Soundcloud’s savvy way of mixing HTML5 and native apps for growth on mobile

By Kim-Mai Cutler Comment

HTML5 may fall into the experimental category for many app developers (especially in games) because of problems with performance and monetization.

But for a handful of highly-social apps, a dual strategy with HTML5 for brand new users and native apps for devoted ones is the way to go.

Germany’s Soundcloud is one of these. The company, which is backed by Kleiner Perkins and Union Square Ventures, recently brought its HTML5 mobile web experience to parity with the native iOS and Android versions after six months of intensive development work.

Because much of Soundcloud’s usage is about listening to tracks from artists and DJs and sharing music with friends or followers, the service gets a great deal of its traffic through blogs, Facebook and Twitter. That kind of viral traffic doesn’t necessarily translate well into either the iTunes or Android app stores because both stores lack decent social channels for sharing and discovery.

So Soundcloud leverages HTML5 and Facebook’s overhauled mobile platform to ease new or casual users into listening to tracks shared by friends. They then upsell the native apps for truly dedicated Soundcloud users who want native functionality like the ability to record sound.

“We can do 95 percent of what we want to do with HTML5,”  said Thom Cummings, Soundcloud’s vice president of marketing. “We used to push our native apps a lot, but now HTML5 is really performing.”

Late last year, Soundcloud unveiled HTML5 widgets that run natively in the browser, allowing users to play tracks from their iOS devices. Their prior approach didn’t work as well given that Adobe Flash doesn’t function on the iPhone. Coupled with Facebook’s recent launch of viral channels for mobile web and iOS apps, this fueled a bump in Soundcloud’s daily active users (or DAU) on Facebook. Soundcloud’s DAU on the social network has quadrupled in the last three months to 400,000.

Soundcloud’s strategy underscores the key consideration developers have to take into account when deciding whether to go HTML5, native or both. If your traffic is highly reliant on referrals from e-mail or social networks, HTML5 is a great way to go assuming there aren’t too many performance differences. But if you rely on direct traffic or can afford to play the paid user acquisition game on iOS or Android, then it may make sense to go native.   

Many game developers — even ones that have been historically dependent on Facebook — like Zynga and Funzio take a different tack than Soundcloud. Because they have businesses that generate millions of dollars in monthly cash-flow, they can just spend on advertising to climb up the app store charts and acquire users. Facebook is nice, but not absolutely necessary for them. Indeed, in some of Zynga’s more recent games like Dream Heights and Dream Zoo, the Facebook integration is buried at least two clicks into the game instead of being front and center.

However, for other categories of apps that are inherently social — like music, photo-sharing or news media — that haven’t nailed their customer lifetime value or have yet to generate significant cash flow, an HTML5 strategy that relies on iOS’ Twitter integration and Facebook’s mobile viral channels is essential.

Soundcloud has been busy strengthening its Facebook mobile integration over the past month. Two weeks ago, the company took advantage of a new deep linking feature that lets links shared in the news feed or notifications connect to specific parts of Soundcloud’s HTML5 or iOS experience. Before, such links would either just open the main app or direct users to the app store. Now when Facebook users see a Soundcloud link in their feed, it will take them directly to the shared music track, which just makes for better overall user experience.

“It’s interesting to see native applications finally start to speak to each other,” Cummings said.

Soundcloud is also taking an active role in making HTML5 go the last mile. One of the reasons many developers still go native is that Android and iOS apps can hook into core device functionality like the camera that HTML5 apps can’t. Right now, there isn’t widespread support for sound recording in mobile web browsers. Soundcloud supports, an HTML5 audio test suite for web apps.

“As a company on the forefront on the sound on the web, we’re trying to push the boundaries of what you can do,” Cummings said.