It's no surprise that mobile is becoming a dominant force in marketing, with global spending on apps expected to hit $35 billion this year. And, it's no wonder brands are scrambling to get a piece of the action: 86% of mobile usage is spent in apps, according to the Mobile App Engagement Index.

But there are 1.3 million apps to choose from and only 224 million monthly active app users in the US, so brands are also working hard to figure out how to get—and hold—consumers' interest.

With so much competition for time and attention, building a branded app is only half the battle. Maintaining engagement is critical for justifying the investment and making the app "sticky" enough to do its job. In other words, the adage "if you build it, they will come" certainly does not apply.

Although the amount of time users spend on apps is skyrocketing—now over 30 hours per month—the average number of apps they use is growing only slightly, now at 26.8, up just 0.3 over the year prior, according to Nielsen.

If 27 apps is the saturation point for consumers, becoming one of those favorite apps is a tall order. Breaking into the top 25 requires cracking the engagement code with a savvy mix of design, promotion, and technical prowess.

To help increase your odds, here are a handful tips for helping to maintain engagement for your branded app.

1. Create a killer app your customers will love

You get only one shot to make a great first impression. Though app usage accounts for over half of all time spent with digital media, consumers are fickle, deleting more than 70% of apps they install—within the first 30 days.

To keep consumers engaged and keep them coming back for more, offer fresh content, features, or interactivity that your target market will genuinely appreciate. Optimize the user experience so that the app is easy to navigate and use.

And if you've got less than a four-star rating in the app stores, figure out what's wrong, update your app, and release a new version as quickly as possible.

2. Use promotions and gamification

People love promotions, opportunities to score a great deal, and the option to win prizes. Since mobile is the dominant media channel, and mobile ads perform up to five times better than online ads, create mobile-specific promos that only mobile app users can participate in. Doing so creates a feeling of exclusivity that prompts participation.

Gamification can also help to drive engagement. Ask users to post selfies interacting with your brand, to go in-store to claim a mobile-exclusive deal, or to get their friends involved for an even bigger reward.

3. Incorporate social hooks

Across all age groups, people spend more time in social networking and messaging apps (total mobile engagement on social is up 55% in the past year). Social apps also convert 76.3% of all installs into registered users, so there's a major advantage to adding social elements, which foster engagement among your target audience, as well as directly with your brand. And, in case you hadn't already, make sure your mobile content is easily shareable with built-in integration across all the major social networks.

4. Run a mobile re-engagement campaign

To keep from losing consumers after the download, mobile retargeting ads are a great way to get users back into your app and re-engaged with your brand. Retargeting ads have a very strong performance record, including high click-through rates and ROI.

Retargeting ads are available through all the major mobile platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Google, and smaller ad platforms, and they give you an opportunity to remind users what enticed them to download your app in the first place.

5. Use push notifications to maintain top-of-mind awareness

Admittedly, push notifications can be a double-edged sword. When done right, they are incredibly effective at drawing consumers back to your app. In fact, users who enable push messages are up to three times more likely to launch the app in the first four months post-install.

However, similar to email marketing, it's important to give users the option to customize push notification settings to put them in control of what they receive, so as not to become annoying or overwhelming.

And, of course, create push notifications that are relevant to your users. For example, a snowboard company can send alerts about local snow conditions, or a running shoe company could send a daily reminder to go out for a run or an update on steps taken throughout the day.

* * *

With the average cost of building a branded app ranging from $50,000 to upwards of $1 million, depending on the complexity of the app, getting the biggest ROI comes down to user engagement—no matter what your budget.

The priciest, slickest, and sexiest mobile app is worthless if it doesn't fulfill its strategic objective of keeping your target audience engaged with your brand.

Whether you're still in the app planning stages or you've already deployed an app, formulating and deploying an effective engagement strategy will ensure your app earns its keep.

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image of Dennis Mink

Dennis Mink is VP of marketing at mobile app marketing and retargeting firm Liftoff.

LinkedIn: Dennis Mink