All in all, mobile service apps turn out to be a horrible place to close viral loops and win at the retention game. Only a handful of apps have succeeded mobile-first: Instagram, Tango, Shazam, maybe 2 or 3 others (Games drive short-term revenue but don’t get me started on that topic – sell a billion $0.99 games with 30% taken off the top by Apple/Google and you now have the equivalent revenue of a Call Of Duty opening weekend). Take Path, one of the most promising mobile-first startups. I don’t want to rag on them because I love the app, but it’s just a good example. Color would also work well. With 5-10 million downloads, Path has retained less than 200,000/users a day according to AppData. You can also check their download rank in the Social category and see that it has dropped from 5 to 94. That’s anywhere between 2 and 4% retention and a couple hundred downloads a day. Even if that’s wrong by 5x or 20x, it still doesn’t make sense as a business for many years. A boutique social network user is not exactly the type of person to click on an ad.
You have an entirely different onboarding story on the web. You can test easily, cheaply, and fast enough to make a difference on the web. You can fix a critical bug that crashes your app on load 15 minutes after discovery (See Circa). You can show 10 different landing pages and decide in real-time which one is working the best for a particular user. You can also close a viral loop: A user can click an email and immediately be using your app with you. You can’t put parameters on a download link and people don’t download apps from their computer to their phone. Without the barrier of a download + opening the app to try your product, you can prove value to the user immediately upon their first impression, as is with Google. In addition, the experience of signing up for a service is superior in every way. Typing is easier. Sign-up with OAuth is faster. Tab to the next field. Provide marketing alongside sign-up as encouragement. Auto-fill information is a feature in every browser. The open eco-system of the web and 20 years of innovation has solved many of the most difficult parts of onboarding. With mobile, that kind of innovation is lagging significantly behind because we create apps at the leisure of two companies, neither of which have a great incentive to help free app makers succeed.