Early in a conversation with Alex Austin, CEO of mobile startup Branch Metrics, I had to interrupt and ask what seemed like a really dumb question. “So, wait, Alex, you’re telling me that the essence of your company’s solution is that it….makes sure a link works?”
Alex had heard the question before. But yes, in truth, what his company specializes in is making sure that a link works in a very particular kind of mobile use case. And doing so is a lot harder than it might seem, he added. Branch Metrics, a three-year old startup that began as a way to create and share photo albums from your iPhone, is now devoted entirely to solving what should be a dead easy problem, but thanks to the way the mobile ecosystem has played out, it’s just not. (Alex has written up a great overview of his journey at Branch, worth reading here).
A month or so I wrote Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh, an overview of my initial learnings as I explored today’s mobile landscape. A major conclusion: the emergence of deep linking is leading to entirely new opportunities in mobile, and the mobile marketing machine is a key place to explore if you want to understand the implications.
Since then, I’ve spent more time talking to folks like Alex, and I’ve come to another conclusion: the next step in the mobile quickening will be intelligent links.
Now, before you go Googling “intelligent links” – I’ll admit there is no clear nomenclature per se, because in the past we’ve not had a need for such a distinction. After all, on the open web, all links can be intelligent, because they can pass information from site to site via cookies, redirects, and various increasingly sophisticated hacks.
Not so in mobile.
In his wonderful post outlining Branch’s initial failures and eventual pivot, Alex notes: “The biggest growth issue we faced in our mobile app was the fact that Apple doesn’t let you track users and pass context through the install process. …To break down this barrier would mean making the mobile app ecosystem more like the functionality we’re used to on the web.”
So that’s what Branch set out to do – in essence, to make mobile work more like the web. Branch’s initial photo book product may have failed for any number of reasons, but what stood out for Alex was how hard it was for the product to self-replicate across a customer base. A customer would create a cool photo book, and then want to share it with a friend. Of course, the best way to share is via a link to the photo book – that’s the viral calling card. But when a friend clicks on the link, Branch ran into the limits of mobile apps. It gets kind of convoluted, so let me break it down in steps:
1. Customer downloads Branch and uses it to create a cool photo book.
2. Customer wants to share the photo book with her friends, which she does using Branch’s internal sharing features.
3. Branch’s sharing features generate a deep link that is sent via email (or a Tweet, or Facebook, etc).
4. Friend receives invitation via email to check out a cool photo book.
5. Friend clicks on Branch’s deep link.
6. Friend does NOT have Branch’s app installed, so is linked to the Branch app download landing page in the iTunes store.
**THIS IS FRICTION POINT #1. In an ideal world, a potential customer should not have to go through the Apple app store just to view a cool media object that’s been shared (this wouldn’t happen on the web). **
7. Friend decides to download the app, tells Apple OK, accepts the app’s terms and services, fires up the app, and….
8. Sees the generic welcome screen that the app brings up for every new user. Now he has to create a new account, set a password, etc. Confused, he wonders whatever happened to the photo book he was looking for.
**THIS IS FRICTION POINT #2. The friend just wanted to check out the cool photo book, but the information of the original URL, which pointed to the actual media object, has been lost.**
9. Friend is confused as how to actually use the Branch app to see his friend’s cool photo book. He pokes around a bit, but quickly loses interest when he sees a new notification from SnapChat, or Facebook, or whatever.
10. Friend never becomes a new customer of Branch, nor ever actually sees the photo book.
This is a deeply lame experience, and one that seriously limits any app developer’s business. “You can’t have someone have to type their password in, and go through a long install and configuration to start using the app,” Alex told me.
So Branch pivoted, and created a lightweight SDK (software development kit) that, when installed by the app maker, allows the media object in question to appear once the app is installed.
Sounds super simple, but according to Alex, it was quite complicated, not least because getting app makers to install SDKs is non-trivial. However, Branch is finding traction with scores of app makers because the company solves a major marketing problem in mobile – how to create more fluid conversion and engagement paths which ultimately lead to more customers.
This is the evolution of the intelligent mobile link – something that’s sorely needed in the mobile ecosystem. It all starts with the ability to pass data through a link – something that Apple has not allowed in the past. But Branch’s elegant hack around Apple’s shortsighted policy is one more important step toward creating a truly mobile web, one that combines the richness and device-specific capabilities of an app with the universality of an open web architecture.
“It’s like 1995” in mobile apps, Alex concluded. “We are just figuring out how to turn on the Internet on the phone.”
When I start to think about where this goes from here, I start to get very excited – intelligent links are the beginning of a whole new mobile experience. The next step is to break down the hegemony of the app store itself – why should we have to go through an authentication, download, and configuration process just to see what’s behind a link? We shouldn’t, and soon, I imagine we won’t. Of course this has serious implications for the hegemonies of Apple and Google’s app store choke points, but in the end, both companies are all about creating great experiences for their users, right?
Take it one step beyond erasing the app store friction, and we can imagine a world where apps work like always on-call services, at the ready to execute their portion of a fluid user experience. Explaining that experience will be the subject of a future post. But for now, amen for folks like Alex and companies like Branch Metrics. Keep up the good work.