Alt-UA: 4 new mobile user acquisition sources beyond ye olde in-app ads

By John Koetsier June 30, 2023

When you’re on the hunt for new mobile user acquisition sources, you can fish where everyone else is fishing, or you can add some fresh hunting grounds. According to Fluent co-founder Matt Conlin, doing so significantly increases your chance of outsized growth.

“What we’re finding now is that as some of the most sophisticated mobile marketers in the world are realizing, you have to start to fish in new ponds,” Conlin told me in a recent Growth Masterminds episode. “You have to start expanding your media mix. And companies like Fluent have been pioneering what I’ll call the alt UA channels from a very early stage.”

Alt-UA is the new new mobile user acquisition sources?

Sounds good to me.

4 alt-UA mobile user acquisition sources

I asked Conlin what new and (relatively) untapped sources he was talking about, and he listed 4:

  1. Rewarded discovery
  2. Editorial content
  3. Influencer marketing
  4. E-commerce environments

Rewarded discovery is exactly what it sounds like: rewarding people with credits that can be redeemable for gift cards and other rewards when they try a new game or app. At scale, that requires a coordinated first-party publishing approach with a common identity across properties, and Fluent says they have 250 million opted-in American profiles. But you can also imagine using the core idea at much smaller scale: offering real-world and virtual incentives for trying a new app or game.

Editorial content is something I’m continually hearing about: an old-school SEO strategy meeting ASO meeting mobile user acquisition. It can be in conjunction with influencer marketing, but doesn’t need to be, and can be executed via video on TikTok or text on the web. 

Just one example:

Last year RoboKiller’s VP of marketing Giulia Porter told me about a completely organic example of editorial content when her phone spam app went viral with 20 million views on TikTok. RoboKiller is an app to intercept spam calls and play funny recordings to trick telemarketers into talking to bots. A TikTok influencer recorded a particular humorous one in which the bot reported as someone at Area 51, the famous military base that’s often been connected with alien visitations to earth, and it went viral, boosting installs massively. And showing that sometimes, the best new mobile user acquisition sources are the ones you aren’t even aware until you see your metric spike.

Influencer marketing can be related to editorial content — think TikTok’s new creative challenge ad initiative — but it doesn’t have to be. It could just be a “sponsored by” or “brought to you by” type of ad.

And e-commerce environments leverage the white space of getting your order confirmation with an offer to do something related in an app.

As Conlin says:

“It’s not always intuitive, but after you make a purchase on a travel site … it says, hey, while you’re in-flight, try this game. You can start to think about the opportunities for expansion into these kinds of alternative UA channels.”

Reaching the non-gamer gamer

Every mobile marketer wants to reach incremental audiences, which is why they’re continually testing new networks. A particularly challenging audience is the non-gamer gamer, says Conlin.

“We know that if you’re fishing the same pond, at a certain point you’re reaching saturation and you reach a point of diminishing returns … we brought in one of our clients from Israel and we did a Q&A. And they have driven tens of millions of installs to their apps. And they started surveying their users. And the fun takeaway was that a lot of these people that are playing these games will not self-identify as a gamer. And so if you think about that concept, where else can we hunt for this non-gamer-gamer outside of the traditional mobile game environment?”

You’re going to do in-app advertising. That’s a given.

But if you’re only focused on in-app advertising, Conlin says, you “easily miss out” on new and highly incremental audiences which new mobile user acquisition sources can provide.

And there’s clearly room for growth: if 50% of people on mobile devices are playing games, that leaves another 50% who just haven’t had the right opportunity to dive in.

Surround sound marketing = new mobile user acquisition sources

I’ll always remember chatting with Vivian Chang a year or two ago. She leads D2C (direct to consumer) at Clorox and is an AdWeek top 50 for 2022. She talked about something she called “surround sound marketing.”

“I am a firm believer that creating a surround sound for consumers is helpful,” she said. “Leveraging influencers, brand partnerships on top of the traditional social and Google and affiliates, really having a lot of different places that have similar but maybe slightly different messaging for a consumer … they’re really understanding us as a brand but then also us as a product and getting unique perspectives across all of those.”

The same is applicable for mobile apps, Conlin says.

If you want to be successful long-term and tap into incremental audiences, you need a diversified media mix, he adds, and that means expanding out of traditional mobile user acquisition channels. That diversification and surround sound effect might be from the methods above, it might be from out-of-home, it might be from connected TV … but each incremental source is another opportunity to reach new people in new ways.

The good thing about different audiences is that they bring different things.

The Facebook user you reach might have high LTV and spend a lot. But they’re probably older, and they probably don’t share as much. The TikTok user you reach might spend less and have a lower LTV. But they’re probably younger and they share more … adding a viral coefficient to your marketing efforts that you can’t easily account for just via ARPU or ARPDAU.

But, ROAS is absolutely key

Surround sound marketing and expanding marketing channels for incremental reach is all well and good, but neither live in a vacuum.

And now that we’re out of the Covid era of incredible growth coupled with virtually free money, ROAS matters more than ever.

“I think as CFOs and CMOs have been tightening the belt and everyone’s looking to maximize profit and preserve as much cash as possible, ROAS is all that matters,” Conlin says. “All these channels that we have invested into over the years have their value, right? Some are higher ROAS, some are lower ROAS, but you have to find the right price so you can extract maximum value from these channels.”

As always, discretion is the better part of valor, and testing, testing, testing before going all-in is critical.

SO. MUCH. MORE … in the entire conversation

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Plus, here’s a full transcript of our conversation …

John Koetsier:

What are some new interesting sources for mobile users? 

Hello and welcome to Growth Masterminds. My name is John Koetsier. 

Sometimes it feels like everybody’s fishing in the same sea. They’re hitting the same programmatic pool of app users using the same partners and roughly getting the same results as everyone else. Or just throwing more fishing poles in the same stream. 

How can you break out of the norm and attract new fish? 

Today we’re joined by someone with an interesting resume. He’s got four or five years in various marketing roles and then co-founded a digital marketing company that he has been running for close to 13 years. Lucky 13! The company is Fluent and it’s a top performer in the 2023 Singular ROI Index. 

The person is Matt Conlin, founder and chief customer officer. Welcome Matt!

Matt Conlin:

Thank you, John. Great to be here.

John Koetsier:

Awesome. Interesting history. We were chatting before we started recording. And so many people I had talked to have like 26 experiences on LinkedIn, right. And you’ve sort of got a bunch that you’ve bundled and then boom, 13 years of the same company. 

Talk about that.

Matt Conlin:

Yeah, absolutely. So my digital marketing story started right at college and my first role was at a performance marketing company in 2005, right? So very early era. And I was, I was bit by the entrepreneurial bug. My first company I started at … the founders sold their company for a lot of money to a private equity firm. 

And me and my business partner said, you know what? I think we should look at starting a company in digital marketing. And we didn’t know what it was gonna be yet, but we knew that we had the chops to get it done. And so five years later, we launched Fluent in 2010. And it’s been a wild ride for these past dozen plus years.

John Koetsier:

Wonderful. Very cool. You started, IDFA didn’t even exist. The iPhone didn’t exist. Right? And so there’s been huge pivots in that whole period of time.

Matt Conlin:

Yeah, and it’s pretty wild because when we first launched our business, we started off developing ad serving solutions for web publishers. And we were helping the likes of Pandora and Yahoo Fantasy Football monetize their post transaction sign up. So when someone signed up for a Pandora account, you hit that blank thank you page, we were like, why are you serving a blank page, put a relevant ad experience there. 

And so we started embedding this piece of JavaScript that would render a relevant ad. And we started doing it in mobile web environments. 

And shortly after that, it was probably 2011, we said, well, why don’t we take this capability in-app? So we came up with Mobflow and we were now going to mobile app developers with a lightweight SDK and helping them monetize their high impact moments in between levels or after you’ve completed a certain task with brand ads. So we were embedding brand ads into these high impact moments. 

The problem is I think we were a little bit early. This is 2012, so that adoption was not quite there yet. And it was shortly after that that we made our first major pivot as an organization. And we decided at that point that we are going to become the publisher. We wanted to start developing our own experiences so that we could develop a first party relationship with the consumers, understand them better. and help connect them with incredible products and services. 

And that was a bit fortuitous given all that’s changed with deprecation of cookies and IDFA and everything else. 

And that kind of culminated in explosive growth, little fun story here, but when we started in 2010, we had zero in revenue, a couple million bucks. By the next year, we skyrocketed to $40 million of revenue, right? So we started right out of a cannon. And by 2015, we got acquired by a company that was publicly listed. 

And it was great until it wasn’t. And that at two years in, we said, I don’t know if this is working, right? We developed this great company. We’re growing fast. The synergies weren’t being recognized. And so at that point, the board agreed, let’s find a new suitor. So we went through another process. And similar to other companies you’ve probably featured in this podcast, the company that tried to acquire us was based in China and you can imagine 2017, how well that went over. So that deal got blocked. Then two years after getting acquired, we became a standalone company again and decided to split from our parent. And so we got back control of the company we’ve sold two years prior and we have been running it ever since. 

And so, you know, wild ride …

John Koetsier:

It’s always cool to hear from some of the pioneers and the people who’ve been there before.

It’s funny, I mean, like all the companies that were started, what, 2009, 10, 11, 12, if it was in mobile, it had to have “mob” in the title. I mean, that was just, it was law. It had to have “mob” in the title.

Matt Conlin:

We thought we were brilliant marketers. We’re like, all right, we’ll call this one AdFlow for web. This one’s MobFlow, obviously simple.

John Koetsier:

There you go, done, simple. Branding, signaling, all in one, perfect. Love chatting about that. I think I chatted once with the person who said that she paid for the first banner ad on a website. So love chatting with some of the people who got there early. 

Okay, let’s dive into it. As I kind of alluded to in my intro, most mobile marketing, most dollars that are spent, they follow the path that’s most traveled, right? I mean, in-app ads, SDK networks, the big SANs, all that stuff.

Why is that a concern?

Matt Conlin:

I think it’s now a mature marketplace. And I think that at a certain point, what we see as you spend into any channel, there’s a point where you reach diminishing returns. And no matter how much you invest, you can only get so much back in return. Costs start to rise. ROAS starts to diminish. 

And I think what we’re finding now is that as some of the most sophisticated mobile marketers in the world are realizing, you have to start to fish in new ponds. You have to start expanding your media mix.

And companies like Fluent have been pioneering what I’ll call the alt UA channels from a very early stage.

And we didn’t do it intentionally, right? Some of this was inadvertent, right? Cause you fast forward to today and we are a leading performance marketing company, but we’ve developed a user acquisition platform that’s underpinned by our portfolio of digital sites, apps, and even integrated technology. And what’s interesting is when we first launched our first websites in 2013, 14, we had a survey technology, and we’d ask consumers questions about what types of products and servers they like. And what we found out was lo and behold, these mobile web users, they like to play games. 

And so we struck up partnerships with some of the big behemoths of today back in 2014 and said, can we start to ingest some of your mobile app feeds into a mobile web environment? We think we’ve got an idea. And this started to work. So we started using this mobile web inventory to drive mobile app outcomes. And we’ve continued to innovate and iterate around that ever since. 

And our premise was pretty simple. We’re in the business of driving outcomes for our partners, whether that’s a mobile game studio, a CPG or a QSR. And it’s all about the mechanism. How do you connect with consumers where they are? Because they’re not just in-app, right? They’re in all these different places. And so we’ve been trying to work through that ever since.

John Koetsier:

So that’s pretty interesting because you’ve been significantly ahead of your time. We’ve started to see consolidation in the past few years. We’ve started to see a frantic urge to acquire as much first party data as you can. The content fortresses, those sorts of things, the marketing agencies that are also buying supply and all that stuff, right, in the past few years … but you were doing it five, six, even eight, 10 years ago, pretty interesting. 

So I talked about the path most traveled and the next question is where else should mobile markets be looking? You answered some of that already. You talked about mobile web, anything else? I mean, CTV is an option, right?

Matt Conlin:

Yeah, yeah. So you’re seeing this more and more, right? I think King was probably the pioneer. You started seeing Candy Crush ads on TV years ago. But even now, when you look at Playtika, they are all over connected TV. You see their Bingo titles are prominently featured on daytime television. 

So I think, you know, anyone who’s in the space is starting to look at new channels. For us, what we’re seeing is we play in four unique categories of alt-UA. 

  1. So number one, one of our biggest pillars is rewarded discovery, right? Where consumers are coming to our properties, they’re engaging with mobile games, they’re playing, they’re trying out new products, and we reward them for doing so. They can get credits that they can redeem for gift cards, right, and that’s a huge channel for highly incremental users, great ROAS, incredible scale. 
  2. Number two is editorial content. You’re seeing this more and more now, where it’s, you know, you’re on TikTok, and it says, check out these five great products, these apps you have to try today. You’re gonna love them. So we’re writing our own content, but it’s a mobile web experience that’s driving into the App Store. But in this environment, it’s giving the user a chance to read a bit more about the product, understand if they’re interested or not. It’s very different from the playable that’s reached ubiquity. But we’re seeing that as a big emerging trend, as leveraging content to drive outcomes. 
  3. The third is influencer. And we’ve developed an influencer platform where we’re helping creators. better monetize their following. And mobile apps and mobile gaming has become one of their go-to monetization levers. And you’re reaching a brand new audience that, frankly, sometimes these are newcomers. These aren’t necessarily the people that are, quote unquote, mobile gamers. 
  4. And the fourth is e-commerce environments. It’s not always intuitive, but after you make a purchase on a travel site … it says, hey, while you’re in-flight, try this game. You can start to think about the opportunities for expansion into these kinds of alternative UA channels.

John Koetsier:

Wow, interesting. I would not have thought of that. I would have thought of complementary apps, like, I don’t know, Mapping or Tour Guide or something like that. I’m sure you do some of that as well. But a game while you’re stuck on the plane or something like that is super interesting. Talk about why people should look at these alt-UA channels, if you will. 

And by the way, I think you just named this episode. It’s alt-UA. That’s the name of the episode now.

Matt Conlin:


John Koetsier:

But talk about why they should, because it seems to me in a lot of cases, you’re probably accessing the same people … in not all cases, but in some cases you are. But the context matters, right?

Matt Conlin:

Yep, absolutely. Context matters. But I’ll tell you, so I’ll go back to earlier point, right? We know that if you’re fishing the same pond, at a certain point you’re reaching saturation and you reach a point of diminishing returns, right? So that’s point one, right? You have to expand and have a healthy media mix. 

But two is, think about it through this lens. You’re reaching the non-gamer gamer. We had a QA at the beginning of the year for Fluent’s big annual kickoff. We brought in one of our clients from Israel. And we did a Q&A. And they have driven tens of millions of installs to their apps. And they started surveying their users. 

And the fun takeaway was that a lot of these people that are playing these games will not self-identify as a gamer. And so if you think about that concept, where else can we hunt for this non-gamer-gamer outside of the traditional mobile game environment?

And so I think if you’re focused exclusively on in-app advertising, you can easily miss out on this potential audience, which is highly incremental. You have an opportunity to tap into what’s really an untapped audience of casual players, mobile users. And I think the biggest opportunity is potential newcomers. How do you get more users into the ecosystem? 

I think the latest stat is something like 50% of consumers on smart devices are playing games. That’s another 50% of the connected world to bring over into this ecosystem, right? If they’re not in mobile games already, how do we bring them in?

That’s the opportunity for the industry.

John Koetsier:

I think that’s super interesting. I think that ad blindness could play a role here. Because if you’re in games already and you’re seeing the rewarded ads and you’re seeing the other ads, sometimes you’re just, okay, you’re just skipping over them. Maybe you’re enduring some of them, whatever the case might be. 

But if you see a different kind of ad, maybe it’s the editorial one that you mentioned, in a different context, it might just kind of go, ah, interesting, might stop you for a moment and capture your attention. I find that super interesting. Do you have some great examples of performance from unlikely channels?

Matt Conlin:

Yeah, so I can tell you high level that these alt channels drive, especially editorial. 

The ROAS, so let’s take a step back. The entire industry has shifted from, I’ll call it growth in ROAS to ROAS, right? I think as CFOs and CMOs have been tightening the belt and everyone’s looking to maximize profit and preserve as much cash as possible, ROAS is all that matters. 

But we still need to grow. And so what we’re finding is all these channels that we have invested into over the years have their value, right? Some are higher ROAS, some are lower ROAS, but you have to find the right price so you can extract maximum value from these channels. 

You made a comment in a previous podcast when you’re talking with Adam Jaffe about advertising less and making more money. And that resonated with me, right? 

Because I think you see enough of those playables in-app. I’m tired. I’m trying to X out. I can’t X out, but to your point, maybe I see it in a different environment and it’s not as intrusive. I’m going to engage this time, but they all play a really important part in the ecosystem and I don’t think you can do just one, right? Because they all deliver towards a healthy UA playbook.

John Koetsier:

It’s super interesting to hear you say that, and it reminds me of when I talked to a D2C marketer. She worked for Clorox of all companies, and they were doing a D2C direct-to-consumer play. 

And she talked about something called surround sound marketing, which is … that she wasn’t using one channel, she wasn’t using two channels, she wasn’t using three channels. She was trying to surround her prospects with her marketing: different channels, different formats, different ad types, different ways of connecting because you’re different than I am. I pick on something that you wouldn’t pick up on, you pick up on something I wouldn’t pick up on. 

And I wonder if this kind of alt UA is a form of surround sound marketing. for mobile apps because I might see something on connected TV. I mean, you’re still doing in-app stuff. You’re still doing some, you’re doing mobile web, you’re doing stuff in other places. Does that resonate? Does that make sense?

Matt Conlin:

100%. I think that’s where we’re going as a UA community here is expanding what we’ve traditionally thought as traditional UA channels, right? And if you want to be successful long-term and tap into these incremental audiences, you have to be diversified.

We actually have a panel on this topic at the app development partners, more big game studios, and talking about the different value they see from some of the traditional programmatic environments versus rewarded discovery versus content. And so I think, I think a lot more game developers are thinking about the nuances and how to, how to price it into their strategy.

John Koetsier:

It brings up the concept of measurement, which we hadn’t planned to talk about. It’s not on our list of potential topics, but it brings up the topic of measurement because it’s not your daddy’s user acquisition. It’s not just not IDFA and not GAID. There may not be an identifier, like influencer marketing for instance, and other things like that. And it may be hard to connect. 

And we’re recording this May 18. It hasn’t hit the blog yet live, but Singular is actually announcing an MMM product literally today …

Matt Conlin:


John Koetsier:

 … which is super interesting and looks incredibly cool. The blog post is coming out in a couple hours. But of course, this show won’t air for a couple weeks at least. So that is interesting. Are you thinking in terms of different measurement methodologies for this surround sound mobile user acquisition?

Matt Conlin:

So MMM is critical. I would tell you that there’s a big difference between the mobile gaming environment versus some of the larger brands that we work with. So most of the big brands are using one of the MMPs that I think are doing a great job of navigating the new world that is iOS and Android. 

And there’s a lot of richness in the insights that they can share back in terms of RPU and ROAS. It helps publishers like Fluent, marketing partners like Fluent, optimize towards the best outcomes possible. When you look at brands, and they’re typically a bit more diversified in their spend, they have to use a more thoughtful mixed media model, because they’re spending on just about every channel you can imagine from out of home.

They’re doing that surround sound. And so we’re now at the early stages of developing our own approach to measure methodology to satisfy the needs of the bigger brands. 

I would say that what we love about mobile gaming and what I personally love about it is how sophisticated and how analytically driven everyone in this industry is, right? They understand their numbers better than most and, and they can translate it in a way that makes sense to the marketing partners and brands kind of struggle with that sometimes, right? And it’s more art than it is science.

John Koetsier:

Well, there’s lots more to be said about that. We won’t get into that too much deeper. I do want to talk about social. And that includes SANs, but it’s not all SANs, right? (Self-attributing networks, for those who aren’t familiar with the word term SANs.) 

Talk about social and virality. How do you approach it?

Matt Conlin:

So Fluent is, while we are a UA platform, we provide a lot of UA solutions, we’re also a large buyer, right? We invest a significant amount of paid media into all channels from your big social platforms to mobile DSPs and everything in between. 

And so we get to see a bit of how different upstream media channels impact the … the quality and the retention of the users we’re sending to our partners.

And I’d say one big takeaway is every single social channel has its own unique attributes. And one thing that we’ve been seeing more and more recently is that the younger TikTok user that’s coming into a Fluent property and then engaging with one of our mobile clients, they are sharing and inviting friends at far higher rate than a Facebook user might. So that Facebook user is going to fit that traditional mold. A lot of our casual game clients who are looking to drive an in-app purchase, they say, my sweet spot is $35 to $45, and they have high discretionary income, and they don’t mind making these purchases. But they don’t share. They don’t share. 

Now all of a sudden, I have a younger user that may not have as high discretionary income, but they’re gonna make sure their friends know about it. They want them to come into the app and compete with them. 

So I think for all those reasons, this is why that diversified media mix is critical, right? You’re getting a different type of user and they’re just gonna have a different LTV curve. They’re gonna have different retentive qualities and you just have to make sure you price it out thoughtfully. And if you do it the right way, the world is our ocean.

John Koetsier:

It’s really interesting to see the mix of science, math, and art, and gut that you have to have in marketing still, because like you say, you get different things from different users. 

You may get the high immediate LTV, the immediate ROAS from those older users. You may not see that from the younger users. They may churn more quickly as well, but they may help you grow the game in certain phases when you want to grow …

Really, really interesting insights.

Matt Conlin:

That’s exactly right.

John Koetsier:

I want to hit on one last thing in our topic here. We’ve already hit on mobile web a couple of times, but some people are viewing that as, hey, on iOS we’re increasingly challenged, certainly in SKAN 3, less so in SKAN 4, with the ability to measure marketing the way that we want to. 

And so, you know, it’s harder for us to invest with confidence. We’re using mobile web and maybe landing pages. You almost talked about that a little bit as well when you talked about an editorial aspect. How do you view mobile web and iOS mobile marketing?

Matt Conlin:

I think there’s, especially as a publisher with the relationship with consumers, there are some key advantages when it comes to measurement in iOS and Android for that matter. But I think because there’s a relationship with that consumer, there’s insights against that consumer, there’s more information to tie an event back to. And so that’s become a key benefit and a differentiator for the folks in the mobile web space that is not available in a lot of the traditional in-app experiences. Right? 

So you can leverage different data points that help you triangulate around who the user is and how do we help to identify more of them. 

If you think back to five years ago, the main focus for the big UA player is all about whale hunting, right? We can identify an IDFA, this is a whale in one app, let me get him over to my new app. And then with the iOS changes, that went away. And while you can’t do that in mobile web, there’s at least a bit more predictability that helps you better understand types of users that are going to lead to similar outcomes once they start playing your game. 

And we think that’s one of the unique advantages that mobile web has, and how do you leverage those insights for the benefit of the consumer to create more relevant experiences for them, and at the same time, for the benefit of the mobile app developer, and making sure they’re seeing the right type of users that are gonna be valuable to them.

John Koetsier:

Very cool, Matt. This has been a lot of fun. Thank you for your time.

Matt Conlin:

Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.

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