Guest Post: 5 steps to choosing the best mobile ad network for games publishers

Follow the SMART (Styling, Mix of offers, Ad formats, Robustness & Targeting) framework

by Michal Pilawski, vp of mobile product management at NativeX

Last weekend, I sat down for a coffee with a friend responsible for game monetisation at one of the largest mobile game publishers. Four months earlier, his company released a major title with a well-known ad network. To ensure steady advertising revenue, he negotiated a minimum revenue guarantee for a period of three months. Visibly angry, he told me how exactly three months after the launch his advertising revenue dropped to one-third of what it was earlier. Emails and calls to that ad network were unreturned.

This story is more common than people realise. Underperforming networks will lure game publishers with temporary guarantees of high revenue.

For the duration of the guarantee, they will drive their best advertising campaigns to the game.

As soon as the guarantees expire, they will redirect the best offers to another game knowing that the game publisher is unlikely to replace their SDK with another one.

Choosing a wrong advertising partners will impact your revenue, but also can impact in-game sales and customer loyalty.

Bad design, irrelevant offers and slow performance will drive players away to other games and apps.

Today, there are over 60 ad networks and most of them claim to be the largest and to generate more revenue than the competition.

The following SMART framework (Styling, Mix of Offers, Ad Formats, Robustness and Targeting) will help developers cut through the sales talk and choose the right partner to boost their in-game revenue.

Styling

Impact on revenue high, impact on player loyalty high

An example of good styling

Small changes to the styling can more than triple the money you are earning, according to a study conducted by NativeX.

The major challenge all advertisers struggle with is how to capture players’ attention.

Gamers quickly learn to ignore ads. Effective styling breaks through the noise and draws interest to the commercial.

The more the ad feels like an extension of the game, the harder it is to ignore.

Great styling further enhances the appearance of the ad, draws the eye to the key elements of the offer and creates positive associations for the advertiser.

Choose a solution that blends with and complements the game play.

Some key elements to consider are how the styling uses encapsulation, color and contrast, directional cues, movements and transitions to attract attention to the ad while remaining unobtrusive.

Mix of offers

Impact on revenue medium, impact on player loyalty low

Before evaluating ad networks, consider who your players are and where they are located.

If your game is not live yet, look at similar titles and check the profile of their audience on one of the many free analytics services.

The two primary concerns are whether the network has advertisers in the countries where your players are located and whether the offers are relevant to your audience.

I recently talked to a game publisher who had over 500,000 active players in the Middle East and none of the networks he worked with had any ads for that region. He was forfeiting over $40,000 every month as a result.

Ad formats

Impact on revenue very high, impact on player loyalty low

Top performing ad formats (incentivised video and offer walls) can generate up to 20 times more revenue than the lowest performing banners.

The initial instinct is to rely only on those two formats. However, both are overly intrusive and unless they are used sparingly they will drive players away.

The key to achieving the right balance between maximising your short-term revenue and having a loyal player base is to use different ad formats at different locations.

Launching, leveling up, losing, and quitting all evoke different emotional states that should determine which format is used.

To take full advantage of the revenue your game can generate, you should be using between three and five different ad formats.

Some ad networks can only provide one format, which means you would need to integrate and maintain multiple ad network SDKs.

This can significantly increase the size of your game and create significant workload for your engineering team.

The optimal solution is to look for partners who perform well across multiple incented and non-incented formats and limit the number of SDKs to one or two.

Robustness

Impact on revenue medium, impact on player loyalty high

Robustness refers to the overall performance. You want to make sure that: -

  • Ads are displayed correctly across different devices
  • Ads are presented in less than 1 second, preferably in less than half a second

Studies conducted over the last few years show significant impact of wait-time (network latency) on overall revenue.

In separate studies,  Microsoft Bing and Kiss Metrics reported that a 1 – 2 second delay reduces your conversion rates by 4 – 7 per cent.

A 4 second delay can result in up to 25 per cent of people abandoning the page or leaving the game.

This seems obvious, but surprisingly very few networks pay attention to it.

Recently, I played one of the most popular car racing games and had to wait for an ad to load for 10 seconds.

After experiencing this three times during one game session, I was so put off that I haven’t played the game since.

Targeting

Impact on revenue medium, impact on player loyalty low

The more relevant an ad is, the happier the player is, and the more likely they are to interact.

This results in higher revenue for the publisher and more loyal players.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to assess how good the targeting algorithms are for each ad network without integrating all of them and no good independent study is available.

Still, there are two things that can be evaluated easily …

Firstly, how granular is the targeting? Ask if they are prioritising their ads per game, per placement in the game, or per individual player and placement?

Players experience a full range of emotions from anger when they are defeated, frustration when they get stuck on a level, to satisfaction and even euphoria when they progress successfully in the game.

You want the targeting engine to be able to differentiate between those moments and serve offers that are tailored to the player and their emotional state.

Secondly, you will want to know how often the network refreshes its data.

The data used to select the impressions is not fresh. Some networks will update the data every two to four hours – some will do it on a daily basis or every few days.

You don’t want the targeting to be based on a data that is a few days old. Find a network that runs their updates at least two to three times a day.

By using the SMART framework you will remove significant risk from the process of choosing an ad network partner.

It’s a simple checklist to follow but has the potential to increase your advertising revenue up to ten times.

Author biog

Michal Pilawski is vp of mobile product management and leads the mobile product management team at NativeX. Prior to joining, Michal worked for Nokia, where he built entertainment and location products. He also worked on several M&A and partnership deals. While earning his BS in Management and MA in Finance at the University of Szczecin in Poland, Michal co-founded an Internet media start-up. Michal also holds an MSc in Industrial Engineering from the Helsinki University of Technology and an MBA from Wharton, University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @BellySlide.

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