Every day, you likely see something on your smartphone screen that you don’t know the name for—app icon badges.
In 2021, there were over 6.6 billion smartphone users around the world, and that number is expected to climb to over 7.1 billion by 2024.* For each smartphone, the average user has over 80 apps and spends nearly three hours a day using them.* Apps are deeply ingrained in our digital culture, and because of that, so are app icon badges.
We’ll take a closer look at app icon badges—a type of notification—and talk about what they are, how they function, and how mobile marketers can drive user engagement through the power of a simple red dot.
Before we talk about what app icon badges do, let’s quickly touch on what an app icon is. They’re the small icons on your smartphone screen typically made from an app’s logo, the icons you click to launch an app.
An app icon badge is the little red dot that appears in the corner of an app icon. Inside the red circle, you’ll generally find a number printed in white text. That’s called the badge count.
These fancy terms describe a simple function. The app icon badge tells you there’s a new notification or message waiting for you when you open the app, and the badge count tells you how many notifications there are.
That’s a lot.
People are curious and deeply attached to all things digital and visual. That’s probably why something as simple as an app icon badge can be surprisingly difficult to ignore.
App icon badges are an indication to users that there’s something important, interesting, or stimulating to see if they launch the app. If you use these badges judiciously, you can frequently remind users to engage with your brand.
Although app icon badges are a ubiquitous part of the mobile user experience, they’re best used under specific circumstances and by certain types of apps.
Here are a few use cases where app icon badges often play a role:
Think of badges as a tool to indicate something your user actively wants to stay informed about, like how many emails they’ve received, how many friends have tried to hit them up on Snapchat, or whether some noob just beat their high score.
App icon badges are subtler than push notifications or audible notifications. Because they’re delivered silently and don’t appear until users decide to check their phones, users tend to find them useful rather than distracting.
In fact, our curiosity, desire to be informed, and urge to complete things are all part of the human behavior that makes app icon badges a valuable customer engagement tool.
Neuroscience research has shown that information is a reward for the human brain.* We’re driven by curiosity, and that may explain why we can’t resist finding out what a new notification on our smartphone is all about. To us, that red dot on our app icon may be as irresistible as a red laser pointer dot is to a cat.
But curious though we may be, there is such a thing as too many notifications. Our data science team discovered that 28% of consumers will uninstall an app if they receive too many notifications or ads.
This one’s particularly relevant when it comes to games or social media apps. If there’s a community involved — and especially if we have friends in that community — FOMO (that’s “fear of missing out”) kicks in. Science has discovered a direct link between FOMO and high levels of social media engagement.*
An app badge in a mobile game app might mean that someone’s thrown down the virtual gauntlet by beating your high score. On a shopping app, it could mean we have a new shipping notification. Either way, customers are likely to engage with your app if they fear they might be missing something good.
The average smartphone user taps, swipes, or clicks 2,617 times a day, and the top 10% of smartphone users interact with their phones over twice as often.*
Curiosity powers much of that interaction, but it’s also possible that sometimes we just don’t like to leave things unfinished, and app icon badges often mean there’s something that needs our attention.
For marketers, there’s more power than you might imagine behind app icon badges. Put something valuable behind that little red dot each time your user clicks, and you’ll build an effective long-term customer engagement strategy.
The following best practices will make your app “sticky” and build meaningful connections between your users and your brand.
App icon badges are user-friendly because they don’t cause interruptions in the same way audible or pop-up notifications do. Savvy marketers use them to remind their users—without outright annoying them—that something good awaits if they launch the app.
Badging can complement your push notification strategy—the two functions often work in tandem. Badges can alert a user to push notifications that await them. As the number of notifications increases, so will the badge counter, which serves as a regular reminder that there’s unseen content behind the next tap.
Although badges are often tied to push notifications, they don’t have to be.
Badges can appear without an accompanying push notification, especially when they’re tied to an in-app feature that your user will navigate to like a message inbox, news feed, or in-app event landing page.
No one wants to feel like notifications are “blowing up” their phone. Although badges are pretty unintrusive, users may find a high number of pending notifications overwhelming, much like having 2,000 unread emails in your inbox.
Of course, the number of notifications we tolerate depends on the app. Although we might feel flattered by a significant badge count on dating or chat apps, double-digit notifications from a budgeting or banking app might make us worry that there’s trouble with our finances.
Empathize with your users when you develop your badging strategy to get a better idea about how many badge notifications may be too many.
Anyone who has ever fought the urge to resist an unread message notification knows just how effective badges and badge counters can be. As unobtrusive as they are, badges are hard to ignore.
By thoughtfully working badging into your messaging strategy, you can encourage users to stay active and engaged with your app, all without a sound or a pop-up. You might say app icon badges are one app feature that most users don’t mind and few can resist.