Evolution of App Retargeting

RevX recently made a presentation on the evolution of app retargeting, at MAU VEGAS 2017, a mobile growth conference organized by Grow.co. The presentation centred around the growth and maturity of retargeting technology for native mobile apps (presentation video). App retargeting is relatively new compared to its web counterpart, which has been around for a decade. However, the technology stack has rapidly evolved to bring functional parity with web, and adoption is growing quickly. Most app marketers are shifting focus towards re-engagement and retention, as acquiring new users becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. In this blog, we look at the evolution of app retargeting across three phases, and how marketers can get the best out of their app retention strategies.

Evolution of mobile app retargeting

App Retargeting 1.0

App retargeting platforms entered the market in around 2012. While new user acquisition and app notification remained the dominant growth channels, app marketers realized the need for paid re-engagement, akin to the fast-growing and highly effective web retargeting services. Traditional web-retargeting platforms didn’t move quickly enough to offer basic building blocks of retargeting “user tracking”, as pixel-based technology prevalent in the web environment was not transferable. Noticing the opportunity, app retargeting specialists emerged to offer app retargeting technology and services.

The early version of this technology was difficult to implement - it required a specialized SDK to track user activity and there was no straightforward way to attribute conversions and measure ROI. Retargeting ads were largely static and clicking ads didn’t take users to the place of action (e.g. product details page) inside the app. Despite these limitations, early adopters saw significant value when proliferation of apps was driving down app retention and engagement.

App Retargeting 2.0

The second phase of app retargeting centred on building the technology to bring app retargeting functionality and efficacy at par with web retargeting, and reducing the barriers to adoption for app marketers. Noticing the problems and opportunities, app marketing technologies raced to build the essential blocks for app retargeting. Partnering with Mobile Attribution Partners or Mobile Measurement Partners (MMP), (companies like AppsFlyer, Tune, Apsalar, Kochava etc.) seemed like the appropriate next steps – to remove these barriers to adoption.

Mobile attribution platforms were built to address install attribution, and had a unique advantage – most apps already had their SDK implemented in the app to track and measure acquisition campaigns. For these mobile attribution platforms, tracking in-app activities to support user analytics, segmentation and app retargeting became an obvious extension. Additionally, the attribution platforms evolved to support retargeting campaigns. Now, with the same SDK, marketers could track installs, in-app activity, and retargeting campaigns. The server-2-server (S2S) integration between measurement platforms and app retargeting platforms reduced barriers to run retargeting campaigns. (A few web retargeting platforms acquired or built app tracking SDKs, only to shut them down later.)

The last missing piece to support dynamic ads and bring app retargeting features at par with web retargeting, was the link scheme for apps (called Deeplinks), and required OS level support. At this critical juncture, both Google and Apple launched deeplinking capabilities, and third-party platforms evolved and added functionality to manage deeplinks.

Thus in the second phase of app retargeting, various technology vendors in the mobile app ecosystem came forward to build different pieces – user tracking, deeplinking, attribution, and retargeting. The similarity between the app and the web retargeting ecosystems ends at media execution, as the programmatic framework to buy media is the only thing that is identical across both channels.

There are significant differences in behind-the-scene tech stacks. Web retargeting platforms generally offer all the required hooks to collect data, build audiences and serve dynamic ads, giving greater flexibility. App retargeting platforms talk to an app’s measurement and attribution vendor for data onboarding through server-to-server integration, and typically require a data transformation layer. Given these differences, app retargeting specialists have leapfrogged web retargeting platforms on technology, functionality and performance.

App Retargeting 3.0

So what’s next, now that the essential technologies (media, segmentation, attribution, dynamic ads, deeplinking) have evolved? The technology will continue to improve incrementally and focus should shift towards effective use of technology in strategizing app retargeting programs.

Rethink Segmentation

Platforms have advanced, to track user activities and build sophisticated audience cohorts. However, marketers still need to strategize segmentation. Unfortunately, web retargeting platforms had remained a black-box for a decade in terms of visibility into retargeting audience segments. The segmentation strategies that worked for websites is not likely to work for apps. The user interaction model on the app is different from the desktop – mobile is more personal, always on, and readily accessible. So, marketers need to rethink retargeting segments. An analytical approach to defining segments for re-engagement can help coordinate re-engagement across channels (paid media, e-mail, and notification) and get the best ROI.

Evaluate Incremental Value

Marketers should also evaluate the incremental value of app retargeting and measure it in terms of the lift in conversion rate, conversion velocity or customer LTV. Users who have installed the app have shown some affinity and loyalty to your brand by committing space on the device. For example, marketers might not see much value of retargeting users immediately after they install the app. A controlled A/B testing can be useful in evaluating the incremental value of app retargeting at distinct stages of the app lifecycle.


Attribution methodologies are still evolving in app marketing. The desktop world lived through standard 30-days post/last click attribution for two decades. Now app marketers are rethinking attribution methodology, to align with their users’ app behavior and their company’s marketing objectives. Attribution and LTV evaluation for apps could get complex when combining install and re-engagement channels. Until app retargeting became mainstream, marketers predominantly attributed all transaction value to the install source. With retargeting in the mix, marketers have begun looking at separate attribution windows for install and retargeting campaigns. Most mobile attribution platforms support a ‘reattribution’ window, which defines the window at which retargeting campaigns start getting attribution. Also, unlike desktop, mobile ad formats such as interstitial are 100% viewable.

Creative Strategy

Lastly, marketers and vendors need to rethink the creative strategy for mobile screens. It’s not too difficult to find desktop retargeting ads with upto 50 products crammed in a single creative, in the hope that users will find one of them attractive. Re-appropriating desktop creatives like these for the mobile ecosystem are not going to yield performance. App retargeting platforms that uniquely leverage constraints (e.g. screen size) and capabilities (touch, swipe, native/interstitial ads) of mobile will deliver better performance and scale on the app channel.

In summation, app retargeting technology has quickly matured and is being rapidly adopted. As new user acquisition becomes difficult and expensive, marketers should think strategically about adding app retargeting to their marketing mix. To evaluate the appropriate partner for the task, marketers should look beyond just the discrete fundamental platform features such as programmatic media, user reach, audience segmentation, and dynamic ads. The right partners will stitch each of these pieces into one cohesive package and have a proven track record of delivering results. Also, remember, your desktop retargeting vendor might not be best suited for running these app retargeting campaigns.

Check out the video of RevX's session at MAU Vegas “Getting the Best out of your App Retargeting Strategy | Turning on the Strategic Mode” where along with our agency partner TMGA, we presented insightful data from ‘BackFlip Studios’ app retargeting campaign showcasing how RevX platform leveraged Advance Analytics, A/B Testing and Real Time Audience Segmentation to drive top-notch results.

About RevX

RevX is an app retargeting platform that powers growth for mobile businesses through dynamic retargeting. The platform is built on integrated and transparent technology combining four key pillars - audience intelligence, programmatic media, personalized ads, and ROI optimization. Mobile marketers across verticals like e-Commerce, travel, lifestyle, hyperlocal and gaming use RevX to enhance user engagement by activating new users, converting existing users and re-activating lapsed users. If you have any doubts, queries or ideas, do reach out to us at marketing@revx.io

Mukesh Agarwal