Episode #47: Developing a Growth Strategy for Mobile Game Categories with Jerome Turnbull

In this episode of our podcast, we sat down with AppLovin's VP of Growth and discussed game monetization, choosing the right app store categories and first-party UA.

In this episode of Mobile Growth & Pancakes, Jonathan Fishman is joined by Jerome Turnbull, VP of Growth at AppLovin, to discuss how to drive growth across different mobile game categories. They discuss how we think about partnerships for a first-party gaming business and share the tools and solutions AppLovin provides to help developers grow.

Check out all the other episodes of Mobile Growth & Pancakes here.

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“There’s a lot of time spent in the research stage. It’s important to know your audience and what you’re building, but also get to market, make decisions, and move quickly. You have to trust the process and be comfortable with how quickly things change.

Jerome Turnbull

Key takeaways:

  • As the VP of growth, Jerome leads the first-party user acquisition and growth team at AppLovin, a leading marketing platform that provides developers with solutions to grow their mobile apps.
  • When iOS 14.5 came out, mobile developers felt the impact on their business model. Many companies turned toward Android and shifted away from self attributing networks. Instead, they started focusing more on ad networks as they offer good consistency, performance, and a viable way to access the networks of gaming apps.
  • Even though you have different categories of games, you can think about how the games monetize. Some of the acquisition strategies include in-app purchases, ads, and subscriptions. 
  • One way of overcoming the targeting challenges is doing a lot of audience research and finding which players are driving a lot of derivatives for the game, which type of games they play, and what that can tell us just from a contextual perspective on those players.

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    Full transcript:

    Jonathan: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Mobile Growth and Pancakes. I’m your host, Jonathan Fishman. I’m VP marketing here at Storemaven. I’m really, really excited to have here with me today, Jerome Turnbull, who’s the VP growth at AppLovin. Hey.

    Jerome: Hey, Jonathan. Thanks for having me on.

    Jonathan: Sure. Do you want to introduce yourself a bit?

    Jerome: Sure. I lead our first-party user acquisition and growth team at AppLovin. I get to work with studios across the world, a talented team of media buyers and analysts. Thanks for having me.

    Jonathan: For sure. I want to talk a bit about your path. You have a lot of experience in the mobile industry, how you got to be VP growth at AppLovin? Where did you start and when was it?

    Jerome: It’s been quite a ride. First job in the mobile industry was at an agency called [unintelligible 00:01:21]. I worked there, got an opportunity to come out to California and work for Disney Mobile, launching a lot of their games. That was a lot of free games that would convert to paid. It was an interesting time shooting up the charts, getting a lot of visibility on launches. Joined Machine Zone, I believe, 2014. Been there quite a while. Luckily, in May, we were able to join the AppLovin family, and coming up on two years now. It’s been interesting moving from working at Machine Zone where there was one style of game that we were marketing for a long time. Now, there’s the opportunity to work across all the different categories in the App Store.

    Jonathan: Amazing. How is the growth team structured right now in AppLovin, the first-party gaming growth team?

    Jerome: Great question. Most of the studios that we end up working with are signed in a partnership. There usually is some form of user acquisition. You have to in order to survive in the space. With those studios, it’s a split, there’s an in-house studio team. Then there’s my team that accesses a central service. We provide support where it’s needed, that usually includes the AppLovin network, but there are some other channels that we’ve developed expertise to support. Some of the studios, we just do the whole stack. All UA, all monetization.

    Jonathan: Got it. Cool. Let’s start by discussing how things are basically with– it’s been maybe about a year since iOS 14.5 came out and shook the industry. You have a lot of interesting perspective because you have the ad network perspective and the publisher perspective. Let’s basically review what happened and how it affected you guys, basically, from both directions.

    Jerome: I think it was specifically iOS 14.6 a few weeks after it was released, maybe June. They started to push the automatic update to everyone. That when we really started to see things change. It was slowly, we were tracking the consent, non-consent leading up to that point. Then you really hit an inflection point there. We were ready in the sense that how ready could you be for this? We’ve been preparing a lot of our ad monetization waterfalls to handle these two different paths where there IDFA was present and where it wasn’t. The team had been doing some SKAdNetwork buying. We’ve learned a lot since that timeframe and just continually understanding how the networks are also using these signals in order to buy.

    Jonathan: What do you think about the SKAdNetwork these days? Somebody, that they can’t name, told me recently that there isn’t a single company in the world that actually rely on SKAdNetwork as a viable tool for making decisions.

    Jerome: [unintelligible 00:04:30] buying tool, but there are other things that you have to use to understand your business. It’s one dataset. I don’t think it can be the only one in some cases.

    Jonathan: Yes, for sure. In terms of the shift that at least we’ve been seeing from a lot of our partners or some of the largest game companies and app companies in the world. First of all, there was a huge shift towards Android, but still, until this day, although there’s some rebalancing happening right now, but it’s still early on a huge shift away from self attributing networks. I think Facebook was the main one that folks shifted away from which makes a lot of sense because a lot of their targeting was based on their user graph, which was IDFA-based.

    The quality of their data quickly deteriorated. It took some time, but in the last earnings call, Facebook mentioned that they estimated the hit to the top line would be $10 billion and they lost like 25% of their market cap that day. Why do you think folks are shifting so quickly into ad networks such as AppLovin?

    Jerome: Oh, yes. We’ve observed a lot of changes in Facebook buying over the past few years. It used to be a very granular targeting with hundreds or even thousands of campaigns. Slowly, that got consolidated down into a few campaigns now. It’s reflected with their automated app ads product, which has done well. Then you have SKAd coming in with that. There are limitations in that. Why would people go to the networks? I think there’s good access or there’s good consistency and performance in a lot of the network of gaming apps.

    Facebook, I think is really doubled down on what they have on platform is the term that they use. That’s whether that’s on feed or the types of games that are hooked into their system. These networks that you’re describing are a viable way to access those network of gaming apps.

    Jonathan: For sure. There was a certain strategy that was employed by several players in the market. Not a lot because not a lot of players existed that can do it, but basically, to build what Eric [unintelligible 00:07:00] from mobile [unintelligible 00:07:01] calls, content fortresses to basically accumulate a lot of first-party data, be it through ad networks that have a pretty significant mobile publishing business. Then they own a lot of apps and games. From the other side, I think it actually happened once, but one of the most significant game companies in the US actually acquired an ad network. We saw it happening from the other side as well. What’s the logic behind that move in your opinion?

    Jerome: I think the industry is in a mature state now where these acquisitions naturally happen. There are just opportunities available. There were also a lot of tough, I think, economic factors happening that may have contributed to some of these companies being in a position to be part of a larger organization. There are benefits too, obviously, the companies like Machine Zone, for example, was acquired. Now, we’re part of this family where we get to work across all these different games and bring some of these technologies into what was already existing at AppLovin.

    Jonathan: Do you think there’s also value in terms of the data? Basically, getting access to first-party data, you can still use it for targeting. Do you think that’s the way the industry would go? Basically, create– I won’t mention any names of specific game publishers, but some of them basically announced, pretty publicly, that one of their businesses would be to create a huge audience and then offer to third-party advertisers to advertise to their audience and build their own ad tech technology either through acquisition or in-house. Do you think that, basically, it’s a run for who has the biggest audience with the most diverse apps? They have the most data about who these people actually are and then, of course, offer advertisements to that audience.

    Jerome: Yes, sure. In its content, you can think about this and maybe the streaming services and how many of those are showing up now, rather than working within other models they want to create their own systems to grow. I think you probably apply that view to the mobile industry. It’s interesting. You can take a look like, we, our studios still exist on their own. I think that’s something that is important to the studios to have their own ownership and feeling [unintelligible 00:09:34]. You’ll see that our studios still are separate developer counts on the App Store. There’s definitely value in having that data. If you were to have everyone under one account with the same IDFB, there’s some benefits to it, but we’ve also seen that.

    Jonathan: You know who’s doing that? Netflix, basically, with their own venturing into gaming recently.

    Jerome: Yes, I think a way to bring it back to streaming again. It’s just these content platforms.

    Jonathan: I just think that after this huge shock, the industry took with iOS 14.5, it basically stimulated a lot of thinking about the importance of actually owning an audience. Another talk track or thought track which was: how do we actually think about this distribution again? Can we actually rely that deeply on Apple, and then, of course, Google that also announced their own guidelines recently? Netflix, it’s a really innovative and creative way of thinking about it.

    Their strategy is really cool because if you think about it, the amount of daily active users or monthly active users that Netflix have, and the fact that they own the app so they know which games they can surface at the top to– I think it’s almost– I can’t remember the exact number, but it’s more than 100 million users that actually see it in the app, and then they can drive such insane traffic that if they focus on that, they don’t need the Apple to basically promote their apps and getting featured and all of that. They control the distribution through an asset that they own. I think that’s really creative.

    Jerome: Yes. Netflix, [unintelligible 00:11:30] an example that you highlight. They’ve done an amazing job in their recommendation engine. It’s been something where there’s a bunch of AD testing happening there. What images, what order are you seeing things? What recommendations are there. That’s very similar to the decision-making processes that mobile gaming companies or mobile companies need to make when they go out and they try and acquire users and they’re trying to keep them engaged in their games, so it’s a good analogy.

    Jonathan: Yes. I think that certain game publishers, at least those with a huge portfolio of games and IP, can follow the same steps. They can create with cross-promotion. They can basically create their own, again, fortress to basically owning a better way of distribution of their games instead of relying on Apple because it’s just not going anywhere. If you look at Google and what they announced with Google Play in the privacy sandbox, it’s coming everywhere.

    The suggestions and proposals that Google have put in place, in terms of privacy, in my view, half of them are better than Apple. They definitely are more transparent about it. They’ve given the industry about, I would say, two years before they implement it which is a solid amount of time. The way that they actually propose to implement privacy is a bit more aggressive. For example, with SDKs, they propose to have a separate runtime environment for SDKs that need to get approved, so they don’t really have access to a lot of user-level data, and they’ll be able to enforce it way better than Apple. It’s not really going anywhere.

    I think that a lot of game publishers and actually C-level and leadership need to think about distribution very, very carefully in the next few years. Let’s talk a bit about how you’re driving growth across different mobile game categories. How many categories are reactive and what type of games you have in the first-party gaming business?

    Jerome: I’d like to think everywhere except for maybe paid apps. That’s probably– [laughs].

    Jonathan: In terms of genres, it’s IP, it’s casual, and I’m not sure even the listeners are that familiar with the portfolio.

    Jerome: Casual, we have, I would say, match 3 games or maybe adventure style games. Magic Tavern is one of our most successful studios, Belka another one, Machine Zone, some of our strategy games. West Game is another one from a studio in China, Lexiang. We’ve got Casino, we’ve got to play in there. We’ve got Lion Studios with hyper-casual games. What categories are we missing? We got word puzzle, PeopleFun. [chuckles].

    Jonathan: Amazing. I’m just thinking about the insights and data you can extract as a marketer by just learning all these different flavors of mobile marketing for different genres which are pretty different, so it’s really cool.

    Jerome: I’d say even though you have these different categories of games, or these audiences that you speak to, the way that I’ve approached it, I think the team organizes their thoughts is about how the games monetize. They’re three main venues that I’m familiar with. There’s the traditional IP route, in-app purchase where the game is, generally, let’s say 60%, 70% more making it from these frequent recurring purchases. You’ve got ads, those tend to be more on the casual side of some games, or hyper-casual specifically, as well as the word puzzle category.

    Then there’s a newer one, subscription, it’s a different model, not as popular in gaming. You see that sometimes in the passes that are there, but let’s say, lifestyle apps where you have a yearly or a monthly subscription. Those are the acquisition strategies and how the business model works that you have to think about approaching the games differently, not so much as a casino game versus a match 3 game.

    Jonathan: How does that impact the way the two markets are different, like a subscription-based game and an in-app purchase-based game?

    Jerome: A subscription-based game, you’re looking for one event that happens usually 7 days, or maybe 14 days in after the trial. Then you’re going to have some recurring purchase maybe a year later, but that’s just so far in the future, you’re probably not even going to include those in your numbers that you’re looking at to make that first purchase efficient, like the economics of it to work. Whereas an IP game, you have a little bit more predictability because these purchases happen maybe on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, whenever you get your paycheck or something like that.

    Jonathan: For sure.

    Jerome: Then ads, probably, it’s maybe the shorter timeframe. Why? Because people will turn out, you want to earn your money back.

    Jonathan: Yes, I think it’s the most predictable because it doesn’t really matter who is the person because retention is pretty low in this type of– like in the hyper-casual space, at least, so it’s pretty predictable and less dependent on who the person is, all the way to what you said regarding subscriptions, which is more–

    Jerome: How frequent is the monetization happening? As you’re saying, the ads– there are more signals coming back in an ads game where you can have retention metrics where you know how many ads you’re watching, things like that.

    Jonathan: How do you see game marketing in UA teams or based on the work that you’ve been doing to deal with the challenges that are actually in the other side of the spectrum where the game it actually depends on– it’s a term from casino games, but whales or really big spenders and their percentage in the population is not that high. In the past, in the old world, it was pretty straightforward because folks who would communicate that with an ad network, let’s say even Facebook, these are the people that they want, they would create a lookalike audience of people with a very high probability or similar to these folks. That’s the audience you would advertise for. How do you see folks solving the challenges of finding these really high-quality people these days?

    Jerome: I think you’re referring to people specifically or advertisers specifically targeting known whales across the system, and now [unintelligible 00:18:20] the ability to do that on some platforms or some network has made it difficult to acquire those users. The experience that I’ve had is games that are more broad or mass-market appeal are easier to buy for at these points compared to maybe something that you’re going after, very high-value users. That could affect, let’s say, the casino space, it could also make it more challenging for some of these forex hardcore strategy games to acquire users.

    Jonathan: Yes, for sure. I actually saw the same instance with an app, it’s half a game, half an app, it was to teach folks piano. You have a piano and you can play it. First of all, their entire acquisition funnel depends on the fact if somebody has a piano or not, which makes it way worse, and then they can try it out and the subscription, as I said, happens, I think 10 days or a week or 14 days after. That what really prevented them from relying on SKAdNetwork because the event was too late for them to get a signal back. It’s definitely–

    Jerome: That’s interesting because you need to have a piano or an interest in piano, so I don’t know if there was the concept of this device ID or this advertiser ID has a piano. You [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:19:50].

    Jonathan: I’m confident that somewhere at Facebook servers, they use their graphic assistant that said that they have a guitar. [laughs] I’m pretty sure.

    Jerome: That sort of information that someone has shared on the platform. That still exists. If you wanted to serve an ad to someone that has an interest in Fender Guitars, that’s still available, but I think, yes, you’re bringing up an example where maybe it’s a very niche app, maybe it’s a health app or something that is specific to a population where advertising on a game interstitial might not be the most efficient way, and you have to find some other clever ways, whether it’s working with content or channels that are relevant to the app’s product.

    Jonathan: For sure.

    Jerome: A coloring game, a hidden object game, I can see some similarities between the action that a user is taking in those sorts of games, or the mechanic of them. By going to the custom product page, without going too far off of the true nature of the game– that’s not the right word, but the true feeling of the game, you can position it in a way to then make it more relevant to that audience.

    Maybe it makes sense for them to integrate some of those elements directly into June’s Journey or have a mini-game that has some [crosstalk] aspect. Then foreground that in the tutorial, run some tests, have a custom product page so that there’s a connection or thread from the ad, to the page, to the experience in the game. How far along have they shared any results, it sounds like [unintelligible 00:21:41].

    Jonathan: Yes, actually, full disclosure, they’re our clients.

    Jerome: Oh, okay. [laughs].

    Jonathan: We see great results, we can’t really share the exact numbers, but yes, they’re doing really great work. What I like about it is it just pushes the mobile marketing space into– Okay, I’ll say it differently. The past few years, the lookalike era, like reporting in-app events to Facebook, I would call it, it actually made a lot of marketers, I don’t know, very lazy, I would say. They didn’t think a ton about who is that audience? Who is that lookalike audience? If I would put them in a room, would they know anything about them besides very surface-level persona type of bullet points of what they are?

    Jenny, 40 years old, lives in the UK, plays match 3 games. They didn’t know a lot about their audience, and now they’re doing a lot of really great audience research that they never did before. Not to that extent, and the results are fantastic, even without that targeting capability. I really like the way that this pushes the mobile marketing industry towards. I want to ask you about, basically, how do you think about partnerships for your first-party gaming business and what kind of tools and solutions AppLovin provides to these developers to grow?

    Jerome: Well, for the first-party side, we try and look at what the studio needs, and then tailor our product or a suite of products to them. One customer type is someone that has it all down, they just want to scale. We can help out there, whether it’s through the app of a network, or maybe they want to scale up their ads monetization. We have technology or things on the platform that they can use, and there’s a benefit there. The other side is maybe, “Hey, I’m a game creator. I’m not really a business person so much. I don’t want to handle, I don’t know, finance, legal, all these sorts of things.”

    That’s another customer type that we support with them. Those are more not tech, but more soft services that we provide, like my team, for instance, would provide them guidance on how to do ASO, things like that, or partner with our SparkLabs team, which is our in-house creative studio.

    Jonathan: Cool. Do you want to talk a bit– Some of our audience are game developers who are looking for help, perhaps, and for that kind of partnership. Do you deal with basically, ASO, UA, what type of solutions do you provide to these developers?

    Jerome: Yes, we have a team in-house, so a lot of ASO is first, the localization, making sure you’re ready for all the key markets, and then prioritizing down that, running different tests that used to be just Google Play. Now, we can run some tests on Apple. Storemaven still has a great product in terms of being able to get these insights where we were we were not able to in the past as cleanly on iOS side, so kudos to you guys. We use that product.

    Jonathan: Thanks.

    Jerome: Yes, there’s AV testing. There are some things we can point them in the right direction of licensing on deltaDNA, for instance, or Firebase, or maybe using some of their own organic software to answer those questions. I think if there’s a question, we work with these first-party studios to say, “Hey, these are the options. This is what we’ve seen work, but it’s different for every developer.”

    Jonathan: Got it. Cool. We are running a bit out of time, but I want to ask you a few questions we ask all of our guests. The first one is if you could give this one tip to an aspiring mobile growth marketer, somebody that wants to get into the industry these days, after everything that happened, what would it be?

    Jerome: Yes, the first thing, I think, is that I’ve seen with a lot of developers that we’ve worked with is there’s a lot of time spent in the research stage. It’s important to know what your audience is or what you’re building, but also, it’s get to market, make decisions and move quickly. We try and tell the students to trust the process and be comfortable with how quickly things change. Examples of when you launch and maybe you’re doing a technical beta in some country on the other side of the world, and you’re there for too long, you want to get into the market where things are going to be real and you can validate a lot of the assumptions that you have.

    Jonathan: Great. In terms of a content recommendation, what’s your favorite mobile growth resource, like somebody that you follow or read?

    Jerome: Yes, I like to run, so whenever I, either on the treadmill or running outside, I like to listen to Deconstructor of Fun. [crosstalk].

    Jonathan: Oh, that’s a great podcast. We’re sending out the newsletter today, and we actually recommended a really, really cool episode there around getting soft launch. I think it’s with [unintelligible 00:27:16] as well. Check it out.

    Jerome: Yes, I will check that out. It goes back to what we’re just talking about. [inaudible 00:27:22] market, where are you going to soft launch, trying to get to–

    Jonathan: Definitely.

    Jerome: Yes.

    Jonathan: The most important question: what is your favorite flavor of pancake?

    Jerome: I’ll say two. One is chocolate pancakes. We always have that at Thanksgiving with my family, but my mother’s Korean. There’s a Korean pancake called pajeon, which is a scallion–

    Jonathan: Oh, wow. What’s that?

    Jerome: Yes, there’s different versions. It could have seafood in it, but it’s a fried pancake that you have probably at dinner or lunch.

    Jonathan: Awesome. I have to try it.

    Jerome: Yes, try it out.

    Jonathan: Yes, I was waiting for so many episodes for non-banana and maple or bacon and maple answer. That was fantastic. I’m going to try that.

    Jerome: Yes, definitely more on the savory side for this one.

    Jonathan: Awesome. Lastly, where can people find you if they want to reach out and talk about anything related to mobile growth, marketing, just to chat?

    Jerome: Yes. I’m in the Dallas, Fort Worth area, which is in Texas in the United States. Austin is nearby. It’s three hours. It’s a pretty hot town. I sometimes go down there for the [unintelligible 00:28:34] are more and more of them happening in the mobile space. LinkedIn. If you want to know more about AppLovin, about the tools and services that we have, you can also check out our blog and our website.

    Jonathan: Awesome. The links would be in the description of the episode, so you can find them there. Go visit AppLovin website. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure. I’m really excited to speak with somebody who has such a great perspective on the industry. I think you’re in a really unique position because you have the ad network perspective and the publisher perspective, so it’s really insightful. Thank you.

    Jerome: Yes, it’s been fun. Thanks for having me on. Yes, I hope we can do this again sometime.

    Jonathan: For sure. Talk to you soon. Thanks.

    Esther: That was Mobile Growth & Pancakes. Find out more about Storemaven and how we can improve App Store performance. Visit storemaven.com. Then make sure to search for Mobile Growth & Pancakes on Apple podcast, Spotify, Google podcast, or anywhere else podcasts are found, and click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Storemaven, thanks for listening.

    About Ron Gordon
    Ron is Storemaven's Head of Marketing, the one person you would have guessed will know what this mobile growth talk is all about. A misguided law student and journalist, Ron brings to the table some lack of seriousness the Hitech realm is desperately in need of. In his spare time, he's mainly trolling Whatsapp groups.

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