Designing a Successful Ad Strategy For Your Mobile Game with Native Ads

Inplace #2

ADOTAS – As a game developer, you, better than anyone else, know your players. You know what motivates them to keep playing your game, you know their playing habits, and you know if they’re seeking entertainment, competition, or socialization. Before launching, you probably had an educated guess of who your audience would be based on similar genres and styles of gameplay.

More often than not, developers find out their initial assumptions and generalizations were completely wrong. For instance, Candy Crush was initially marketed as a game for middle-age women, but King quickly found the game was a good fit for a broader audience. Tommy Palm, Games Guru at King, was quoted saying, “People love candy; all ages. It fits for the whole family, so everybody can play it together.” Today, over 100 million people play Candy Crush on a daily basis. While females 36-50 are certainly avid players of Candy Crush, they only represent 17% of the total user base (Newzoo).

If your audience is diverse like Candy Crush’s, you’ll need to understand how to speak to each group — and each subgroup — in ways that resonate. Most developers already know this and that’s why it’s common to constantly iterate gameplay based on player segmentation. Less common, however, is designing an ad strategy that speaks to different types of gamers.

Thousands of game developers refuse to use advertising entirely because they fear it will damage the user experience of their games. While this can be true, it doesn’t have to be.

Mobile advertising plays a critical role in monetizing non-paying players, yet most game developers put zero thought into its execution. A thoughtful mobile ad strategy uses native ads to protect the user experience of the game. We’ve found native ads typically increase revenue by 50-120%.

So, what are native ads?

Simply stated, native ads are contextual and complementary to the content in which they are placed. Not above, below, or beside, they become part of the user experience and often unique to the viewer or user.

On social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, native ads often come in the form of sponsored content in the user’s newsfeed. In mobile games, native ads use in-game characters and elements to create context.

Native ads are all around us. For example, take the scene below: ESPN College Gameday is a pregame talk show that can’t show as many commercials as a typical one hour TV slot because of the nature of its content. As an alternative to the ordinary cycle of commercials, they brought on The Home Depot as a leading sponsor.

ESPN could have taken the traditional route and placed a banner behind Lee Corso, but instead they use the desk as the ad frame. It never feels like a distraction because The Home Depot logo is highly integrated into the set. Notice their attention to detail; the stage is built out of wood and steel, and they state, “College Gameday is built by The Home Depot.” They went as far as building the ad into the show’s logo! Additionally, ESPN uses concepts from what we refer to as “native design principles” such as associations, colors, and lines to integrate the ad seamlessly.

It’s time mobile game developers embrace advertising instead of running from it. Developers who take the time to plan thoughtful advertising strategies – leaving abusive and spammy practices in the past – will reap the benefits of higher monetization and retention.

Advertising doesn’t have to suck for your players; but if you’re lazy, it will suck. Below are several design principles that will help you plan an effective monetization strategy that includes native ads.

Design Principles for Effective Native Ads

Design is one of the most important functions of an effective mobile advertising strategy. As a publisher, you have very little control over what advertisers show in your game. Custom native ad frames allow you to take control of the advertising experience to increase conversions. Native ads generally include in-game characters, color palates and textures from the game, and animation.

The average American is exposed to over 5000 ads per day (CBS). The first set of design principles – associations, color & contrast, and eyes & gaze direction – is designed to speak to the player’s emotions so they notice the ad. The second set of principles is meant to drive engagement – movement & animation, lines & encapsulation, and native design – so players take action.

Designing for Emotion

As A. Damasio states it in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, our decisions are based on emotion, not on analysis: we do what feels right or what we think will make us feel better; then we justify the decisions we make to avoid remorse. High-stimulation emotions (pride, admiration, amusement) increase the likelihood we’ll take action as opposed to unpleasant ones (jealousy, disappointment).

We tend to consult an idealized self-image (“what would a person like me do?”) and respond based on the identity we refer to (San Franciscan, father, entrepreneur, game developer), and we prime the identity people will refer to in particular situations.

Using what you know about human emotion and data about your player segments, developers can optimize in-game advertising maximum conversion. At NativeX, we’ve found this typically results in gains of up to 200% for publishers.

Principle 1: Associations

In the absence of information, we look to others (people or things we can relate to) for evidence of what to do. Using characters from your game for social proof will increase the credibility of the ad and the likelihood of conversion. Associations should be used to create positive emotions and familiarity. Proper execution of this design principle will make the ad feel more welcoming to players of your game, and decrease banner blindness, in which players ignore ads or instantly close out of them.

The ad frame below uses Guy Dangerous, the main character of Temple Run, to present the ad to players.

Principle 2: Color and Contrast Attract Attention

By using vivid colors in the ad or ad frame, you increase stimulation. Counter-intuitively, through A/B tests we found the color red, which is often associated with “stop” and other warning signs, actually performed better than green, which generally means “go.” Hubspot ran a similar test, and found red buttons outperformed green buttons by 21% in an email marketing campaign. When selecting colors for your native ad frame, always A/B test. Also, keep in mind the context of your game, the audience, and the actions you are trying to drive. A quick Google search of the “meaning of colors” will guide you as you determine the appropriate colors for your native ads.

Principle 3: Eyes and Gaze Direction

Eyes attract attention and gaze creates curiosity. When designing native ads for your game, play off of your characters’ personalities to draw attention to the ads and increase conversions. In the example below, the character’s eyes and smile lead the player to the words “Free App.”

Designing for Engagement

Principle 4: Movement and Animation

Web advertisers quickly learned movement demands attention and interest to banner ads; the only difference is, banner ads were obtrusive to the experience of browsing so users got frustrated. Unfortunately, on the web, blame was put on the animation instead of on the ad format. It wasn’t until recently when leading advertisers like Google started using subtle animations on banners again. Unfortunately their timing was off, as we’re seeing sites like the NY Times dump banners for native ads.

Native ads should never create an obtrusive experience for your players; if they do, you’re not actually using native ads and your ad network lied to you. Research indicates players are 30% more likely to recall animated ads than their static counterparts.

When using animation and movement to enhance the ads in your game, be subtle and do not force players to convert. As you can see on the Solitaire example below, an interstitial spins up in the form of a playing card but it does not continue to spin or flash once the card has reveals a free app. There is a recognizable, easy to locate “X” in the top corner of the ad.

Principle 5: Lines and Encapsulation

Lines should be used to emphasize the most important elements of the ad, such as the call to action. The Rule of Thirds suggests, “the human eye naturally gravitates to intersection points that occur when an image is split into thirds.” Lead the user’s eyes away from the “X” and to the download button.

Now that you have been introduced to the native design principles, use them to design your new native ad frame. As an industry, we need to move beyond spammy ad formats and seriously commit to monetization solutions that preserve the user experience of our games. While advertising is not ever going to be the entire solution, native ads that incorporate high design standards move us closer to a pure gaming experience without having to charge gamers a premium to cover our development expenses.

If you have any questions about the native design principles, leave us a note in the comments below. Otherwise, stay tuned for my follow up to this article in which I will discuss ad placement in terms of location, frequency, and format.

If you’re considering making the leap to native ads, we are here to guide you through integration, just let us know you’re ready.