Demystifying the App Ecosystem with Button

Jun 8, 2021
Written by CJ

In the last 12 months, we've seen mobile engagement surpass desktop usage for the first time ever. With apps being such an intrinsic part of the mobile shopping experience, why has affiliate been so slow to adopt app tracking? Junction Live host and CJ's Global SVP of Marketing and Business Systems, Nicole Ron, and Kelly Merkel, CJ's SVP of Publisher Development are joined by Chris Maddern, Co-founder & Chief Innovation Officer at mobile commerce platform, Button. Together they set out to demystify the app ecosystem, debunk common misconceptions, and geek out about their favorite apps.

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cj-affiliate-2021-nicole-ron-button-headshotNicole Ron, Global SVP, Marketing & Business Systems, CJ
cj-affiliate-2021-kelly-merkel-headshotKelly Merkel, SVP of Publisher Development, CJ
cj-affiliate-2021-chris-maddern-button-headshotChris Maddern, Co-Founder & CIO, Button




Junction Live: Taking thought leadership off the page and into the studio with some of the sharpest minds in affiliate marketing.

NICOLE RON: 00:14 | Hello and welcome to this episode of Junction Live. I'm your host, Nicole Ron, Global Vice President of Marketing, Product Marketing, and Business Systems here at CJ. On this episode, I'm excited to talk about an important part of the mobile landscape: app tracking. And while apps are abundant and as shoppers, we use apps daily, affiliate hasn't embraced apps with the same level of enthusiasm as consumers. Today, we'll dig into why that is, where apps fit into your marketing mix, and what you can do to maximize it. Let me introduce our expert guests on this topic, Chris Maddern and Kelly Merkel.

Chris joins us from mobile commerce platform, Button. As Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, he's led Button's product development since its inception seven years ago. However, Chris is no newbie to the app business. Prior to Button, Chris was the head of mobile at Venmo, was an app developer, and has worked on or co-founded many other apps over the years. I also happen to know that Chris is very passionate about wine. Welcome, Chris. Thanks for joining. It's great to have you.

CHRIS MADDERN: 01:22 | Thanks for having me. Excited to be here.

NICOLE RON: 01:24 | Kelly is our second guest and she's Vice President of Publisher Development at CJ. I'm thrilled to have her join this discussion. Kelly came to CJ in 2010 and worked for many years on our advertiser client side of the business and led our Midwest client teams. Kelly brings a lot of great knowledge on this topic from her time working with both advertisers and publishers within the CJ platform. All right—Kelly, thanks for joining, it's great to have you again.

KELLY MERKEL: 01:54 | Thanks for having me.

NICOLE RON: 01:55 | Of course. All right, we're going to get started. So let's talk about apps. Fundamentally, I kind of want to open this up at the ground level. What role do apps play in a consumer's shopping experience?

CHRIS MADDERN: 02:09 | I'll jump in, and slight cop-out answer: the only truism in any question is it depends—different for different users. But an app fundamentally indicates that the user has some pre-existing deeper relationship with that brand when it's present. And apps exist typically for user convenience to make it easier for them to get access to, to make it easier for them to have their preferences saved, their payment credentials saved. And so where present, the app really just is designed to make it simpler to complete the job to be done, which is either for organic search discovery and then, for incoming users through something like affiliate—just making it simpler to transact.

KELLY MERKEL: 02:56 | I couldn't agree more with what Chris had to say. I think that apps really are a way for marketers to ensure a really seamless customer experience. Consumers want the same kind of functionality, regardless of how they're shopping, regardless of how they're engaging. There's nothing more frustrating than going to an app and not being able to do the same things that you were able to do on a desktop or an mWeb. So by having that same kind of interaction with your brand across all those different platforms, really helps make yourself, your brand more sticky. And that applies to both advertisers and publishers. It's not just a brand concern. I think that publishers can really ensure that that experience is consistent for their consumers and it increases the loyalty to that app and ensures that they know that they're going to have a standardized experience across the board.

NICOLE RON: 03:55 | That makes sense. I think long ago there was a time when app experiences could be slightly different or divergent, or consumers were a little more forgiving of things not being available. But today, it seems that apps are truly just an extension or a different option for them to interact with the brand. And they don't always use just one or the other, but kind of jump between the two. Is that a trend that you guys see as well?

CHRIS MADDERN: 04:21 | Yeah, absolutely. From my perspective, I think there's a big difference between apps being different and apps being worse. I think what we used to kind of just expect and get used to is, "oh, the app only does 5% of things, and some of it's broken, and it doesn't let you see the pictures" and that kind of stuff. And that's gone. The days of that are behind us. Consumers expect an on-par experience.

That said, I think there are good examples of where the jobs to be done are a little bit different, where there are certain scenarios that make more sense in mobile, others that make more sense inside of an mWeb or desktop experience. Particularly, this is increasingly less so, but up until a couple of years ago, considered purchases typically oriented themselves towards desktop. Those are increasingly coming back towards mobile, but not all considered purchases necessarily make sense inside of an app to the same fidelity that they might on desktop.

NICOLE RON: 05:25 | Got it. That makes sense. So what are some common assumptions or pitfalls that we see marketers make about apps that ultimately hinder their success?

KELLY MERKEL: 05:37 | I think that we talk a lot about that, just now about making sure that the experience is the same, but also ensuring that you're not treating those app users differently than non-app users. I think sometimes there is a mentality that, well, this user has downloaded my app, therefore, they are loyal to me. I don't have to worry about engaging them in other ways, and that they're just going to keep coming back to the app and making those conversions. And I don't think that that's true. We see that in the Google Messy Middle Study that happened a year or so ago. And we released some thought leadership around that, that really just being in the consideration set and being present in a consumer journey is enough to change a consumer's mind. So we have to think about what are you constantly doing to ensure that that consumer is going to come back to you regardless of how you think they're going to convert?

KELLY MERKEL: 06:34 | A great example of this is recently I actually bought my first airline ticket in over a year. And I used to be a very consistent flyer. I was on a plane once a week, and I have a lot of different touchpoints that I use. I have a lot of different apps on my phone that I use when determining what kind of flight I want to take, where I want to go. And that could be a travel app, OTA—it could be through the airline because I've got miles that I want to use. It could be through my credit card because I've got points or there’s some kind of promotion happening to book travel through my credit card app. And each of those touchpoints could assume that I'm going to be a loyal consumer and make a conversion consistently in their app, and I may not because it's really about where am I wanting to engage and what am I looking for in that particular journey?

CHRIS MADDERN: 07:33 | That's great. I love the messy middle metaphor. And I think you're right about being in the consideration set. I think the key to success with apps is just front of mind, how do you make sure you're front of mind for the right user at the right time across all those touchpoints? And to your point, why you shouldn't assume that you now own that customer, and you need to engage with them, I think that's also the other side of that. And this is where the messy middle can kind of be repurposed in that the goal is not to hold onto that user with a death grip and never let them out, either. And so when you think about apps, one of the first words that often comes to mind is silos, these very vertically—kind of like, not connected to other things—property. And users come back because of utility and front-of-mindedness, not because you never let them out. And so building a high-utility experience for users, no matter what it is, is always the right thing to do, regardless of whether that means sending a user out of your app, bringing them in, re-engaging them in a different touchpoint for potentially something that may or may not convert to app. And to Kelly's point, however a user wants to shop and what's of greatest utility.

NICOLE RON: 08:46 | Great. Another one that I've heard and experienced quite a bit when I ran parts of our app business many, many years ago, was that mobile tracking and app tracking, desktop tracking—figuring out how to make all of that work together is hard. So, Chris, I'm really interested in hearing from your perspective, is tracking between these different environments difficult? And if not or if so, why is this a common assumption that we hear?

CHRIS MADDERN: 09:15 | I don't know here whether to sell how hard it is and how magical a solution we've made or how kind of simple and straightforward it is to use. Over the last five or six years, I think apps have gone from being mystical, magical things that no one quite knows what to do with, through to important, increasingly well-understood kind of components of the digital strategy and one of the key touchpoints with users. One of the things that's evolved around that is better tooling and infrastructure to enable some of these things. So that comes in the shape of things like Button. This is one of the things that we literally focus on. A lot of brands are increasingly using customer data platforms that go across their web, their outside spend, and their app.

CHRIS MADDERN: 10:02 | And increasingly, it's not rocket science to tie that stuff together. What you do need is a well-coordinated set of partners to make sure that you get a consistent view across these things and that your channels are kind of measured in a apples to apples kind of way. And that's where stuff like CJ and Reach together can be really useful.

NICOLE RON: 10:24 | Got it. Can you, for the person who maybe holds this belief, give a real quick or basic overview of how tracking works in-app and why it’s different from mWeb?

CHRIS MADDERN: 10:39 | So fundamentally, we're trying to do the same thing. We're trying to, in a privacy-safe way, make sure that a user who came in the front door, we can kind of attribute a purchase that happened to them. And the number one thing that people realized when apps came about is that you don't have cookies. So cookies on the web allow any third-party developer to just kind of like, drop, and store information on any website, rely on it being there later. And that's kind of how the primary tracking infrastructure of the web works. Increasingly, third-party cookies are going away, and first-party cookies are replacing them, but the kind of underlying principles are the same.

CHRIS MADDERN: 11:21 | Inside of apps, there is kind of no such free, "Hey, store this thing for me, and I'll get it back later”. And that's where on the Button side, we've been working for the last five or six years to start instrumenting these apps in partnership with their creators by introducing our open source code. So whereas with the web, you might use Google Tag Manager to drop something in, typically to enable your app for tracking—and this is the one place that you can say, "Yeah, it's a little more work."—you have to write a few lines of code in your app. It really is only a few lines of code. And what it does is kind of recreate some of that fundamental capability to take that incoming kind of identity of who that user is that's shopping and store it to then report it with that order. And that's essentially all you're really trying to do.

NICOLE RON: 12:10 | Great. Thanks. That's super helpful. I know there's this theory that apps are kind of walled gardens and it's very difficult to communicate what's happening maybe upstream or post-conversion in the app world. And really, the mechanisms are fundamentally very similar with minor differences, but they're all technically solvable and not overly complicated. That's what I'm hearing if that's correct, yeah?

CHRIS MADDERN: 12:36 | Yeah. The principles are the same.

NICOLE RON: 12:38 | Perfect. All right. Thanks for doing that. Going back to our misconceptions, let's talk about what are some of the outcomes that you've seen based on these assumptions, either negative or positive if that exists?

KELLY MERKEL: 12:52 | I can start on this one. I think that when you're thinking about this kind of misconception, that tracking through app is difficult. It usually gets played out again going back to the customer journey. In the affiliate world, if you're starting on a publisher site or a publisher app, in order for the affiliate landscape to work, there needs to be trust that there's going to be a holistic experience and holistic tracking throughout that journey. And there can be some misconceptions that if that consumer gets sent to an app, maybe the tracking won't be as consistent, or maybe the experience won't be the same, or maybe that tracking won't get captured so the consumer isn't going to get their cashback or coupon in a way that they think. And ultimately that hurts the brand, the publisher, and the consumer.

KELLY MERKEL: 13:48 | It's unfortunate because then that really comes at the sacrifice of—these publisher partners are really there to be meaningful touchpoints and to be supportive of that customer journey. And so by not having the right pieces in place to track that app from beginning to end, there is an impact across the board. And so especially now, app experiences are becoming increasingly important. Based on network data here at CJ, in the last 12 months, we've seen mobile engagement surpass desktop usage for the first time. And so we need to make sure that as a network and with our partnership with Button, we're moving down that path that we can help support and overcome some of these misconceptions and ensure that we're helping both our advertisers and our publishers have the right tracking in place to support, again, the seamless customer journey.

CHRIS MADDERN: 14:49 | Yeah. I think you hit it with users. Users are the first casualty here. There's nothing worse than being stuck in an embedded web view when you have the app on your phone and you know you could one-tap to check out, but instead, you have the 160-tap checkout. And what that turns into is just aborted customer shopping sessions. But we've all seen these signs all over the place—links that you tap and don't go anywhere, it opens the app but it didn't open the product you were going for, or you didn't get your reward. The user is the first cannon fodder here. But then there's real downsides to the brand too because when we can get users into the app, we see something like 1.5 – 3x conversions depending upon the kind of app experience in place. And then that compounds into lifetime value. So the businesses lose out, but the users upfront just have really terrible user experiences.

NICOLE RON: 15:43 | Great. Yeah, that makes sense. So help me understand—now that we've talked about some of these misconceptions and what we're seeing, as well as what really the end game should be with app experiences and how that fits into our larger customer journeys—what do the most successful marketers do differently? And what does that result in for either the brand or the partnership or both?

CHRIS MADDERN: 16:07 | Fundamentally, it's a dedication to user experience across all of these channels and to what Kelly was saying earlier, kind of trying to make sure you're in that consideration set, but also front of mind and reaching that customer at the most relevant places. Not aiming to get consumers to spend 100% of the time in their app, but instead having their app integrated in a kind of a holistic brand experience in a way that makes sense for what the customer does want to use it for. And then, particularly as you think about affiliate, thinking about maximizing the affiliate channel for all it can be, it is your most performant channel—almost certainly, for most folks—and it can also be one of your best drivers of app in stores and your best kind of ROAS effective way of driving users into the app. And so really don't under-leverage the affiliate channel. I'm a big advocate for—I think the affiliate channel could be 5 – 10x larger in budget than it could and still be one of the most effective channels that companies have because there's so much juice left in it.

NICOLE RON: 17:16 | We, of course, believe the same thing and love hearing that from somebody else. Go ahead, Kelly.

KELLY MERKEL: 17:22 | Yeah, obviously I 100% agree with a lot more investment coming into affiliate because I think that we do have a unique situation here where consumers are extremely engaged. They have an opportunity to build loyalty to not just the brand through affiliate but through the publisher experience. So we have kind of a twofold way to tap into consumers and getting opportunities and engagements in front of them. And I think that what we do see as far as success is—Chris really hit it on the head. It's almost like the flip of what we talked about in the last question: you can't force this consumer into a path just because there's a concern about tracking not being 100% or that you think the consumer experience is going to be bad. We want those consumers' experiences to be good, and we want the tracking to be 100% so that the consumer can convert however they want. It's really about giving them that choice and knowing how they prefer to engage with your experience.

NICOLE RON: 18:40 | Yeah, I have a provocative question, too, on this one is, who owns the customer? Is it one or the other? Is it nobody? What's your take on that?

KELLY MERKEL: 18:52 | Own is a tricky word, right? I think it's more about owning the experience and owning what happens to a consumer when they engage with you. And I think that is the responsibility of both publishers and advertisers. They have to know the audience well enough to know what they're looking for, to know what they're going to respond to, to know their preferences. And so I don't think it's one or the other. I think it's everyone's responsibility.

NICOLE RON: 19:27 | Makes sense. Yeah, and I think that that goes back into, when you're talking about customer experience, why it's so critical to work with your partners to make sure that whatever piece of that journey they're adding value to, why that customer is ultimately choosing to work with a publisher, whichever platform or model that is, and then ultimately sending them to a brand that there's continuity between it, but also that the mechanisms that are necessary to make that relationship successful are in place. So that however that consumer decides to go from one point to another, we're helping move it along in the right direction to ultimately meet that consumer need.

Here's another question for you guys: can app be ignored and a marketer still be successful either now or in the future?

CHRIS MADDERN: 20:19 | Okay, so I return to my first answer, which is: it depends. I guess it depends on the type of brands, particularly on the marketer side, and what success means. But increasingly mobile is where people are spending time, attention, and money. And brands build apps because they are the best way to build deepening long-term relationships with customers and the best way to drive single purchase transactions as well. They wouldn't keep building them if they didn't work. And so it's just pragmatic to build that contextually into whatever shopping experience you're trying to build.

That said, thinking about it from the marketer side, there are certain types of businesses where apps make less sense. So things that are single purchase, once-a-lifetime, once-a-decade type products—I don't know if I would want, for example, a mattress app. It's the kind of thing that it may not take the same benefit from building that longer-term engagement with the customer. But for brands that have chosen to build those relationships through an app with customers, not integrating it into your marketing is just a really big, missed opportunity.

NICOLE RON: 21:42 | Kelly, what are your thoughts?

KELLY MERKEL: 21:44 | Yeah, I mean, I don't think we could get to the end of this conversation and give a hard no to [laughter]. Here, I give a hard yes, can app be ignored? Yep? Exactly.

So but to Chris's point too it also kind of depends. For most brands, it is going to make sense to have an app as a part of their marketing strategy, and it should be a very key part of their marketing strategy. For some, again, it may not make sense, but it all comes back down to this trend of mobile engagement, how the consumers are reaching you—and again, this is to me, both advertisers and publishers—how the consumers are reaching you, how they're engaging with you, and how you can create that authentic, seamless experience. That, to me is the most important consideration when you're thinking about your app strategy.

NICOLE RON: 22:35 | Great. Awesome. I really appreciate you both taking the time to chat through that. I know there are a lot of misconceptions out there and I think you've done a great job kind of anchoring us back into what really matters ultimately, and why we create these experiences to begin with, which is the customer and the journey that we're trying to create for them or the experience that we're trying to cultivate.

So I have one more question for you and it's a really important one. What's your favorite app? It can't be a business app. It has to be one that you love using personally. And I'd love to hear what that is and why.

KELLY MERKEL: 23:10 | So I spend a lot of time on BuzzFeed. I feel like I've aged out of their demographic, but I still get, like, sucked in because I love taking quizzes about what Parks and Rec character I am or the [laughter]—

NICOLE RON: 23:25 | Which one are you?

KELLY MERKEL: 23:27 | It depends on the day. I'm either an April or a Ron. Sometimes I'm a Leslie. Again, it depends on what kind of mood I'm in.

NICOLE RON: 23:37 | I'm not seeing the Ron [laughter]. All right, what about you, Chris? Do you have a favorite?

CHRIS MADDERN: 23:45 | It's really tough to pick just one, and I guess I'm probably not allowed to say Venmo. So one that I really, really like and have used for a long time since before they were a customer is an app called Acorns, which was built on a foundational principle of saving via rounding up on credit card purchases. So every time you swipe your credit card, they will round it up to the nearest dollar. And then a couple of times a week they'll take that amount out of your account and save it. And then they invest it in stocks. I find it personally a really compelling app and have used it for a long time, but I also just think it's a really genius way to help people start investing in the stock market in small, manageable, controlled ways and to see it grow over time. I think it's really a cool concept. I’ve been a user pretty much since it first existed.

NICOLE RON: 24:40 | Very cool, I'll have to check that out. I love that concept. It's like finding money under the mattress, but it's actually doing something for you.

NICOLE RON: 24:49 | My favorite is a plant app which—like every podcast, I talk about my love of plants. It's called PictureThis, and you can actually use it to take a picture of a plant that you see out in the wild, basically, and it'll tell you what it is, how to care for it, whether it's poisonous and everything else you could ever possibly want to know about plants. So that's my current personal favorite.

CHRIS MADDERN: 25:16 | How well does it work?

NICOLE RON: 25:18 | It actually works extremely well. I've been pleasantly surprised at how accurate it is.

CHRIS MADDERN: 25:25 | That's a hard problem.

NICOLE RON: 25:27 | I know. It really is, because it's like image recognition, and then you have to stack that against the database and return the right thing. It's not an easy thing, but they've done a pretty bang-up job at it. So it's currently my favorite. I think I use it at least once a week.

CHRIS MADDERN: 25:46 | Yeah. That’s awesome.

NICOLE RON: 25:47 | Cool. Well, thank you both. I greatly appreciate it. As always, it's wonderful to have guests and subject matter experts like yourselves join us. Of course, we also shamelessly have to plug that we're super excited to be officially partnered with Button and bringing that expertise into our client base, as well as marrying that with the C.J expertise and tracking and everything else that we do for our existing clients as well as prospective clients. So thank you both and with that, we'll sign off.

CHRIS MADDERN: 26:20 | Thank you so much for having me and of course we’re excited to be working with you as well.

KELLY MERKEL: 26:21 | Thank you!

NICOLE RON: 26:24 | Thank you.


If you enjoyed this episode and are curious to know more about this topic and many others, check us out at junction.cj.com or find CJ affiliate on FacebookLinkedInTwitter, or Instagram.

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