App psychology: What can heritage apps learn from social media?


8 minute read
Alumni: Charlie Harman

Alumni: Charlie Harman

Marketing Manager

Arts & Culture

Digital Insights

App psychology

What do we do 2,617 times a day? According to a study by research company dscout, that’s the number of times we touch our phones on average, every day.

We all recognise the familiar itch. Waiting for a bus? Check your Facebook notifications. Stuck in a traffic jam? Idly scroll through Instagram. Just woken up? Open your unread WhatsApp messages. It’s our go-to time killer of choice.

How has this happened?

None of it has been accidental. Just ask Nir Eyal, Silicon Valley angel investor and author of Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. In his book, he writes: ‘The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.’

When it comes to strategically tapping into human psychology, social media leaves no neurons unturned. From stroking our egos to making us feel liked, wanted, acknowledged, desired – there’s something for everyone – and that’s precisely why we keep going back for more. So, what’s the magic formula that makes social media so powerfully addictive? And what positives can heritage apps take from the techniques these Silicon Valley giants use?

Push it real good

Amongst the most ubiquitous tools used by social media apps is the not-so-humble push notification (a message sent to a mobile device from an app), which can do anything from reminding users to engage with friends to letting them know about an event or promotion. These notifications are disruptive, but effective; Eyal called them ‘…the Pavlovian bell of the 21st century and they get us to check our tech incessantly.’

But despite the interruption, they work. Accengage, the leading Push Notification technology for Mobile Apps, Websites and Facebook Messenger recently analyzed the metrics of 65 billion Push Notifications and 50,000 Push Campaigns. They found the average Mobile App Push Notification reaction rate was of 8.4%. While that may seem low, that’s still 5.4 billion clicks, all from one simple message.

Even if consumers don’t click directly on the push message, they still have an impact on app usage. According to one 2014 study, push messages boost overall app engagement by 88%. Is it any wonder the big players in social are so demanding of your attention?

If you want to get people to look at your app, push notifications are a surefire way to do just that. The question you must ask is: ‘to what end?’ Whereas social apps want to distract you, heritage apps and experiences should engage you. Too many messages during a visit can be intrusive and detract from the immersion of the experience.

The content, then, is all important. Used correctly they can inform people about upcoming events or special promotions, or tempt them to visit unexplored gems, all of which leads to better engagement.

After a visit, push notifications can be a particularly effective way to remind people of their experience and to encourage feedback about the exhibition. Whether it’s sending them the results of a quiz they took part in while visiting or a picture of a memorable moment, we all love a bit of nostalgia (think Facebook ‘Memories’). A 2015 study for the European Journal of Social Psychology found that the bittersweet reminiscence of nostalgia is a positive and comforting force. We enjoy it because it strengthens our sense of continuity and identity, so harnessing the power of nostalgia can be a highly effective and pleasant way to keep users coming back for more.

The bottom line; any notifications you send need to be fun, playful or useful – enhancing the experience rather than creating distraction.

Gaming the system

Playing on our human need to feel incentivised and rewarded, gamification is a powerful weapon in the social media arsenal. According to Google AdMob’s App Developer Business Kit, 62% of smartphone owners will install a game within a week of getting a new phone. The mobile community loves games. Why? Because apart from the thrill of the challenge, games are fun – and addictive. Whether it’s beating a friend’s score, getting to the next level or collecting gold coins, we always go back for one more go.

Given the immersive nature of cultural experiences, heritage apps can benefit hugely from gamification. Games offer a world of potential for heritage sites looking to be creative, and they can help engage audiences of all ages.

In our Tower Bridge project, for instance, we developed an interactive treasure hunt for younger visitors which helped them learn history and engage with the site in a different way. At the National Theatre, meanwhile, we encouraged visitors to pose for dramatic scenes together, building a storyboard of photos from around the building for our ‘Hidden Stages’ project. Here were two very different demographics, but both encouraged to use the app by putting play at the front and centre of the visitor experience.

Video killed the radio star

It’s well established that human beings are visual creatures, so it’s no surprise to read Cisco projects global internet traffic from videos will make up 80% of all internet traffic by 2019. Social media platforms know this better than most, and they utilise it perfectly. There are obvious examples: YouTube, Facebook’s ‘Facebook Live’ and Instagram’s ‘Stories’. Each let users watch and share videos at any time, anywhere providing snackable, rich, engaging and instantly accessible information.

Used in heritage apps, video is a clear and powerful way to give context to a cultural or historical experience. It can create a mood, bring a historical story to life, entice people to visit a particular site or provide users with interesting background information. But it needs to be used sparingly – too many and you risk having video-watching zombies walking around, missing the point of their visit.

Curiosity killed the cat

Whether it’s watching complete strangers open parcels on YouTube or looking through a friend of a friend’s holiday snaps on Facebook, we’re programmed to snoop. That tantalising peek behind the curtains into someone else’s life (however edited) is too tempting to resist – and keeps us firmly glued to our smartphones.

One of the reasons looking at other people’s lives is so psychologically gratifying is because it gives us a reference for comparison. On top of this, deep down (or not so deep down), humans are curious animals who crave information about other people – a need perfectly satisfied by social media.

Within heritage apps, giving users the opportunity to sneak a peek at what other visitors have been up to can be a potent way to keep them engaged. Invite people to post pictures of their own experiences, allow users the chance to comment, message or ‘like’ in the style of Instagram and Facebook, show the results of interactive exhibitions. There’s plenty of opportunity for creativity, using the social cues of social media as a jump off point. Of course, this would require some moderation to ensure the content is appropriate.

Staying social

Social media apps talk to us. All the time. They notify us when someone likes a picture, when a friend shares an article, when someone tags us in a post. You open Facebook, see a number of notifications highlighted in red on your screen, and you click to open them. This constant communication ensures we stay actively engaged.

When it comes to the cultural sector and heritage apps, social updates can have a real impact on a visitor’s experience. Sharing practical, real-time information, like how many spaces are free in the car park, weather news or how busy the shop and café are, can help people plan their day. Not only does this type of update create a more fun and pleasant experience for visitors, it also makes it much more likely that they’ll keep checking the app for updated information.

The key to all this is understanding your audience, the experience you’re building and the purpose of the app. Push notifications work brilliantly for social media, and can too for heritage apps. But handle with care. Disruption at the wrong time will damage the experience. Disruption at the right time can improve it.

Social media apps are jostling for attention amid a boisterous crowd of competition: that which shouts loudest, earns eyeballs. You already have your visitor’s attention, begging for too much can spoil the relationship. Decide what you want the user journey to look like, be sensitive to their overall experience, and, where relevant, employ some of these social tricks to encourage engagement.


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