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Have you noticed that certain mobile apps make you happier than others? The feeling that you get after, say, streaming music on Pandora during a workout, using Waze to circumvent traffic, or using the Nest app to get your home to the perfect temperature before you arrive is different from how you feel after scrolling through your Facebook feed or looking at profiles on Tinder or Bumble.

This difference in the emotional state of the consumer – no matter how slight – has significant meaning for marketers. Why? Because it impacts how they receive your brand message. Studies show that if someone is in a negative state and sees a positive advertisement, that disconnect creates a negative feeling about the brand. If they are in a positive state, however, that’s an opportunity to create a positive connection and to build a level of trust that leads to a purchase action. On top of that, happiness is one of the primary drivers of social sharing, so your message is more likely to spread to their networks.

In short: Happiness sells.

Which apps make consumers happy?

Moment, an app that tracks how people spend time on their iPhones, looked at the average minutes spent per day from 500,000 users and cross-referenced those figures with self-reported data (from 4 percent of that sampling) on how happy or unhappy they felt with each app.

They found that apps that help people live their everyday lives, such as calendars, to-do lists, meditation tools, and traffic assistants, were clustered in the “most-happy” space – but these are also the apps users spent the least amount of time with. Entertainment and communication apps like Spotify, Audible, and Podcasts also scored high for user happiness but low on focused time.

Apps that made users happy but also consumed significant amounts of time, were those that connected people to those they were personally close to (e.g., Skype, FaceTime). But here’s the interesting part: Apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Reddit – all of which supposedly serve to connect people – scored high on time spent but lowest on the happiness scale. They are, according to the report, “time sucks, with little value returned to the user.”

Why is this? Adam Alter, a marketing professor at NYU-Stern, tries to explain this in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. He cites a 2015 study that shows 6 in 10 people (59 percent) admit they are dependent on social media sites but say their reliance on these sites ultimately makes them unhappy. Many other studies since then have backed this up.

Apps that take a lot of time but have little positive impact on the user are essentially feeding a behavioral addiction, where the user fulfills a short-term psychological need but receives no significant long-term benefit.

Addictions are often confused with passions, but there is “harmonious passion,” in which the user freely chooses to engage in the activity because it gives them pleasure but does not take up overwhelming space in the person’s identity or cause disharmony with other aspects of their life. This is quite different from an “obsessive passion,” which takes up disproportionate space and causes conflicts with other activities. “Harmonious passions make life worth living,” he says, “but an obsessive passion plagues the mind.”

Why this matters for marketers

Product designers and app developers might still focus on “stickiness” and longer session times, but marketers should not rely solely on these metrics to identify a high-quality app. Just because an app is addictive doesn’t mean it’s a premium environment for advertising. Rather, marketers should look for apps that:

  1. Add value to users’ lives every day. This includes weather and sports apps, because they are opened and used daily and thus become integrated into a user’s routine. Streaming audio and video apps also fit this profile. But also consider the more supplemental entertainment apps like Shazam or SnapTube, a video and audio download app that has more than 20 million monthly users.
  2. Promote creativity and productivity. People are happy when they are pursuing their creative passions, such as writing or photography. Look for apps that help users make things, like photo-collages or short videos. Storytelling is also a win: Wattpad, for example, is an online storytelling community that has deep user engagement; Episode – Choose Your Story is also rising in the app store charts for the same reason.
  3. Create connections outside of traditional social media. Apps that enable users to connect with others in real time but to also stretch their imagination are becoming extremely popular, and not just among young people. Virtual pets apps like Talking Tom and virtual reality worlds like Avakin Life are premium environments for advertisers because users are fully immersed – and personally invested – in the content.

The best apps for advertising are not the ones that are the most addictive, the ones that users “can’t live without.” Instead, find the apps that users can live without but where they choose to spend their time because it makes them happy.

Nikao Yang is cofounder and EVP of Global Business Development at AdColony.

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