Best practices for in-app messaging

How to use in-app messaging to retain your best customers

Main illustration: Kasia Bojanowska

In-app messaging is a key component of a strong customer engagement strategy – one that reaches users at the right place, at the right time, and is consistent across platforms.

With our recent launch of Mobile Carousels, we tapped into the possibility of creating and nurturing better customer relationships through mobile. Here, we take a deep dive on in-app messaging – defining exactly what it is and how to make it work best for your customers.

What is in-app messaging?

In-app messages are hyper-targeted notifications that are sent to users while they’re using a mobile or desktop application. In-app messaging allows marketers to engage users at just the right time, to facilitate onboarding, share product updates, offer support, or promote relevant offers.

“In-app messages are hyper-targeted notifications that are sent to users while they’re using a mobile or desktop application”

Because in-app messages trigger when a user is active within an app, they’re an especially productive way to boost traction with your most engaged users. Their ability to be leveraged for both web and mobile applications make them a key component of a cohesive onboarding, support, and marketing strategy. There are several different types of in-app messages you can send:

Types of in-app messages

  • Chats and Posts: In Intercom, you can send outbound chats and posts in both mobile and desktop apps. Chats and posts have many different use cases such as asking customers if they need help, announcing product updates, welcoming visitors, or onboarding new users.In-app messaging examples
    Use a chat to start a conversation with a user. It would look something like this:

Use chat in Intercom for in-app messaging

A post takes up more window space than a chat. Posts are primarily used to promote major product updates and tend to be more visually appealing.
Use a Post in Intercom for in-ap messaging

  • Mobile Carousels: Mobile Carousels allow you to onboard users, highlight new features, share marketing promotions or product announcements, and proactively support customers with useful tips all within your native app. They are full-screen experiences that match the look and feel of the app, unlike chats and posts, which don’t take up the full screen.

  • Product tours: Product Tours are a desktop-only solution that walk a user through the product UI, highlighting the features they’ll need to be successful.


When and where to use in-app messaging

In-app messaging campaigns are so effective because of their ability to hyper-target messages based on audience behaviors, attributes, and their place in the customer journey. Let’s chat through a few ways to use them strategically:

1. Retain users

Keeping long-term users is difficult no matter what industry you’re in. And the issue is particularly pronounced for mobile retention – some 68% of users launch a mobile app less than 10 times after downloading it from the app store.

In-app messaging is a great tool to provide valuable tips and remind users why they should continue using your app or opt-in to certain features. This could be as simple as highlighting their accomplishments or milestones, for example: “You’ve sent 100 messages this month! That’s 25% more than last month 🥳.”

“In-app messaging is a great tool to provide valuable tips and remind users why they should continue using your app”

Proactive messaging can resolve common customer questions, as you’ll use automated messages to pre-empt questions from your users before they even come up. Address simple questions, like “Where can I see my account details?” or notify them in the event of an emergency: “Our app is currently experiencing an outage. We will notify you when we’re back up and running.”

2. Convert users from a free trial

In-app messaging can also play a crucial role in your expansion strategy for trial users and current customers. The best way to do this is to show the limitations of their current subscription while enticing them with more advanced features.

For example, photo editing app VSCO locks their premium photo filters and generates an in-app message that lets the user know that the feature is only available with a paid subscription.
VSCO uses in-app messages to encourage users to upgrade from their free trial

3. Onboard new users

To get users confident and ready to use your app, you can use in-apps to create a thorough walkthrough of important features that they need to know to be successful. The best way to do this is to create fun, easy-to-follow, guided experiences that orient the user and keep them focused on completing tasks that lead to adoption.

Mobile Carousels are one way that you can provide a seamless onboarding experience for your users on your mobile application, whether it’s an Android or Apple app.

On desktop, Product Tours actively walk a new user through the different parts of the workspace that they’ll need to understand new functionality or complete a task.

Onboard new users with Product Tours

4. Promote stand-out features

If you’re running a promotion on your website, use an in-app message to surface that same promotion on both desktop and mobile to maintain a consistent cross-platform experience.

When promoting a new product feature, an in-app message can show users how to activate that feature or get started using it. Yelp does this with their “Yelp Collections” feature within their mobile app.
Yelp uses in-app messages to promote their Yelp Collections feature
You can also use a custom Mobile Carousel to highlight those new features and invite customers to “try it now!”

Primarily use a desktop app to message your users? You can use a simple post to notify them about a promotion you’re running or highlight what’s new.

5. Get user feedback

In-app messages are also a great way to get customer feedback on how they are using the app. In Intercom, you can even set parameters for this. For example, if a user has opened your app every day for a week, you can push a message that asks them for feedback.

You can do this with the Typeform app for Intercom, and embed a survey directly into your in-app messages.

Differences between push notifications and in-app messaging

Push notifications and in-app messages are both types of direct messaging channels, but they differ mainly in how they’re used. For the most part, push notifications bring people back to the product whereas in-app messages encourage deeper usage and education while the user is in the app.

Push notifications: Sent even if a user isn’t actively in an app

Push notifications are sent straight to a user’s mobile home screen, and often try to win them back to make a purchase, complete a goal or stay up to date on app activity.

In-app: Must be on the app

In-app messages are only viewable on the app while you’re using it. Read: they won’t show up on a phone’s home screen, and only will surface when a user is actively using the app.

Push: Meant to re-engage users

Push notifications are meant to get users back onto the app. They also might be used to send real time updates on order status, safety alerts, etc.

In-app: Target your most active users

In-app notifications are meant to show active users features, promotional material, updates, and other information related to the app.

7 best practices for in-app messaging

To optimize your in-app messaging strategy, there’s a few key things you need to do to ensure its success:

1. Provide an easy exit

Give users a way to exit out of the in-app message. If customers can’t find an exit route, chances are they’ll just end up closing the app instead.

2. Make it visually appealing

Nobody wants to see a black and white box with a message in it. Design the message so that it reflects your app’s color scheme and fonts.

3. Pay attention to metrics

See how many users are receiving the in-app message and how many actually act upon it.

4. Use rules to target messages

Target your in-app messages to the right crowd. Set up rules to target different audiences, like users who haven’t opened the app or visited the website in over a month, or users who have engaged every day.

5. Test, test, and test some more

As a rule of thumb, you should always test in-app messages to see which ones are delivered with the most success. In Intercom, it’s easy to iterate messages based on performance.

A few A/B tests for in-app messages you can run include:

  • Image vs no image: Do users react better to messages with images, or messages without?
  • Author name: Who is the message coming from? Do users respond better to one particular author?
  • Designed note vs plain text chat format: In one test we ran, users responded significantly better to a plain text message as opposed to a designed one.
  • Headline vs no headline: See if users prefer a catchy headline to no headline at all.
  • General in-app location vs targeted in-app location: Figure out if targeted messages or general messages to your entire user base work better. Have your message show on specific pages within your app or whichever page they land on after signing in.

6. Set up follow-up actions

Create an automated trigger to follow up with a specific audience. For example, you could set up a chatbot to respond automatically to users who answer your message.
Use a chatbot to automatically respond to in-app messages

7. Create consistent in-app messaging experiences across web & mobile

Provide the same app experience for your customers on both desktop and mobile. A consistent look and feel across both web and mobile will increase engagement, provide you with richer customer data, and elevate the CX of your platform.

Sidekicker, a company that’s revolutionizing the staffing industry by using tech to create a better experience for companies and their employees, have implemented a cross-platform strategy that leverages in-app messaging to get their end users to apply to jobs in their app.

“Customers expect the same top-notch experience across both web and mobile”

They see a direct correlation between an increase in engagement and creating a consistent web and mobile experience. They told us, “We’ve found in-app messages to be the most effective way to increase engagement with our mobile app users.”

When customers engage with a brand, they expect the same top-notch experience across both web and mobile platforms. Your in-app messages are no exception. With Intercom, you can customize them to stay consistent with your branding, optimize them for new promotions, and push major updates across multiple channels.

4 brands leading the way with in-app messaging

Unity doubles down on churn reduction

Unity Technologies, a 3D gaming development platform, uses in-app messages for onboarding support and expansion outreach. Automated, proactive messages like these prevent 10% of customers from churning alone.

Unity Technologies uses Intercom to drive down churn

Hopper makes things feel like magic

Travel booking platform Hopper uses in-app messages to create an “aha!” moment for their users.

That “aha” moment helps users visualize how much they save on each booked trip, justifying both the time it takes to set up the app and the time commitment to using it.
Hopper uses in-app messages to create "aha!" moments for their users

One Medical takes a proactive approach

One Medical, a primary care provider for patients across the US, uses in-app messages to proactively reach out to new patients who may have questions before signing up:

Get started with your in-app messaging strategy

Ready to get started? First, brainstorm actions that your customers need to both know and do based on their use case, activity level, and any other attribute that you segment your customers by. Differentiate between the ongoing “always-on” messages needed for common user goals and the one-offs for product updates and general announcements.

Now, map the ongoing actions along the customer’s journey from the onboarding stage through retention. Be sure to take note of engagement indicators like activation, milestones, inactivity, and churn. Use in-app messages to help users navigate towards whatever success may look like in your app and encourage specific actions to keep them engaged.

Depending on what makes the most sense for your business, some of these messages can be mirrored on mobile. Mobile messages will be more truncated than desktop messages, and their use will depend on the importance of the message. If you’re not sure which channel to use, think about how many users it will affect and the potential level of impact.

If you want to take a closer look at our powerful messaging platform, watch a demo of Intercom’s Customer Engagement solution! And if you’re interested in learning more, check out some of our other resources: