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Web vs Mobile App Marketing: What’s the Difference?

Gabe Kwakyi | February 27, 2017

A couple of years ago, I made the shift from working in web marketing at Microsoft Bing Ads (PPC) to starting a mobile app agency and managing ASO and other types of app marketing efforts for clients. Before I made the move, I figured that digital marketing was digital marketing and that the process wouldn’t be much different. This assumption ended up not holding true. Looking back, my assessment would be that mobile app marketing and web marketing are related, though as cousins, rather than siblings. In other words: app marketing and website marketing are in the same family, but live in different households.

If you’re looking to make the move from marketing websites to apps, take a moment and read this article. It presents a straightforward breakdown from a marketer’s perspective of the differences between websites and apps, divided into five major categories:

  1. Basic technology
  2. User behavior
  3. Marketing
  4. Analytics
  5. Monetization

The Basics

Naturally, one of the biggest differences between apps (whether mobile or computer-based) and websites is that apps must be installed, whereas websites exist entirely in servers and are thus immediately accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, with no need for installation. This is an obvious downside to app marketing, given that requiring users to download and install a full app before gaining access to it (rather than one screen of it as with websites) introduces friction to the process of acquiring new users. That said, technologies such as Google’s Instant Apps are rising to the challenge of this forced-download issue, by allowing users to access certain functionality of an app before actually downloading it. For marketers, the act of requiring an app to be installed is a double-edged sword, introducing an extra step into the conversion funnel and higher costs, but also providing a better user experience and more leeway in engaging users who have installed an app than websites can afford.

google io instant apps

Google Android Instant apps 

Additionally, as with computer-based apps, mobile apps have unique operating systems that require developers to code for different platforms, in contrast to the ability for browsers to read any HTML/CSS-based webpage (besides requiring the occasional web plugin). To solve this pain point, cross-platform languages such as Xamarin, Unity and React Native have sprung up, which allow developers to code an app once and port it to multiple mobile app platforms without re-writing the codebase. There are pros (e.g. quicker and cheaper) and cons (e.g. less flexibility for each individual platform and a higher risk of losing long-term support) to using cross-platform vs native languages; indeed, it is the subject of a large, ongoing industry argument between developers of each type, with many supporters of each persuasion. In a marketing sense, this also introduces more complexity, by forcing marketers to learn and manage two different platforms as well as ballooning the infrastructure required to support both app versions.

Due to fact that apps are hosted and downloaded from a store, apps also enable users to leave reviews; apps can be rated on a scale of 5 stars and reviewed too, just like anything you purchase from Amazon. This increased transparency means that damage from problems with the product causes a much quicker and more public problem that will affect new user acquisition efforts, linking the fates of marketers and designers/engineers more tightly together. Furthermore, up until a recent announcement, only Android developers were afforded an opportunity to actually reply to the users who left reviews, allowing an ability to resolve issues in the public forum (which can sometimes lead users to update their reviews).

When it comes to content and organic marketing, while the content within websites is rapidly indexed by search engines, the content within mobile apps cannot yet be properly indexed. Even Google, the king of search has only recently begun to make strides in the task of helping users know what content is inside of any app. This means that app marketers lack some organic search tools that web marketers have at their disposal for user discovery and re-engagement.

Briefly, the reason that it’s difficult to know what content is inside of an app stems from the way apps are built, as compared to websites. Websites use HTML code and static web page addresses to give search engines a constant map and list of what content is found in the pages of a website. Apps, by contrast, load screens dynamically, meaning that they have no constant locations with which to allow search engines to maintain a constant content index.

Even being able to deep link into pages within an app (something we have taken for granted with websites for years), took a large effort to achieve in the world of app marketing. Before deep linking, if a link was shared from a screen located within an app, the link recipient would land on the app’s home page after installing the app and opening the link, rather than the deep-linked screen within the app.

branch deep linking

Branch Deep Linking explanation

User Retention

As an industry fact, user retention rates for mobile apps are by and large very low.

One of the most popularly-cited blog posts by Andrew Chen and cites data from mobile intelligence firm, Quetta that most apps lose 77% of their daily active users by day three, with that figure rising to a 95% loss by day 90. This can be disconcerting for many app marketers, given that the costs of user acquisition are higher for mobile apps than websites (average mobile app acquisition costs range from an average of $4.37 per install to as high as $229.33 to acquire a subscription customer, user per one 2016 industry study).

While this may sound disheartening, take heart that apps still generate massive amounts of revenue from the users who do stick around. For instance, Apple paid its developers $20 billion from app-based revenues in 2016, which represents a 40% year over year increase from 2015. Additionally, there are several strategies that mobile app marketers that can help raise user retention numbers.

Mobile apps, just like websites can utilize messaging pop-ups, remarketing ads and email marketing campaigns to re-engage users. In addition, one powerful app-only retention strategy is called a push notification. Push notifications can be thought of as text messages that an app sends to its users. Push notifications have recently evolved in the latest iOS and Android versions from carrying text-only “payloads” to enabling app marketers to send images, GIFs and even videos in rich push notifications, which opens up great new avenues for enticing users back into an app.

appboy rich push notifications

Rich push notifications demonstrated by Appboy

Another option that app marketers can use to retain their users is badge icons, which are the dopamine-driving red circles located on an app’s icon on the home screen. These icons contain numbers correlating with the number of updates an app has waiting for users, and can encourage users who still have apps installed to open them up and check out what’s new.

badge icons

Badge icons displaying for iMessage, Facebook Messenger and Mail.

Marketing Apps

Given the fact that any live app in the App Store or Play Store has a static web URL, app marketers can utilize any marketing channel that web marketers are able to in order to acquire new users.

In addition to having access to all the marketing channels that websites enjoy, mobile apps also enjoy the benefits of indexing for App Store searches, category/country rankings and having the chance to earn App Store features.

SEO for App Store search engines is referred to as app store optimization (ASO), and the main goals of ASO align with those of SEO: to earn a top 10 rank (the equivalent of first-page visibility) for popular keywords and to convert visitors into installers. However, the practice of accomplishing each goal differs from web SEO to app ASO.

Apps are made eligible for App Store keyword searches based on the keywords in an app’s page metadata. This metadata can be refreshed at any time for Android, but requires a new app update to do so for iOS. App Store SERPs (search engine results pages) are also very visually oriented, allowing app marketers to expand beyond simple blue text links into icons, attention-grabbing screenshots, up to 4,000 characters of text and even 30-second video clips. And, while link building is a huge requirement for web SEO success, there is no benefit in terms of app ASO from pointing more web pages to an app’s page, nor a mobile app equivalent of link building.

To determine which apps show for keyword searches, a few additional signals were introduced beyond keyword relevance and CTR/conversion rate, such as the number of active users who have downloaded an app, the number of ratings and the star count and the number of downloads that an app has acquired (moreover the velocity at which an app has been downloaded in the recent hours/days).

This last factor, download velocity, is a big departure from web SEO. While SEO rankings are not affected by PPC ad clicks or traffic from ads of any kind, this is not the case for ASO rankings. The more quickly an app acquires downloads, the better its rank will be, regardless of the source(s) of the downloads. Even installs from PPC ads paid for through Apple’s Search Ads platform help boost an iOS app’s organic App Store keyword ranks.

us free apps top chart

US Free Top Chart

In addition to earning downloads from App Store keyword searches, any mobile app can earn downloads by earning a spot in the top chart of that app’s respective category (e.g. top US photography free, US travel free or US utilities free) or country (e.g. top US free, US paid, US grossing or US “trending” for Android apps). While keyword rankings depending on many nuanced factors, the deciding factor for an app’s category or country ranking is simply its velocity of downloads or revenue generated.


Each app also has a chance of being featured in the App Store or Play Store, respectively. While most features are only temporary, some features such as the Editor’s Choice award, Apple’s Essentials or Google’s Top Developer designation earn an app a life-long distinction that displays in the app’s page.

featured apps

Featured iOS Apps


An Editor's Choice annotation for the app, Hardbound (permanent)


When it comes to web marketing, analytics involves adding query string parameters onto the ends of destination URLs and analyzing data fired from conversion pixels installed on the appropriate web pages. Both websites and apps are alike in that, in order to gain visibility into where users come from and what they do once inside the website/app, some code must be installed. Where websites and apps differ, however, is in the implementation; query string parameters do not carry from a click through the App or Play Store to installation, meaning that special destination URLs and other methods must be used.

Some marketing involves providing a link to download the app (for example, Apple allows marketers to create campaign tracker URLs in iTunes Connect). But some advertising campaigns (e.g. the most popular platform, Facebook) send users directly from the ad to the App Store or Play Store to download the app, without allowing the advertiser an opportunity to provide a destination URL. In this case, destination URLs cannot be used to indicate which campaign a user was acquired from. This is where mobile apps must install an attribution SDK (and for direct-to-store ad platforms, you'll need an attribution vendor that has a partnership with the advertising platform) to track users from tap to install and post-install.

apple app campaign tracking link

Apple's campaign tracker link generator

Another area that apps and website marketers have in common is that both are vulnerable to ad-blocking technology. For mobile apps, the challenge actually comes from the first party companies themselves: Apple and Google. Each has included a technology in their mobile operating systems that enable users to block ad tracking, called Limit Ad Tracking (LAT). Yet, while ads cannot be served to web users with ad-blocking technology, mobile app ads can continue to be served to mobile users with LAT; it is simply the tracking of users after they install the app that is disrupted. In this case, attribution reports will lump any revenue or post-install data into a general “organic” record, rather than attributing this data to the marketing channel that earned the install. The outcome of LAT is that marketing campaigns may appear as though they are performing worse than they actually are.

One last and particularly vexing analytics challenge to mobile marketing is cross-device attribution. With expensive mobile advertising costs and mobile users also using computers, there exists an opportunity to convert users on either device into becoming app users. But, while websites can cookie users’ computers and users on their smartphones can be tracked in various ways, it gets a whole lot more complicated when users move from one device to another. Companies whose users remain signed into accounts across multiple devices (e.g. Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) can use those logins to determine that user A on a particular computer is indeed still user A when he or she installs an app on his or her smartphone, there is no cross-device attribution provider to rule all marketing channels.


Monetization is an area where apps possess a large advantage over websites. While websites can generate revenue through ads or e-commerce purchases, apps can generate revenue via both of these means, as well as by requiring users to pay for the app itself or for purchases within the app. For example, an app may cost $3.99 to download, a game may sell 1,000 gold coins that help the user win more games for $4.99 or an app can unlock a special feature for users who pay $.99. Allowing users an in-app purchase that removes ads is a common practice, too. Apps can also charge auto-renewing subscription fees for certain types of purchases that meet the subscription requirements, such as expanded storage space.

In exchange for facilitating payment and fulfillment for app-based revenues (and footing the bill for hosting and distributing the apps themselves), Apple and Google each keep 30% of the value of each purchase that they facilitate (this 30% cut does not apply to ad or e-commerce revenue). However, for iOS apps Apple’s cut of revenues shrinks from 30% to 15% for subscription customers who remain loyal purchasers of an app for more than one year, allowing developers to keep 85% of subscription revenues after one year.

While the majority of apps now monetize through IAP, apps can also monetize with in-app ads or via e-commerce transactions for real-world goods or services.

That concludes this overview of app marketing! Additional topics in-app marketing to explore include A/B app store testing, event-based app install campaigns, Apple search ads and further details on Limit Ad Tracking, attribution and app store optimization.

That's all for now, folks! Be sure to bookmark our blog, sign up to our email newsletter for new post updates and reach out if you're interested in working with us.

Incipia is a mobile app development and marketing agency that builds and markets apps for companies, with a specialty in high-quality, stable app development and keyword-based marketing strategy, such as App Store Optimization and Apple Search Ads. For post topics, feedback or business inquiries please contact us, or send an inquiry to