What are app deep links? And what is app deep linking for that matter? On the surface, these are fairly simple questions with fairly simple answers.
The easy definition goes something like this: deep links are a type of link that send users directly to an app instead of a website. They are used to send app users directly to specific in-app locations, thus saving them time and energy finding a particular page themselves. App deep linking, on the other hand, refers to the process itself of creating and implementing such links. Simple enough, right?
In terms of their raison d’être, deep links are usually said to augment or imrpove user experience and avoid website log-ins and other friction, which, in turn, results in a significant increase in conversion rates and revenues.
History note: Before mobile apps, a deep link was a link to a web page deep within a website beyond the homepage. Now when someone says “deep link” they typically mean an app deep link or one that opens a place in the app beyond the home screen.
But that’s only the short and sweet version of things. And if that were all you needed to know, we wouldn’t be here in the first place, right? In reality, deep links are a truly fascinating topic with multiple layers of complexity, each of which would probably merit its own guide. So, to help everyone gain a better understanding of what deep links are, let’s explore them together.
In this guide to app deep linking and app deep links, we will give a detailed definition of the concept, study the different types of app deep links there are out there, take a deep dive into their benefits and consider why we need app deep links in the first place, tackle the question of how to create and leverage them, and much more. We will also rely on a plethora of examples and visuals to make this guide as comprehensive as possible.
So, without further ado, let’s jump straight in.
What are deep links?
We already have a brief outline of the concept. But we can surely do better.
Deep links deliver users to a specific in-app feature or content screen from wherever they are (usually digitally speaking but also sometimes even physically like a QR code on a poster). In other words, deep links are used to bring users from nearly anywhere like another marketing channel or another app to just about any in-app destination in the most optimal way possible, while avoiding friction in that journey like website log-in screens. Let’s visualize this.
The most optimal route
As you can see, deep links are a bit like shortcuts. Instead of manually opening an app and looking for the page you need, a deep link spares you all the hassle and takes you to wherever you need to be.
But how are deep links different from any other type of link then? A regular web URL without any (or the right) app deep link functionality cannot open an app or fallback to the right app store if not installed. That’s the case when you click on a link and even though you have the app on your phone, you’re sent to the website log-in. If done right, app deep links will smoothly funnel users deep into the app. In turn, this allows app marketers and developers to push users to a specific page or feature within the app. We will get into the specifics of how this is done later.
The starting point of this digital journey could be, as previously stated, anywhere. It could be another app (e.g., Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat), emails or text messages, referrals of almost any sort and nature, websites, ads, chat inboxes, search engine results, QR codes, and more. Deep links are incredibly versatile and come in all shapes and sizes, meaning they could be potent tools of engagement for app developers and marketers, who know how to use them right.
In terms of the destination of a deep link, it is almost always (we will get into that “almost” part a bit later) any in-app destination other than the home screen. From a product page to checkout, anything goes.
Starting points and destination
Deep links are most commonly used for three main purposes: app install growth, app re-engagement and retention, and conversion. We will get into the details soon enough.
As we can see, even the most comprehensive of definitions leaves a lot of questions unanswered, so let’s dive even deeper.
What are the different types of app deep links?
We now have a basic understanding of what deep links are and what they do. However, if we want to know how deep links are created and implemented and what exactly they are used for, we also have to distinguish between the different types of deep links.
So, as always, let’s start with the basics. How many different types of deep links are there in the first place?
Perhaps not so surprisingly, marketers and developers alike disagree on questions of taxonomy. Some would say two, others say three. In the interest of science and app awareness, we will discuss all three of them here. We will also discuss why one of the three types isn’t always considered a type, but rather more of a subcategory.
Default/standard deep links
Two different names for the exact same thing. These are the plain vanilla deep links. This is a straightforward deep link that forwards a user to a specific part of the app if the app is already installed. If the app isn’t installed, however, the link won’t be able to reach its endpoint and the user might get an error message or a blank screen.
In the interest of illustration, let’s say you have an e-commerce app selling clothes and shoes and you have just released a new collection. You set up a campaign to promote the new items and you run social media ads. An existing user sees an item they find particularly interesting and want to learn more about it. They click on your ad and are immediately taken to the relevant in-app product page, allowing them to explore the item as they please or buy it if they so choose. The beauty of this process is that users can come from any destination. Email or SMS, social media or OOH ads (e.g., QR codes in the underground), you can meet your users wherever they are.
Default/standard deep linking
Despite its seeming limitations, this type of deep link has its purpose and is particularly useful if a marketer is solely interested in targeting users who already have a given app installed and wants them to return to it. As such, this type of deep link is a powerful tool for engagement, retargeting, and retention and plays a vital role in the deep linking ecosystem.
Deferred deep links
You have probably already guessed what these are. If standard deep links require users to have the app installed, deferred deep links reroute users to the App Store or Play Store, depending on whether we are in iOS or Android territory, if they don’t have the app. Users without the app are prompted to install it before finally being redirected to the relevant page in the app once installation is complete. For those with the app, deferred deep links work just the same as their standard counterpart. (This is that “almost” bit we talked about earlier.)
In other words, it’s the smoothest, easiest, and quickest way possible to deliver app-less users to their in-app destination. Without this type of deep linking, it would be nearly impossible to provide a smooth and contextualized user journey to the right place in an app, which would, in turn, severely undermine acquisition goals.
Deferred deep links can also direct users to another location, such as an app’s website for more information, and then open the original page that the user was directed to.
To give you an example, if a user downloads a retail app after clicking an ad for a given piece of clothing, but doesn’t have the app installed on their phone, they will first be directed to the relevant store for download. When they open the app after installation, the product page will be displayed, allowing the customer to continue from where they left off.
Deferred deep linking
Deferred links are potent tools for user acquisition and are marketers’ weapon of choice for increasing engagement, driving web-to-app migration, and augmenting customer experience.
Contextual deep links and where or, perhaps, how to find them?
You might have heard of contextual deep linking before. They seem to be the apple of discord in the deep linking world as developers and marketers alike can’t seem to agree on whether contextual links are an altogether different type of deep links or if they are just a subcategory of the two above-mentioned types. So, let’s examine them.
Contextual deep links can gather information on customers and store additional information, thus allowing marketers and developers to do more with their content by personalizing the user experience of an app. The data recorded generally includes things like demographics, how users navigate to an app and how they engage with it, etc. For example, contextual deep links can allow developers to offer a different onboarding journey depending on if a user installed via the Play Store or the App Store and what source they originally came from (e.g., a newsletter ad or a Facebook ad campaign).
Contextual deep linking
In reality, however, contextual deep links are default/standard or deferred deep links with added parameters, which marketers can add or remove at will themselves. As such, many would claim that because of this contextual links don’t really exist by themselves and are just a subcategory of the other two types of deep links.
At the same type, contextual links, whether a category in and of themselves or not, provide ostensible benefits for marketers and developers, allowing them to collect relevant information on users and customize the overall experience of their app. Additionally, the way they are set up is different from the way one would go about creating a default or deferred deep link, although different contextual links are set up in a different way depending on the parameters that marketers want to include.
We won’t be getting bogged down in questions of categorization here. It’s certainly an interesting topic of debate but that is not what we are here for. You now know that contextual deep links could be a thing, so feel free to decide for yourself.
Universal Links vs App Links
You might also hear the terms Universal Links (iOS) or App Links (Android) thrown around. The two terms describe a very similar mechanism that can be used to send users directly into an app. So, let’s quickly examine them here.
Universal Links is Apple’s standard deep linking protocol and was introduced in iOS versions 9+ to largely replace the normal deep linking process. They enable app developers to create a two-way association between a mobile app and a website. In other words, Universal Links allow iOS users to click on a link to a website and be redirected to the installed app without going through Safari.
On the other hand, Android App Links, available on Android 6.0 (API level 23) and higher, are a type of deep links that allow an app to designate itself as the default handler of a given type of link. When a user clicks on an Android App Link, the designated app opens immediately if installed and the disambiguation dialog, prompting users to choose how to open a link, doesn’t appear.
Universal Links and Android App Links can help developers drive more traffic to their apps, help them discover which app content is used most and which least, and make it easier for users to share and find content in an installed app.
In all earnest, Universal Links and Android App Links aren’t exactly categories of deep links but Apple and Android’s methods of launching apps on the respective OS. However, given the prevalence of the two operating systems, we thought it worthwhile to mention them here to avoid any confusion.
You now have a detailed outline of the different types of deep links and the many complexities that surround them. Unsurprisingly, however, there is more that needs to be covered, so let’s keep going.
Why is deep linking important?
Now that we have an overview of the different types of deep links that are out there, let’s talk about the purposes behind deep linking and its benefits.
In a nutshell, marketers and developers use deep linking to increase conversations by creating customized, personalized customer journeys that drive new and existing users to the app from any channel. Deep linking brings seamless user experience as it allows users to easily move between web and apps. It can also significantly increase conversion and retention rates by drawing and locking users into a given app. It is also a great tool for re-engagement and a versatile method of guiding and directing users through an app’s ecosystem. But this is just scratching the surface of a complex and multifaceted topic. Let’s get into the specifics.
Mobile users are everywhere these days, and marketers and developers should meet them where they are. This is where deep linking comes in.
Boosted UA and increased CTI (click-to-install) rates
Let’s take an example. If you know that users coming from a Instagram ad campaign regularly navigate to a specific product category, you can set up the ads so users are automatically pushed there. To take another example, if you know that users coming from Google want to know more about your business before committing, you can use deep links to direct them to the “About us” page or its equivalent. This provides users with contextualized, personalized user journeys that meet users where they are and gives them exactly what they want to see.
Additionally, while generic user journeys lack customization and personalization, deep-linked user journeys are highly customizable, meet your users where they are and give them what they want. It is certainly not surprising that compared to generic journeys, which have a CTI (click-to-install) rate of about 5%, deep-linked journeys deliver up to 6X higher conversion rates.
Average click-to-install conversion rate per channel (%)
If we take deep-linked user journeys beginning on a brand’s website (web-to-app) and in the physical world (QR-to-app) as examples, we see that they show 27% and 33% CTI rates across all verticals, respectively, which is a remarkable performance, especially when compared to the CTI rates of generic journeys.
Furthermore, knowing how users coming from different digital destinations behave (i.e., what they are interested in but also how they navigate the app) allows developers to set up personalized onboarding journeys and general app experiences, further widening the bottom of the acquisition funnel and boosting an app’s retention rate.
According to a study by Evergage, 8 in 10 (78%) people believe personalization has a positive impact on advancing customer relationships.
The impact of personalization on advanced customer relationships (%)
On the other hand, the study also shows that as of 2020 personalization in mobile apps sits at only 31%, making it far less prevalent compared to personalization in email campaigns (78%) or on websites (56%).
Levels of personalization per channel (%)
In other words, personalization and retention are strongly correlated. At the same time, deep linking gives you an easy way to personalize your user’s app journey at scale, helping you increase your app retention rate and decrease churn.
Re-engagement, retention, and reduced churn
Using deep links can also solve a number of problems marketers and developers alike have had to contend with for quite some time now.
Let’s consider cart abandonment. It’s a problem many in the retail industry are well familiar with. A user visits an online store, decides on a few articles, adds them to their cart, but then abandons the cart before purchasing. However, armed with the magic of deep links, marketers have several options to bring those users back. For example, you can set up an email campaign reminding users of their abandoned carts. If they choose to click on the link, they will be taken to the app with their cart already automatically populated by the previously abandoned articles.
Alternatively, if a segment of users downloaded your app, viewed product pages, and then bounced, you could retarget them in advertising campaigns and use deferred linking to forward them back to the high-interest product pages, thus bringing those users back and reducing churn.
Three-month user retention and churn (%)
This strategy of reminding users of abandoned processes could also be employed by any number of businesses. Take banks for example. People often fill out mortgage, loan, or insurance application forms but abandon them before completing them. By sending them a deep-linked email or SMS reminder that takes users back to where they left off, banks can “rescue” abandoned forms, while also helping customers achieve what they originally set out to achieve. Deep links are, as such, a powerful tool for engagement, retargeting, and retention and a sure-fire way to cut your sales funnel.
Many would argue that apps are the future, and we certainly believe this to be true too. So, how do you convince more people to adopt your app? Let’s say you have a banking app and you want your existing users to invite their friends via a friend referrals program. An existing user invites their friend, and the referred person receives an SMS, an email, or a WhatsApp message with a deep link to the registration page. Using the power of deferred deep linking, people will first be taken to the relevant store to install the app. Once this is complete, they will finally arrive at their final destination, i.e., the registration page to begin their onboarding journey, which can be further customized depending on where a user is coming from, as previously discussed.
Leveraging deep links for user acquisition strategies is a guaranteed way to increase an app’s adoption rate, while also mobilizing your existing user base by incentivizing referrals.
Deep links can also be integrated into OOH (out-of-home) advertising campaigns. Let’s say you have set up a billboard campaign across your region of operations. Let’s also say you have a mobile app version of your online store. See where this is going? Why not add a simple QR code to your billboard ads, incentivizing people to scan it. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, your campaign could be set up to target app-less users or users who already have it. Users scan the code and are invited to install the app or are taken directly to it to benefit from the advantages offered in the ad.
Additionally, if you have actual brick-and-mortar stores, you can offer customers a discount code in return for installing your app. Simply place the code somewhere around your tills and see online orders coming from the app balloon. As we can see, this is a particularly powerful tactic for increasing your user base, (re-)engaging and retaining existing users by offering them discounts for their loyalty, and encouraging your existing consumer base to migrate to the app.
Banks and media puplications stand to gain a lot from this tactic too. Leveraged successfully, deep links will allow them to increase the adoption of their mobile apps, something both banks and traditional media outlets have struggled with, especially with older clients.
A source of data
And finally, deep links are also a powerful source of data, giving developers an overview of which parts of an app are most or least used and thus allowing for greater levels of app optimization.
So let’s summarize. What are the benefits of deep links?
- (Re-)engagement, retargeting, and retention
- Increased click-to-install conversion rates
- Increased app adoption and driving app growth, aka user acquisition
- Augmented onboarding process and general user experience
- Analytics and optimization
What problems can deep linking solve?
- Dealing with process abandonment
- Encouraging migration to app
- Managing referral programs
- Leveraging OOH advertising for retention and UA (e.g., through QR codes)
- Driving sales
- Increasing the value of the app in the eyes of customers
What are the top three benefits of deep linking?
- Improving user experience
- Improving (re-)engagement, retention, and reducing churn
- Increasing app marketability and discoverability and boosting app conversion rates
We have covered a lot of ground, so let’s have a quick summary of the key takeaways.
- Deep links bring users from nearly anywhere to any in-app destination, thus creating seamless, customized user journeys. They make moving between web and apps much easier for users.
- Deep links are very versatile and could be set up in a variety of ways to suit the needs of any marketing campaign. If properly set up, deep links would not only direct existing users to your app but also help you acquire new users and gather important data on your user base.
- Deep links are a powerful tool for mobile UA, (re-)engagement, (re-)targeting, and retention.
- Deep links effectively address key business challenges, such as cart abandonment, web-to-app migration, in-store conversion, brand awareness, etc.
- Deep links allow marketers and developers to increase their conversion rates and revenue by driving return on exprience (ROX).
- In short, deep links simplify the way users navigate an app ecosystem, allowing them to get to the content they want faster and in a seamless way.