14 ways mobile games user acquisition is changing in the era of SKAdNetwork

By John Koetsier May 7, 2021

One of the key drivers of economic growth in high-tech economies over the past decade has been performance marketing on mobile. In no vertical has that been so obvious as mobile games, an ecosystem with over 3 billion customers we call users and revenues approaching $100 billion/year. 

But mobile user acquisition for games is entering a new age, and much of what we know and how gaming studios and publishers act will have to change.

We are entering the era of privacy: scarce IDFAs, aggregated data, limited targeting.

The critical question for anyone who makes a living making, managing, or marketing mobile games now has to be: what’s changing with mobile user acquisition in 2021 and beyond? What remains from the best practices of the past decade? 

And what will I have to learn — or unlearn — to be successful?

Let’s start here: mobile games user acquisition in the past

Mobile marketers had old-school user acquisition down pat.

Here’s the recipe:

Build a great game. Soft launch it in New Zealand. Test and iterate and improve. Launch it in the US and major global markets. Add some app store optimization. Sprinkle in some social promotion. Kick-off some cross-promotion with your other apps, and maybe with apps from other studios or publishers. Get a good feel for LTV. As you start to think you know what’s what, kick-off paid user acquisition via mobile ads in scale. Buy banners and rewarded videos and playables and other placements. Spend widely. Test multiple channels. Hit the charts if you can by coordinating spend to amp organic. A/B and multivariate test your ads and creative. Measure the costs of installs and users. Ensure it’s below LTV. Double down on effective channels. Eliminate partners that don’t perform. Build engagement and loyalty. Add social, and incentivize users to share and bring in friends.





If you’ve done it right and your game doesn’t suck and the magic pixie dust of the internet smiles upon you, laugh all the way to the bank as hundreds of millions of users drive billions of dollars of value and Wired writes a fawning story about “the new wave of mobile.” 

Buy a copy to mail to your mom.

Sell to Zynga or someone else with deep pockets and an appetite for growth. Keep following the playbook, or cash in your chips and buy the $4 million 800-square-foot condo in San Francisco.

Mobile user acquisition for games in the future

Everything changes in the age of privacy. Targeting is hard. Retargeting is impossible. Measurement has new wrinkles. Gamer valuation is more difficult. 

What do you do?

Some old standbys are still relevant.

ASO still matters, and is arguably even more important now. App Store Optimization should not just tell the right people why they need to get and play your game, it should also tell the wrong people who will just cost you marketing money and churn to not get your game. Soft launching is still valuable, social can still help a bit, even if the likelihood of going viral like a Pokémon Go is somewhere between astronomical and metaphysical.

And actually building a great game experience will never go out of style.

But here’s 14 things that are changing user acquisition in iOS 14.5 and SKAdNetwork.

14 updates to mobile user acquisition strategy in 2021

  1.  Team up: apes together strong
    “Apes together strong?” Probably stronger than seperate. While one app alone has limited insight into users and the device identifiers that remain, multiple apps from the same publisher can share IDFVs and engage in cross-promotion. It’s unclear yet if this strategy will be super-effective, but it’s one we’re already seeing in the market, and it’s worth considering along with all your other options.
  2.  Advertising intelligence: no more spray and pray
    Hypercasual games in particular have tended to adopt high risk and high reward ad campaigns: spraying ads wherever possible, especially to audiences of known payers, in the hopes of landing a whale. In iOS 14 without IDFAs, you’ve got less intelligence and spraying and praying potentially goes from high risk, high reward to just plain old high risk. Ad spend might suffer as a result: performance marketers don’t keep spending without reward.
  3.  Creative resurgence: time to get funky
    Targeting is worse, tracking is gone, and the big network black boxes still exist. Creative is your differentiator. It’s now time to unleash your creative and try seriously out of the box ideas — AKA weird sh!t — and get attention. You will pay a price for misleading creative in a mobile ad, but you will win when you hit a home run with creative that tells a true story and drives 10X attention and action over mediocre ads.
  4.  Advertising changes: lower costs, lower returns
    iOS ad prices jumped pre-iOS 14.5. But going forward with targetability down, some publishers with non-premium and non-homogenous audiences will find that their ad revenue isn’t as high. Great publishers with highly verticalized users might be insulated from this change because they allow mobile games publishers to precisely hit a pretty clear target audience, but that’s likely an exception. Advertisers should find more pockets of affordability among most publishers. The only problem: the traffic is worth exactly what you paid for it. Cost per install might be down, but the percentage of quality users is likely to trail off too.
  5.  Conversion values: playing high-stakes poker
    Getting SKAdNetwork conversion values right is going to be where mobile marketers earn their keep. Getting just the right amount of data to enable future advertising optimization decisions in as close to real-time as possible will be incredibly difficult. It will also require working closely with the product team to optimize onboarding and early engagement flows. (It’s almost like you need some way of modeling SKAdNetwork conversion data so you can test the impact of changes without actually making them.)
  6.  Data science: you thought you needed it before?
    If you thought you needed data science before, think again. In the past you had IDFA data on iOS (most people didn’t turn Limit Ad Tracking on) and you had GAID data on Android … and attribution and measurement were relatively simple. You still have IDFA for iOS 14.5 — some people will opt in — but now you need to account for SKAdNetwork data as well. Plus any other incrementality or media mix modeling you might be doing. And any magic that might be going on to understand and optimize your conversion values. In other words, you need even more data smarts now.
  7.  Onboarding gets critical: maximize D1
    In the world of IDFA, post-install engagement and conversion data is the gift that keeps giving for as long as a user stays active. In an SKAdNetwork world, user acquisition relies on a limited set of data for a very limited amount of time. That means you need to onboard new users efficiently and effectively … and basically immediately. If you don’t do that you don’t know enough about them to understand the value of your cohorts, and you don’t have great information to optimize future marketing campaigns.
  8.  Post-acquisition marketing: WoM and viral go boom
    Virality is always a good thing. It was a good thing before iOS 14.5 and it’ll be a good thing in the era of privacy, because “free” users in mobile games are like found money. But when paid marketing has some new roadblocks and intentional haziness, anything you can add via social, viral, word of mouth, and other existing-user-driven organic means becomes even more important. And, naturally, drives cost per install way, way down.
  9.  Channel & partner shake-up: last-click apocalypse
    Some channels and ad partners have gotten incredibly good at optimizing for last click. Or at taking credit for mobile ad views which just happen to have been The Critical View™ in a mobile gamer’s app install odyssey. Well, though IDFA was largely last-click in practice and SKAdNetwork is largely last-click in construction, there’s an increased awareness of incrementality as a valid measure of marketing in a data-diluted ad ecosystem. And, of course, with SKAdNetwork’s recent “loser postbacks” and view-through attribution support, there’s more momentum than perhaps any time in the last decade for a more nuanced view on mobile attribution and marketing measurement. That has implications for ad networks and mobile platforms that have focused on winning the last-click sweepstakes, and will result in changes in which channels mobile advertisers use going forward.
  10.  Cross-platform user acquisition: expanding “mobile” marketing
    Even if you want mobile users because mobile is now the operating system of life, the economy, and because — of course — it’s also the primary way people play games today, mobile marketers can continue to expand the scope of their non-mobile marketing. We’ve seen it in the past: TV ads for DraftKings or other mobile properties, with relatively crude measurement looking for bumps in “organic” App Store activity and user acquisition. And we’re going to see more of it because as non-deterministic or at least non-granular modes of attribution gain traction, you’re going to be able to measure TV or out of home or other traditionally “brand” focused campaigns alongside your “performance” campaigns.
  11.  Consolidation is the new platform: move over, SANs
    There’s a reason Digital Turbine bought Fyber and AdColony. And Applovin bought Adjust, and Zynga bought Chartboost. As third-party data gets scarce and unreliable, industry players are building bigger castles of first-party data. When you can’t share across silos, you build bigger silos with more inside. That means increasing the ability for a mobile app developer or publisher to advertise, monetize, measure, drive engagement and maybe even more all inside one massive privacy moat. Individual players are teaming up, and that means a proliferation of what we can call platforms. Of course, it also means more silos of data for the mobile marketer to assemble for a complete picture of action and reaction, or spending and ROI.
  12.  Brand and performance kiss and make up … and discover they’re related
    Brand and performance advertising have never really been totally separate, in spite of the way we’ve often treated them. But our measurement methodologies have prioritized “measurable” channels (surprise, surprise). And — also no surprise — our measurement methodologies have been focused on things that have been measurable. With more MMM and incrementality, we’ll see more clearly how traditionally “brand” advertising has a performance component, and how traditionally performance marketing has a brand component.
  13.  Monetization changes: more subscriptions
    Subscriptions have been hot for a while. But that’s only going to increase as the user acquisition game changes. The ecosystem is moving towards more of a lifecycle marketing approach targeting not just higher value new users but also longer term users. This is a step away from the ad-driven endless wheel of gaming user-recycling that we used to see, and more towards longer-term relationships in quality games with quality users. Or, should we say, customers.
  14.  Retention for the win: you don’t have to get what you don’t lose
    When marketing gets more expensive or marketing gets more difficult, it’s a good idea to look to customer retention or user retention strategies. Keep what you have, plug the leaky bucket, and you don’t have to top it up with as much water. That saves money and effort, long term.

Everything changes, especially in mobile growth

User acquisition strategy has never been a static thing. It’s always been changing rapidly as smart mobile marketers discovered new tactics, technologies, and means of driving app installs and reducing costs.

The iOS 14 change is just a very big and very sudden one, and it’s likely to be accompanied by another adjustment on the Android side in 12 to 24 months. The good news is that marketers in mobile gaming tend to be very flexible and quick to learn.

Every change is also an opportunity for those who are willing to embrace it and learn faster than the competition. User acquisition winners in the new paradigm are going to be people like that.

Singular can help

Singular was the first MMP to support SKAdNetwork. We also have access to more data than anyone else, thanks to integrations with thousands of ad networks and platforms for campaign, bid, spend, and creative data. We combine that with world-class marketing attribution data for a complete picture of your marketing inputs and outputs.

Book some time with us today to chat about how we can help you accelerate growth, even during uncertain and changing times.

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