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User Acquisition: Mobile Applications and the Mobile Web

This is the third post in a three post series on user acquisition.

In the first two posts in this series, we covered the basics of the five sources of traffic to a web-based product and the fundamentals of viral factors.  This final post covers applying these insights to the current edge of product innovation: mobile applications and the mobile web.

Bar Fight: Native Apps vs. Mobile Web

For the last few years, the debate between building native applications vs. mobile web sites has raged.  (In Silicon Valley, bar fights break out over things like this.) Developers love the web as a platform.  As a community, we have spent the last fifteen years on standards, technologies, environments and processes to produce great web-based software.  A vast majority of developers don’t want to go back to the days of desktop application development.

Makes you wonder why we have more than a million native applications out there across platforms.

Native Apps Work

If you are religious about the web as a platform, the most upsetting thing about native applications is that they work.  The fact is, in almost every case, the product manager who pushes to launch a native application is rewarded with metrics that go up and to the right.  As long as that fact is true, we’re going to continue to see a growing number of native applications.

But why do they work?

There are actually quite a few aspects to the native application ecoystem that make it explosively more effective than the desktop application ecosystem of the 1990s.  Covering them all would be a blog post in itself.  But in the context of user acquisition, I’ll posit a dominant, simple insight:

Native applications generate organic traffic, at scale.

Yes, I know this sounds like a contradiction.  In my first blog post on the five sources of traffic, I wrote:

The problem with organic traffic is that no one really knows how to generate more of it.  Put a product manager in charge of “moving organic traffic up” and you’ll see the fear in their eyes.

That was true… until recently.  On the web, no one knows how to grow organic traffic in an effective, measurable way.  However, launch a native application, and suddenly you start seeing a large number of organic visits.  Organic traffic is often the most engaged traffic.  Organic traffic has strong intent.  On the web, they typed in your domain for a reason.  They want you to give them something to do.  They are open to suggestions.  They care about your service enough to engage voluntarily.  It’s not completely apples-to-apples, but from a metrics standpoint, the usage you get when someone taps your application icon behaves like organic traffic.

Giving a great product designer organic traffic on tap is like giving a hamster a little pedal that delivers pure bliss.  And the metrics don’t lie.

Revenge of the Web: Viral Distribution

OK. So despite fifteen years of innovation, we as a greater web community failed to deliver a mechanism that reliably generates the most engaged and valuable source of traffic to an application.  No need to despair and pack up quite yet, because the web community has delivered on something equally (if not more) valuable.

Viral distribution favors the web.

Web pages can be optimized across all screens – desktop, tablet, phone.  When there are viral loops that include the television, you can bet the web will work there too.

We describe content using URLs, and universally, when you open a URL they go to the web.  We know how to carry metadata in links, allowing experiences to be optimized based on the content, the mechanism that it was shared, who shared it, and who received it.  We can multivariate test it in ways that border on the supernatural.

To be honest, after years of conversations with different mobile platform providers, I’m still somewhat shocked that in 2012 the user experience for designing a seamless way for URLs to appropriately resolve to either the web or a native application are as poor as they are.  (Ironically, Apple solved this issue in 2007 for Youtube and Google Maps, and yet for some reason has failed to open up that registry of domains to the developer community.)  Facebook is taking the best crack at solving this problem today, but it’s limited to their channel.

The simple truth is that the people out there that you need to grow do not have your application.  They have the web.  That’s how you’re going to reach them at scale.

Focus on Experience, Not Technology

In the last blog post on viral factors, I pointed out that growth is based on features that let a user of your product reach out and connect with a non-user.

In the mobile world of 2012, that may largely look like highly engaged organic users (app) pushing content out that leads to a mobile web experience (links).

As a product designer, you need to think carefully about the end-to-end experience across your native application and the mobile web.  Most likely, a potential user’s first experience with your product or service will be a transactional web page, delivered through a viral channel.  They may open that URL on a desktop computer, a tablet, or a phone.  That will be your opportunity not only to convert them over to an engaged user, in many cases by encouraging them to download your native application.

You need to design a delightful and optimized experience across that entire flow if you want to see maximized self-distribution of your product and service.

Think carefully about how Instagram exploded in such a short time period, and you can see the power of even just one optimized experience that cuts across a native application and a web-based vector.

Now go build a billion dollar company.

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