What is In-App Messaging?

A comprehensive guide to answer your top in-app messaging questions.

Mobile app adoption is at an all-time high. According to App Annie’s recent State of Mobile industry report, mobile app downloads reached 218 billion in 2020 — up 7% from the year prior. This translates to $143 billion in consumer app spending and 3.5 trillion consumer minutes spent using apps.

But despite such impressive app downloads and usage metrics, the majority of apps struggle with retention rate — a key performance indicator tracking the percentage of users who are still using an app a certain number of days after install. Across most app categories (such as gaming, entertainment, education, dating, etc.), user retention rates one month after app installation hover around 5.5%, with more dropoff each subsequent month. This matters because retention rates are a core way to gauge whether an app offers value, solves challenges, or engages users.

So how can app owners improve poor app metrics? Enter, in-app messaging.

This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about in-app messaging, including:

What is In-App Messaging?

In-app messaging can be defined as targeted, contextual messages that drive action while users are actively using an application on their mobile or desktop device. App owners and marketers leverage in-app messaging to prompt users to make purchases, refer friends, announce new features, streamline onboarding, celebrate key milestones, and ultimately drive deeper app engagement.

In-App Messaging vs. Push Notifications

Both in-app messaging and push notifications are tools that app owners, marketers, and developers use to inform, motivate, or prompt actions from app users. While related, in-app messages and push notifications are different modes of communicating with app users. Each method has specific best practices to deliver measurable and optimal customer engagement results.

In-app messages are pop-up alerts designed to engage users while they are actively using an app. For example, if a gaming app user achieves a new point level, an in-app message containing congratulatory language (think: “Great Job!”) may encourage users to continue playing and reach the next milestone. Likewise, an edtech app that sends a celebratory in-app message when students turn in assignments (think: “You’re Crushing It!”) could help incentivize students to complete their homework.

Push notifications are brief, sometimes opt-in messages that alert users when they do not have an app open on their mobile device. Push notifications can re-engage inactive app users by sending short, urgent messages to customers. For instance, if a fintech app detects suspicious account activity, a push notification can alert users to review their banking transactions. Push notifications are also used to promote deals, share new product releases, and much more.

The Benefits of In-App Messaging

There are many positives to leveraging in-app messaging as part of your product and marketing strategy. Core benefits include:

1. Alleviate Customer Frustrations

When done right, in-app messages can alleviate app user frustrations by providing timely, valuable, and relevant information. Shopping or marketplace apps can alert customers that certain items are discounted or back in stock; fitness apps can provide motivational messages if a user is lagging in their goal targets.

2. Automatically Displayed

Unlike many push notifications, users do not have to opt-in to receive in-app messages. In-app messages are automatically displayed when a user opens an app on their mobile or desktop device and they are built into the app experience. Only 43.9% of iOS users opt-in to receive push notifications from apps.

3. Captive Audience

In-app messages target captive audiences that are already using an app, making users more likely to interact with the message content. The average click-through rate for in-app messages is 22% — more than three times the click-through rate of push notifications, according to Accengage.

4. Easy Integration

In-app messaging functionality doesn’t have to take loads of engineering resources and time to add. Thanks to well-built APIs and SDKs, in-app messaging can be integrated into your app easily, allowing you to start engaging your app users in mere days.

5. Engaging

Notably, in-app messages are stickier than push notifications. Research suggests that in-app messaging receives eight times the response rates of push notifications. Plus, in-app messages can be highly personalized to send the right message to the right person at the right time, which optimizes their impact.

In-App Messaging Examples & Use Cases

Here, we highlight several top in-app messaging use cases to take your app to the next level.

Onboarding Users

Nothing tanks user retention faster than a complicated, convoluted onboarding process. Whether it be a long series of questions to build a profile or a hard-to-understand UI, app users grow frustrated if they can’t immediately start using an app.

In-app messages can guide first-time users toward essential features and ensure they take necessary actions to get the most out of your app, such as linking a credit card or allowing location services. We like this carousel of onboarding messages from Videoleap, as it helps demystify the complex functionality of the app without overwhelming the user.

Celebrate Milestones

App creators know that gamification and rewards are key to influencing loyal behavior. In-app messages are a top way to alert users they reached a key milestone, such as creating their profile, or a special badge that commemorates in-app activities, such as taking language learning quizzes every week for a month.

For example, Puppr, an app that helps dog owners train their pet, gives new users a badge just for signing up for an account, which conjures positive feelings of accomplishment.

Content for Conversions

Whether it be pushing a recurring campaign, such as a series of videos around a relevant topic, or sending users a perfectly timed article that answers frequently asked questions, in-app messages that display powerful, attention-grabbing content can inspire conversions and a deeper brand connection. For example, the Nike app featured interviews with athlete moms in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day. Other daily Nike content includes training tips and style advice.

Drive In-App Purchases

In-app messages displaying special deals, discounts, premium features, or coupons are effective at increasing in-app purchases. In-app messages can also strategically drive sales with new product announcements, recent price drops, and limited time offers to your entire user base.

This example from Spotify informs users of a premium in-app feature, and can help convert free users to paid subscribers.

Surveys & Referrals

In-app messages that prompt users to rate their app experience are an ideal way to populate 5-star reviews. This simple in-app message from Emoji Blitz is an effective way to ask engaged users for app-store reviews.

Showcase New Functionality

When you push competitive new functionality, how will your existing customers learn about it? A targeted in-app message can drive new-feature adoption by notifying users of just-launched features.

We love this example from Strava highlighting a new Group Challenges feature because it’s a concise message with a clear call to action.

In-App Messaging Best Practices

In-app messaging is a powerful tool to spark user actions and loyalty, and marketers and app owners should follow these tried-and-true best practices to get the most out of their messaging strategy.

1. Enhance the Experience

In-app messages should aim to enhance the user experience rather than distract from your app’s unique value proposition. The goal is to delight, inform, inspire, and motivate users to take action. This can be achieved through a combination of in-app messaging design, content, and timing.

2. Timing is Key

Timing is key when creating in-app messages. For example, if your goal is to inspire users to review your app or take a survey, don’t schedule your in-app message while they are in the middle of an important activity such as uploading a photo or editing their profile, as they will likely close the review prompt so they can finish the task. Instead, try scheduling messages when users first enter the app to increase survey completion rates.

3. Keep it Simple

While in-app messages have more character bandwidth than push notifications (studies show that optimal push notifications have fewer than 40 characters), keep in-app messages brief. If your in-app message requires more text, break up the message content via an interactive carousel feature that allows users to click through prompts at their own pace, or skip them entirely to use other app features immediately.

4. A/B Testing & Segmenting

Successful in-app messages are customizable. Marketers and app owners should be able to test the type of messages that best resonate with your segmented audiences. A/B testing in-app message content, design, and timing can help cater alerts to drive conversions.

In-App Messaging Services

Integrating a third-party solution is the fastest, most reliable way to add in-app messaging functionality to your product. It’s a good idea to seek a messaging service that makes it easy for your company’s non-technical team members to author, customize, and design alerts for app users. Rich messaging analytics can help tailor your messaging strategies for the best results. Here are several sterling in-app messaging service options.

  • Braze helps companies drive relevant and responsive in-app messages by surfacing news, updates, and content when app users are most open to hearing it. Ideal for deals and promotions, onboarding, education, and more, customizable templates help cater messages for optimal impact.

  • CleverTap is an analytics-driven platform for mobile growth teams. The company’s in-app messaging feature can heighten the customer experience with localization, a no-code editor, and more.

  • Courier is a multi-channel communication tech stack with APIs that uses a combination of conditional logic and user preferences to send messages.

  • Firebase offers in-app messaging that triggers message sends based on a user’s activities and interests. Integrates with Google’s Analytics and Predictions services, too.

  • OneSignal is a customer engagement service with capabilities such as A/B testing, segmentation, analytics, personalization, and more. Marketers can also use OneSignal to push automatic messages based on user behavior.

  • Stream’s in-app messaging APIs can integrate fully customizable components into your app with easy-to-use SDKs and flexible messaging UI Kits. Features include unparalleled security and superior scalability to support infinite app users.

In-App Messaging Tutorials

Adding in-app messaging to your app doesn’t have to take loads of time and engineering resources. Integrating an in-app messaging API versus building messaging functionality in-house ensures that your in-app communications are reliable, performance-driven, and infinitely scalable. The below tutorials provide step-by-step instructions to add Stream’s messaging API to your app using easy-to-use SDKs.

Embrace In-App Messaging for Real Results

In-app messaging is an effective way to improve your app’s key metrics, such as daily, weekly, and monthly active users (MAU), and retention rate. By default, in-app messages target users when they are actively interacting with your app’s content, making them a powerful tool for inspiring actions that matter to your app’s bottom line and user experience.

Whether it be learning about a new product line or creating a profile, ultimately, in-app messages help users get the most out of your app. Follow basic in-app messaging best practices to ensure that your messaging strategy has maximum impact.

Ready to activate Stream Chat? Sign up for your free Chat trial!