Mobile advertising company Liftoff has invited inspirational women working on some of the biggest mobile games to discuss their achievements, challenges, and future aspirations. This time, we spoke with Karen Tong, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Niantic.
Very few people are lucky enough to land their dream job, and even fewer end up working on the franchises they grew up with as kids. For Karen Tong, that franchise was Pokémon. She spent countless hours trying to “catch ‘em all” across various Pokémon games. Now, Tong shares her experience with a global audience through Pokémon GO as Senior Director of Product Marketing at Niantic.
Tong has had an unusual journey over the past two decades. She has overseen marketing and brand across various industries and products, including The Sims at EA, chat and video conferencing at Microsoft, media and entertainment at NBC, and even a brief period in chemical engineering. That might sound like an odd combination, but her diverse career helped prepare her for the dynamic nature of mobile marketing.
From engineer to games marketing leader
Tong’s journey started with an interest in math and science. She studied chemical engineering at Rutgers School of Engineering in New Jersey. But when she landed her first job in the engineering industry, she disliked sitting alone at a desk doing complex calculations.
“I was always interested in marketing, but I never thought I could do it because I’m not a person that comes up with ‘big ideas,’” Tong admits. “In time, I realized that marketing is a broad field, and I didn’t need to be. Instead, I could use my knowledge and background to help others bring their ideas to life. Gaming was something that I’d always loved, so from then on, it became clear that my goal was to become a marketer in the video game industry.”
Eager to land a more collaborative role, Tong went to business school to find her new calling. Her first big break was at NBCUniversal as a Brand Manager in media and entertainment, which, while far and away from gaming, moved her much closer to the industry. Before long, she joined EA as a Senior Product Manager, where she looked after The Sims for six years and got the opportunity to present the brand at major industry events, such as E3 and Gamescom. After that, Tong made the unusual move to step away from gaming, joining Microsoft as a Senior Product Marketing Manager focused on communications.
One of the things I love most about working at Niantic are our core values: getting people outside and interacting with each other...Karen Tong
“Back then, the industry was starting to move towards where we’re now, with a big focus on online gaming and live services,” Tong explains. “While EA was an amazing experience, I couldn’t develop the skills needed for the future. At EA, we shipped a product every few months and moved on to something else. Working on software as a service was very different, as we were marketing an always-online app.”
While it was a difficult choice, Tong is confident she made the right decision. Mobile games with LiveOps now dominate the market, typically generating 30 times more revenue than those without them, and her time at Microsoft taught her a lot about marketing live service products. However, Tong still had more to learn before she could put that knowledge to use. Her next move was to Twitch, where she progressed to become Senior Director of Commerce Product Marketing & Revenue Growth.
“I became part of this big world of community building. I learned the importance of laying out a vision for the future and integrating monetisation into those plans,” Tong says. “I understood the whole business from beginning to end, developing strategies to bring both users and our team together, as well as how to manage things like trust and safety in an online community.”
Bringing her mobile marketing skills together at Niantic
Three years later, Tong finally came full circle, bringing us to the present day with her role at Niantic focused on marketing Pokémon GO. Managing a title that holds several world records, including the most revenue grossed by a mobile game in its first month ($206m) and the most downloaded mobile game in its first month (130m), is no easy task. However, her joint experience in community building and always-online products helped her to succeed.
“I think the hardest thing to overcome was my lack of direct experience in mobile gaming,” Tong says. “I’d spent a lot of time with tech companies and working on web services, so I knew a lot about app stores, but we didn’t have that same focus on paid user acquisition as you do on mobile.”
Like many other mobile marketers, Tong looked to data for answers. At Niantic, Tong has access to dashboards that keep track of campaign attribution, enabling her to see how players respond to different channels, messages, and offers throughout the game. She works closely with her team to digest that information and make it actionable so they can produce campaigns that resonate with the audience.
All of that becomes particularly vital during important events in Pokémon GO’s, such as the annual Pokémon GO Fest, where players come together across the globe to catch, trade, and battle together. Pokémon GO Fest is both a series of major in-person events as well as a global virtual event. In 2023, Niantic hosted in-person Pokémon GO Fest events in London, New York, and Osaka, with players needing to purchase a ticket to attend.
“One of the things I love most about working at Niantic are our core values: getting people outside and interacting with each other,” Tong says. “Pokémon GO Fest is the ultimate culmination of that. Running that months-long marketing campaign with my team and seeing the community coming together to celebrate the game in locations across the globe was an amazing thing to be a part of.”
The enduring appeal of Pokémon GO and connecting together in person
With more than 194,000 people attending Pokémon GO Fest events in 2023, these events testify to the stickiness and popularity of Pokémon GO, as well as the appeal of gathering together in person to enjoy a shared passion.
Tong believes Pokémon GO works so well as a location-based AR game because it’s as close as you can get to the real-life experience of being a Pokémon trainer. Niantic has also done an amazing job bringing together all teams—marketing, product, and engineering—to deliver a fantastic experience under a shared vision.
“Even with a big franchise behind you, it all comes down to having a really good product,” Tong says. “I think that’s what we have with Pokémon GO, a genuinely great game.”