13 things mobile marketers should do now to prep for the perfect storm of privacy, economic downturn, and post-Covid rebound

By John Koetsier June 30, 2022

There’s a bit of a perfect storm hitting mobile apps, mobile advertising, and growth marketing in general. Three massive factors are changing everything:

  • Privacy
  • Economic downturn
  • Post-covid rebound

These three forces, Eric Seufert says, “present immense challenges to performance marketers at the moment.” The worst part: they combine with each other in unpredictable ways to not just make mobile marketing harder, but to also render recent experience less useful as a predictor of success.

The 3 massive converging changes in 2022

First is privacy.

Basically everyone in marketing and mobile user acquisition knows that the future of both measurement and optimization is privacy-focused, more aggregate than granular, more fuzzy than deterministic, and more multi-modal than it’s been in the past. That’s happening by law, and it’s happening by Apple and Google edict, with App Tracking Transparency, SKAdNetwork, Privacy Sandbox for Web, and Privacy Sandbox for Android.

At the same time, macroeconomic indicators aren’t good. 

Adtech firms including Unity and AppLovin are laying off people, Meta and Twitter are freezing hiring, Tencent and ByteDance are axing thousands, and long-time top companies like Netflix are trimming headcount. Leading mobile-focused companies like Noom and Klarna and many others (Ritual, Numbrs, even Niantic, the studio behind Pokémon Go) are also freezing projects and/or also laying off employees.

To add to the chaos, the digital/mobile boost that Covid provided for the tech industry in general and the mobile industry specifically is going away as people resume normal lives and prior patterns. Some of what mobile apps gained will be lost. Not everything that people did in lockdown or under restrictions will remain as life patterns and mobile usage change. And when you add economic pressure to a reversion to previous norms, it might be harder to justify a nightly habit of ordering delivery.

Or buying up in the mobile game you no longer spend 10 hours a week on.

And those kinds of changes have impact.

So what do you do? What’s your plan?

Well, most mobile marketers will focus on continuing to fly the plane where it’s going, and there’s a lot to be said for that strategy. The plane needs to stay in the air, after all: you’ve got growth targets, and they’re not going to hit if you dream (or worry) about the future and forget about now.

And yet …

How should a scaled-up performance marketing organization deal with the emerging realities of privacy? Probably by keeping one hand on the wheel of now (ok, mostly two) but probably also by casting an occasional eye forward and planning to be well-optimized and well-adapted for a world that is rewriting the rules of growth.

Of course, it’s not simple. 

Because at the same time as privacy changes make it harder to find new customers, the one-two whammy of macroeconomic changes and post-Covid rebound might just result in fewer potential new customers being available, period. So you need a plan to continue to acquire valuable customers effectively even when it’s harder.

Here are 12 places to focus and ensure your marketing and advertising future, whichever ways the privacy path goes, and whatever happens with the economy or people’s changing habits.

1. Biggify the organic footprint

Organic won’t replace paid advertising unless lightning strikes and you become the next Pokemon Go. But it will be additive, and quality organic marketing tends to participate in a virtuous circle with paid marketing, offering an amplifier effect.

That starts with your own branded content, but it’s infinitely more scalable if you architect your product and its core loop to make it easy, appealing, and rewarding for your players, customers, or users to share their own, generated via your platform.

“Content is fire. Social media is gasoline.”

– Jay Baer

If you do the right things in content — whether your own or your customers’ — unexpectedly good things can happen.

The good news is that done well, organic marketing doesn’t just amplify paid, it brings in “free” customers and users on its own, making it a valuable part of a recession-proofing strategy. But as anyone with any experience knows: these users aren’t free. It costs time and money to build and deploy organic marketing strategies. When it hits, however, these can be the cheapest (and best) new customers you’ve ever had.

2. Become viral-worthy (funky/interesting/odd/amazing)

Organic is great. Organic plus viral is amazing.

Planning to go viral is a dumb business strategy, mostly because aside from a few very talented, connected, and tuned-in influencers, it’s incredibly hard to make something go viral. It happens all the time, and the characteristics of what goes viral often show similarities, but making your weekly blog post catch social fire is ridiculously hard.

And yet, the potential rewards are great:

“Advertising brings in customers, but word-of-mouth brings in the best customers.” 

– Jonah Berger, author & marketing professor

So design your app, structure your gameplay, record your thoughts, publish your content, and enable your users to publish their experiences in ways that maximize your likelihood of achieving virality. Then hope for the best … while potentially upping the odds by seeding it with friendly influencers.

3. Target with creative

I’ve heard two top marketers in the last month say they were “targeting via creative” after never hearing that phrase in a decade or more. 

Post-privacy, when you can’t narrowcast to a tightly defined behaviorally-created audience, build creative that answers questions, as Activision senior growth manager Thanasi Chalkiadakis recently told me. Creative that answers questions like how does this game work, or how does this app help me, or who else uses this service tend to bring in better-qualified users, he says.

“Build creative that answers questions.”

– Thanasi Chalkiadakis, senior growth manager, Activision

Answer the right questions, and you’ve targeted even ads that can’t really be targeted, at least not the way mobile marketers have become accustomed to over the last decade. And likely you’ve done it cheaper than truly behaviorally-target ads of 2020 … which is a good recession-proof strategy.

Also, target via creative by showing the kinds of people who form your best customers. Maybe they’re into sports, or maybe they’re big football fans, or maybe they’re over the age of 50. Whatever: target with your creative as much (or more than) your audiences, your contextuals, and your channels, and you’re more likely to get your messages in front of people who you want in your app.

4. Ensure you have clean data and good ingestion protocols

This is always good advice, but if you’re going to have less data, or more aggregate data, or more diverse sources of data, you really, really need ensure it’s the best quality it can be. That means ensuring you import clean, standardized, normalized data into your internal BI systems as much as possible.

Everyone knows this matters.

But so many don’t invest the time or energy in ensuring it’s done and it keeps getting done, as partners and technologies and schemata change and evolve.

So it also means ensuring you have defined processes in place for handling that data, enriching that data, and putting that data to work. Easy access to actionable insight is hugely important for growth professionals, and making sure you have that is a job that never really ends.

(Shockingly, I know, Singular can help with this … see Singular ETL.)

5. Test contextual targeting

It might seem super-lame and you might be wishing for good old behavioral targeting mechanisms to come back, but in some scenarios contextual targeting is going to be what you’re left with.

“Because IDFA is more or less gone, you can only target a very small fraction of iOS users using identity. So, you know, that ship has kind of sailed at this point. So your best bet at this point is to work with a vendor that can really look at a lot of different signals, including contextual signals, and really use machine learning to target the user. You can’t rely on unique identifiers to target users on iOS anymore, you really have to be using probabilistic and machine learning based approaches to target users.”

 – Anurag Agarwal, VP of product at Moloco

There are definitely some challenges. Some studies suggest there’s a 100X difference in click-through rate between contextual and behavioral targeted ads while only costing about 2X as much. 

That said, however, it’s actually not as horrific as modern marketers who never had to operate contextually might think. That 100X difference compares retargeted ads with regular old display ads on the web, which is an unfair comparison.

Retargeting — where possible — is always going to have significant advantages in terms of awareness, brand, and propensity for conversion compared to a basically invisible banner ad.

Picking the right units that invite engagement is going to lead to much better results.

And by picking the right context, you can infer behavioral intent even when you literally know nothing specifically about an ad viewer. After all, someone watching a rewarded ad unit in a game is … at least … someone who plays games. By knowing the game, the style, perhaps even the level of the game the player is seeing an ad at — all things a supply-side partner might be able to offer without tracking and without device identification — all help narrow down exactly what kind of player this person might be.

6. Engage microinfluencers

You might not have touched influencer marketing with a stick three years ago, or even two years ago.

Now with tracking challenges elsewhere and the continuing strength of Tiktok, that’s changing. More and more performance marketers are turning to platforms that automate influencer marketing campaigns with predictable — even if they’re not fully trackable — returns. You can go it alone, but it’s a lot of work and you won’t really have access to the metrics that will make it scalable.

“Don’t get distracted by the big follower counts. You might have a 2 million follower TikToker who’s charging you $3,000 for a post, but if you actually look at their videos, they’re only getting between like, you know, 10,000 views or something like that.  Where the sweet spot is is you want to flip that ratio.  You want to find smaller influencers who are newer, who have much larger engagements.”

 – Aidan Quest, JetFuel

Performance marketers have traditionally hated influencer marketing due to its inherent lack of trackability. Intelligently done, however, you can track results with incrementality, by time-specific analysis of installs, by integrated coupon codes or offers or specific landing pages … the sky is the limit.

7. Widen your data gathering

Three years ago mobile marketers could live dumb, lazy, happy, and successful lives. IDFAs and GAIDs were free for all, and as long as you had the infrastructure to collect, process, and share them, you had pretty much all the information you needed to run user acquisition at scale.

(OK, the first line of that paragraph is an exaggeration.)

Now there’s so much more that growth marketers in the mobile space have to learn, know, and add to their ever-more-complex data models for driving growth.

  1. IDFA (you still get some)
  2. GAID (for now)
  3. SKAN
  4. Privacy Sandbox on Android (soon)
  5. Cost/campaign data from partners
  6. In-app data
  7. Store data
  8. Broader economy data (for incrementality/MMM)
  9. Broader political/social/entertainment data (for incrementality/MMM)
  10. And probably more

With less certain data to drive both measurement and optimization, you need more data to power fuzzy models for where to up the ante and where to cool your jets. It’s getting harder, and the new deterministic-but-not-granular measurement models from Apple and Google are also harder to learn, harder to implement, harder to operate, and harder to optimize.

A wider funnel for data just might also open your digital eyes on who could be a customer or user, and where they might be found.

But if you do this, you also need to …

8. Invest in data science

Fuzzy data from multiple sources is harder to distill into action than simple last-click attribution data. Get comfortable with truthiness rather than truth.

And invest in data science that delivers directionally-accurate insight versus what you might have expected previously: a 100% clear and obvious answer to the marketer’s perennial question: what do I do next?

Along the path, study and become comfortable with confidence intervals, because they just might become your new best friends.

9. Invest more in onboarding

When you could find a new user by throwing a $5 bill at Facebook and you had tens of millions in venture capital overflowing out of your bank account, you could afford to not worry too much about leaky buckets or churn. It wasn’t smart, but sometimes it was expedient and made sense in a very dot-com era burn-the-world-down kind of way.

Not anymore.

And that means UA experts now need to be product experts too.

“No one should know what happens [from] D0 to D30 quite like someone in UA, because you need to know what you’re showcasing in the app,” says Thanasi Chalkiadakis, who leads growth for the mobile version of Call of Duty for Activision. “You need to know what your big KPIs are. So you should know those tutorial moments, those gotcha moments, all of that. You should have all of that baked out, but past D30.”

Onboard users with care. Personalize the experience for them as you teach them your app and they teach themselves to your app, adapting your user experience to the best possible flow for each persona that fits.

At the same time …

10. Adopt lifecycle marketing

Adopt lifecycle marketing and start thinking about the value of a customer, player, or user who sticks around for 10 months, not 10 days. Maybe even 10 years.

That’s going to be different for different apps — especially hypercasual apps — but our new privacy and economic conditions privilege different kinds of apps, and different kinds of growth strategies.

When you could cherry pick AAA new users out of the crowds, maybe hypercasual made sense. Maybe a churn-style growth mechanic made sense. But when you have to use the fish net to capture whole crowds of hundreds of users of relatively unknown value, maybe you have to focus more on identifying the ones who will stick and nurturing them for the long term.

Which, of course, also means product has to change.

11. Become expert at each platform’s preferred ways of attribution

I get it. You hate SKAdNetwork. And you’re not going to love Privacy Sandbox for Android when it comes out.

They’re complicated. They’re not as good, for mobile growth purposes, as IDFA and GAID and the existing industry infrastructure. And they’re tough to figure out.

Here’s the reality: they’re what you’ve got. Apps and marketers that are leaning in are finding ways to generate high performance returns. You can too, and by design, the platforms are more and more ensuring that SKAN and, in the future Privacy Sandbox, will be the primary ways to get deterministic data on installs.

12. Open Pandora’s box (get more creative)

Every marketer that is successful has learned over time to find an edge. Find something that tipped the scale in their direction.

Keep working on that.

One way: super-creative marketing campaigns that demand attention along with the complex math and modeling that evaluates the results of that attention.

Now it’s time to empty the tank. Most creative one wins, whether it’s the privacy game or the bigger piece of a shrinking pie.

Everyone can market in a growing economy with defined processes for success. Now it’s time to see who can outcompete in a difficult economy with challenging new processes that we’re still inventing.

Here’s your chance to shine.

13. Finally: check out our upcoming SKAN 4 webinar

SKAN 4 will soon be the way to measure marketing impact and optimize campaigns on iOS and optimize. It’s a big improvement in a lot of ways over the existing SKAdNetwork, but it will also add a ton of complexity.

I’m doing a deep dive into SKAN 4 with Singular CEO Gadi Eliashiv: join us here. We’ll be talking about how user acquisition and growth will be impacted by SKAN 4, and we’ll be sharing how SKAN 4 could impact your data collection and growth strategy.

Click here for all the details.

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