Marketing Lessons Learned from Investing Apps

By Madison Taylor
July 30, 2021
women looking at her phone drinking coffee

In the last year or so, “retail investing” — investing by nonprofessionals through brokerage accounts — has exploded onto the scene. The movement toward everyman investors got a significant boost in January of 2021, when a group of Reddit users decided to join forces against giant Wall Street funds who were attempting to short Gamestop stock.

Since then, retail investing apps like Robinhood, Webull, eTrade, and others have skyrocketed in popularity. We’re not here to tell you how to invest your money, but there are some valuable marketing lessons to be learned from the success of these tools — especially when it comes to web design, user interfaces, and appealing to younger generations.

1. Keep It Simple

Investing is all about speed. While retail investors aren’t quite as hyper-focused on speed as the professionals who measure their transaction times in milliseconds, they still want to open the app, check their balance or make a trade in seconds, and close it again. They want to find what they’re looking for quickly and intuitively.

The apps lend themselves directly to this simplicity of use. Your balance, performance, and trade options are right up front when the app opens. Some apps even have “trending” stock lists so you can immediately jump on the latest stock you might have been reading about. These apps also have more obscure features like tutorials and investing guides, but they’re buried behind menus.

As marketers, we have a tendency to put style over substance. We make fancy websites with splash screens and gorgeous photos, but these only serve to slow down our visitors. Instead, cut to the chase and let your customers see what they want to see right away. Use the analytics on your website and app to find out which features your visitors use most and put them front and center.

2. Gamification Works

When a Robinhood user makes their first trade, confetti falls down the screen. When your stock positions change significantly, you get a notification on your phone that you’ve made (or lost) money. Graphs are colorful and intuitive — numbers either go up or they go down, requiring little to no understanding of the processes behind them.

“Gamification” might have peaked as a buzzword around a decade ago, but the principles are still sound — there’s something in the human brain that responds viscerally to colors, numbers, graphs, icons, and other simplified visuals in a way that makes us want to pay attention and come back again.

The level of gamification you can implement will vary depending on your company, but no matter what product or service you offer, there are some key principles you can incorporate:

  • Narrative: give your users a reason to care about their progress. Something as simple as a progress bar that shows how many onboarding activities they’ve completed will compel them to keep going.
  • Aesthetics: text is boring, so spice up your interface with icons, buttons, graphics, and other compelling visuals.
  • Rewards: video game players get achievements for everything they accomplish. You can use the same principle to congratulate your users on the progress they make.

Receiving emails about their stats, achievement badges, or tips on how to improve generally make users more likely to keep using the service.

3. Reduce Friction

As recently as the 1970s, processing a single stock market trade could cost hundreds of dollars. In the last decade or so, brokerages like eTrade and Schwab advertised trade fees in the single digits — $3 to $5 per trade was seen as a rock-bottom price.

Robinhood took that trend to its logical conclusion and decided to offer trading completely free of charge, making money from interest, premium accounts, and margin lending instead. Robinhood also doesn’t require a minimum investment, opening the door to more risk-averse people (and young people without much cash on hand).

The result is that there’s virtually no barrier to entry. If you wanted, you could deposit a single dollar and invest it in 100 different penny stocks. Robinhood (as the name implies) has billed itself as a tool for the democratization of investing. Historically, the stock market has been seen as complex, inaccessible, and essentially run by the rich. While that’s still true to a large extent — the top 10 percent of investors own 84 percent of all Wall Street portfolios — Robinhood and its ilk have opened the doors to millions of new users. According to the New York Times, half of Robinhood’s 13 million account holders had never invested or traded before.

As marketers, we should strive for the same frictionless experience. Obviously, not every product is intended for every customer, and it’s a waste of time to appeal to too broad a base. But when it comes to the customers who do have a vested interest in what you can offer them, your focus should be on making it as easy as possible for them to find, purchase, and use your product.

4. Leverage Social

Many of these trading apps use referral programs to bring in new customers, offering existing customers free cash to trade with or a few shares of a cheap stock if they can get a friend to sign up. Referral programs aren’t unique to the trading world, but the viral power of people’s investing success stories is a potent draw for new users hoping to strike it rich.

Your organization might not offer anything as sexy as overnight wealth, but you can still leverage the potential of your existing happy customers to bring in new leads. Focus on the problem being solved and the pain points your prospects face. If you tell an HR manager, “with our software, you’ll never have to worry about timesheet audits again,” you’ll make a strong case for trying out the product. If you can refer them to an existing customer that vouches for the usefulness of your software, the case becomes much stronger.

5. Stay Nimble

The most important lesson is one that marketers learn over again: the only constant is change. The investing landscape has been shifting, and the successful brokerage apps are learning to keep pace. The marketing landscape shifts just as frequently, and we as marketers need to be agile in order to meet our customers’ changing needs. The sudden success of apps like Robinhood isn’t an outlier, it’s just the newest example of how important flexibility can be.