point well in the post Healthy Retention: What Makes People Keep Coming Back? with three proposed principles:

  1. Define how you empower people — what do you help people accomplish in their lives?
  2. Have fewer but better interactions — how do you focus on value rather than frequency?
  3. Care — what makes your experience human?

In his excellent book Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business Paul Jarvis makes a similar point in a slightly different way:

I 100% agree with his point that the cornerstone of a profitable company is customer success — not people who are hooked on us. Let’s look for ways to have fewer but better interactions with our customers. Let’s measure our success by how happy people are to pay us, not by how often they log in. That’s how you create lifelong fans instead of temporary “users”.