Mobile game marketing: 6 key things developers need to do

Bart Barden can still remember those moments at PopCap Games, where everything seemed to be in sync. 

"It was amazing when everything happened at the same time: the fan page went up [at] the same time as the promotion hit, the in-app message went up at the same time as the cross-platform mobile game [went live]."

Though Barden has moved on from PopCap, where he had a number of senior executive roles, he said he has developed an even greater appreciation for app promotion strategies that fire on all cylinders since becoming the vice president of product for in-app marketing platform company Swrve New Media. Speaking as part of a recent online panel discussion hosted by Fiksu, Barden was one of several experts trying to help developers understand the most critical things they need to do for long-term user acquisition, retention and monetization of their mobile games.

For Barden, nothing beats establishing a strong foothold of fans with your first gaming app, then using that base to amplify the marketing efforts around your next one. 

"It's like a multiplier," he said. "In PopCap, we had our viral users who would talk to their friends, and these users ended up generating equal or more revenue than that initial group. You kind of have to have a good starting point."

Getting to that starting point, however, may require some ingenuity from app developers. Based on advice from a variety of firms in this space, here are the best ways to begin the journey:

1Understand your market: Peter Warman, CEO of Netherlands-based gaming market research firm Newzoo, suggests developers should be creative in figuring out a strategy for rolling out multiple, localized versions of their games and not assume that the U.S. is always the best place to spend all their energy. 

"Russia is a bigger iPad gaming country than Germany, for instance. Colombia spends more money on iOS than Finland," he said. "Understand how big your market is. You can do a bold move and not launch in English and German."

Remove all barriers for someone trying your game: Gating games by requiring Facebook registration is useless, Barden said flatly. Even the design of an app itself can get in the way. 

"Get your game under 50 megs so that someone can download it on the normal network, not off of Wi-Fi," he suggested. "You're losing tons of users by creating a game that's 300 megs that someone has to sit through and download if you're doing a freemium model."

Treat your ad network like a coworker: Bryan Buskas, vice president of marketing and sales at AdColony, said developers need to think not only about the relationships they're creating with their customers but with their industry partners. Sharing and responding to information from an ad network is crucial. 

"Have that data--whether it's by API, server to server, from an SDK--have it accurate but in real time," he said. "Chase success where you are seeing success. Ninety percent of our top advertisers and customers provide feedback at least daily." That means they can make changes to optimize an ad campaign, he added--not just around installations to get more users, but to drive them to take tutorials and make in-app purchases.

Target the sub-categories: Although every developer probably hopes his mobile game will become popular with everyone, Glenn Kiladis, general manager of FreeMyApps, said it may be more strategic (and realistic) to look more granularly at the way gaming apps are organized within app stores. 

"If you're developing a car-battling game, target the No. 1 (title) in that category, which might be a lot less cost to obtain than having the grand vision of targeting No. 1 overall. Those are the users who are likely going to monetize your game."

Focus on the post-install KPIs: Those Key Performance Indicators would be monetization, retention and engagement, Buskas said. "We see a lot of developers who jump right into paid media vs. those who have a plan to test and optimize successfully. More often than not those campaigns don't turn out for those developers," he said. "They might be working with channels that don't make sense and not knowing what their most important metrics are."

Think "sustain," not just "burst": A common app marketing approach is to launch a "burst" campaign as a product comes to market, with a goal of driving as many downloads or purchases as possible. However Kiladis suggested burst campaigns need to be augmented to look at how the momentum can be sustained over time--particularly if your marketing strategy proves successful.

"Time is both your enemy and your friend in the app store," he said. "If you achieve a certain rank and you're onboarding users at high volume and velocity, you want to maintain that as long as possible."