6 ways playable ads become anti-marketing

By John Koetsier November 1, 2021

I literally loathe some popular games that I have never played. I genuinely hate them, with passion. And it’s all because of their ads.

Specifically, their playable ads.

The idea behind a playable ad is pretty simple: give people a taste of the game or app in the hopes that they’ll covert on the ad, click it, install your game, and become an engaged, retained player. The theory is great. The execution, too often, is not. And when playable ads fail, you become even less likely to convert people who just want a power-up, gold, or a free life to a player in your game than if you had not shown them any ads at all.

In fact, when the playable ad and the in-app execution of it are seriously bad — as is far too often the case — you actually turn potential players into active haters.

Congratulations, you’ve just paid good marketing dollars to do some anti-marketing.

Here’s why.

1. Games should be fun (but your playable isn’t)

Hopefully this is not too controversial, but games should be fun.

If your playable ad is too hard with literally impossible puzzles and no good solutions, you run the risk of alienating potential players. (And if you’re thinking no one would ever do this, I have literally had marketers tell me the puzzles in their playable games are unsolvable.)

I have plenty of frustration in my daily life and work. I don’t need it in a game.

The opposite problem is a gaming activity that is too easy: a guaranteed win for everyone who plays the game. I’ve seen that in App Clips for example. This is clearly a fine line: you want people to be able to do something game-like in your playable ad with almost no context and no instructions, so you can’t drop them into the deep end of your hard-core game.

But if it’s not going to be a challenge at all … what’s the point?

2. Let the people play (but you killed the game after 10 seconds)

I get it. A playable ad is in the middle of another game, and the publisher of that game wants advertisers’ money but doesn’t want them taking too much player time away from their own game.

But if people are having fun, let them play.

Too often I have a playable ad that I’m just starting to get into, just starting to learn, and just starting to have fun with … and BOOM: it’s over. Done. Can’t get just a little bit further into sorting the whatzzits or clearing a level: you’ve been shot into an App Store product listing view with pretty much any additional touch of the screen.

Suggestion: don’t artificially cut off the mechanics. Let people get just a little bit deeper. Build the beginning of a habit.

(And: beware of publishers’ apps that host your playable ads that might be aggressively triggering App Store views as an attribution credit play. They are not doing you any favors by mistreating your users. Audit them.)

3. Don’t sell too hard (but you’re doing ABC: always be closing)

Don’t close before you’ve made the sale.

Far too often any extraneous touch puts a crashing halt to any actual fun and triggers, again, an app listing view. I understand that this is often on the publisher who is trying so hard to monetize that it’s impairing their own users’ experience. But it also reflects on you as an advertiser of your app.

It’s difficult at scale, but as much as possible, audit how your playable ads are being treated. Check your ad network and attribution data for anomalies for specific networks and sources. Protect your app, your brand, and your marketing.

And if you must always be closing … do it subtly.

4. Decide if it’s a playable or a video (but we have to watch your ‘playable’)

If it’s a playable, let it be playable.

If it’s a video, let it be a video.

Nothing’s worse than a playable that won’t let you play.

5. Don’t add multiple timers (but you’re making people wait on hold)

There are multiple appealing things about playables for advertisers. First, of course, you’re giving someone a taste of your app. But secondly, you’re getting guaranteed ad viewability over a period of time. Ensuring that someone’s at least seeing your ad is a big deal, and that’s reinforced by timers.

(Let’s also be honest. If there’s a playable that sucks or a targeted person is uninterested, or they just have better things to do, they’ll drop the phone on a table, chat, do a chore, or whatever until the playable ad’s timer times out.)

Often there’s a 15-30 second timer for the first part of the playable ad. Increasingly over the past months, I’m seeing dual timers: one while you’re playing the ad, and a second while an invitation to install the game is showing up. Often this second timer is 10-15 seconds long.

Look: I understand the one-timer. It guarantees the view (at minimum, of someone dismissing the ad, at maximum, with someone deeply engaging in it).

But two is one too many.

(And, by the way, if the app publisher you’re advertising in is driving this behavior … don’t let them.)

6. Provide an escape route (but your X isn’t clickable)

I have literally force-quit apps to get out of playable ads.

Some publishers have such a tiny X to exit out of the playable that they are virtually unstoppable. They’ve put such a miniscule X in the absolute top right corner with a truly tiny hit radius so it is almost impossible to tap. Oh, and when you miss it, they intentionally misinterpret that as a tap on the “install app” button (which is already ginormous and has a hit state of almost the entire screen surface) so that anything but a lucky direct hit pops open an App Store listing preview.

You know who you are.

This is a dirty trick. It’s dishonest, it disregards users’ express wishes, and it intentionally does the opposite of what they want.

Publishers that do this and advertisers that allow it to be done do damage to their brand, to their engagement, and to their retention.

Need more insight on ad performance, including creative?

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