The original article is posted at QSR Magazine, where I write a monthly column.

The top 10 quick-service restaurant apps in the U.S. were downloaded 10.1 million times in January, 12.9 percent fewer than the month prior. Year-over-year in the month of January, downloads of the top 36 quick-service restaurant apps are up 22.8 percent. A download represents a new user and the first conversion on the mobile app customer’s journey.

January 2023

From December to January, Subway jumped up from No. 9 to No. 6 while Taco Bell moved up from No. 5 to No. 4. Dunkin’ dropped two spots from No. 6 to No. 8 while Domino’s and Pizza Hut also fell two spots. Wendy’s fell out of the top 10 entirely, making room for Chipotle. The Mexican-food chain came in at No. 7 this January, breaking into the top 10 for the first time in more than a year, since October 2021. Chipotle was the No. 13 app last month, growing its downloads 44 percent month-over-month.

Chipotle gained these new installs on the back of a new loyalty program campaign, giving members 10 free food “drops” throughout the year, such as guacamole, queso, double protein, etc. It drove urgency by providing a deadline for non-members to join, in order to get the new benefit. Chipotle simultaneously launched a lottery, giving rewards members a chance to win free food for a year. With 694,000 monthly downloads, this was the most Chipotle has had since April 2020.

Still, it was not enough to overcome Shake Shack’s big month in terms of MoM growth. The burger chain grew installs by 170 percent in January, the largest increase across the top 36 quick-service restaurant apps. Looking at the data, it was a big pop and not a sustained lift in downloads. The large pop stemmed from a collaboration with T-Mobile for its T-Mobile Tuesdays deals. T-Mobile Tuesday promotions tend to provide very large pops of new installs for quick-service chains running promotions with the telecommunications company, however these are users who are here for the deal and do not usually stick around.

While one of the easiest ways to juice downloads of any app is to offer free or discounted product, the performance from such campaigns indicate that the consumer experience with transactional rewards are just that—transactional. No emotion invested, which leaves no guarantee that the redeemer of the freebie or discount is coming back when your product is full price.

Try experiential offers instead. Examples would be offering early access to menu items, input on the menu in general, an interactive gaming experience, etc. These evoke emotion and generate a feeling of being valued by the brand. They get the right people in the door. The trick is not to directly entice non-members to download your app but to promote a new awesome reward (temporary or long-term reward) in a way that non-members see it and get jealous/FOMO and want to enjoy that same experience.

Download QSR Loyalty Do’s and Don’ts