The Edge: Mobile Game Publishers Harness AI for User Acquisition Superiority

Buying user acquisition (UA) was a strategy mobile game publishers could always rely on to secure valuable players and attract big spenders for 30 years. The method worked because the user data that lubricated these efficient marketing machines was plentiful and actionable. Today, privacy changes from Apple and Google restrict the supply of detailed data, compelling marketers to completely reassess how they perceive and pursue performance goals and the role of AI in achieving them.

Radical changes and significant challenges across the mobile app ecosystem are compelling “nearly 60% of app marketers to pursue more aggressive KPI targets compared to 12 months ago,” according to the 2024 App Marketer Survey published by mobile marketing platform Liftoff. But framing these goals and assessing success without data is an uphill battle. The majority (71%) of marketers conceded that access to more data would have improved their decision-making, and 62% said their campaigns were less successful as a result.

Fortunately, according to the survey, budgets across all regions have increased, enabling marketers to experiment, adjust, and diversify spend beyond the usual channel mix. Importantly, marketers plan to increase the resources they allocate to organic and social (50%), influencer marketing (50%), and community-building (31%).

Asserting Control Over Data and Destiny

Marketers are not only moving budgets to new channels but are also adopting new methods to “join up acquisition and engagement in a positive flywheel of profitable growth that draws on data at the top of the funnel and how users interact with the app deeper in the funnel to personalize a compelling and consistent user journey,” Mike Rhodes, founder and CEO of the award-winning app growth consultancy ConsultMyApp (CMA), told me in an interview. “It’s about refocusing strategies away from vanity metrics and volume to delivering value.” (Disclosure: CMA has requested my services to produce a marketing guide to achieving sustainable growth in Q2.)

Confusion over ID deprecation tests marketers’ mettle, but it should also embolden them to discover new ways to control their first-party data and their destiny in a post-privacy world, Rhodes explains. “Marketers need to learn to track and interpret the digital breadcrumb trail of contextual and behavioral clues users leave behind as they move through apps.” It can be heavy lifting, which is why he advises companies to lean on AI, automation, and external agencies to shoulder the burden and connect the dots.

This advice goes double for mobile gaming, an oversaturated and fiercely competitive app vertical where consumer spend is softening and time spent in-game has hit an all-time high. (Mobile data analytics provider data.ai reports user time spent in all apps—not just gaming—has climbed 9% to reach 4.1 trillion hours.)

The outcome is an avalanche of app engagement data publishers can harness to inform and optimize every element of their UA campaigns, from ad creatives to LiveOps. “Publishers that plow the data they have about player behavior and activity into UA campaigns can optimize and increase conversion rates by as much as 10-15%,” Rhodes says. “For studios spending millions a month to get their game in front of high-value users, that’s a lot of cash and a wealth of learnings.”

New Paradigms and Power Plays

Studios are increasing efforts to unlock player data and enhance modeling and targeting to maximize return on investment. “Nowadays, the publisher knows the players best, and they’re the ones holding all the information they need to attract and nurture them,” Gonçalo Martins, VP of Marketing at mobile game publisher BoomBit, told me in an interview.

“Publishers can only be successful if they optimize and automate the entire acquisition process,” Martins says. Publishers can set and reach this ambitious goal, he says, thanks to first-party data and insights that put them “a step ahead of most ad networks.”

It’s a playbook that TapNation, a mobile game publisher headquartered in Paris, is following to combine data gleaned from working with over 100 studios to launch their games with full-stack advertising technology to enhance UA campaigns.

The company, which recently secured €15 million in a fresh round of funding from Re-Sources Capital, Paluel-Marmont Capital, and select banking partners, is best known for a platform that enables game testing and player behavior analysis at scale. Last September, TapNation reached over 1 billion downloads of its popular mobile games.

Today, TapNation announced it will purchase UA Hero, an AI-powered mobile app user acquisition platform, for an undisclosed sum. Up to now, both companies had worked to develop a suite of AI-powered tools allowing TapNation to “move UA to autopilot for our titles,” Hervé Montoute, TapNation CEO, tells me in an interview. The merger, he explains, will enable his company to compile forecasting and prediction models using first-party data and AI. “Pooling these strengths equips TapNation to set and reach higher LTV targets and extend the player life cycle.”

From software to A/B test mobile ad creatives to models that accurately optimize player value based on the UA channel, Vincent Février, TapNation CMO, says the acquisition will “allow our teams to build, run, and grow mobile games end-to-end.” Integrating the UA Hero team and talent into the company will “boost campaign efficiencies and drive time savings of up to 50%.” Having this know-how in-house also prepares TapNation for a “pivot to casual games and a sharper focus on gaming sub-genres monetized through a mix of in-app purchase and brand partnerships.”

“Purple Oceans” of Opportunity

TapNation joins the list of powerhouse publishers—including King and Zynga—that have acquired data analytics companies and in-app monetization platforms to automate UA with the help of AI. It’s part of a larger trend accelerated by privacy changes that make targeting tougher than ever and the broader market shift from snackable hypercasual titles supported by advertising to casual games that monetize through in-app purchases.

“Automation has been a massive part of performance marketing, and that’s accelerating as more players compete by building empires based on UA automation optimization against first-party data and signals,” Matt Widdoes, CEO of growth agency MAVAN, tells me in an interview.

It reminds Widdoes—who previously headed marketing at King—of the dynamic that prompted the publisher to quietly acquire data analytics company Omniata in 2017 to maximize revenue by retaining paying users and acquiring new users. “We found success [at King] in building internal ad tech that allowed optimization,” he explains. “Doing it faster, smarter, and at a greater scale than your competition was the differentiator.”

Of course, not all mobile game publishers can afford to build in-house tools or acquire data companies that do. But now that more players are harnessing AI to unlock data around what players do in the game, there may be other options.

Some companies that master optimizing user acquisition and monetization may decide to sell their AI-powered models to other mobile game publishers. Others might opt to provide what Widdoes calls “analytics-as-a-service” to studios constrained by budgets or simply new to AI-powered marketing automation. Either way, Widdoes says, the outcome will likely be a booming picks-and-shovels business that gives publishers more control over how they acquire and monetize players in a privacy-first landscape.

But Widdoes warns it might not be a blue ocean of unbridled opportunity for long. He predicts the emergence of a “purple ocean” transformed by red-hot competition from Google, META, and platforms that have a ton of data.

Right now, he muses, everybody’s building their boat and gearing up to sail the ocean waves. “There aren’t many [players] out there yet. But the secret is out.”

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