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User acquisition in gaming and non-gaming: what are the key differences?

by Alex Merutka on Mar 2, 2017

A few weeks ago I moderated a panel at the Kochava Mobile Summit called “User acquisition: tricks of the trade from gaming and non-gaming apps.” The panelists were Nate Gasser at Camelot Communications, which works on mobile marketing for an assortment of top brands including 7-Eleven, QuickBooks, and Southwest; and Emily Storino, acquisition marketing manager for EA. Together we talked about some of the core differences between UA strategies in the two areas, particularly about KPIs and targeting.

The conversation got me thinking about some of the “big picture” differences between UA in non-gaming versus in gaming, and what those working in UA need to think about if they move from one category to the other.

One of the biggest differences, of course, lies in where the revenue comes from. In non-gaming, revenue can come from any number of sources in addition to the app itself, like brick-and-mortar, desktop, and, if you want to count brand visibility, outdoor. For example, as Nate pointed out in the panel, 7-Eleven’s 7Rewards app is designed to get users engaged with the company’s loyalty program, and the KPIs assess how that affects incremental growth in revenues in the brick-and-mortar stores.

Overall, “brand” is more of a driver in non-gaming. Most users look at their phones dozens of times a day, so they’re seeing the brand logo over and over again on the app icons, which counts as impression and brand recognition. (I actually like to think of a user’s mobile home screen as a curated collection of mini billboards.)

Then there’s the fact that with brands, the barrier to entry is relatively high because users typically need to “think about it” more before they install a non-gaming app. Brands can also wait a relatively long time to monetize their users — the lifespan of a user can be months or even years, meaning that a certain amount of patience is required when it comes to conversion. Moreover, brands often have more to work with given that many have been around longer than gaming companies, and they sometimes have a better baseline understanding of their audience when it comes to initially targeting new users. Finally, in non-gaming, user acquisition and targeting happens across categories rather than being primarily restricted to a single one.

In gaming, many of these fundamentals are quite different. First of all, the very fact that all of the revenue comes from the app itself influences just about everything about user acquisition. “The product is the app,” Emily said in the panel, “and it’s a full-funnel closed loop.” In gaming, there isn’t much of a long tail — those doing user acquisition in gaming are quite like those working in ad sales: they expect to see the effects of their work immediately in the form of revenue. Also, the user lifespan is often (but not always) significantly shorter than in non-gaming, with players obsessing about a game for a few weeks or months and then moving on. It’s also easier to get a user to try a trending casual game based on its status as “trending,” which doesn’t mean as much in the non-gaming context. Gaming is more or less its own fairly tight ecosystem within the larger mobile ecosystem.

The nuts and bolts of the actual UA strategy are very different in gaming as well. Mobile games heavily depend on contextually targeted ads (they advertise in other gaming apps), and most of the mobile inventory consists of other mobile games. Mobile games are much more open to testing everywhere as they usually can determine good vs. bad quality more quickly than non-gaming companies can, and can then optimize accordingly.

As we covered in the panel at the Kochava Mobile Summit, while there are many shared principles in user acquisition, there are key distinctions between UA in gaming versus UA in non-gaming. Ultimately where the users spend — in the app or outside the app — drives targeting and KPIs. But no matter what the app, it’s crucial to use data to iterate on what works to reach new users.

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