Hugh Reynolds is CEO of Swrve, which does relationship marketing and testing for mobile apps.

In my children’s school, there’s a ban on talking about you-know-what until December. But a mobile business has no such luxury.

In fact, your plans for the holiday season are already done and dusted. Your latest releases are with Apple or Android for approval, and the ad network spend is booked and ready to go.

But there’s more to life than user acquisition. And as we get ready for the annual holiday frenzy, I can’t help thinking that an old warning applies: “A mobile app is for life, not just for the holiday season.”

If we spend a small fortune on acquisition and those people don’t stick around after the holidays, we’ve wasted an awful lot of money. It’s a thought that keeps everyone up at night.

We’ve become accustomed to thinking of mobile apps and games as hit-driven businesses, but that’s far from the case. What really marks out a successful app is not that it monetizes effectively or has a huge installed base or even that it generates media attention. It’s that the app is used or played for long periods of time. People keep coming back.

So as the holiday season approaches, what can we do to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of being installed on the 26th and forgotten before the new year? Here are five ways to ensure that doesn’t happen.

1. Test

If you haven’t established that your app or game retains users effectively, you need to do that now. And to do that, you need to A/B test every aspect of the user experience to destruction, until your KPIs are where they need to be.

To be clear, there is no substitute for a testing program both before and after launch. It tells you how real users behave and validates your design decisions in the only way that counts.

Whenever you find yourself asking the “what if?” question, test.

2. Optimize the first 24 hours

If your app can’t compete with rummaging the fridge for leftover turkey and ham, you’ve got a problem. And that’s what will happen if what you deliver is too confusing, too difficult to use, or doesn’t clearly sell the value. After all, everyone understands and values a post-Thanksgiving sandwich!

So make sure you design to bring out the intrinsic value of your app. (I’m assuming your app is inherently valuable, if it isn’t isn’t, I can’t help you).

This means:

  • Get the tutorial right, and if necessary, personalize it for different types of people.
  • Think carefully about starting position. Ensure that the initial experience is positive, constructive, and leaves users wanting more.
  • Encourage discovery. Keep track of which users have (or have not) performed the tasks you’d like them to, and take action to ensure they do.

3. Use customized offers for conversion

Whether you want users to subscribe or players to make a first in-game purchase, getting them over the line is what it’s all about. Get smart about segmenting your user base, and talk to them about offers relevant to them in language that pushes their buttons.

The potential implications here are many, but the goal is a simple one. The objective is to treat each user as an individual, understand what matters to them, and put it in front of them.

Let me say that again: Treat each user as an individual, understand what matters to them, then put it in front of them.

The good news is, you have all the data you need to make that approach a reality, and it’s possible to create both the offers and the messages that promote them for highly targeted customer segments.

4. Keep on pushing

Let’s be honest, most of your audience isn’t in your app most of the time. So keeping them engaged long-term, both inside and outside of the application, is important.

Push notifications are a useful tool here, but push also has a bad name. This is because push notifications are frequently used as a sort of mobile spam — a.k.a., misguided messages blasted to millions of users that entirely lack relevance for most of them (except raising annoyance levels of course).

But if done with care, and by taking a personalized approach, you can make push notifications work. If you learn from user behavior, create an offer that appeals specifically to a curated group, and send them a targeted push notification that hits their phone when you know they are likely to use your app, now you’re talking.

5. Change with the seasons

Apps that don’t change are predictable. Consistency is good in some ways, but the holidays present a great opportunity to change up certain influential aspects of your application, such as available in-app purchases, or the look and feel of what you do. You should adapt and make changes both with the calendar and for it’s own sake.

Don’t be afraid to try things out. In fact, to succeed, do just the opposite. The most successful apps and games now run as services rather than products. What is delivered depends on a complex interplay between what is known about the individual user and what is happening in terms of the outside world.

So what did we learn? Go get your data-based, custom, A/B-tested Valentine’s Day offers ready to go. Now!