Mobile games user acquisition strategy 2023
Great. Yet another stupid mobile games user acquisition strategy post with brilliant tips like A/B test your ads, set goals (so specific!), optimize towards positive ROI (really … are you sure we should?), test new ad formats, or try new ad partners.
No-one could fail to face-plant gloriously with advice like that.
Let’s be real: there’s a lot of recycled nonsense out there in blog posts about user acquisition strategy, and since games are basically half the App Store and Google Play plus a monster portion of all the in-app revenue publishers make, a lot of it is about games.
Why not something different?
This post is my attempt at advice for mobile growth marketers seeking to boost player acquisition in 2023, based on chats with hundreds of marketers and deep dives into mobile advertising data. But look: if you’re in the mobile user acquisition space actively right now deploying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’re the true expert. And you’re going through tough times right now: most apps and games are slowing ad spend as the economy withers. My hope here is to stimulate creativity and new ideas by offering up a few perspectives in multiple mobile growth areas.
Some I recommend.
Some I do not.
For some of these tips, I’ve seen them working, or heard from credible sources that they do work, but I do not personally recommend using the strategy. I’ll be clear about if I do NOT recommend a tip, suggestion, or idea, and why. But the choice is ultimately yours.
As always: YMMV.
Paid marketing – mobile user acquisition
1. Ad Intelligence
Use an ad intelligence tool to find out which ads have been the most successful in the past 3-6 months. Then copy them, emulate them, or just use them as inspiration.
This is simple: all of us are smarter than some of us, which means by definition that in general, and over time, the market as a whole will surface better, more clickable, and higher converting creative than you specifically will.
(Unless, of course, you’re that rare .1% outlier that beats the crowd every time. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely to be you.)
2. Fake ads (not recommended)
Some game publishers are literally doing step 1 above to find all the best-performing ads, and then running similar ads regardless of what kind of game they have.
In this scenario, the ad and the game literally have no connection: nothing in the ad shows up in the game, and the gameplay, look, and feel is wildly different than the ad.
It sounds insane, but look: when smart people spend money and continue to do it over time, something is working for them. I don’t recommend it: I think reputational risk, retention risk, and risk to the whole fragile edifice of mobile games advertising is too great.
But it’s working for some.
3. Make an event with influencers playing your game
Get a bunch of influencers to play your game together, or (especially valuable) against each other. Make it an in-app event (iOS) or live ops (Android) which will show up on the App Store and Google Play. Invite all your existing players to join the party.
Google says this drives a “3.6% increase in revenue and a 5.1% increase in 28DAU versus similar titles who don’t” do in-app events.
This is sort of a mix of organic and paid, because you’ll have to pay the influencers, but you should get organic spillover on the app stores. In addition, however, milk it on all your socials and your website. Livestream it. Clip the best parts and share them as shorts. Maybe make ads from some of the coolest bits with players winning big or losing hard.
4. Video ads that don’t suck
You know the ones that do.
They present as a playable ad, often in a rewarded ad scenario. But when you tap them, the ad network running the ad bumps open an app listing page over the ad. Attempting to close the ad does exactly the same thing, sometimes multiple times, usually with a timer. Trying to trick people into installing is just lame, and the ad networks are only doing it so aggressively so they get more impressions, SKAN (loser) postbacks, and maybe maybe maybe the odd instant download.
Work with your ad networks to get an ad experience that drives value, not just clicks/impressions/store opens. Mobile games user acquisition is hard enough without deceptive ads making people even more suspicious of advertising.
5. Playables that don’t lie
Yeah. Same thing.
You know the playables that when you try to actually … PLAY THEM … pop open an app listing page begging you to install before you’ve experienced very much at all? Not cool, and not likely to generate a positive long-term response.
Also avoid: full-up playable lies.
I won’t name names, but there’s an 8-Ball Pool competitor that I installed because it showed gameplay in video and playable ads that looked smart for on a phone. I’ve only ever wanted to play 8 Ball Pool on a tablet because I’ve always felt a smartphone is too small to really check the angles. This competitor, however, showcased gameplay that zoomed in on the corner of the pool table that you could make a shot on, giving you a great view of the angles and post-shot action. And it featured 1-finger usage: aim and select force all in a single step.
But once installed?
Back to the full massive pool table on a smartphone screen, with tiny balls, tiny cue sticks, and exactly the kind of hard-to-read angles I did NOT want. Plus a 2-step figure the angles, then set the velocity process.
Instant delete, with significant prejudice against ever trying it again.
Market the game you have, not a game that doesn’t exist.
(Unless you’re doing market research on what game to make! That’s a different use case, and very valid!)
6. More ad partners
I said it back in 2021: “top gaming companies use 2-3X more ad partners than average mobile app marketers.”
In general, try more options, and use more partners. You’ll learn more, you’ll see more, and you’ll get more.
Note: there is now a caveat to that advice.
For Android, this is still 100% true. Go nuts. With the right marketing measurement partner — who could that be?!? — it’s totally doable. For iOS, it’s also true, but the caveat is that it is less true if you lack scale. (Translation: you’re not spending dump trucks full of cash.) The fact of the matter on SKAdNetwork is that you need scale to get data from SKAN, or else you’ll lose too much insight to privacy thresholds AKA crowd anonymity.
Everyone uses Meta and Google and Apple Search Ads. Go beyond.
7. Channels that don’t suck
Pick the right channels, said the user acquisition consultant with a smile. Yes, that’s generally a good idea.
A good place to start: the Singular ROI Index, which takes into account billions of dollars of ad spend and finds the top ad partners. Not all of them work best for every game, every budget, and every vertical. But they’re a great place to start.
Unconventional growth strategies for mobile games
8. Buy games
Buy unprofitable games that actually do have users — and maybe user accounts with first-party data — and transition their users to games you own that are profitable via cross-promotion. Rinse and repeat, and eventually you may be able to recycle players continuously, onboarding and upgrading them to your profitable titles.
Mobile games user acquisition, meet user farming.
9. Mini metaverse
Players age out eventually. Few stay playing for multiple years, even for massive long-term franchises like Clash of Clans. Provide a place for them to go by connecting players in one game to players in another game.
Let valuable players leverage their expertise and loot in one game to enter the second game at a higher-than-base level, but not too high: make it a challenge, but one they’re better prepped for than total newbies to your studio’s games.
10. Combine and conquer
Dividing is great for your enemies. Combine with similar studios to join forces and expand the number of players you can generate insights from. Combine indie studios for more reach, more audience, more intelligence, more resources.
Do it intelligently enough with the right kind of contract, and you can keep the little world you always wanted to create and would hate to lose, while also reaping the benefits of being bigger.
Don’t neglect organic growth
11. Optimize organic because it’s doubly good
No, this probably won’t be quite as important as your paid strategy, but any and all work you do in organic marketing multiplies your paid efforts. There’s an organic multiplier for paid; there’s a paid multiplier for organic.
Familiarity is good. Multiple mentions is good. Richer non-ad content is good. Long-form content and SEO and quirky short-form video are all good. Add them, use them, promote them, and watch your CTR and CVR for paid campaigns increase.
And (this is the “doubly good” part) … you also get the benefit of organic user/player/customer acquisition, which is probably going to be one of your highest-value sources.
So get your name out there.
No cash? Hire a cheap but smart and talented intern and set them free. (Provide some oversight, but once you know you have the right person or people, let them go nuts.)
12. Sweat your assets
Never do a thing once just to do the thing once.
Doing an influencer event? Add it to your socials. Take a video. Share it to YouTube. Clip it for Twitter. Publish it in a podcast. Make shorts for TikTok and YouTube. Doing a long-form blog post detailing strategic game insights for your hard-core clan battle game? Do a Twitch livestream with the author. Do a Twitter thread with the key points. Put paid on it in non-traditional places.
Let a thousand flowers bloom.
13. Give the winners wings
As you’re doing organic marketing, pay attention to what resonates.
Once you find winners, support them with paid, EVEN IF YOU CAN’T DRIVE A DIRECT INSTALL FROM IT. Drip it in with a few dollars a day. Trust the process, use MMM, engage your faith-based marketing antenna — whatever you have to do — and feed the victors.
Good + more good = multiplied good.
Non-marketing growth drivers for user acquisition
14. Make sure your game doesn’t suck
Kind of enough said?
Yes. But maybe not.
Look, I know you love all your children equally. But some of them just suck. Grow a pair, abandon the stillborns, and transition energy and investment to winners. I know a studio that kept a game in country-limited beta launch for FIVE WHOLE YEARS trying to force their past predictions of success to turn out true.
More often than not, that’s wasted energy, and comes with massive opportunity cost that your other games will pay for.
15. Drive high engagement and high retention
If you’re not using all the modern tools like Braze or CleverTap to understand, segment, address, and personalize gameplay for your users, you’re losing out.
Filling a bottomless bucket is impossible.
Engage. Communicate. Offer. Change. Adapt. Do whatever it takes to drive high engagement and high retention because the best user acquisition in the world can’t make a mobile game successful without it.
16. Pick the right niche
Don’t fight Supercell.
Know yourself, know your studio, and know your vertical. Do you really have the hundreds of developers and millions (hundreds of millions) of dollars to challenge the biggest players, or do you need to sneak under their radar for a while and grow something else?
17. Craft your onboarding like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel
Onboarding is so hard to get right and so essential to do.
Beginnings are where you can lose 80-90% of your users, or where you can fire them up for long-term engaging, playing, and buying. Invest the time to build it right, test it often, and adjust it for different cohorts of users coming into your game from different places and different campaigns. Players from different campaigns who clicked on ads with different messaging may have different motivations: adjust your onboarding to match.
Financial keys to mobile game growth
18. Re-measure LTV frequently
Obviously if your CAC exceeds your LTV you’ve got a problem. Make sure you really understand your LTV — including from different sources and partners as your marketing naturally changes and evolves — and make sure you keep measuring that.
When your vertical changes CAC can change. When the economy changes, LTV can change. When the entire mobile ecosystem changes (SKAN, Privacy Sandbox for Android), all of these elements can change at once.
Keep CAC below LTV unless strategically over-investing with available funds.
19. Borrow from the future to fund growth
If your engagement is strong, your retention is good, and your monetization is predictable, chat with companies like Pollen VC that will lend you money for user acquisition campaigns based on your current players, engagement, and revenue.
They typically have strong models to measure and predict revenue and growth, so all other things being equal this can be cheap funding to drive strategic growth.
Target the right players in the right way
20. Don’t promote your game. Target player motivations
Target player motivations rather than promoting your game. People want quick fun? Aim your ads at easy entertainment. People want satisfaction from a challenging path to completing something beautiful? Aim your ads at the satisfaction of finishing. People need to decompress and chill? Focus on escape from reality.
You get the picture. Facebook says there are 8 major motivations for people playing mobile games:
- Social connection
Find the ones that hit, and hit them hard.
Measurement that boosts growth
21. Pick the right MMP
Yeah, it’s totally self-serving to add this to the list. Doesn’t mean it’s not true.
You can pick the cheapest MMP. You can pick the oldest MMP. You can pick the MMP that you’ve always picked because it’s the MMP that you’ve always picked. Or you can pick the MMP that the biggest games pick. I would hate to name-drop here, but they might just be publishers like Rovio, Glu, Supercell, Riot, Ubisoft, EA, and Zynga.
Getting the right data the right way right away is critical to mobile games user acquisition. Innovation matters. Combining cost and conversions matters. Smart modeling for missing data matters. Find out why.
22. Start looking at media mix modeling
Mobile marketing is getting less measurable. Wait, that’s not exactly true. Mobile marketing is getting less measurable by conventional tracking-based methodologies. Start looking at MMM to provide insights that you need for growth.
(Here’s the Singular guide to kickstarting your MMM journey.)
The good part is that you’ve always known last-click is a proxy for successful marketing but not a 100% causally-connected explanation of what marketing worked and why. Now MMM can open your eyes to marketing that has always worked, but isn’t directly trackable.
23. Suck it up and get good at SKAN
All that said about MMM said, you can’t go into 2023 without rocking at SKAdNetwork. It can work, it doesn’t have to give you $500 CPIs, and it can both be predictive and drive massive growth.
But you can’t do it without the right technology to model missing data. And it’s hard to do if you’re still whining about losing the IDFA.
You need to become a SKAN expert, and in 2023 to 2024, you’re also going to need to become a Privacy Sandbox for Android expert. MMM is great, but we’re not going to abandon usable signals.
Mobile games user acquisition strategy for 2023
It’s always been hard. It’s generally been expensive.
But mobile games user acquisition is now harder than ever, thanks to the IDFA and GAID disappearing. And with budgets going down as the global economy cools off, you’re having to grow more with less funding.
That means being smarter. More creative. More innovative. And working harder than your competition.
Hopefully these tips offer at least 1 suggestion for something you can try that will help you hit a user acquisition home run. Is the list missing something I should add? Let me know!