The Year After the Plague: How the Mobile Growth Landscape Will Look in 2021

It's that time of the year again. We picked the brains of Storemaven's mobile growth experts and some honorable guests to see what they think 2021 will bring along.

As we near the end of a year that pushed us to the very edge of our work comfort zones and the word “unprecedented” took on a whole new meaning, we thought it worthwhile to shake off 2020 by looking ahead to the upcoming year.

As 2021 fast approaches and light has started to appear at the end of a very long tunnel, what do top ASO experts think will be the major opportunities and challenges the mobile growth industry is facing? Read on for their predictions, let’s catch up in a year to see who got it right!  

As technology gets more focused, talent will need to evolve 

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In my mind, 2021 will be the year where growth and UA managers will be forced to think differently, and thus acquire new skills. Specifically, with the decline of user-level attribution. Teams will focus on their ability to understand how specific actions they have taken (new releases, UA changes, creative updates, ASO updates) affect top-line metrics such as revenues, conversion rates and retention rates. The type of outlook financial analysis has on the stock market, growth managers will adopt for their app metrics.

I also see a place for innovative vendors and app publishers to join forces, to tackle the challenges the new privacy-concerned environment created – thus building industry-specific mobile growth tech. The new platforms will aim to thoughtfully manage incrementality tests of different growth strategies and measure the ROI of those strategies. The specification of such platforms for mobile will focus on developing Data Science procedures that were trained on mobile growth data and built to answer specific business questions such as the impact of paid on organic, UA budget cannibalization and creative testing.

UA and organics will not be separated

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One of the things we’re going to see this coming year, as the industry learns to adapt to analyzing marketing efforts independent of user-level attribution, is sources that had previously been fringe/not widely adopted due to inability to prove/assess ROI, will become much more viable. Expect to see more influencer marketing brand efforts. Plus, competition on the standard performance marketing channels is likely to get much harsher as targeting abilities grow broader, so developers will need to try harder to stand out, to find ways of reaching players, and to find the most ROI positive sources.

Also, however UA strategies shift, the impact on Organics will be significant:

One option – since UA can no longer be highly targeted (where developers will pay a higher price to find their whales), developers will go broad and bring in large swarms of users (where instead of spending a lot on a whale they’d spend the same to bring in a bunch of guppies in the hope a whale will be in that net). Large amounts of UA and more extreme daily numbers mean Organics are liable to fluctuate much more.  

Another option – developers will pull back UA budgets since ROI can’t be as cleanly calculated, meaning organics take a significant nosedive. Plus, if prediction one comes true (rise of alternative marketing), organics are the main factor you’ll be measuring to understand marketing.

All of these lead to a critical union between UA and Organics – it simply will not be remotely scalable to keep them separate, and on that note – we’ll also need to see a greater synergy between top of the funnel (organic + paid) teams and product. These two groups will need to work together in order to find and convert whales when ad networks can’t communicate directly with downstream metrics.

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    Creativity will be king and a growth mindset will prevail

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    In a world without IDFAs, the role of who’s responsible for driving targeted and qualified audiences to your app store page is changing. Until now, it was up to Facebook & Google mostly to find extremely high-intent users to serve your ads to. They took your in-app events (whatever you deemed as a good proxy for high LTV) as input, and produced an output of a look-alike audience for you to advertise to. 

    With the IDFA gone, the ad networks will have much fewer data to build such an audience (only counting on very early events reported through SKAdNetwork’s conversionValue events). To optimize for installs, the networks will almost have to go back in time to the early days of the app ecosystem. In this environment, in most cases, the only way for you to influence which types of installs the network will optimize for are your creatives. 

    Teams will become much more data-driven in understanding which creative assets appeal to high-quality users, both on ads and on the app store, and measure them in an aggregated way based on cohorts. This will give these teams an unfair advantage by guiding the networks to serve ads to much better audiences than their competitors, which will lead to more high-quality installs, and more growth compared to their competitors. 

    If I can, let me return to our predictions from a year ago, the platforms are now starting to respond to the war several major developers are waging on their alleged market-leading position. 

    The App Store already responded by lowering the App Store in-app purchase fees to 15% for all developers besides large ones. Google Play will likely fall in line too to stay competitive in the eyes of developers. 

    I believe the next step in the battle that the Coalition for App Fairness is leading, will be to tackle the in-app payment system and allow apps and games to use their own system, lowering the fees even more. The platforms won’t give up easily but the global pressure various jurisdictions are putting on them could lead to another move in 2021. 

    One last thingIn general, the world of marketing and growth is easing into a new mindset — growth loops. It’s clear that teams that still view their growth from the prism of a one-sided funnel (impressions coming in on top and installs at the bottom) will lose when competing against teams that build compounding growth loops. You can learn more about growth loops in this guide.

    This means putting in place systems that feed on the output your marketing efforts create. Making sure that new installs and new users help produce a new install / new user which keeps the loop going.

    With the added challenges of maintaining the major growth loop that most of the industry relies on – the paid ad loop – teams who will be able to understand growth in the app stores and build systems to take advantage of that, will have an unfair advantage and market share.

    The unforeseeable impacts of the IDFA

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    The biggest development in 2021 for me will be the IDFA changes, and it will have many foreseeable (and certainly unforeseeable) impacts, including a move back to contextual and interest-based targeting. Throwback!

    Also, mobile growth and marketing teams will need to understand the true incremental impact of performance channels. Truth is, this has been the case for the past few years already, but 2021 will force many of us to dedicate far more resources to this, which is challenging but ultimately for the best – as the reality is many of us are far more dependent on last-click user-level attribution than we should be anyway.

    2020 brought some opportunities too; there’s never been a better time to connect peers in the space that are not in your city/geo – take advantage and connect with them given that Zoom doesn’t charge you extra to call long distance.

    A real opportunity for game developers

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    For me, the biggest development in mobile growth next year will be cloud gaming like Luna, Stadia, and others. Our way of life changed during Covid-19 and the epidemic changed the way people behave and how they want to be entertained – at home. The Stadia came with a lot of ambitious proper gamer titles last year at affordable prices. Facebook just launched its own free cloud service as well which will challenge how the user plays – for free – in 2021.

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    The way I see it, the biggest challenge in 2021 will be consent and fraud. Opt-in rate has always been followed by CRM managers but opt-in rate optimization for UA managers is quite new.

    With the user-level data being the ‘old’ normal, marketers will have to target contextually and less behaviorally and will rely more on probabilistic models that are not deterministic. As the dark web (click injection, SDK malware, etc.) will not disappear at the same time as the IDFA – the aggregated data will need to be treated cautiously and the opt-in rate will be precious. It will be challenging for a game without proper USP to convince the user to give consent and a lot of creativity will be needed.

    The best tip I can think of for mobile growth, UA, and mobile marketing in 2021? Develop a large portfolio with different games that you will be able to cross-promote to upsell from one game to another and extend the user lifetime value and retention of each user in your own environment.

    Users are more and more expensive and are playing more and longer on phones of high quality.  Upsell and cross-sell strategies are already highly effective in e-commerce. I truly believe that a user into a publisher ecosystem needs to be rationalized and a portfolio diversified.

    Calculating the retention of users across all the different games of a publisher gives a higher view and a more comprehensive, holistic view of the true overall performance of a company.

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      About Esther Rubin
      Esther has worked in mobile marketing for years, writing for hi-tech companies and game & app developers. She's British but doesn't know Mary Poppins, before you ask.