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Ad quality is a UX challenge

Brainium's Scott Willoughby says mobile devs need to ensure shoddy advertising doesn't undermine their efforts

User experience is at the heart of great mobile game design. As creators, we toil over the most minute details to yield a delightful play experience, fluid metagame engagement, and seamless monetization. Despite this, many game developers throw their hands up and accept as inevitable a terrible user experience in one area: advertisements.

From ill-timed, jarring pop-ups, to screen-crowding banners, to offensive content, to annoying bursts of sound, mobile ads can disrupt an otherwise enjoyable experience for even the most loyal of players. Given the outsized cost of risking player engagement and retention, why are so many games actually growing their reliance on ad-monetized models?

Brainium COO Scott Willoughby

Simply put, ad monetization reduces reliance on in-app purchases, nearly eliminates the "free rider" problem, and can make significant impact to the bottom line for studios of all sizes. In fact, a study conducted by the game marketing and analytics firm deltaDNA found that 94% of mobile developers incorporate ads as part of their free-to-play monetization strategy.

Is this unavoidable? Do developers have to choose between player experience and ad revenue, or can they have their cake and eat it too? It certainly depends on what you prioritize, but with the appropriate diligence and by partnering closely with ad networks, the latter is possible: a world in which a player's experience during ads is given as much care as their experience between ads.

First, studios should realize this is a symbiotic relationship: ad networks need their impressions just as much as developers need the ad revenue. According to eMarketer's Mobile Advertising Outlook for 2021, mobile ad spending will likely hit $156.38 billion by 2023. With ad networks continuing to lean into mobile games and applications for their high-quality audiences and impressions, game studios have a unique opportunity to influence for higher quality ad content and experience for their users.

Setting your advertising standards

Absent any guidelines or guardrails to protect the player's experience with ad content, many advertisers and ad networks will tend toward longer, louder, and more labyrinthine ads... Those designed to be attention grabbing and seemingly inescapable without a click-through (whether intended or not).

Beyond aggressive content and format, failing to work closely with ad partners can result in technical problems as well, including bloated clients, bugs, freezes, and crashes. No player wants to feel like their game (or device) was hijacked, or like they were manipulated into clicking something they didn't want to.

No player wants to feel like their game (or device) was hijacked, or like they were manipulated into clicking something they didn't want to

By way of example, consider a technique utilized by some networks that was met with criticism by the wider game development industry. Some networks would allow ads with sound to pause the music an end-user was listening to on their device -- completely hijacking their personal gaming experience. Similarly, some large networks used to have no settings for volume leveling in their ads, ignoring device audio settings and blasting ads onto the screen at full volume.

After much pushback, most networks now require that ads respect device audio settings and allow publishers to mute ads by default. However, it took studios and mobile developers standing up to such invasive practices to put a stop to them and protect player experience.

To make sure that your players aren't getting completely steamrolled by ads, consider incorporating a handful of rules networks and advertisers must abide by if their ads are to be featured within your games. Some rules you may want to enforce could include:

● All ads must be skippable within a set number of seconds, unless incentivized or opt-in

● All ads must be muted by default, leaving sound optional to each individual end-user (this should be independent of device volume or mute switch)

● All ads must have a clear "X" in the corner denoting where end-users can exit if they don't want to consume the content; non-standard, deceptive, or concealed dismiss buttons are not allowed

● All ads must be free from offensive content. Depending on your app or audience, this may include lewd content, nudity, political campaigns, etc.

● All ads must run only during natural pauses, such as level completion and/or loading screens for minimal interruption to game play

● All ads must match native device resolution and screen orientation, so they render properly

● All ads must refrain from deceptive click behavior, forcing the end-user to leave the game without intent

● All ads, SDKs, and adapters will be subject to immediate removal if they are contributing to crashes, or buggy/unwanted behavior

The above are just a sample of various rules to implement. Sharing your rules and ad standards with partners can actually be valuable to their sales teams: they can help advertisers create new units to gain access to your audience. This immediately sets the tone that you're dedicated to user experience and design and won't compromise either in service of ad revenue. Clear standards also make things much more straightforward if you need to block advertisers or remove networks.

Creating an effective ad quality practice

In a perfect world, simply setting standards would be enough for all stakeholders to adhere to them. However, the complexity of mobile advertising makes it notoriously hard to monitor, and there will always be bad actors looking to skirt the rules.

Hence, if you are going to take your players' ad experience seriously, you must put systems and practices in place to monitor and enforce your ad quality standards. This can prove to be a cumbersome process if you don't have the right infrastructure in place. Look to implement strategies that will help you create robust and scalable ad quality practices:

Integrate content moderation software. Your games are played around the clock and generate millions or even billions of ad impressions. Integrating content moderation software will help you filter out certain ads that breach your standards in real-time. This software works by using refined filters to detect, flag and immediately remove ads that contain objectionable content such as nudity, violence, etc.

Open the door for end-user feedback. The only people that are as close to your games as you are your players. Empower them to flag inappropriate ad content and act quickly to take it down. This can take form through in-app contact forms, support tools, automatic or manual monitoring of app reviews, etc.

Develop a rapport with ad networks. Now that you are regularly detecting ads that breach your standards, it's time to build a line of communication with the ad networks themselves. Get in the habit of bringing poor ad quality to their attention immediately to increase their recognition of your studio and your rigor enforcing ad quality guidelines.

Break ties with bad actors. If a network can't or won't abide by your ad quality standards, or routinely causes buggy behavior, don't let yourself or your players be held hostage. There are many networks out there that are willing to work alongside publishers and respect their standards. Do the work, maintain accountability, and protect your users' experience.

Devote team resources to ad quality. Without the right oversight, the above processes can fall through the cracks or become operationally ineffective. By bringing on an ad quality manager or assigning oversight to product managers, you'll ensure members of your team are always looking out for the end-user and advocating for your ad standards.

Stay attuned to the ever-shifting climate of data privacy. Putting the aforementioned strategies into effect to moderate ads will become increasingly beneficial as marketplace giants like Apple and Google continue to double down on data privacy. While consumer data privacy is incredibly important, a notable side effect will be reduced personalization and relevancy of mobile ads. This will require even greater attention to protect your players from overly aggressive ads that may not appeal to them.

It takes a village

In an ever-changing industry faced with increasing competition for players, dollars, and impressions, there will always be temptation for unscrupulous advertisers to cut corners, abuse user attention, and manipulate ad networks. One way to combat this is for publishers large and small to enforce ad quality and accountability standards within their games.

If we collectively reduce tolerance for bad ad impressions, we can eliminate the market for them, improving the experience for players of ad-monetized games. Ultimately, pushing for better ad quality benefits the ad networks and advertisers too. As brand perception and quality continues to be a differentiator for advertisers, ad networks can help serve as gatekeepers between mobile apps and those that wish to advertise in them.

By enforcing industry expectations set forth by mobile app developers, even programmatic platforms have the ability to drive campaigns that actually resonate with their target audiences, support an enjoyable user experience, and -- ultimately -- higher quality impressions and increased revenue for both publishers and advertisers.

Scott brings 15 years of leadership in mobile and digital product management, marketing, and brand development across consumer technology, entertainment, and gaming. He has been both an early employee at multiple successful startups, and leader of teams in large organizations such as Amazon and Microsoft. He has successfully launched, grown, and managed over half-a-dozen successful mobile titles, and secured 10 Editor's Choice awards in the App Store.

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