When we think about frictionless, personalized app experiences, we might directly connect them to the star brands consistently outperforming others in the crowded mobile app space. But behind the scenes, what exactly goes into these delightful app experiences? How do top brands ensure that something as seemingly simple as a broken link in an email doesn’t throw off their entire user experience and lead to frustration and churn?
We sat down with Alex Bauer, Head of Product at Branch, to get his thoughts on the mobile app market today, how his team helps app publishers dodge current challenges to retain and engage app users, and what’s next for Branch and the future of mobile.
Start with a brief overview of your company. What does Branch do, and who does it serve?
Alex Bauer: Branch provides linking and attribution for companies with mobile apps.
If I unpack that a little bit, we all know that apps have exploded in popularity over the last few years. In the past, an app was often a destination in itself. It was the spot on the home screen that stares you in the face every day, and you would regularly go back to that app because it's got that reserved spot on the home screen.
That's just not the way that a lot of us interact with apps anymore. It's more and more the case that a mobile app is a critical piece of a brand's relationship with its customers, but only one part of how these relationships are supported, built, and maintained over time.
Apps today need to be deeply integrated. They need to be connected to everything that the customer wants, or that the brand wants to do with their customers. We've seen that this deep integration of apps brings new challenges because users are now trained to expect that they can jump between platforms and channels.
A lot of these brands that consumers interact with daily have invested to build these best-in-class user experiences, where, for example, you click a link in your email and it just goes into the app right away. But if that transition doesn't work well, then the user starts to notice. They might become aware, even without fully realizing it, that this particular brand's app doesn't work right. Perhaps they even begin to avoid clicking links in that brand's emails after a while, because they know that links never go where they expect.
This poor experience is what brands need to try hard to avoid, and that’s where Branch comes into the picture. Branch helps make sure that links always work, whether users are on an Android device from three years ago or a brand new iOS device.
When the links always work, you can then start to use them for reliable marketing campaigns. You can use them for your advertising – you can measure when the ads work or don't. You can use them for your social media posts and make sure that your users get back into the app from all different social media channels. The linking is the key infrastructure piece that makes it possible.
Does Branch work with all types of mobile apps?
AB: We have major customers in pretty much every vertical in the app store. As I described earlier, we tend to work with apps that facilitate a customer relationship in which the app is an important part, but not the entire thing. One interesting observation is that description often doesn't apply to mobile games. With mobile games, the app is typically the whole experience. Without the app, there is no game.
Describe your specific responsibilities/activities in your role as Head of Product. What are your general objectives, and what do you find most rewarding?
AB: As Head of Product, I'm responsible for defining the product strategy, and I end up collaborating with pretty much every other department in the company, from sales, to account management, to marketing, to engineering, to finance. Product is in the center of the wheel.
The team I lead combines product managers, product designers, product data analysts, and a product marketing team. So my general objectives are pretty straightforward: we have to build products that will help our customers achieve whatever their objectives are.
What I find rewarding is when I see customers react positively to the things that my team builds. For me, because I also have a background in music performance, there is an element a bit like looking in the eyes of an audience responding while I’m on stage.
Zooming out a bit, what are some of the biggest challenges mobile app publishers face today, and how is Branch working to address these challenges?
AB: The biggest challenge I see is that mobile apps are reaching the later part of the maturity curve, meaning they are now something that everybody, even my grandparents, is familiar with. So it's no longer just an arms race of user acquisition.
Ad-driven growth remains necessary, but it's no longer sufficient. I see companies grappling with this question: When we can no longer win this game by just pouring more cheap traffic into the top of our bucket, where do we need to focus instead to fix the leaks in that bucket?
Many companies are starting to realize that they need to do things that allow them to continue bringing users in, even if they have to cut the budget back for whatever reason. With some of these macroeconomic trends we’re facing, these are conversations a lot of brands are having: How can we be more efficient? How can we do things that don't involve just scaling the budget up infinitely?
So how is Branch specifically working with these app publishers to help them face these big challenges?
AB: One of the big changes that is very disruptive for the industry right now is the growing importance of user privacy protection. Brands still need a way to prove that what they're doing is working, but at the same time, the methods that they have traditionally relied on to collect that data are no longer as reliable as they used to be. In some cases, they're starting to be completely turned off.
When it comes to things that Branch is doing, one big focus is on how we continue to provide measurement data that marketers need to know that their campaigns are worthwhile. That involves things like adopting next-generation, privacy-protecting measurement frameworks such as SKAdNetwork on iOS, and the Attribution API on Android.
Then there's also a focus on helping brands better activate their owned and earned marketing channels for mobile growth. How do we make it so that every channel can be treated like a performance marketing channel?
How do you take something that was always a good idea, but was often not given the attention that it probably deserved because ads were such an easy low-hanging fruit to go after?
Which upcoming trends/changes/predictions are you most excited about right now?
AB: While it's quite disruptive in the short term. I am excited that the industry is finally moving away from these hyper-invasive tracking techniques. I think that from a technical perspective, the idea ‘if you can build it, it must be good’ led to some really interesting things. But what I found personally troubling was the idea that if you can track it, you should.
App companies are realizing that there are better ways that they can protect user privacy while still getting the data that they need. I'm excited about that because it means that now, we're moving back to a world where we are collecting the data that we need to do our job, while still balancing it against what’s good to be putting out into the world.
Shifting gears, let’s talk about deep linking. For those who don’t know: what is it, and what are its benefits for publishers? How does Branch help them achieve those benefits?
AB: Deep linking is probably a term that most people are familiar with at this point, but to briefly define it: it's the idea that if you click a link, it goes to the piece of content that you expect it to. That’s kind of a deceptively simple definition because every link you click on the web is a deep link and you probably just never realized it. It would be quite weird if you clicked a link and every time it took you to the homepage of the website – that would get annoying pretty quickly.
A deep link in the mobile app realm means a link that takes you into an app to the correct piece of content. That has always been possible on mobile, but it's often been difficult and unreliable, and it has required a bunch of different technical protocols on different versions of operating systems.
Branch exists to simplify that complexity and bring it back to the same kind of reliability that you always found on the web – you click a link, and it takes you to the expected piece of content.
What are some of the best practices for in-app engagement and retention that apply to all types of apps? What are some of the common mistakes?
AB: I'd say that the best practice at this point is to remember that the app is one component of this larger experience.
If you treat your app as a facilitation function that can help you establish and then maintain and grow over time a relationship with your customers, that will guide you as to what kinds of engagement or retention activities make sense.
Just getting users to show up in the app is not enough on its own. You are having them show up in the app to do something. So you should base your decisions around what it is you're trying to get them to do. Are you trying to have them make a purchase, or interact with customer service in the app instead of calling a call center, or browse for a certain number of items?
That is what constitutes engagement and retention, and you can apply this broadly across all types of apps. It's less about it focusing on app retention and engagement, and more about how the app is helping you succeed at business retention and engagement.
The common mistakes would be ignoring these friction points and not realizing how much of an effect they could be having on your overall customer relationship, or treating the app as a separate siloed experience that doesn't need to be tied into everything else that you're also doing with customers in other places.
Finally, what’s next for Branch? What are you most excited about in terms of the company’s future?
AB: The trend here is that the mobile landscape is continuing to become more complicated at the same time that user expectations are becoming higher. Data privacy is table stakes now, you can’t ignore that. But apps are also not going anywhere, so brands are going to continue using apps to build and maintain customer relationships. And when I think about what's next for Branch, it's continuing to make all of that possible.
The future of Branch is about continuing to provide reliable linking and accurate measurement, even as this industry gets more mature and more complex and more difficult for any single company to handle on its own.
Marketers are looking for trusted partners who can help them abstract current market complexities so that they have the time and energy to focus on what they do best, rather than dealing with constant curve balls – whether they’re from the large platforms or the walled gardens, from new regulations, or anything else that comes their way.
If we do our job well, these challenges won’t cause chaos for our customers.
To learn how Zendrive helps app publishers improve metrics like user engagement and retention with its Insurance Qualification Lens program, contact us directly below. Learn more about Branch here.