Today’s savvy mobile marketer is familiar with the term deep linking, but not necessarily fully versed in what it means for their product, and how the landscape is changing. Deep links are simply links that go to specific content or experiences in an app rather than the generic app homepage. It’s unfortunately sometimes thought of as a standalone “optimization” for an app that can be left until the crossing and dotting stage of product development—useful only for squeezing out a few percentage points of extra value.
However, since joining Branch Metrics, I’ve learned that deep linking is a core piece of mobile technology that enables a whole range of features. Our most successful partners use deep linking as the foundation for features that solve a business goal and doubles (or even sextuples) baseline metrics. To use deep linking properly, it’s important to understand what deep linking is (and isn’t), how it can benefit user experience and increase engagement, and where it’s headed.
Apps ≠ mobile internet
Most of the information on the web exists in the convenient packaging of HTML. Right click on this page and choose “View page source” in Chrome (or follow these instructions in Safari) and you can see the HTML that makes up this page. It’s easy for machines (and people) to read the text of the webpage and understand what the page is about. You also know that the URL in the browser bar tells you where that information lives, in case you want to create a link to it.
Apps don’t work like this. There is no universally available language, or publicly accepted linking technology to move seamlessly into or between apps. Users also have to download apps before they can enjoy content in that app (though this may be changing—read on). These two simple realities of the ecosystem create massive barriers that mobile marketers have to overcome every time they run a campaign.
The uneventful past of deep linking
When deep linking was first introduced, it had a major flaw. It wouldn’t work if you didn’t have the app installed. Deep linking couldn’t help with user acquisition, and because most apps were vying to get installed on new customers’ phones (this was before the importance of user retention was truly realized), it was quickly ignored on product roadmaps.
Now, deferred and contextual deep linking can work through the install. This means deep links can help both with re-engaging existing users by sending them back into the app, and also with obtaining new users—linking them to a particular piece of content, or a personalized experience, after install.
If we consider deep linking an isolated feature, it doesn’t get us very far. We can simply create links to content within apps, which is somewhat useful, but not very powerful unless we combine it with some experience we want to give the user. It also doesn’t solve the download barrier.
What we really want out of our deep links is to give our users a great experience that increases the chance they download the app, and that they’ll sign up for an account, purchase a product, or simply come back to our app over and over again.
What does good deep linking look like today?
Here are some brands creating great experiences with deep linking.
Pinterest uses deep linking from their mobile website that automatically detects if a user has the app installed, and takes them to that same content in the app. If the user doesn’t have the app installed, then it puts the link behind a call to download the app, continuing the experience in the app after install.
Yummly and Instacart use deep linking to transfer recipe ingredients from Yummly recipes into the Instacart shopping cart with the click of a button, smoothing out the recipe to ingredient purchase experience. This increases Yummly’s user retention by 35%.
Fox Sports uses deep linking to encourage sharing of video content, linking directly to a specific video in the app when a video is shared, and offering a helpful “reminder” function for future live programs.
Jet uses deep linking from a smart banner to convert a user from the mobile web interface to the cleaner, faster app, increasing checkouts and purchases. This increased their daily downloads by 3X and doubled their in-app conversion to purchase.
SoundCloud uses Appboy’s push notifications to share the news about trending songs in certain categories. Those notifications then deep link to the specific track within the app.
In each of these examples, a deep link is empowered by its context, and all the additional benefits (passing data through install, source attribution, content popularity tracking) are mechanics or collateral benefits of providing a great user experience.
What’s in store for deep linking?
At Branch, we believe the “next big thing” for deep linking will be mobile search, and large tech companies driving traffic to apps by deep linking to app content (Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft are all working on deep linking related products).
If we’re just getting to the point where apps are linked like early HTML, then we’ve got a long way to go in the future of the mobile app ecosystem. App content indexing and analytics—understanding the quality content in your app from a deep linking perspective—will be key for getting traffic in the long run.
It’s long been considered inevitable that app content will be surfaced by the tools we’re already using to find web content, but it’s been unclear how it will play out. With advances in mobile technology over the last year, we’re reaching a tipping point that will change the game.
There is also fresh ground to break for mobile marketing—app marketers can now put deep links behind many of their traditional campaigns, not just Facebook, Google, and Twitter, but in physical collateral, in NFC chips in retail stores, and elsewhere. Deep links can connect traditional marketing, web content, and even the physical world.
Deep links have only recently reached maturity, and as a consequence, they can provide something new but reliable for the (often constricted) mobile marketing landscape. I’ve talked about what we’ve seen, but app developers and marketers will be the ones who truly push the boundaries.