Play to win: Using gamification to give your app an unbeatable edge


For mobile app marketers, it’s a tale as old as time: Customer retention vs. acquisition–which should be prioritized? While user acquisition is crucial for growing an app's user base, it can also be expensive and time-consuming. In contrast, focusing on user retention can be a more cost-effective strategy for app marketers, as it involves keeping existing users engaged with the app and coming back for more. Retaining users can lead to positive word-of-mouth marketing and increased brand loyalty, which can further boost an app's success in the long run.

Moreover, research has shown that it is more profitable to retain existing users than to acquire new ones. According to the Harvard Business Review, increasing customer retention rates by just 5% can increase profits by 25% to 95%. This means that app marketers who focus on retaining their existing users can potentially increase their app's revenue without having to spend as much on user acquisition (UA) campaigns.

As a result, mobile app marketers have begun to prioritize user retention strategies increasingly over user acquisition in recent years.

Loyalty and retention

The symbiotic relationship between customer loyalty and retention

So, how are marketers achieving this enhanced customer retention? How do you convince a user that out of all of the apps on the market, yours is the one they should stick with? It all comes down to loyalty. Loyalty and retention are interconnected concepts in the world of mobile apps, and they share a symbiotic relationship.

Loyalty refers to the extent to which users are committed to an app, while retention is the ability to keep users engaged with the app over a longer period. These two concepts are closely related because loyal users are more likely to be retained, and retained users are more likely to become loyal users.

When users feel a strong connection to an app, they are more likely to continue using it over time. Loyal users are more likely to provide positive reviews and referrals, which can drive user acquisition and boost an app's reputation.

Retention similarly involves keeping users engaged with the app and coming back for more. By providing a positive user experience and using gamification techniques to encourage engagement, app developers can improve retention rates and build a loyal user base. The synergistic relationship between loyalty and retention means that app developers must prioritize both concepts to create a successful app.

Building customer loyalty with user retention strategies can look like:

  1. Personalizing the user experience to create a deeper connection between the user and the app.
  2. Providing excellent customer support to address user concerns and resolve issues quickly.
  3. Introducing gamification techniques to keep users engaged with the app and coming back for more.

App gamification has been at the forefront of innovative business models for years. Now, it’s paving the way for user retention strategies in the current app market.

Let’s take a closer look at how to implement this strategy for your own app.

What is gamification

What is gamification?

The definition of gamification is the use of game mechanics and design techniques in non-game contexts, such as mobile apps, to increase user engagement and motivation. It involves incorporating elements such as points, badges, leaderboards, challenges, and rewards into the app to create a more interactive and enjoyable experience.

Types of gamification

There are two main types of mobile app gamification.

  1. Gamification marketing: Marketing and sales gamification is the use of game-like elements in the promotion of products, services, or initiatives to increase interactivity, conversion, and memorability.
  2. User experience gamification: Gamification in mobile apps is the incorporation of game-like elements into the user experience of mobile applications. By using gamification, app developers can encourage users to take desired actions.

Gamification elements

There are a number of gamification mechanics that can be applied to both of these gamification formats. We’ve listed a few to get you started.

Coins: Assigning coins, points, or other in-app currencies for specific actions or achievements to build a sense of progress and accomplishment.

Achievements: Badges, trophies, or other awards for reaching specific milestones or completing certain tasks to incentivize continued engagement.

Leaderboards: Ranking users against each other to create a sense of competition and motivate continued engagement. Or, letting users compete against themselves by implementing different levels of membership or status that users can unlock as they progress through the app. In this scenario, every level offers different rewards, such as discounts, freebies, or exclusive content, which can incentivize users to continue engaging with the app and striving to reach higher levels.

Tasks: Presenting users with quests, tasks, challenges, or goals to achieve to encourage them to complete certain actions.

Rewards: Providing tangible rewards, such as discounts or access to exclusive content, to incentivize users to continue engaging with an app or platform.

Skills: Visualizing and incentivizing the mastering of specific abilities or competencies. Rewarding users for achieving different levels of proficiency can motivate them to continue engaging with an app or platform, and can also help users to track their progress.

Feedback: Providing users with real-time feedback on their progress and performance to reinforce desired behaviors or suggest areas where they can improve.

Mini-games: Creating actual games relevant to your app’s content that users can play once a day, or as often as they’d like. Or, mirror a familiar game (i.e. roll the dice, spin the wheel, or select a card) within an in-app action.

Customization: Allowing users to customize their experience and make choices that impact their progress to facilitate a sense of autonomy and control.

Map: Visualizing a user’s progress to date and what content or task is next.

Narrative: Incorporating a narrative or story arc into the user experience to generate a sense of immersion and engagement.

Character(s): Adding an avatar or mascot to forge the feeling of a personal relationship and/or guide a user through an app. This doesn’t have to be a person; it can be an animal or object. Think GEICO gecko or Microsoft’s paperclip, Clippy, but for an app!

Why gamification works

Why gamification works

What makes these elements the magic ingredient to increased user engagement? Gamification psychology is based on the idea that people are naturally drawn to activities that offer clear goals, immediate feedback, and a sense of accomplishment.

Gamification elements tap into intrinsic motivators such as competition, achievement, and social recognition. These motivators activate the brain's reward pathways, triggering the release of dopamine–a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This creates a positive feedback loop in which users are incentivized to continue engaging with the app or brand.

How does gamification increase user engagement?

There are a number of benefits of gamification including

Higher-volume, longer-length sessions: Users are encouraged to spend more time using the app and engaging longer with various in-app activities. In gamified ads, KPIs like impressions and clicks are boosted.

Improved user retention: Rewards and recognition for completing tasks keeps users coming back for more.

Enhanced user motivation: Gamification elements can be used to motivate users to complete desirable actions or behaviors within the app, such as completing a certain number of steps or making a purchase. Naturally, this improves custom event metrics.

Better data collection: Increased engagement allows for the collection of valuable user behavior and preference data, which can be used to optimize the app and personalize the user experience.

Increased social sharing: Encouraging users to share their achievements and progress on social media helps increase the visibility and reach of an app.

Boosted revenue and sales: Incentivizing purchases or engagement with ads drives revenue and sales.

Ultimately, these benefits are due to the core gamification principles; gamification makes the user experience more

  • Enjoyable
  • Satisfying
  • Emotional
  • Rewarding
  • Memorable

which in turn increases

  • Engagement
  • Retention
  • Loyalty

How to gamify your app

How to gamify your app

Gamification in apps must be strategic and carefully designed to ensure it’s effective in motivating users and achieving business objectives. This requires a deep understanding of user behavior, psychology, and motivation. Taking this into consideration, all gamification techniques need to be developed using best practices and tailored to the unique needs and preferences of the target audience.

Six key gamification strategies

Let’s explore some effective gamification techniques that developers and marketers can leverage.

  1. Onboarding gamification: Create a progress bar to show how much of a tutorial a user has completed, provide a reward like a discount or free in-app gift upon completion of onboarding, assign a mascot to guide a user through onboarding, or award users who complete certain onboarding milestones with special badges.

  2. Loyalty gamification: Whether you have an existing loyalty program or you’re going to introduce one with gamification elements, this is a popular incentive for repeat purchases or sessions. Give users points for completing certain tasks in-app, introduce a streak function to encourage daily use, and/or introduce a digital form of a “punch card”. This could be for in-app purchases, a monthly subscription, or another desirable event. Loyalty points can be redeemed for in-app currency, real-life monetary value, pre-specified awards, or even as entry into giveaways.

  3. E-commerce gamification: Allow users to unlock special features, status, or rewards at certain milestones of in-app purchases (IAPs). If your app offers free shipping at a certain price point, display a sticky progress bar as the user shops to show them how close they are to reaching free shipping (or another reward, such as a gift with purchase).

    Consider creating special badges or awards for shoppers who purchase from their personalized product recommendations. Introduce a spin-the-wheel game for offers, or a scratch-to-reveal card following purchase with a personalized reward like a percentage off discount, point value, or free item.

  4. Gamification of learning: This is a great way of repurposing your content marketing strategy. If there’s a new feature you want a user to learn about (i.e. a gaming app), information that is valuable for your user to learn (i.e. a finance app), or tips on how to make the most of your app (i.e. a productivity app), you can create a progress bar, badges, or another rewards system to encourage completion.

  5. Profile gamification: From creating steps to fill out more detailed profile settings or information, allowing users to customize their profile image or graphic, an area for personalized goals, or the ability to view their status when using a tiered framework.

  6. Gamification design: Incorporating game-like elements into an app’s or ad’s visual design. For example, a pixelated illustration, a traditional game element such as a treasure chest or “lives”, or progress bars.


Examples of gamification

Let’s get some gamification ideas for apps using more examples from real-world companies that use gamification, like Duolingo, Radisson, and Monopoly Go!

App gamification examples

Gamification in learning

Duolingo’s gamification is considered a pioneer of this loyalty strategy due to its early-days innovative approach to language learning. The app employs a points system, levels, badges, and streaks, among other techniques to motivate and engage users. These elements are carefully designed to provide feedback and create a sense of accomplishment and community among users.

Another language-learning app, Drops, takes a similar approach within its app. Each learning format leverages a mini-game style and bright colors with eye-catching graphics make the learning process feel more like a game.

Fitness gamification

Many fitness apps are beginning to see the value of app gamification for themselves. Fitness app FitOn has taken gamification to a whole new level with a live heart rate tracker superimposed over each class, along with a real-time leaderboard to motivate app users to sweat their way to the top.

Other health and fitness apps are also jumping on board a number of gamification trends.

Gamification marketing examples

While gamified ads are currently less common than mobile app gamification, they are certainly a gamification trend on the rise–especially with the increasing popularity of playable ads and rich media ads.

Kinder, Radisson, and Whiskas are just a few companies fully immersing their marketing strategy into the gamification space with playable ads. Kinder used a crossword-style ad to promote key description words of its product. Radisson added an element of intrigue to its room-booking ad with a tile game. And Whiskas encouraged pet lovers to virtually feed on-screen pets before displaying the corresponding products.


Measuring the success of your app gamification

Measuring the return on investment (ROI) of applied gamification elements is crucial to ensure that the strategy is achieving its intended goals. By analyzing campaign and event data, developers and marketers can determine whether efforts are increasing user engagement, retention, and motivation, or whether adjustments are necessary.

Analyzing the impact of gamification can also help to identify areas of the app that are performing well and those that may need improvement. Additionally, data collection and analysis can inform future gamification strategies and provide insights into user preferences and behavior.

If you’re gamifying an ad, A/B test a gamified ad versus a non-gamified version. Or, you can set an unlimited number of custom events for each of the elements of your app that you gamify,  and measure changes in performance easily with Adjust. Here are a few gamification KPIs to keep track of:

  1. Engagement rate: The number of users who are actively engaging with gamified elements of the app or platform.
  2. Session length: The amount of time users spend engaging with gamified features.
  3. Retention rate: The percentage of users who continue to use the app or platform over a certain period of time, which can indicate the effectiveness of the gamification strategy in keeping users engaged.
  4. Conversion rate: The percentage of users who complete a desired action, such as making a purchase, after engaging with gamified elements.
  5. Lifetime value: The total value of a customer's purchases or engagement with the app or platform over their lifetime, which can help to justify the investment in gamification.


Gamification is a powerful strategy for increasing user engagement, motivation, and retention in mobile apps. By incorporating game-like elements such as points, badges, levels, and challenges, app developers can create an experience that is fun, rewarding, and encourages continued use.

Effective gamification design involves careful consideration of user motivations, behavior, and preferences, and can be applied to a wide range of app categories, from e-commerce to education.

By tracking and analyzing gamification KPIs such as user retention, engagement, and revenue, developers and marketers alike can measure the effectiveness of their gamification strategy and make data-driven improvements. Ultimately, a successful gamification strategy can lead to increased user satisfaction, loyalty, and ROI, making it an essential aspect of app development in today's competitive marketplace. Learn more about how to measure your in-app activity and marketing campaigns with Adjust’s suite of powerful tools or request a demo today.

Want to get the latest from Adjust?