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John Gruber, of Daring Fireball, shared his frustration with the usage of ratings prompts last December:

I’ve long considered a public campaign against this particular practice, wherein I’d encourage Daring Fireball readers, whenever they encounter these “Please rate this app” prompts, to go ahead and take the time to do it — but to rate the app with just one star and to leave a review along the lines of, “One star for annoying me with a prompt to review the app.”

In the following weeks, several other people chimed in on the topic, having a somewhat public, flowing debate about the practice of reaching out to customers for better ratings. A deeper discussion about the app store, consumer decision-making and why ratings matter was touched on, but largely left alone as most focused on the execution of the prompts.

On one side, you had Gruber, Marco Arment and others who were strongly against the practice. On the other side, we heard from Cabel Sasser , Chris Gonzales, Dan Counsell, and Wil Shipley who had arguments in favor of reaching out to customers. Penalizing hard working developers and publishers hardly seems fair when the app store represents such an important piece of the distribution and customer connection puzzle.

Somewhere in the middle, Daniel Jalkut offered a nuanced view of the situation that asked more questions than it answered, challenging us all to explore what is truly best for the consumer. Taken in sum, this was a good beginning to what is a much larger conversation.

Ratings prompts, while being the interruption that catalyzed this conversation, represent only the tip of the iceberg. This is about much more than ratings. It’s about more than improving an app’s rankings.

This is about how companies communicate with their customers in the mobile world.

For many companies, mobile is the primary medium of communication with their customers and the number of companies who are mobile first will only grow. Each of us carries a little communications device that buzzes and blinks all day long, alerting us to news, updates, and information. These messages build up – messages from our friends, our family and yes, the companies we’ve allowed into our inboxes, given our phone numbers, and whose apps we’ve installed.

We do not have to guess how this plays out – we already know. There are reasons why developers employ prompts, why websites have numerous pop-ups, and we can only expect to see more of these on mobile. These messages increase revenue, retention, ratings, and customer interaction. Overuse of these tactics is well documented, and while inappropriate interruptions can make a difference to a companies’ metrics, we know that appropriate, non-intrusive, implementation can make a larger one.

You don’t boycott a store because a clerk asked if they could help you or become annoyed when a cashier asks if you were able to find everything all right.

What is needed is a better answer to the question: “How can I communicate with my app customers without driving them crazy?” The answer has to come from the app developers and publishers, not the app customers. Nor can we rely on the app stores to make meaningful changes.

Starting a campaign to rate apps 1 star if they prompt for a review or calling developers greedy and desperate are not constructive and don’t take us to a healthier communications environment. You don’t boycott a store because a clerk asked if they could help you or become annoyed when a cashier asks if you were able to find everything all right.

Let’s Start Talking With Our Customers, Together

This is really about companies wanting to talk to their customers in an elegant, helpful, and relevant way without being annoying. So, what is the right way to communicate with customers inside a mobile app?

By working with thousands of companies on these problems we’ve discovered that there are a few clear guidelines that can form the basis of better behavior by apps:

  • Don’t interrupt customers in the middle of tasks or at app launch
  • Identify and enable communication at key moments in the customer’s journey – when they’re happy, frustrated, or lost. Identifying these moments should be a natural part of any app’s design process
  • Instrument your communications activity so that you know what the impacts and outcomes of your messaging strategy are – working with hard coded solutions that don’t make you any smarter about your customers’ preferences is a recipe for disaster
  • Iterate, experiment, and be able to make changes on the fly

Some Myths and A Better Way to Communicate

In the debate about ratings prompts a lot of strong feelings based upon personal anecdote formed the foundation of much of the analysis. Significant assumptions about consumer behavior at scale made its way into commonly held beliefs. What has been sorely lacking, however, has been actual concrete data.

“If you don’t know what happens when you send a message, you might as well not send the message at all.”

Here at Apptentive, we think a lot about customer communication and the experience for the end consumer. For years we’ve instrumented every message and communication we power for our customers, measuring what the outcomes are.

We’ve held ourselves to a standard that says, “If you don’t know what happens when you send a message, you might as well not send the message at all.” This perspective has served our customers and our team well. It helps us to deliver best practices, improve tools, and shed light on an area that is severely lacking in data. For example, we know that:

  • Just asking people to rate the app is ~5 to 10x less effective than starting a conversation about whether or not the consumer is happy
  • The actual words used in the message to the customer can dramatically change the % of ecstatic customers who talk about your app in the app store and impact the % of ratings that also result in reviews
  • Showing a ratings prompt on launch is 50% more likely to result in the app being closed than if it’s shown at any other point in the app
  • Customers who are asked about their opinion with an app who are unhappy are >100% more likely to return to the app than the average app customer. It turns out that being informed that the company actually cares about your opinion can change the dynamic
  • When you give people choices about what action to take, only about 20 to 30% of customers will actually exit the app to do something else.

This week we rolled out many major improvements to our services, which represents over 2 years of working with many of the world’s largest companies. We have a sophisticated communications system focused on enabling you to listen and talk with your mobile customers. Our company is betting on the fact that you, and app publishers everywhere, want to treat their customers well and with respect.

We believe that while in-app communications are inevitable, they don’t have to be annoying, unsophisticated, and a necessary evil. We know that it’s possible to connect with your app customers at the right time and we know many of you truly deeply care about the mobile customer experience. Your passion for the consumer experience is why the ratings debate prompted such strong opinions and discussion in the first place.

It’s Time We All Got Better At Talking With Our Customers

Poorly implemented ratings prompts raised awareness around how easily a mobile experience can be ruined. It’s time to re-examine all of our customer interactions and ask ourselves if we can do better. Are there better places in the app to ask for feedback? Are there places where customers might need help and appreciate a company reaching out?

As we said earlier, this conversation is just the beginning. We know there are strong opinions about this and encourage you to add your thoughts below. Many of you are our customers, colleagues, and fellow app enthusiasts and we value your words. We plan on taking the thoughtfulness and execution behind customer communication to a level beyond where it exists today on mobile and even online. We encourage you all to communicate with your customers the right way as we all work towards creating products that people love.

Robi Ganguly Updated: May 30th, 2014