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9 growth hacking tips to boost your mobile game's success

Pascal Clarysse provide guerilla tactics
9 growth hacking tips to boost your mobile game's success
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Growth Hackers work with a much lower budget (or none at all) than traditional marketers and usually work for start-ups that look to get their business off the ground.

Since there is no such thing as a silver bullet in marketing, Growth Hackers constantly keep an eye on the latest market trends and tend to be early adopters on pretty much anything new.

When something yields better results than average, the Growth Hacker doubles down looking for scale, until the platform saturates or the trend evaporates.

Be agile, act fast

Of course, it never lasts long before a magical parenthesis gets closed down, either because platform holders changes the rules or because word-of-mouth about a particular vehicle's effectiveness will spread, increasing competition for visibility on the channel, and thereby killing its impact.

The Growth Hacking tools of yesterday (FreeAppADay, AppGratis, OpenFeint, App Store featurings by Apple and Google etc) no longer work the same wonders as in the past (if at all), and the leads I'm passing on to you today are bound to cool down within a few months.

Always keep your ear to the ground and your eye on analytics - the targets we aim for in marketing are constantly moving, for volatile human beings are hiding behind these numbers.

Pascal Clarysse started looking for so-called Growth Hacks a good decade before the buzzword was coined.

Clarysse used to be the marketing driving force at, where he was in charge of relentlessly spotting new trends, waves and magic holes. In recent years, he's served as a marketing consultant for various indie studios, participating in launching mobile games and the occasional Kickstarter campaign.

You can follow him on Twitter at @PascalClarysse

#1: Mobile chat and messaging apps

In 2013, LINE has opened its 270 million-strong user base to mobile games, serving as both a social graph and a discovery vehicle for them. In the meantime, the user-base has kept rising, reaching 490 million in July. If you monitor the Japanese charts, you’ve noticed that LINE regularly fast-tracks new titles to the top. Its current flagship hit is Disney’s Tsum Tsum, but completely unknown titles like LINE POP have also enjoyed the ride.

Entry is not free. You cannot tap into the LINE social graph like you would in Facebook’s. You must upload a new exclusive edition powered by LINE. To accomplish this, you need to go through a selective approval process. And once the game comes live, you will need to leave them a 30% share on net revenue (= 20% of gross).

It may sound hard to swallow at first but consider the economics: 50% of a huge amount is better than 70% of a much smaller amount - mobile is volume play.

In China, it’s Tencent's WeChat that serves as the major discovery vehicle for games. The conditions to get on board are similar to LINE’s, but the approval process is even tighter. Unless you already have hundreds of millions downloads on your game, I’d recommend going through a distributor that is already close to Tencent (iDreamSky, Chukong or Yodo1).

The first chat app that opened up to games was KakaoTalk in Korea. Although I’d still recommend adapting your game for this network, don’t expect such immediate uptick in your stats as with WeChat or LINE.

Kakao Talk has been so successful at driving games to the top of the Korean charts that publishers have flocked to the platform over the last semester, making it much more crowded and competitive than it used to be.

The rise of Kakao
The rise of Kakao

US-based Tango has also opened its 250 million user base (70 million MAUs) to games. Their audience is less massive than all the above-mentioned competitors but the fact they’re getting less attention may positive for small and medium-size studios: there should be less content on offer, which means that supporting devs will face less competition for visibility.

Also, I wouldn’t write Tango off the on-going “chat wars”, given that China mogul Alibaba owns a stake.

#2: VKontakte (and the undying Facebook)

In the mobile gaming space, Russia is the new China. Newzoo and AppAnnie analytics reports keep demonstrating the trend and several leading mobile publishers see it in their own data: Russia is one of their fastest growing markets since 2013 and the total population size is considerable - pretty much the same snapshot as in China around 2011-2012.

VKontakte is the Facebook of Russia. It appeared on the web in 2006 and it now boasts 239 million registered accounts. In July 2014, VK has followed the footsteps of Facebook and chat apps by allowing games to be playable on its social network. Even more so than on LINE, you have a chance to be one of the first titles on catalog, facing very little competition while enjoying a huge enthusiastic audience. Yes, this implies that your game must be localized to Russian, playable in browser and offering some social features.

Once you have a browser port with built-in social gameplay features, you can also use it to leverage Facebook. Despite the negative buzz about its curbed organics for brand pages, Facebook as a marketing platform is far from dead.

Sure enough, competition has increased a lot since the Zynga years. Still, ignoring Facebook entirely would be an enormous marketing omission. Candy Crush Saga, to name but one well-known example (there are others), has shown that if you hone your social sharing mechanics, tapping a social graph of one billion users can be a very powerful growth vehicle.

King's growth hacked into Facebook's virality
King's growth hacked into Facebook's virality

What King developed is actually a perfect example of Growth Hacking: they found the precise sweet spot at the limit of incentivized sharing and what would be spam.

Furthermore, if paid promotion works better than organic brand posts nowadays, why not give Facebook Ads a try? There are ways to acquire users for cheaper rates per install than on competing services, if you take the time to A/B test and refine your campaigns properly. Especially if you care to target markets where there is less competition.

Bidding on users from US, UK, Canada or Germany may be costly indeed. If you turn to markets for which big spenders don't care much, you can acquire users at extremely attractive rates. Russia, Poland, Israel, Italy, Spain, Malaysia, Greece, Singapore, Turkey, Middle East, Latin America - all these territories fall in this category where acquisition is cheap yet ARPU levels are decent.

Indonesia and India offer huge reserves you can target for as low as $0.01 per click, but it's harder to monetize these users with lower income.

#3: The almighty YouTube

As of late, YouTube has become the go-to platform for discovery. You’re probably trying to leverage it by using so-called "content marketing" techniques, uploading frequent videos and trailers about your game and your company culture - that’s all good but it’s far from enough.

The traffic will not magically go your way - you’ll have to go and get it where it is.

Granted, the most famous "Let’s Players", such as PewDiePie or TotalBiscuit, mostly play triple-A games and do not usually cover mobile [this may be changing while I type these lines, after Phil Hickey from Seriously has successfully established a precedent by getting Best Fiends featured during this weekend's BroKen episode].

The channels that do “Let’s Play” videos of mobile games, such as

are slowly growing in significance but they don’t yet enjoy the same kind of reach.

Here are three alternative leads:

1. If your game is suitable for children, your top-priority should be channels run “by kids for kids”, like for example EvanTubeHD (who has now opened a dedicated gaming sub-channel), Jeff Mara or Arcadius Kul. Those can make your analytics curve go hockey stick if you can catch their attention (think about “what would be cool to show”, rather than “my game is good because...” - this is a pitch, not an exam).

2. Pairing up with a so-called YouTube Star (someone with millions of subscribers on his channel) is the Holy Grail. This won’t be free. YouTube celebrities are now well aware of their desirability. Many of them are even represented by agencies. However, it’s not always necessary to shell out huge up-front advances to convince them. Sometimes, if the content is compelling and a right fit for their audience, you can enter a time-limited rev-share deal.

There have been precedents of huge channels (like for example Yogscast or TotalBiscuit) accepting to promote certains games this way. There’s been some controversy about this practice, but it’s been mostly about how such sponsored content is labeled and flagged by the creators on their network. The developers that have on-boarded such programs sure won’t complain of the spike in their analytic charts.

3. When it comes to paid UA, YouTube Ads currently offer some of the best deals around.

When compared to pure mobile UA solutions like RTB exchanges, YouTube fares better. When pitted against other social media, YouTube offers better conversion rates (chart below).

Here comes the kicker: the system can be gamed by bidding exclusively on In-Stream TruViews (i.e. you pay every time 30 seconds of your ad have been watched without skip), and then limit the action of your commercial under 20 seconds, leaving at the end a 30 second roll with a long static logo screen and a CTA that leads to a landing page. Most viewers will decide whether to click or skip before the 30-second mark, which means you’re only paying for a fraction of your traffic.

More on this YouTube hack over at App Entrepreneurs Association.

#4: Cross promotion

Chartboost basically enables any app developer to act as its own advertising agency. Sure you can sell your inventory on Chartboost and passively let them fill it, like with any other mobile ad network. And you can place paid ad campaigns straight through the system as well.

However, the killer-feature for the non-lazy types is the Direct Deals section. This is where the real "cross-promotion" happens.

Cross-promotion is a big deal in marketing, and mobile is no exception to this. I would argue that the one crucial advantage of established publishers versus new entrants is not following on social media or reputation - it's the possibility to massively advertise their new game to a pool of active users in their portfolio titles, app-to-app.

If the active audience counts in millions, this advantage is priceless during a chart-chasing week. Once you have used the previous tricks to grow your installs from zero to millions, Chartboost is the place to go build your cross-promotion ring.

You basically go find another club member on the network (which is searchable once your game reaches 10,000 active users in one day) and negotiate an amicable deal, through which two apps will reciprocate each other's ads.

The big boys use Chartboost
The big boys use Chartboost

Both developers can structure it so that the deal involves no money transaction or can agree to a fixed PPI amount that one will pay the other for the differential in traffic sent, if any. Nothing prevents you from skewing the deal greatly in favor of one or the other party.

Even when money changes hands, the price can be dramatically lower than on other traditional ad networks. The developers talk it out between themselves, without the intervention of any middleman incentivized to keep prices up. From my experience, these deals can get quite sweet and friendly, especially if you are speaking with cool indie devs whom you have met in person at GDC or Pocket Gamer Connects, who have a game close to yours in terms of target demographic, who happen to play and like your game, and whose focus is also to grow their audience bigger.

Even Supercell, known as a big UA spender, has now joined Chartboost to direct-deal its huge inventory.

TapDaq has recently emerged as an alternative, focusing on solidarity among smaller indie devs. The reach of TapDaq is certainly not yet as massive as Chartboost's but those who use it have been greatly satisfied.

#5: Incentivized video ads

When it comes to paid UA, incentivized video ads (as seen in Temple Run) have proven their effectiveness, to the point that Apple almost banned them from the App Store last June.

Back in 2011-2012, Apple combated a nascent trend labeled "incentivized app downloads". Users were essentially rewarded by advertisers to download a game. These users were of course of very low quality as the majority would just install to get the reward, then immediately delete it. The only target here was to game the system and rise to the App Store chats top ranks in quest of an organic boost.

Precisely the type of things that Apple hates.

Last June, Apple have also started frowning upon incentivized video ads and the way they boost visibility. Apps have been rejected for using them during a few weeks. But as the debate between Apple and its developers grew, it was established that incentivized video ads did not, in essence, trick the system. The policy has been reversed in July and apps are no longer rejected for using this advertising mechanic.

It's important to stress that it is the trailer view that is incentivized and rewarded here, NOT the install. If player likes a trailer that he was rewarded to watch, to download the game is his free choice and that step is not rewarded at all. This nuance is vital when gauging the quality of acquired users. The churn rate of incentivized video ads is indeed on par with mobile advertising standards.

The flow of incentivised ads
The flow of incentivised ads

As you might imagine, there's plenty going on the incentivised video advertising space.

A range of players from Vungle, AdColony, Flurry, Unity, Fyber and Tapjoy are all fighting to gain market share and generate cash - for themselves and for developers.

And that's a good thing - usually, increased competition between suppliers lead to better deals and improved service for clients.

#6: Playable ads

Playable advertisements are the next generation of paid UA. Voxel and mNectar spearhead the field. Think "the Gaikai of mobile". They take your APK or IPA and stream play sessions inside other apps through the cloud, using virtualization software. After a short time, ad freezes and promotes install.

This new model eliminates many unnecessary steps from the mobile funnel. If the developer's job is to make a great game, the marketer's job is merely to make people try it.

Until now, this consisted of showing content which, if user reacted, would lead to a store. There, player would tap to download. Once install ends, player would still need to actively open the app (in the case of impulsive downloads, this step sometimes doesn't happen - keyword: "app attrition"), skip the menu, and finally, sample the fun.

With virtualization, user is brought straight into a level, without leaving the previous app. The reduced overhead and the ability to make download decisions based on how the game plays (rather than simply how it looks) leads to dramatic increases in conversion rates compared to other UA methods (230% according to Voxel).

Playable ads are on the rise
Playable ads are on the rise

More importantly, this vehicle blurs the line between user acquisition and user retention by moving the decisive core loop right at conversion point. Users who install have already played the game once, so churn rate is naturally lower.

Points of differentiation:

1. Territory: Voxel covers North America and Europe, where mNectar is only live in North America. Wally Nguyen, mNectar CEO, intends to deploy in Asia and Europe shortly.

2. Access: Voxel focuses on the technology and partners with agencies to offer their service to developers. Currently InMobi and have integrated Voxel but others should be unveiled soon. You can deal with mNectar in direct.

3. Pricing: mNectar innovates here by adopting a pay-per-completed-play policy ($0.05$~$0.15 per play, depending on session length). I like the fairness of this: installs will cost less if your demo is effective - it's the game that does the selling. Voxel lets agencies apply the more traditional CPI model, although CEO David Zhao is also in favor of pay-per-play going forward.

GREE, Kabam, Zynga, Zeptolab and King already use mNectar. EA and King again are advertising with Voxel. It's understandable that King uses both, Candy Crush Saga being the ideal fit for the model: casual, easy to get within 60 seconds, addictive.

#7: Use Android channel fragmentation to your advantage

There are 800 different Android channels: 400 in China (200 legit + 200 gray), and another 400 in the rest of the world. Staggering.

Channel fragmentation can feel daunting but more distribution options means more opportunities to get featured and promoted in front of different segments of users. If you can cater to all channels, the aggregate volume can become significant.

Rovio has used this to their advantage when building the Angry Birds brand in 2011, and so did 2DBoy with the help of Spoiled Milk when deploying World of Goo in 2012. The main problem is that different stores have different policies, which can be tricky to handle from a development resource perspective.

That's where Flexion comes in. Flexion recently unveiled a wrapper technology which enables developers to effortlessly turn a freemium Google Play APK into a build that can be distributed everywhere.

For premium apps, the Flexion wrapper can turn them into a try-before-you-buy, opening up the opportunity to get listed in the hundreds of charts reserved for free-to-play titles.

The wrapper integrates carrier-billing (pay by monthly bill, pay by SMS - in 80 countries), credit card and thirdparty SDKs such as Fortumo SDK. Carrier billing is vital for converting in emerging markets and is a missing component in the Google Play store.

The Flexion store on-device
The Flexion store on-device

The wrapped build can be distributed in Flexion's affiliated stores or directly by the developer.

Flexion is targeting new-gen stores in emerging markets but affiliate agreement also include stores such as Samsung Galaxy Apps, Yandex, Slide Me, Opera, Nook and a few carriers. Flexion basically removes the development workload from the Android deployment equation and at the same time they are building an affiliation network through which your wrapped build can be distributed.

Rather than big name carriers that no longer generate any traffic or revenues Flexion's focus is on emerging markets where very few developers monetize well in Google Play and on channels that generate significant traffic with good conversion

Jens Lauritzson, Flexion's CEO, states: "As long as affiliates can provide volume with decent conversion they will be added to the network. Key criterion is that they have the potential to generate 1 million downloads per month for a promoted top title."

#8: Loyalty reward platforms

In 2012, lots of start-ups emerged to build so-called loyalty platforms. Their focus is on delivering valuable rewards from brands and advertisers to mobile gamers at the emotionally positive moment when they unlock an in-game achievement. It is a form of disguised advertising. But it is so well disguised and so aptly placed that end users welcome it, according to multiple surveys on this topic.

All of these platforms have a proven positive effect on user retention, as they encourage players coming back to earn bigger rewards.

A couple of these networks have shaped into very effective marketing vehicles over time. Kiip now boasts 70 million connected users to its service in the US alone and they are tapping into that base to cross-promote the top games that implement their SDK in ways that are exciting for the user, and therefore effective for the publisher.

A couple of examples of smart campaigns that Kiip has run:

  • Kiip once run a monthly contest in MegaJump, in which the grand prize was $5,000 in cash. The contest tremendously boosted viral awareness about the game in the US.
  • During last year’s holiday season, Kiip has run a promotion campaign called 25 Days of Christmas. 25 games were brought forwarded, each getting its own day in the spotlight. Big rewards were dropping in the highlighted game, relevant with context, while Kiip was sending out mass-invites to their user-base to raise awareness.

Through these discoverability mechanics, Kiip can boost your organic user acquisition, in addition to the effect the service has on your user retention. Don’t expect Kiip to shoot you from 0 to a million, but once you have an established audience, Kiip is one of these few simple tools that can help you maintain a steady momentum.

Kiip - a loyalty platform and now incentivised video ads
Kiip - a loyalty platform and now incentivised video ads

What’s more, Kiip gives developers and publishers a monthly rev-share on the income it collects from advertisers ($14 eCPM in average).

There are only two inconveniences when using Kiip, one being that it started as US only, and although it’s expanding fast, it is only available in 11 additional countries at the time of writing. A solid alternative in Europe and Asia is Beintoo, which is implemented globally in Fruit Ninja and also in all games distributed by iDreamSky in China.

#9: SuperAwesome - a true discovery platform for kids

SuperAwesome is a discoverability platform focusing on young demographics, which is particularly tough, due to legislations in place (COPPA and such). You can advertise through their Kids Mobile Network, granted that your brand, product and creatives are suitable for the audience. The KMN extends over digital assets owned by SuperAwesome and 100 carefully selected partners.

The total reach is 150 million MAUs, mostly in US, UK and EU. The most appealing aspect of SuperAwesome lies with its owned assets through truly unique and highly engaging 360° campaigns can be executed:

Through SwapIt, millions of children exchange second hand goods without sharing identities (deliveries go through a fulfillment center). The platform can be leveraged by marketers to organize swapping of virtual trading cards and other branded collectibles.
Every month, SuperAwesome ships 20,000 boxes full of new products to discover. To boys, it ships the Box of Awesome, to girls the Box of OMG. In the UK, no less than 200,000 kids are on the waiting list. The excitement goes beyond the people who receive the box. In our connected era, you can imagine the barrage of YouTube unboxing videos and Facebook posts that accompany every dispatching.

This is a great plus but it requires a physical component. If you don’t have any licensing and are clueless about manufacturing in China, you could turn to 3D printing houses like Fabzat or Sculpteo for help.


For legal reasons, children-oriented advertising may not be performance-based. If you team with an engineer for your UA duties, he will not like this. The argument to be had here: who cares that I can’t precisely measure by how much method A beats method B if all signals point out that method A, though technically “un-trackable”, triggers a long wave that is blatantly bigger than method B?

SuperAwesome is not a speedboat that you quickly use on the weekend to get to the next island.

This is about setting the sails for a long journey. It’s a brand equity and community building play. It is what you’re supposed to aim for when your strategy is to grow from hit game into hot brand. I’m convinced that this will become a major trend for big and medium-sized mobile publishers who’ll want to build franchises in years to come. Granted, this specific point is not for the new entrants.

By the time you call SuperAwesome, you have probably successfully exhausted all the other tricks from this post. CEO Dylan Collins reckons that the minimum requirement to work with them is a $20,000 budget. Ideal spend is $30-40,000 on a period of 4 to 6 weeks, in order to plan a meaningful and memorable stunt for the kids.