User acquisition in mobile publishing: how marketing makes a hit out of your mobile games

Are you an up-and-coming mobile game developer that has never dealt with user acquisition? In this article, UA managers from AppQuantum reveal the details of the paid user acquisition cycle for a mobile game.

Today, the mobile games market is flooded with hundreds of thousands of titles. New projects — both high-quality and not — come out on a daily basis. Therefore, the reality of the mobile market for a developer is cruel: paving your way to success is not easy, even if your game is truly awesome. But a solution to this problem does exist — that’s paid user acquisition or just UA.

Stage 1: Basic testing

The first people in a mobile publishing company who come across your game are Business Development managers. They basically open the doors to the game publishing world for the project. Sometimes biz dev managers at first sightsee 100% potential in a game. They already imagine how it could turn into a super-hit. If only reality was so simple…

Since we do not immediately understand how successful the game can be in the long run, we start by ‘testing the waters’. Before signing a publishing agreement with a development studio, we conduct a test. It will allow us to at least roughly determine the potential of the game.

To avoid unnecessary waste of money, we have developed a reliable testing system. 

The first test is usually run on the Facebook platform. Why do we choose that platform? Because of two huge advantages. First: an extensive and diverse audience. Second: one of the fastest learning algorithms existing today. On the first day of the UA campaign running, Facebook shows the ad creative to several thousand potential users. And already on the second day, having analysed enough data, Facebook starts showing your ads to the most relevant players.

To start with, we take a sampling of users from 1000 people on one placement. This quantity will allow us to see more or less reliable results.

In the test, we are focused on the following metrics: 

  • Spend — the total amount of money spent on a UA campaign. 
  • CPI (Cost Per App Install) — a metric showing how much one app download costs. 
  • CPM (Cost per 1000 Impressions) — an indicator by which we determine how much it costs us for a thousand views of an ad creative.
  • CTR (Click-Through-Rate) — a metric showing how many people are clicking on the ad. From a product point of view, this metric helps to understand how users are interested in the setting of the game or how good the ad creative is.
  • IPM (Installs per Mille) — the number of game installations per thousand ad impressions. Many variables can affect this metric: creative quality, UA strategy, traffic source, ASO. IPM is a great way to figure out if we can potentially scale and, if so, at what cost.
  • CTI (Click to Install) — is a metric that indicates the rate of conversions from a click to an installation.

With all the above mentioned metrics, we determine how potentially profitable the game is and whether we will end up working with it. But to be honest, not only raw numbers play a crucial role. Even if some metrics in the game are not up to par, there are other factors to consider. For example, the project shows a rather high Retention Rate (RR) on the 1st and 7th days, and you are ready to modify your game, we will gladly go for it. After all, we will help you raise the rest of the metrics.

It works the same way in the opposite direction. A game can have very low RRs on Day 1 and Day 7, but also have a low CPI and a cool game setting. In this case, we get to work with the goal of increasing user retention.

We test your game according to the following algorithm:

  • We are creating ad creatives with real gameplay of the game. Using them, we define: 

a) whether the audience is interested in the setting and features; 

b) whether it is possible to correct the gameplay or if the project will have to be completely redesigned.

  • Launching two Facebook campaigns optimised for Mobile App Installations (MAI).
  • Targeting audiences for the United States (US) and Brazil (BR). On US traffic, we can analyse marketing and product metrics. In particular, the payback of the game. As practice shows, games that pay off in the US are easily scalable to the Worldwide audience.
  • Brazilian traffic, on the other hand, allows exploring the product itself deeper. Purchasing impressions in this GEO is cheaper than in America, which means we can get enough users to trust the data. 
  • Having recruited 1000+ users, we look at how they behave: at what stage they “fall off”, how much they pay in the game and how much profit they bring to us from ad impressions. This helps to understand if the game needs to be improved and how. We give you feedback immediately after the analysis.
  • We put two ad placements for our UA campaigns: Facebook Feed and Facebook Audience Network (FAN). Ads from the first placement will appear in the Facebook user feed. From the second, they appear in applications, games, and on various sites. One of the benefits of FAN is Rewarded Video. The big advantage of this ad format is that the video cannot be missed, which means that the user is guaranteed to watch it to the end.
  • As soon as we recruit the required number of users, we stop the test and wait, for approximately a week. We adjust the term depending on the RR value.
  • We analyse the metrics of each ad placement. Important: don’t compare marketing and behavioural metrics from different traffic sources. Each has its own users and features, which means that the indicators can vary greatly.

The marketing and behavioural metrics that were obtained during the initial testing are used to build a strategy for the next stages.

If there is enough content in the game, monetisation is correctly configured, and the players really like the game mechanics and features, we will already start earning money at this stage. This means that we will be able to scale to a more expensive audience. However, the percentage of such projects is very low. More often than not, the developer and ourselves will begin receiving revenue from the game in the next stages. But more on that — later.

Stage 2: Extended Testing

So, after testing on small volumes of traffic, your project showed high metrics, we are seeing great potential in it. But it is too early to draw our final conclusions. You need to make sure that the results of the first test are reliable, not random, and it is possible to scale UA campaigns on your project. When we confirm this, we will be able to start earning millions of dollars from user acquisition every month.

Therefore, we test our UA strategies on a larger volume of traffic. To do this, we buy several times more traffic than during the first test. We can also try to expand targeting by adding new GEOs, traffic sources, and types of campaign optimisations, and we can also optimise for custom events in the game. For example, “20 ad views” or “reaching level 20”. Such events allow attracting a brand new layer of the audience to the game. In media buying, such users are significantly cheaper than those whom Facebook’s algorithms have identified as “paying users”.

As for ad creatives, for the extended testing, we make them more personalised. This helps to reach the target player whose portrait we formed after the first stage.

In the first testing, we only used those creatives that are based on real gameplay. Meanwhile, in the extended test, we start using misleading creatives. That is, the mechanics shown in the creatives are not actually present in the game. This approach has as many ardent opponents as well as supporters. But time-tested: such creatives work and help to attract new audiences to the product.

Since at this stage we are already earning money, this significantly increases costs than with the initial test. At this point, we thoroughly tested your project, assessed all its possibilities. Bottom line: we made sure the game is scalable. What’s next?

Stage 3: Soft launch 

Depending on the stage of the game’s readiness, this stage can last from several days to several months. All this time, we help you prepare the game for its worldwide release. At this stage product, analysts and producers are working hard on it. Also, sometimes the creative department offers their ideas on visuals and mechanics, based on what is popular in the gaming market at the moment.

We share all the necessary resources with you, and test hypotheses and new settings. We help you to increase conversions and user engagement. Normally, projects start generating revenue from UA at this stage.

And now, we see that it’s time to increase the volume of traffic, because we can finally turn a profit, the game content provides us with a fairly high RR, and the creative department has prepared mountains of good ad creatives. 

Stage 4: Worldwide Release 

This is the stage of real “fighting”. Now we are putting all the available forces of performance marketing into play: we buy more traffic, cover all the audiences we are interested in, engage our entire internal UA team, third-party UA agencies, ASO agencies. Moreover, we fully engage the creative and production departments, analyst and mediation teams, and influencer marketing team. All traffic sources that are suitable for your project are used.

When scaling, we adhere to the following algorithm: 

  • We are making sure that the product is ready for scaling. Thus, we see that it has a positive unit economy; 
  • Calculating LTV for each GEO and set KPI (benchmarks) for UA campaigns;
  • Checking if the game is localised for all countries which we plan to scale. We are also gradually adding new languages ​​to the game;
  • Here, we pay attention to ASO: putting in order the app page in the stores, conducting tests, announcing events, modifying the store pages depending on the features of different GEOs;
  • Exploring competitors;
  • Testing various optimisation options of ad campaigns; 
  • Working with audiences: adding lookalike, interest-based audiences, etc; 
  • Creating a sufficient number of ad creatives so that we have stock. This will allow us to consistently increase traffic volumes without pausing campaigns due to a lack of new creatives; 
  • Launching misleading creatives to reach a wider audience.
  • Starting using new traffic sources: such ad networks as AppLovin, Unity Ads, ironSource, and social networks as TikTok, Snapchat, etc.

We can consistently advertise your game for several years. All this time we are constantly improving it:

  • adding new game content; 
  • testing different advertising approaches; 
  • trying out new traffic sources; 
  • connecting our Social Media Marketing department to your project; 
  • spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the UA of your game.

Stage 5: Supporting the project 

We’ve reached the point where millions of dollars have been spent on your project. For months, if not years, our team has been acquiring users to your game. After such an impressive time frame, we covered almost all target users who could be acquired to the game, so the audience gradually “burned out”. Because of this, the purchase of traffic becomes much more expensive.

Now we are leaving only those traffic sources that still manage to pay off with a positive ROAS. We continue working with retargeting, cross-promotion, ASO.

We will add new events to the game, create new levels, and make mini-games. At this time, the UA team starts the retargeting process. They bring back a loyal audience that has already tried the product but for some reason left it.

Also, as an option, the producer assigned to you may offer to additionally start developing the next project at the same time. Our publishing will select the game mechanics and test the settings. So, even before creating a new project, you will know for sure that this game will be of interest to users.

Why are you still not working with UA? 

Yes, it is difficult to rise above the crowd with your project on the mobile market. It is even more difficult to keep afloat. It makes sense to think about UA at any stage: when you are just planning to enter the market, and when you notice a decline in organic installs, and when you want to rise in stores. AppQuantum will help you with that. Let’s talk!

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