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How To Do User Acquisition The Right Way

What do you think of when you hear the term user acquisition? In mobile gaming it often means paid advertising techniques executed on mobile devices. But traditionally it's meant something much more lucrative.

In the mobile game industry, when we say user acquisition or UA what we're really talking about is mobile user acquisition. And that typically means mobile marketing, paid advertising techniques such as advertising networks, display advertising or search engine marketing.

But user acquisition is actually a derivative (used to denote acquisition in digital channels) of the classic business term, customer acquisition.

On the surface this appears simply an issue of semantics. But I believe it's the symptom of a much deeper, insidious problem, one that threatens the success of selling mobile games.

User acquisition, customer acquisition.

The Golden Era of Mobile

When mobile games first appeared it was a bit of a gold rush, similar to what we might see with AR and VR games.

The App Store opened in 2008, Google Play followed in 2012 and combined they laid the foundation for the mobile gaming industry.

Finding players was relatively easy in this new niche market.

We'd upload our game to marketplaces, easily attain visibility with a good chance of being featured, we'd climb the charts albeit momentarily and walk away having experienced a good amount of success for very little marketing effort or spend.

And that blinded us.

Sure, we had our websites, development blogs, social media and newsletters, but by and large, we relied on marketplace visibility for success.

User acquisition was seldom talked about.

But in just a few years, things have drastically changed.

The App Store alone went from 10,000 apps in the fall of 2008 to now, upwards of 1.7 million with over 400 new mobile games added every day.

Saturation, and therefore visibility, have reached a tipping point.

Selling Mobile Games In a Mature Market

Hooked on practically free players handed out by formative marketplaces in an exploding industry, we watched helplessly as our numbers dropped.

And so, we did the only thing we knew how, sought out the next, best solution for acquiring players.

Just as mobile marketplace exclusivity was falling, never-before-seen mobile advertising techniques were rising.

Consider the flood of mobile advertising networks around that time.

While mobile marketplace returns diminished, mobile advertising networks promised the opposite, and they had the data to back it up.

Only giant mobile developers had the marketing spend for sophisticated campaigns including broadcast and print. And mobile advertising networks provided a way to compete with them for a fraction of the price.

And we were smitten.

But we missed the forest for the trees, again.

Everyone wanted to be Angry Birds, and instead we should've focused on being Rovio, figuratively speaking.

We focused solely on chasing players in mobile channels, paying little attention to the future of our companies and their ability to compete in a young and rapidly-changing market.

Where Are They Now?

Today, most mobile game developers are still there, investing the majority of their marketing spend in paid advertising techniques on mobile devices.

Evidence of this reality is the plethora of controversial conference keynotes and heated boardroom presentations over metrics such as CPI, eCPM and which mobile advertising networks are doling out the highest ROI this year.

In fact, I've watched as developers seek out User Acquisition Managers and User Acquisition Strategists, always roles based largely around measuring the success of paid advertising on, you guessed it, mobile devices.

So, not only has the definition of user acquisition been chiseled down and accepted as standard, the very leaders of our industry are investing countless amounts of money in people to manage and further that line of thought.

But it's not working.

Again, What's the Next Best Solution?

Almost all mobile game developers I talk to say the same thing, that what we call user acquisition yields low quality players and diminishing returns.

And they're right, because we see this manifest in two ways.

First, in user acquisition cost that rises year-over-year (traditionally known as customer acquisition cost or CAC).

It's basic economics, the market increases, visibility decreases and the price to gain visibility goes up at roughly the same rate the market has saturated.

And second, we're seeing it in the turn away from CPI as a measurement for success in favor of in-game user retention (traditionally known as customer retention rate or CRR, another term we should revisit).

As it turns out, installs don't equate high quality players.

Who knew?

So, what's the next best solution for acquiring players?

Taking a culture of our industry conferences appears to suggest native advertising, retention-based game design methodologies and mobile advertising networks priced at scale for day-7 retention.

But wait...

Haven't we been here before?

Haven't we seen what happens when we chase players off a cliff, investing the majority of our marketing spend in one channel?

We need to stop asking ourselves what's next, stop chasing players with advertising and stop compromising the art and craft of making games for the hope of low quality players.

You don't just sell mobile games, you're retailers who provide your customers a valuable product.

The only way for mobile games to grow revenue is to start acting like businesses, to stop playing the first level over and over again, and start experiencing the entire game.

Game Over, Try Again?

Obviously, what we've been calling user acquisition is flawed. Nevermind that it's illogical, it's expensive.

And so, what I'm calling for here is an about-face, a 180-degree turn back towards the classical business definition for user acquisition, customer acquisition or CA:

Customer acquisition is any marketing process, strategy or technique by which customers are acquired.

That's the real definition of user acquisition, the one we've long forgotten.

It's not simply about acquiring users on mobile devices, it's about acquiring customers in business.

But far more important than semantics is action.

Not only we will change how we talk, we'll change what we do.

The classical definition sets us free, mobile game developers aren't confined to mobile marketing or mobile channels.

I'm not saying paid advertising on mobile devices is bad or wrong, even though I think it sucks.

What I'm saying is, if you've bought (literally) into this idea, and paid advertising through mobile devices is the bulk of what you're using to acquire players, then I believe you've been missing a massive, business-changing opportunity to attract players with entertainment, build an audience by converting players into fans and organically grow revenue with marketing projects that continue to serve you long after you've paid for them.

It doesn't matter if we're talking about ad networks, websites or email marketing, it's all user acquisition when that term means what it traditionally has in the past.

What we're calling user acquisition is a painful trap.

Customer acquisition on the other hand, opens up the opportunity for marketing strategies and techniques concerned with building up our businesses, a far more pressing and profitable endeavor.

Let's focus the majority of our mobile game marketing there instead.

Justin Carroll writes about indie game marketing at Get his free email newsletter to learn more about launching games and growing a business.

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