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When do deceptive playable ads help, and when do they hurt?

Dan Greenberg of ironSource says misleading interactive mobile ads were huge in 2019, but likely to be reined in this year

Anyone playing ad-support mobile games these days is probably familiar with the concept of a playable ad, a brief interactive snippet walking users through a basic gameplay scenario and then prompting them to go install the game on their phone.

But just like any other kind of ad, playable ads can be misleading. In fact, speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Dan Greenberg says he saw a bumper crop of misleading and outright deceptive playable ads last year.

Greenberg is the chief design officer of ironSource, an app monetization and advertising outfit that began building playable ads for companies about three years ago. In the past two years, Greenberg says companies have spent $350 million putting ironSource's playables in front of prospective users.

"2019 was a really crazy year. '17 and '18 were years where mobile games didn't really focus on [playable ads]. They'd usually have one good game trailer they would run, and it would either work or not. There wasn't a lot of experimentation. But in 2019, I think most mobile games understood the kind of critical way to succeed was crafting ambitious new angles of marketing."

That led to experimentation, Greenberg says, which led to companies drifting away from a title's original gameplay in order to hook new audiences. For some saturated genres or those where users tend not to switch between titles much (Greenberg suggests match-three games as one example), publishers would get particularly brazen about it, tossing out an ad with completely fabricated gameplay mechanics just to see if they would appeal to more people.

Cover image for YouTube video

He brings up Matchington Mansion, a rather calm and relaxed match-three game with a mansion-decorating focus, and says the playable ads for it instead showed scenarios that never occured in the game, like fires erupting and needing to be put out lest the entire mansion burn down. Greenberg says such misleading ads had a few knock-on effects.

"It appealed to a much larger audience, so it worked for them. It drove a lot more downloads. But when users found out that mechanic is not reflected in the actual game, some went to the store and gave it one-star; there are lots of bad reviews."

"There are so many mobile games today, the way for users to discover games by going to the store when they're interested is kind of not working any more"

While some users gave it a bad review, Greenberg says others simply assumed the gameplay mechanic was something that would be introduced later on in the game.

"Either they forget or they get hooked on the game because the game has good retention anyway," he says. "And some of them, a minority, got pissed and removed the game. But it did work for [the developer]. There were a few games that managed to do this. It didn't work for all of them, but a lot of them experimented with it."

As for how much damage those one-star reviews caused, Greenberg doesn't think they mattered as much as they might have in previous years.

"I think today the stores themselves are not as significant as they used to be," he says. "There are so many mobile games today, the way for users to discover games by going to the store when they're interested is kind of not working any more... Most users who are installing a new game are essentially doing it based on seeing ads on social channels, seeing ads in other games, or getting a recommendation from a friend.

"Star rating has an effect on conversion -- some users check what other users think -- but for most, if they see an ad that reflects something interesting to them, they'll go to the store. And we know from data we have that it takes one to three seconds to decide if you want to install or not, so there's not really a lot of exploration in the app store. It's not as significant as you would think today."

That's not to say deceptive playable ads don't have tangible downsides. The cost of acquiring a user is already high enough when a publisher is finding the audience its game was built for. When that company is bringing in a flood of new users who signed up for a very different game experience based on a misleading ad, the average lifetime value of those users takes a hit.

"Those tactics allow you to increase conversion up the funnel, but then you see usually those users probably won't stay enough, won't spend as much as other users. You need that balance."

Even so, some publishers are continuing to use playable ads mismatched to the gameplay. In recent months, Greenberg has even started to see devs of smaller games begin to incorporate the hooks from such ads back into their original games, pivoting into what appears like a successful marketing angle.

After a particularly experimental 2019, Greenberg expects the pendulum to swing back the other way for 2020. Besides the concern over how misleading ads impact the lifetime value of an acquired user, he says gamers are also catching on to the tactic. He pointed to YouTube channel i3Stars as an example; the channel regularly posts comparisons of mobile game ads and the games they sell (such as the one embedded above), and has nearly 82,000 subscribers as of this writing.

Just how far back the pendulum swings might have more to do with how good an understanding companies can get on when their ads that differ from a title's core gameplay start to hurt more than they help.

"The challenge -- and where our teams have an advantage -- is they can actually see the effect, get the real data on the audience you're attracting with different marketing [approaches]," Greenberg says. "And then [they can] see the trade-off of going further from the gameplay to attract a different audience that is equal or similar, or is it too far away and you're attracting a bigger audience but it doesn't really help the bottom line?"

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.