A Q&A With Socialpoint’s Danika Wilkinson on Casual Gaming
Danika Wilkinson is Head of Marketing – New Games for Socialpoint, a Spanish mobile game developer responsible for creating casual hits like Dragon City and Monster Legends. Danika began her career in Australia as a journalist, eventually moving to Barcelona, where she transitioned into a career in user acquisition at Genera Games and product marketing at Socialpoint.
Mobile gaming is a highly competitive space, particularly in casual markets. What is your approach to reaching audiences and standing out from the competition in 2022?
Nothing is original these days. Look at the games that are currently most successful — they’re the same as other successful games in the past, they’ve just done something better.
When it comes to new games, a lot of people fall into this trap of thinking they should take big bets, to market their game totally different from the competition to help them stand out. The path has been beaten time and time again, so you need to know what the competition is doing and leverage internal insights to figure out how to do it even better.
Royal Match is a good example. It’s really big at the moment, but it’s just a match-3 casual game. There are hundreds of match-3 games. The style of ads they use is no different from their competitors. They use the standard “character in a dire situation” narrative and you, through the power of gameplay, have to save them. But they’ve done it better than the competition because the gameplay from the ad is pulled from the actual game, so they don’t have issues with retention, disappointed players, or complaints. The visual skin has mass appeal — designing creatives with broad appeal is very important with iOS 14. And the character choice is more humorous and less grim when something bad happens to them.
Contrast that with other casual games that use this storyline. There’s usually a character in some awful situation — they have a baby, they’re in a cold, dilapidated shack, and you have to fix the shack or the baby freezes. It’s an awfully grim scenario. In Royal Match, you have this fat, rich, decadent king and you don’t mind so much if the king drowns or gets eaten by the dragon. It’s funny, right? It’s a good example of someone who’s doing the same thing as everyone else, but they’re doing it better, and it’s working for them.
What are Socialpoint’s UA or creative considerations when marketing a new game?
It depends on the lifecycle of the game. When you start marketing a new prototype, the tendency is to show nothing but pure gameplay — present the product as it is and then look at the metrics. I would argue against that and say the competition does what it does for a reason. You have to accept as a necessary evil that, unless you’re working in hypercasual, you’re never going to solely advertise pure gameplay in your ads.
What we do is test creatives across the spectrum. One end of the spectrum is pure gameplay, and the other end is the most aspirational ad you can imagine. What you’re trying to do is see where on that spectrum you’re able to market at a level that’s acceptable in terms of CPI and ROI, and won’t impact product metrics like early retention. Then iterate on it.
In the initial days of a product, goals shouldn’t be centered on ROI. Instead, you should focus on gathering sample sizes for technical tests, early metric analysis, or initial marketability testing. When you get to the later stages of development, switch to a live-game mindset as soon as possible. A lot of people fall into a product-centric testing mindset, but you need to be far more dynamic. You have to be scrappy and play around with UA or creative optimization. It’s key to have this experience early so going into a global launch isn’t the first time you’ve ever done this.
On a creative level, it’s important to put yourself in the eyes of a user. If you work every day in marketing, you notice things that a normal person isn’t going to notice. People on a creative team are going to be focused on the specific quality of their craft, like whether or not the animation is perfect. Meanwhile, a user who’s seeing this ad for two or three seconds is not going to notice those things. They’re also not going to notice the tiny little tweaks you’ve made. To the naked eye, it’s going to look like the same thing.
Instead, don’t worry about the finer details of your ad. Make ugly, bold, fast changes that are going to get results quickly. Quite often, people get caught up in making something beautiful, but the process is extremely time-consuming and ultimately won’t be as impactful. You can spend the same amount of time making four times as many things. The quality won’t be as good, but you’ll learn far more since you have more things to work with. At the end of the day, the user is going to notice something different, but they’re not going to notice something beautiful. Once you make those rapid changes and you get results, then you can refine your ad and see if your metrics improve. In my experience, they usually don’t.
For UA, take what account managers are telling you with a huge grain of salt. A lot of the time, account managers on self-managed networks don’t have a lot of experience with their own platform. They’re just salespeople, they have a rehearsed set of best practices, and they want you to spend money. You just have to be bold and try your own things, even if it’s the opposite of what they’re telling you. That’s where you’ll find those little nuggets of success.
How does Socialpoint empower those outside of marketing to be involved in UA analysis & strategy?
You want the creative team to be autonomous. You want them to be able to seek out the data they need and to come up with their own ideas based on this data.
It can be difficult — a lot of artists you find come from branding or conceptual backgrounds. They can feel like being data-driven limits creativity. They want to come up with beautiful ideas, but those ideas may not have any connection to what’s already working for you or the competition.
The best way to navigate this gap is to give them a different motivation. Instead of telling them to make the most beautiful creative possible, the motivation should be to create something that’s going to make a noticeable difference to the ROI. You can give them concrete examples of what worked — show them something that they directly produced that positively impacted performance, and give them numbers. That shift in motivation helps them to seek out different goals.
The product side is a different kettle of fish, especially when it comes to new games. Product teams can get quite attached, and it’s hard for them to put their trust in marketing’s hands when they know that they’re not in control of the fluctuations in metrics. If there’s a lack of knowledge, they think that marketing is a matter of pushing buttons to automatically reach performance or scale targets. If you educate them on how marketing affects the product and give them examples of cause and effect, they’ll understand the complexities and unknowns and have more trust that you’re making the best decisions for their game.
What kinds of metrics do you prioritize when analyzing user data?
It depends on the lifecycle of the game. If it’s an early prototype, you’re looking at early metrics like D1 or D3 retention, average playtime, the average number of sessions, and the level achieved as a proxy for future success.
However, it can be easy to get obsessed with vanity metrics like D1 retention and lose sight of the end goal. Even LTV and CPI can be superficial metrics. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I spend $1 or $10 per user if I’m reaching 100% profitability. People get really focused on these absolutes when the key is in the relative number, the actual return on investment of the game.
The end goal is always profitability — how can I produce a game that will make more money than what I’m spending on producing it? When a game doesn’t have enough content to reach our desired payback window, we make assumptions on the LTV curve based on internal data or competitive benchmarks to figure out what ROI targets we should be reaching at different points, and use that as our key marker of success. Of course, other metrics feed into that, like retention and payer conversion, but all of those things are a means to an end: profitability.
You’ve been involved with mobile game marketing for 6 years. How has the field changed since you first started your career? What marketing trends do you see emerging in the next few years?
Six months in this industry is like five years in any other, it changes so much. Access to data has changed dramatically. I remember when I first started that a lot of the calculations were made manually with spreadsheets. I’m glad I have this experience because I know what goes into a BI tool, but the dashboards I have access to these days are amazing. That’s only going to improve.
ROAS optimization has also gone from strength to strength. Many partners now allow you to optimize against ad revenue coming from most mediation platforms, whereas previously that wasn’t a possibility. I hope in the future certain ad networks don’t limit this capability to their own mediation platforms.
There used to be a lot more dependency on self-reporting networks like Facebook and Google. iOS 14 has proven that lack of diversity is death. People have to pivot, and I think we’ll see greater development of SDK networks and DSPs in the future as a result.
Creative strategy was far less iterative and revolved around making fewer concepts of higher quality. No one was making aspirational advertising, and now I think it’s here to stay. I think what will change is the innovative ways people are connecting these aspirational ads to the early funnel of their game. Quite often they’re developed with the idea of triggering emotion in the user and then carrying that emotion through the entire funnel all the way to the first-time user experience. An example would be an ad using elements of ASMR and the relaxing, satisfying emotions it triggers, then trying to maintain that feeling of relaxation all the way through the game, even if the game has nothing to do with ASMR.
App store optimization has changed a lot as well. Six years ago metadata and keyword stuffing were huge, and are no longer as effective. It’s more about conversion now and is far more linked to UA, especially with custom product pages. In the future, we’re going to see more levers for optimizing the funnel. They’re going to be more dynamic and more automated. I’d like to be able to create custom experiences with not just the ad and store page, but the game as well, depending on the ad users saw, the type of users they are, and the campaign they came from.
How have your marketing and user acquisition efforts changed in the post-SKAN landscape?
I think we’ve handled the transition well. We’re lucky to have an incredible marketing analytics team here who’ve given us all the data we need and re-attribution with a high rate of confidence. Creatives were already at the center of our strategy, so this wasn’t a difficult pivot to make. However, we’re now having to create things with a broader appeal, and think more about the emotions we’re triggering, like shocking or entertaining the audience from the get-go.
Building a diverse portfolio of partners is now at the center of our development roadmap, all the way up to the global launch of our games. We also look at holistic metrics more often now, which is much easier to do with new games. The assumption is that the number of true organic metrics is going to be very low without an established brand. You can assume the majority of organics you’re getting are going to be influenced by marketing, so it’s easy to look at holistic metrics as well for a new game.
Offering different user experiences is difficult with the limitations of iOS 14 — by the time you’ve received data about a user, it’s usually too late to customize their first-time experience. I’m hopeful with the changes we’re seeing with custom store pages on the App Store and Google Play, that there will be a way to make the first two steps of the funnel, as well as the first-time user experience, dynamic and automated. That way we can give them something similar to the ad content that drew them in so we can retain them for longer or make them convert.
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