The TUNE Guide to Links
By Becky Doles | TUNE
Links enable marketers to measure campaign performance
Links enable marketers to track the customer journey
Links enable marketers to deliver optimal user experiences
What Are Links?
Links are how marketers track the effectiveness of their organic and paid activities. Not only across channels, but also across platforms, devices, campaigns, and experiences.
Links provide the framework that powers performance marketing. In the performance marketing industry, people measure results, then pay or get paid for those results.
Finally, links act as the breadcrumbs that allow marketers to follow a customer’s journey, from their first interaction with an advertising funnel to their last, by collecting data at key steps along the way.
Why Are Links So Important to Digital Marketers?
Links are the only constant in a digital advertising ecosystem that lacks a standardized approach to measuring the performance of platforms and partners. To connect the dots, marketers work with measurement and attribution partners like TUNE. For marketers who are just getting started, here are some of the essential underlying concepts of linking, from definitions of important terms to illustrations of how links work.
Attribution is the process of connecting an outcome, such as an ad click or app download, back to its source, such as an ad network or app publisher. To make this process work, marketers (advertisers) and their advertising partners (publishers) exchange customized tracking links for every campaign. These links let the measurement partner know when a customer touches a campaign, how they interact with it, where they came from, and more. The measurement partner uses these data points to connect the steps of the customer’s journey and to give credit to any advertising partners that helped along the way.
One example of how this works is demonstrated in the TUNE Links diagram below.
For a full explanation of attribution and more examples, see our Intro to Marketing Attribution.
Using a combination of tracking, attribution, and analytics is the only way for marketers to measure the entire customer journey — across all channels, touchpoints, and experiences. This is especially important in the modern mobile ecosystem, where the typical customer journey is made up of six phases across as many as 40 channels. Yet a recent study by Forrester suggests most digital marketers are still missing the memo: only 14% of respondents said they measure their mobile marketing efforts across the entire customer journey.
Links allow marketers to reconcile the fragments of a customer journey into a single, understandable picture. They can also simplify the seemingly complex, like measuring ROI across multiple converging channels, by highlighting the most critical customer touchpoints and informing the channels that matter most to a company’s goals.
Finally, link-based measurement and attribution is the the only way to give an objective account of campaign performance to advertisers, networks, and publishers alike. (This is especially important for performance marketing.)
All of this would be impossible without links, because links are the “web” in World Wide Web: living threads connecting every single piece of the digital ecosystem.
Now that we’ve covered why links are so important to digital marketers, let’s review the most common types.
The Most Important Links for Digital Marketers
Some marketers use the terms “URL” and “link” interchangeably, but there is a difference between them. A URL is simply a string of text that specifies the location of a resource on the internet. Typical web URLs follow the form of a protocol (https), a host domain name (www.tune.com), and a file path (/blog). A link is both the location of a resource and a dynamic way to reach it. In practice, this means a link is clickable and a URL is not; when clicked, a link checks in with the server hosting a resource before it navigates a path to the resource.
This behavior allows attribution to work. When a user clicks on an ad, the tracking link checks in with the measurement partner’s tracking server before redirecting the user to the destination URL. During the check-in, the link starts the measurement process and stores user data. It also checks for important information, like whether the user has the app installed or not, and instructions, like where to route the user in each case. The measurement partner then matches this data supplied by the advertising partner with user and conversion data supplied by the marketer to unify touchpoints in the journey.
While links vary across web and app, one thing remains the same: The core of every link is a URL.
“Tracking link” is a general term for any link that is designed to send and receive information. In marketing measurement and attribution, tracking links contain lots of repeating, structured groups. These groups form pairs of parameters and values, and they’re how tracking links share information. (The final form and number of parameters depends on factors like campaign goals and app operating systems.)
For an example of typical tracking link structure, see the TUNE Link below:
Deep links and deep linking are more a concept than a classification. Any link that drives to specific content within a website or app, instead of the home page or default home screen, can be considered a “deep link.” That’s why deep web linking has been around almost as long as the internet itself — it’s easy, accessible, and still the best way for users to discover content.
By comparison, mobile deep linking is brand new. It’s also complex, situational, and difficult to implement and execute. This is due to constantly evolving standards and capabilities on individual platforms and operating systems. Link wrapping and URL shortening — common practices across publishers for tracking purposes — create difficulties with some deep links on iOS and Android devices. In addition, standard mobile deep links default to a generic destination (like an app’s home screen), or simply fail, if a user does not have the corresponding app installed. (See Deferred Deep Links below.)
Note: TUNE Links allow marketers to easily create deep links that route users to the optimal destination and track their journey across web, app, and mobile web.
Deferred Deep Links | mobile only
If a user does not have the app related to a specific digital experience, clicking on a deferred deep link gives them a chance to download the app and access the in-app content after install, rather than being taken to the app’s default home screen. In a sense, deferred deep links are more complex than standard deep links, because they route users through the “black box” of app stores. Deferred deep linking is only possible through measurement and linking partners like TUNE.
Check out What’s the difference between a deep link and deferred deep link? for details.
Today, “Universal Links” and “App Links” are industry standards for mobile deep linking.
Universal Links | iOS only
A Universal Link is an iOS-specific link system designed to make app content more discoverable. When a user on a mobile device clicks a Universal Link to your content, they get the experience that’s optimal for them: taken directly to in-app content when the app is installed, or redirected to mobile website content when it’s not. Functionally, a Universal Link allows you to have a single link that either opens your app or your mobile website. However, these links can only do that thanks to special technology that changes fundamental link behavior in certain situations. This behavior is controlled by the operating system itself, instead of through a link redirect, which prevents link measurement in these situations.
Universal Links are structured the same as a standard http/https hyperlink, rather than the previous standard app-specific deep link URL (such as myApp://location123). This change means marketers can append parameters to Universal Links for attribution and campaign optimization purposes, just like any other tracking link.
It’s important to note that Universal Links only work for mobile users running iOS 9 or newer, where they effectively function as deferred deep links. For mobile users running iOS 8.4.1 or older, Universal Links act as standard deep links and may fail when the user does not have the app installed.
App Links | Android only
App Links are the Android version of Universal Links. They work the same as Universal Links, which means the Android operating system controls link behavior and makes traditional link tracking ineffective in some situations. App Links are also structured as standard http URLs, and can have parameters appended for attribution and optimization. App Links only work for mobile users running Android 6.0 or newer.
These links offer substantial benefits to marketers looking to measure the customer journey and deliver the best experiences possible to users. They also come with a range of nuanced technicalities that digital marketers must plan for if they want to use each link to its fullest potential. To help marketers do just that, we’ll end with the top challenges and limitations to be aware of when working with these links.
Links and Tracking: Tips to Keep in Mind
Links represent a necessary and powerful part of the digital advertising system. While generally easy to implement, they can still trip up marketers who are unaware of a few key complications, including the following:
Universal Links and App Links will not work correctly on mobile devices running different operating systems. Absent a one-link solution, maintaining functionality and measurement capabilities across both iOS and Android users requires separate audience targeting and tracking links for each campaign.
TUNE Links eliminate the need for separate tracking links for iOS and Android. One TUNE Link can contain everything required to measure and route users to the correct destination across all platforms.
Universal Links and App Links do not support link redirects. Without a measurement partner that can do both mobile and web-to-app attribution like TUNE, it is very difficult to track users in situations where they are directed to in-app content by the phone’s operating system, instead of through a redirect.
TUNE Links and the TUNE SDK enable measurement in these situations.
Without support for redirects, Universal Links and App Links will break with URL shorteners and link wrapping. Link wrapping often occurs when third parties (like advertising platforms and email service providers) redirect marketers’ links in order to track them. URL shorteners work in a similar fashion, but also conceal the tracking parameters.
TUNE Links support link wrapping for both Universal Links and App Links.
To date, few companies provide integrated linking, measurement, and attribution services for mobile-first marketers, and none specialize in providing all three across web, app, and mobile web. Even the best linking capabilities can’t provide the insights marketers need without best-in-class attribution. Similarly, attribution providers that offer linking by default lack the expertise, flexibility, and routing options needed for effective cross-channel links. Marketers have had to invest time and resources to implement multiple solutions in an effort to fill in these gaps.
Unlike other measurement companies, TUNE has been in the linking business since we’ve been in the attribution business — we just haven’t made a big deal out of it. We’ve always believed best-in-class linking and attribution should come hand-in-hand. That’s why no other company today offers the level of performance and expertise in integrated linking and measurement as TUNE.
Emerging technology and platforms — think Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Alexa — continue to change the role of links in mobile attribution methods. Keep an eye on news from the biggest platforms about product releases and updates, and use resources like the TUNE blog for additional insight and information.
As the essential connectors of digital advertising, links deliver significant upside to marketers who know how to use them. They provide unprecedented visibility into the customer journey and help solve some of today’s thorniest marketing challenges, from how to effectively execute omnichannel advertising to who to pay for contributing to a sale. In summary, links are streamlining experiences across screens and channels, and helping marketers better manage what they measure.
In the next installment, The TUNE Guide to TUNE Links, we’ll review how our approach to links opens a window to broader perspectives and higher marketing ROI than ever before.
For more information on why TUNE offers the industry's best measurement and linking solution, see our competitive analysis.
Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she led a variety of marketing and communications projects at San Francisco startups. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After living nearly a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned to her home of Charleston, SC, where you can find her enjoying the sun and salt water with her family.