In this episode of Mobile Growth & Pancakes, Jonathan Fishman is joined by Alexander Lubchenko, Chief Marketing Officer at Nekki. They discuss UA, ASO, and ML in ad monetization management.
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“It’s useful to analyze what different gaming and non-gaming campaigns do to marketing or what e-commerce companies do in terms of their online activity and digital marketing. Often some winning strategies come from the people with a fresh view of this situation.”Alexander Lubchenko
- Alex has already worked for five years in mobile digital marketing. For the last three years, he managed the marketing department at Nekki, a leading publisher of high-quality action and strategy games, which owns several famous game brands such as Shadow Fight, Vector, and 11×11. Alexander’s marketing activities include UA, creative production, ad monetization, ASO, analytics, and more.
- Nekki focuses primarily on Android, which is more scalable than iOS. That is because many action gamers use Androids, and a large share and volume of organic traffic come from the audience of third-party countries, like India, where people mainly use Androids.
- Though Android users are Nekki’s main focus, the company is still trying to manage iOS, though it’s had to change the structure of its channels. TikTok presents impressive results for iOS, as the platform is increasing the quality of the optimization inside their algorithms. Another tool that performs well in terms of UA is Google Ads.
- Using misleading ads doesn’t deliver a positive performance. Keep the user experience and the quality of the games at a high level. Misleading ads can only decrease the performance and interactions from the users.
- When you have games from the same portfolio and are trying to figure out how to manage rankings in the store, you need to have a better understanding of the game preview from the user. Start a branding campaign so that users can immediately observe the difference between the games. For organic growth, you need to work with the conversions. The stronger the user and the paid user acquisition you have on iOS is, the more organic traffic you’ll get.
Jonathan: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of Mobile Growth & Pancakes. I’m Jonathan Fishman, VP marketing at Storemaven. Today, I’m really excited to be here with Alex from Nekki. He’s the CMO of Nekki and game developer. Alex, do you want to introduce yourself?
Alexander: Yes, sure. Thanks. Thanks for inviting me to your podcast [inaudible 00:01:05] I’m Alex, I’m five years already in the mobile digital marketing and for the last three years, I’m managing all the marketing things in Nekki. This is not just the user acquisition, but also the ASO and monetization side and some other live-ops [unintelligible 00:01:30] and community management things as well. We are mostly popular with our fighting game series named the Shadow Fight. This is one of the most downloadable mobile games in the world, which is accounting more than 500 million downloads worldwide as of now. Yes, I think we have a lot of things to share with your audience, which can be reasonable and useful.
Jonathan: Awesome. How you got into mobile marketing, what was your path before you became a CMO? I think that’s an inspiration for a lot of people.
Alexander: Yes, good question. Basically, I managed the logistics in a pretty huge corporation. I was the logistics director and my latest field was digitalization and optimization of the logistics processes in the manufacture, delivery, and planning. It was an incredible switch from the real site business to the online but as I have an education in terms of marketing, in marketing field. The higher education, and I had a diploma with the marketing. Yes, it was like back to my roots.
Jonathan: Awesome. Cool. I wanted to talk today a bit about user acquisition. It’s a topic that everybody’s speaking on these days because of the shift towards privacy first, advertisement, and Apple enforcing everything that they enforced with the deprecation of the IDFA. Google is not going exactly after Apple and following them in that path. They have a different way of introducing privacy-first features but so far, it’s been out since June of 2021. How’s it been like for you guys? Things have been broken? Are things going well?
Alexander: Of course, we are not an exclusion in the market. We’re struggling a lot with the iOS changes but I can’t say that it’s somehow ruined our activity or marketing activity. First of all, that we are lucky guys and in general, we were always focused mainly on Android. In terms of the user acquisition, first of all, because Android for our title was much more scalable than the iOS.
Jonathan: Why was that? What was behind that decision?
Alexander: As far as we see, we found a lot of action lovers on Android, first of all, and a big share of our audience come in from the third-party countries. Where the people are, let’s say not so rich like in tier one where there are a lot of Apple holders and iPhone holders. In that case, we saw a great volume of organic traffic from these countries. We tried to support them and tried to support this volume of organic with a paid user acquisition. Usually, people are very surprised when I’m talking that, for example, one of the most profitable in terms of ROI countries for our user acquisition activity is India.
Jonathan: Yes, it’s a really growing market for mobile, that’s for sure.
Alexander: Yes. It’s big, it’s scalable, it’s cheap. It’s bringing us a really good ROI. In the same time, we are seeing, let’s say, more or less stable but much lower numbers with the United States in terms of profit I mean. When we are scaling our user acquisition, we are always trying to find a balance. As I mentioned, we are receiving a huge number of organic traffic and it’s normal for the fighting games in general. In terms of that, we are not so interested in bringing just the installs for our games because they are coming organically. The brand and the franchise is very strong in the market now but we are focused on generating some extra profits. When we’re making any decisions in terms of our marketing activity, they are mostly focused on the extra profit generation.
Jonathan: Cool, there’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, I think it’s a really unique, that perspective, to focus on countries where they’re more android focused, and they’re less susceptible to the changes in terms of privacy because it’s mostly Apple driven. The impact of what Apple have been doing and been rolling out is not distributed evenly around the world. There are places where you can still operate the same as you were. You’re lucky to have that type of I’d say marketing mix before but after that happened, you completely ditched UA on new iOS and completely focused your budgets on Android, or are you still trying to navigate these waters?
Alexander: Yes, we are still trying, of course. As more time is passing after these changes, the more and more we see how we can manage it on a scalable model. At the same time, I can say that anyway, we lost more when we received this limitation with the Chinese market on iOS. Because in terms of the fighting game, in terms of the action game, the China market was one of the primary markets for us, the same as the United States. When we were limited in this market, because we don’t have an [unintelligible 00:08:22] for now. We saw, let’s say much more significant impact on our revenue than we had now with the iOS updates. As for now, for iOS, we are still trying to manage it. Of course, the structure of the channels changed significantly.
Jonathan: How did it change for you guys?
Alexander: Of course, as for many others, Facebook was our primary channel for a long, long time. For now, we decreased this channel and now it’s even not top three for us, in general, for Android and for iOS as well. Because you know that after the iOS changes, Facebook also rolled out their own privacy changes, which also bring a lot of problems for the attribution, especially for optimization quality. As many others, we expected some decrease of the costs for the customer acquisition but we didn’t met them in time. We saw just the decrease of the performance from this channel and the stable cost per acquisition. Of course, after that signals, we decided to keep on the stable campaigns. Sometimes we are still trying to do some things but comparing to the previous periods, it’s on a very low level now. As for now, we see very impactful results with TikTok on iOS.
Alexander: Yes. We were aware that– We prepared for all these changes in terms of [unintelligible 00:10:32] and all the privacy changes, and attribution problems. As far as we see, they are really increasing the quality of the optimization inside their algorithms. Of course, it works very well for our games as well, because most of our gamers are the young audience. The audience is very young and, of course, most of them are TikTok users.
This is a very suitable channel for our titles. The Google Ads, I think that they succeed a lot from all these changes because on both iOS and Android platforms, more and more companies I see they are transferring their budgets to the second one of the strongest channels of the user acquisition, Their algorithms performing better and better day to day, especially on Android. We see how the stability of the optimization and the performance.
It’s really [inaudible 00:11:54] now, this is pretty impressive, and at the same time when marketers are limited in some kind of tools to tweak the campaigns or to tweak their activity– Of course, all of us are trying to find some ways how to hack the system with some– I don’t know, there are different approach but I mean, first of all, with the smart data feeding of the user acquisition channels. What we are seeing and meeting more and more often in the industry that more and more companies are trying to make the smart feeding of the algorithms, I mean, the Google or the ad networks, by selecting the specific events from the specific sources inside the channels, which they would love to perform towards them.
Yes, to be honest, this is a pretty interesting time because I think all of us relaxed for some time because everything became pretty easy. To be honest.
Jonathan: It was almost unfair. I think it was like just working based on user-level data, and everybody got used to it and it just worked. You didn’t need to do a lot.
Alexander: Yes. At some moment maybe some of us, even in our company, we stopped finding some smart solutions and smart decisions. All these changes are pushing us to keep smart and to find the new approaches on these very competitive market.
Jonathan: Yes. I think you touched also on a few other really interesting points there. First of all, what you said about TikTok, and making smart decisions, it connects to another trend that I’m hearing a lot of people talk about, which is contextual marketing and contextual advertising. Basically, you lost the ability ir1 Facebook became a source that stopped bringing you high-quality users because they stopped being able to access user-level data. They just don’t know what people are doing on all of the apps in the world. Most of them, those that didn’t opt-in.
By analyzing your audience and recognizing that a lot of your audience or your high-quality audience is very young people, you just thought very creatively and said, where can I find them? TikTok. For sure, everybody there has TikTok, they’re all on TikTok. Instead of relying on Facebook to find these users wherever they are on the Facebook portfolio of apps and Instagram and everything, you just can basically think creatively of where these people are and find them there.
For you guys the answer was TikTok and, and I think that’s a part of why it worked really well. Taking it one step further, I know that you’re also leading your ASO efforts. How do you view ASO’s role in the success of UA? I mean, if it is young TikTok audience, would they need to see different messaging and creatives on the product page once they see it when they tap on the ad, are we doing some thinking in these areas.
Alexander: In terms of the product page on the stores, we really don’t see any significant difference between audience reaction from other channels, to be honest. I think the reason number one is that we almost never tried to use the misleading ads. This was our position, first of all. When we just had some kind of idea about that and we tested just a few examples of the slightly misleading ads we didn’t find any performance or better performance benchmarks, which we met before.
Jonathan: You’re talking about these type of ads that show gameplay that doesn’t exist, like mini-games that don’t exist.
Jonathan: A lot of people are still doing this by the way. My Facebook feed is full with these ads. You didn’t see a good performance of that?.
Alexander: We didn’t see really impressive numbers for that. Yes. At the same time, we felt not really good inside the company in general because first of all, we are always trying to keep the user experience on a high level. You can see the level of our games and as for us, they are not created for some kind of misleads, let’s say. Again, in terms of the quality of the games we do, it’s really sensible to use the real gameplay because sometimes the real gameplay looks like misleading ads for many other games in the store. [laughs]
Alexander: Because it’s almost like a movie or like a [unintelligible 00:17:38] console game level, especially with our latest title Shadow Fight Arena.
In that case, this was just not reasonable. By the way, coming back to the UA, this is one of the struggling points for us to use the playable ads because of the limitation and the requirements for the playable ads. The requirement of the playable ads are so limited in terms of size and quality that with our graphics, we are not able to produce good quality playable ads. From our view, we can’t use the ads, which look worse than the game itself. So It doesn’t work for us as well in general.
We have some interactive end cards, but the playable ads like deep interactive item, no. Returning back to the ASO. We see that when you have honest and good quality produced user flow from the ads directly to the store and after to the game and it bringing the common sense and the general idea very clearly to the user. We don’t see any changes, and at the same time reasons to change something for any specific type of the audience in the ASO. When we are checking our benchmarks because on Google Play, for example, it’s available to check the benchmarks, comparing to your competitors, we see that for all our games the conversion rates are always higher than the average and in most of the cases, even than 75% of the market. We are not doing something unrealistic. We are just showing the game as is I think we’re just trying to easily explain what is inside and it works.
Jonathan: You said that before that you get a lot of organic traffic and a lot of organic growth.
Jonathan: Let’s unpack that a bit. What is driving that? Because we all know that organics don’t fall from the sky. If somebody now, I don’t know, develops a new fighting game, they won’t just get organic traffic just because. What kind of activities are driving that brand? That by the way can also play into the fact that you have really high conversion rates because people recognize the brand, they saw it somewhere. They have some affinity to it. That’s the conversion rates are higher as opposed to a game that they never heard about or a brand they never heard about. What are you doing or what you did in the previous years to build that brand?
Alexander: In our case, it’s a little bit not a common case because we are managing a series of the game with the same title let’s say. We realized the difference of ASO with the game from the same portfolio, with the same naming, only when we released the Shadow Fight Arena because when we published it, we met such issues which most of the game developers never met such as how to manage the positions in the store between your own games. How to exclude the cannibalization because for example, in our category of fighting games and PG games, usually, let’s say for many searching keywords, we are close the same to each other and close to top 10.
In that case, we were struggling how to manage the ranking of each title in this group. It was very uncommon question because when we were trying to find any ASO specialists and consultants who can help us. We found out that it’s just the problem of the Marvel maybe, and maybe FIFA.
Jonathan: It’s the known portfolio problem. It’s a good problem to have, only companies that have a big portfolio of games around the same IP or the same concept has, but I agree it’s not that common. It’s really interesting. What did you do at the end?
Alexander: In that case, we were trying to bring the best understanding of what is inside just from the preview of the page. If we’re talking about the Apple store or even the Google store, when you are searching some games on the store, sometimes you have the preview, sometimes not. It depends on some settings of the store, but we were thinking about how to manage this even without the paid ads in the store. Let’s say. How to manage it, to explain for the user, what’s the difference between Shadow Fight 2 Shadow Fight 3 and Shadow Fight Arena because, for example, of course, you can easily find the difference between Shadow Fight 2 and 3 in the naming in 2D and 3D graphics. It’s easily to understand. You just choose what you like more, but how to explain the difference between Shadow Fight Arena and 3 which from the first view, when we just released them, the pages was looking so similar.
We realized that it can be a really tricky choice for the potential user. Then we decided that we have to explain it to the user from the first one, two screenshots. What is the difference and the naming as well. This is some kind of branding marketing in terms of ASO and the ways what should be the position of this title for the user and what is the core value of this or that game inside the portfolio. Everything you should show in the first screenshot and the naming of the game because if the user will not find this difference from the one or two first words in their list, they will just scroll it down like 1,2,3.
The positioning of the titles inside the brand, it’s very important in that case. The most impactful changes which we made in terms of the organic growth was just working with the conversions because for the store conversions, good conversion is the best signal that the user experience is good. The retain of the user is the second good signal for the store that conversion is really good. Now it’s proven-proven. When we were making the A/B testing and other changes on the store, we were just looking on the conversions only because when you are increasing your conversions above the medium numbers or even higher, you will definitely see the increase of the organic traffic.
Jonathan: The search traffic.
Alexander: First of all, the explore traffic.
Jonathan: Oh, you’re talking about the Play Store?
Alexander: Yes, but this is the same on the– They’re not the same but–
Jonathan: Apple is more curated.
Alexander: Yes. it’s a bit more curated but if we’re talking now about the explore, yes, I mean the Google Play. You will see the significant increase of this traffic after the increase of the conversions. The search traffic, it grows with time as far as we see, because stores, first of all, they work with ranking, with the keywords, all these plays with the keyboards. They always need a lot of time for changes and [inaudible 00:27:12] inside the store. Anyway, as far as we see in our category, 80% of the search traffic is the brand traffic.
Jonathan: Amazing. Like just branded search, just a search for a Shadow Fight, and very wisely they find your portfolio of apps because all of them rank for your brand name. Amazing.
Alexander: Anyway, as long as you’re promoting with the paid ads your game, your brand’s becoming stronger and stronger day-to-day. Definitely, if you do even a small piece of branding in your ad creatives, you should see from month to month increase of the search branded traffic in your stores anyway. As far as we see with all our titles, the longer time goes with the title, I mean how old is it, never mind, but in general, the good scenario when explore traffic decrease with some time and the search traffic should increase at the same time.
That helps keep you at the stable level of the organic traffic in general. That’s what marketers should pay attention to towards their organic traffic depending on the moment of the life cycle of the game itself. Becaue if it’s the many years ago published game, of course, you should focus how to increase your search traffic, how to use the strength of your brand, which should be after several years in the store. At the same time, not to push a lot the explore traffic because any way the store prefer to give more explore traffic to the new titles to help them to get up in these charts.
In terms of Apple Store ASO, of course, it’s much more dependent on the paid traffic than the Google’s. At the same time, it’s a bit more easier to understand how to push it in terms of search, because you can always use the search ads and find what is performing because of course, for App Store, the conversion is also very important. You can analyze the conversion of your keywords, which are performing well and explain through the keywords and what is the audience, what the audience expecting to see on your page and just to prepare your product page for these expectations. But anyway the stronger the paid user acquisition you have on iOS, the stronger ASO or let’s say organic traffic you will see there.
Jonathan: Yes, I think that in the App Store, because it’s a system where on the browse side, their version of Explorer, it’s more driven by a curation through the today tab and even the games and even the apps tabs, there’s curated lists. It’s not an algorithm to choose which apps appear there like on the explore tab on the Google Play one. We did a lot of studies on that and we found that the most important metric for Apple is first-time installs, first-Time downloads [unintelligible 00:31:09] it so the conversion rates for first time installs, that’s what tells Apple that this app is popular and something’s happening with this app, and it’s growing and growing.
They calculate the first-time download velocity, like how fast is it growing? Then you get a really unfair share of search rankings. You start going up on search rankings and, of course, on the top charts and your organic install growth just goes up really, really significantly, really fast. Of course, you can control that with paid UA. The more paid UA you run, the more, at least if you’re targeting it for a first-time downloads and not retargeting or targeting lapsed users, you can increase that metric and increase your performance on the organic side of the App Store but I think what you mentioned as well is not a lot of people are thinking about it this way. It’s that a paid UA, even with the slightest of branding, again, we ran a lot of studies on it, really drives a lot of branded search. You can also influence the volume of branded search with paid UA and some channels are better for that than others.
For example, YouTube is a channel that if you compare the performance of it from a direct response perspective, people usually don’t respond directly to an ad on YouTube. What they do is they go and search for the thing they saw afterwards. If they saw the ad enough times. I think TikTok is also similar in that regard and truly drives that branded awareness.
Then again, more brand awareness, higher conversion rates, the conversion rates, we talked about it, they influence your search visibility and your search traffic, and even explore traffic on Google Play so it’s like a loop that feeds in itself. The connection between UA and organic here is still very, very strong. I think, by the way, something interesting that you said that a lot of people stopped spending on iOS, like companies that aren’t, like you, they’re very much focused on the US focused in iOS, they cut spend, and they discounted the cost of doing that because it really hurt their branded search traffic. Like that what created that branded search traffic, then when they stopped running these ads because Facebook or other networks are less good in getting to these high-quality users they missed out on that, which is you can still achieve that by running a very broad campaign and increasing that branded search volume. It’s really cool to think about it as a loop, and it’s good that you look at it and I’m confident that it’s part of why you got to so impressive user base numbers.
Alexander: I just want to add one small point that, anyway, the paid user acquisition and ASO, you can split them but and to put them separately. Anyway, they should be very closely connected to each other and because even when you are doing the search ads you should not consider only the tracked volumes on the installs, which coming from the MMP platform. At the same time, you are increasing the conversion, the conversion of your branded search traffic, because when, for example, somebody is searching for the Shadow Fight and we are launching the searches campaigns for the same branded keywords [unintelligible 00:35:13]. You never know for these two positions which we will receive in their listing, they will top two, but it doesn’t matter, for example, the main point is not to see on the first screen, the competitors.
For example, even without very strong positions, when we have, of course, the number one position for our branded keywords, if we are not doing some paid search ads we can see someone above the [unintelligible 00:35:59] brand position of our Shadow Fight game. This is very important to keep the conversions with the help of these tools, because first of all, you are just taking the first place it’s okay. But at the same time, which is much more impactful in my view that you are taking almost all full screen for your app. Because anyway, one of these previews or sometimes even both will come with the app preview so with the full screenshot and video preview details of the [unintelligible 00:36:34] from your product page. The same situation with the Google Ads, when you’re going Google Ads for Android it’s completely the same and even the Google Play analytics, which is just showing the search traffic in the store, it’s counting the Google Ads from this search, like this source search traffic, not the referral traffic.
Jonathan: Yes, it’s the same one on [unintelligible 00:37:02] connect. You see you one search metric, it’s not breaking down. You have to go to ASA and then subtract those numbers so yes, I agree.
Alexander: It’s again about the conversions. The conversions after, above the traffic volume so as you mentioned very correctly, this is the conversion first.
Jonathan: Yes, amazing, I think Nekki is very lucky to have you as CMO because in a lot of companies is speak with, this is so separated. It’s not even separated just like pages or acquisition and organic user acquisition, where the ASO team sits. The search app team is broken down even further, just like the UA team, those that do UA on networks, those that do UA on the self attributing networks, Facebook, Snapchat, all of those and there’s the search ads team.
Unless there’s somebody preferably in leadership that have a high level of view and basically say, let’s stop for a second. Let’s look of all of this holistically, we’re all about growth. Let’s get that growth together, it doesn’t matter if it comes from the search ads or the organic listing. For these companies, which are usually very large corporations, they have all of this politics and the search ads team want to get attribution for that install. The person doing ASO wants that to be counted as an organic search install and then it becomes an attribution battle between all of them. I think you have a pretty significant advantage in the fact that you’re looking at it in a unified way, and you just say, “It doesn’t matter. An install is an install and a dollar is a dollar so amazing insights.”
Alexander: Yes. It’s always about the motivation for the teams, of course, that’s why they have such problems inside sometimes. It’s really tricky especially nowadays for the analytics team to spread it and to split the results between the teams but anyway it’s not always important to separate and conquer. Sometimes you should join and conquer.
Jonathan: For sure and we’re very much for that. We at Storemaven, we believe in an approach that takes all the relevant data into one place and analyze the impact of everything you do holistically on paid and organic. Some call it media mix modeling, some call it aggregated analysis, but basically bringing all of the data into one system of records, one source of truth where you can analyze the impact of all the changes and everything that you do on top-level KPIs. Instead of Going data route which is becoming impossible which is a direct deterministic contribution which is still possible by certain parties, because fingerprinting is not yet enforced to the fullest but it’s not supposed to be a viable option. I don’t believe that deterministic contribution would be possible if you fast forward a year from now, a year and a half from now, basically when Apple starts punishing some developers that they identify they’re doing that. Anyway, people would have to analyze things in a holistic way and it’s going to be less about that type of attributions, more about the funnel. As it’s talked about, the search funnel.
Really cool. We’re about to run out of time so I just want to ask you a few questions we ask all guests. If you could give just one tip to somebody getting into mobile marketing today after all this craziness with Apple, privacy, and everything that’s happening, what would it be? What’s the one tip?
Alexander: I think that try to find experience from different marketing areas to marketing fields. It’s very useful to analyze what for example different gaming and non-gaming campaigns do marketing, or what e-commerce companies do in terms of their online and digital marketing. Very often some winning strategies are coming from the people with a fresh view on the situation. When somebody is just working for five years just with the games, of course, he is very aware about every approach in this field, but he can find some extra value or some multiplying combination if he will use some tips or tools from the non-gaming category for example. Because, for example, subscription model requires absolutely different approach in terms of analytics, predictions, even the creatives of course, and some other things.
E-commerce they are perfect in terms of bringing back the customers or just reaching them out in different, different ways with the the emailing, push notifications, and many other things outside the mobile application and mobile-like system. All these kinds of things can give you the multiplying effect to this standard marketing activity which everyone do. If you would love to I don’t know to blow in the market as a newbie but sometimes even better than the experienced one in this part of the field. I think the wider experience can help. Anyway, for the deep experience, you will need time and a lot of fails but for the wider view you can just search the information and learn from the others without any of your own experience
Jonathan: Amazing insights. Really really. Almost last question, what’s your favorite flavor of pancake. You’re here in Mobile Growth & Pancakes? I’m sure there’s a favorite one.
Alexander: Yes. The Apple. Apple pancake
Jonathan: Apple pancake. That’s good.
Jonathan: Lastly if people want to reach out to you and ask you anything about anything we talked about, where can they find you?
Alexander: Anywhere. I’m always on Facebook. I’m always on LinkedIn so any convenient messenger is always open for everyone. I would love to contact with anyone.
Jonathan: Cool. Awesome. Thank you very much. Thank you for doing this. It’s been a pleasure. I think it was really insightful and it’s refreshing to see somebody that leads marketing from a leadership perspective looking at things so holistically and I’m sure you guys going to be very successful in 2022.
Alexander: Thank you, Jonathan. Thanks a lot.
Esther: That was Mobile Growth & Pancakes. Find out more about Storemaven and how we can improve apps or performance. Visit storemaven.com and then make sure to search for Mobile Growth & Pancakes and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast or anywhere else podcasts are found. Click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Storemaven, thanks for listening.