Understanding the full value of influencer marketing for games

Discover insights into measuring influencers on YouTube and find out about the untracked majority

Tobias Knoke
Mar 11, 2019 · 14 min read

Mobile games have developed from a few grey pixels to high-fidelity multiplayer experiences over the past 21 years. But becoming an adult usually means that things get more complicated: whilst there are many different paths to success, competition is increasing and the pressure from stake- and shareholders is slowly but surely turning up. Mobile games are not any different. Throughout the years, users have enjoyed high quality experiences across a variety of genres and thus have become more demanding. With the industry growing at 13% annually (Newzoo Global Games Market Update, Oct 2018), many developers are wooing for their attention. In this market, discovery remains a key mission for developers, especially given the need to make more considered and thoughtful bets as game development cycles are getting longer and more expensive.

The Evolution of Mobile Games Marketing

This is where marketing comes into play. Having mostly been a separate discipline away from the actual game development in the past, marketers and their tools have become more crucial than ever. Today, profitable acceleration of game discovery has a strong influence on the game’s revenue prospects. Thus marketers are playing a crucial role in all parts of game development today. In pre-launch, developers are assessing the user’s interest in various game themes through testing corresponding ads and analyzing click-through-rates. At launch, various types of media are considered and applied for driving a spike in new users. Post-launch, marketing needs to play a vital role in bringing back lapsed users whilst running targeted campaigns, which leverage gameplay updates and seasonal LiveOps for continuous flow of user traffic. Admittedly a game still needs to have strong retention and potential to monetize in order to be successful. A top-notch marketing strategy will not fix a mediocre game. But a mediocre marketing strategy will have a negative impact on a top-notch game.

With marketing becoming an integral part of planning, launching, and operating games, developers are continuously reviewing and optimizing channels to drive user discovery. One of the most discussed approaches is to work with influencers on platforms such as YouTube. When talking to developers, we hear different opinions about the value of influencer marketing. Skeptics point towards the effort of managing an influencer campaign and the fact that playable ads are easier to measure. Advocates claim that videos demonstrating gameplay are unique in driving user’s attention and have the ability to contribute towards building a community for a game.

“Using influencers, we can reach people outside of the typical targeting available via ad-networks and DSPs. Influencers also produce long-term visibility because the content usually remains live indefinitely on the influencer’s channel.”

— Volkmar Reinerth, Marketing Director Kolibri Games

Whilst the discussion continues, there seems to be agreement that working with influencers is highly relevant: In 2018 mobile game developers invested more than $250m with a clear indication of rising budgets over the next few years (Statista/Morar HPI for Rakuten Marketing, 2018). So what if the industry would be able to understand the full value of influencer marketing, giving both enthusiasts and nay-sayers significant data to act on? What if overall marketing investments can be significantly optimized by applying a thoughtful and data-based approach to anything influencer marketing? As marketing has become a core component of every step in game development and operation, this knowledge is likely to have an impact on the overall ability of a game to thrive in today’s market environment.

Making influencer marketing work for game developers

At Google Play we want to help developers to build a sustainable and prosperous business on Android. That is why we have been researching the effectiveness of influencer marketing over the past year, keeping in mind that this is both a challenge and an opportunity for the developer’s bottom line. To guide our work we spoke to numerous developers of all shapes and sizes with the goal of identifying their areas of interest when it comes to influencer marketing. We found that the developer community had lots of questions on their mind: how do you select the right influencer? What are the best practices in working with them? Where should developers start? However, there was one key challenge which stood out: how to track and measure influencer videos. As long as there is no clear understanding about the return on investment of these videos, any tactics to improve their performance are good to know but secondary.

If you have not been working with influencers lately, let me re-introduce you to how many developers are measuring the success of their videos. Usually a creator on YouTube would link to the promoted game in the description of the video. This link is tracking installs and revenue coming from user cohorts who have clicked on it. However, it makes sense to assume that not every user is clicking on the tracking link. Perhaps someone is typing in the name of the game directly into the search bar on Google Play whilst watching the video. Or the video is being watched but the game is getting downloaded later from another device of the user. Some users also enjoy watching videos full screen which makes it impossible to click on any link. Lastly, many phone owners wait for a stable Wi-Fi connection as APK sizes continue to increase (make sure you employ tactics for avoiding this). In conclusion, a tracking link is a good start for measurement, but by no means capturing all users who have downloaded, played, or even spent money in a game because of watching the influencer video.

To cope with the limitations of a tracking link, developers started to make assumptions about the users they could not track. Influencer platforms and agencies came up with more elaborate models by creating benchmarks and estimates based on analyzing campaign data and industry sources. So we decided to take influencer measurement to the next level by moving from estimates to actual data. Going beyond the tracking link sounds like a small step but it is actually a giant leap for developers. To make this work, we looked at anonymized cohorts of signed-in Android users and their journey across two Google properties: YouTube and Google Play. To ensure that the research data is relevant and broadly applicable to various use cases, we reached out to developers of different sizes and asked them for videos in which influencers are playing their games. We looked at games in different stages of their lifecycle, and at videos from both small and large influencers. We then piloted our measurement model: did the users who watched an influencer video actually download the game on Google Play afterwards? And is the number possibly higher than the developers used to measure via a tracking link? Or in other words: is there an incremental upside nobody could prove so far?

There is. After investigating the post-watch user journey of more than 250 game videos with over 60 million views, we compared notes with the tracking efforts of the respective developers. Et voila: for every person who is clicking on the tracking link of an influencer video on YouTube, there are 4 more people who are not clicking but still download the game within four days after watching. We are calling this large group of users the ‘non-tracked majority’. The multiplier of 4x is good news to all marketers who want to prove the value of working with influencers to their CFO. And keep in mind: 4x is an average and conservative multiplier. Depending on the game and the content of the video, the multiplier can be as high as 10x. And whilst we defined an attribution window of four days for the overall research we found that on average, 50% of all users download the game within four hours after watching. So without a doubt, influencer videos deliver substantially more users than previously tracked and they activate users on the spot.

“We have been observing and trying to measure the uplift that influencer campaigns generate for years and it’s extremely valuable to see a better tracking of this effect.”

— Mickey Elimelech, CMO Space Ape Games

The impact and the limitations of virality

There is more. Whilst this research was going on and we were discussing its results with participating developers, we generated further insights about the value of working with influencers. One of them is the ripple effect. Many game developers run a portfolio strategy; managing various titles allows them to diversify revenue and accelerate cross-promotion between them. Usually these games target the same audiences, ensuring that churning users can be slotted into their next experience and that the only cannibals out there are the developers themselves. Now, when analyzing more than 250 game videos, we found that a video about one game actually drives installs of very similar games from the very same category. For every 10 people who download game A because of an influencer video, you can expect an uplift of 1 incremental install of a similar game B, in the same time period. And again, this is an average; we have even seen ratios of 10:3 for game A and B in cases where the IPs are very much alike. This should give confidence to developers who have games which target the same audience in their portfolio, but did not try out influencer marketing yet.

Aside from these insights about the behavior of the users, our research also helped us to get a better understanding of how to work with creators. It became clear that working with the same influencers multiple times within a short time frame is not a good way of driving downloads. After promoting one influencer video about a mobile game, the second video of the same influencer drove up to 3x less downloads than the first one, if being published within twelve months. This will not come across as an utter surprise. Still it is necessary to keep what we call ‘download fatigue’ in mind when planning an influencer strategy. The creator’s community has already downloaded the game or has chosen not to do so. And there are no second chances for a first impression, especially not in the mobile games industry. So should you work with an influencer only once? We would recommend that you do so, if you consider them only as a channel for driving installs. However as stated before, launching a mobile game is only half of the deal. Operating them successfully is the real challenge, and re-engaging with a known community can be a valuable tool for doing so. As so often in life, there is no right or wrong, but just a when and a why.

“The route to success is in putting all of these insights together, as they indicate how a promising influencer strategy can look like.”

— Volkmar Reinerth, Marketing Director Kolibri Games

How influencers can make a difference

This brings us back to the big question of “why” — why work with influencers? Well, there are plenty of good reasons listed above, going beyond the fact that the whole developer community is eager to collaborate with these opinion leaders. However, whilst we all have good reasons for being excited, one thing to keep in mind is that influencer videos are not app install campaigns. For app install campaigns, choosing the campaign objective, the bidding strategy and the creative might be sufficient to drive results. This is not the case when working with influencers, where more time is needed to identify the right creator to work with, establish relationships, negotiate business terms, and prepare the final video.

In spite of this obvious distinction, many performance marketers evaluate both campaign types similarly. And when comparing the return on ad spend, they do not find influencer marketing as profitable at times. But let me ask a question: Are you really trying to calculate the full value, taking also into account the more difficult yet essential aspects to measure? Whilst every marketing activity needs to be profitable on its own or in conjunction with others — TV+Search still being the prime example — the long-term value of a user being engaged through his or her community is likely to be bigger compared to other forms of performance marketing. So whilst the untracked majority is 4x-ing the number of downloads coming through the tracking link, influencers can help to give your game or even your company a personality. Meaning: Launching a new and unknown IP of considerable size without support of influencers nowadays could turn out to become an ambitious endeavor.

“For the launch of our new shooter game FRAG, we are working with influencers on YouTube because our potential players spend a lot of time watching videos on the platform. We don’t want anyone to miss the launch!”

— Solène Delooz, CRO, Oh BiBi

If you are still hesitant to work with influencers, be sure to avoid common mistakes when running a campaign with them. A simple way to test the collaboration with creators on YouTube is to partner with smaller influencers — often called “micro influencers”. This group of creators has a smaller subscriber base of 10k — 200k users and is usually very open for partnerships when getting approached. The advantages for game developers include: less costs, thus less of a risk and the chance for building a community from the ground up. In an ideal world, developers and creators grow their user base jointly together.

“From the first week when we started prototyping our first game we were talking with people who were “influential”: They had groups of friends they played with or competed against at a high level. Through that process we met some creators — this was back when 100k subs on YouTube was a big deal — so we stayed in touch and so our “influencer strategy” evolved organically over the past 7 years. Some of the mega influencers we work with today were micro influencers when we started. Don’t just transact with channels — build a relationship that lasts for years and be genuinely interested and invested in their success.”

— Mickey Elimelech, CMO Space Ape Games

Game developers will even find themselves in a better position to negotiate compared to collaborating with the big names. Our research data has shown that when segmenting all influencer videos by subscriber base the CPI of micro influencers can be up to 3x lower compared to creators with a large subscriber base. This does not mean that you should drop partnerships with top creators as there are other advantages to it. Influencers with many subscribers provide you with community engagement at scale, might positively influence other creators and perhaps even provide stronger LTV of the converted users. However, micro influencers are a great opportunity for developers who are new into working with influencers, or who want to hedge their risks.

Speaking of hedging risks: the earlier you integrate influencers into the development process of a game, the higher the chance that they will ensure it will become a game they will actually like to play. Feedback is a gift. Feedback from influencers can be a blessing! In the past we saw a number of developers trying to convince influencers to play games which were already released two years ago, coming with gameplay which was not suitable for streaming. To ensure that your game is trendy and streamable, we recommend you to engage with influencers at an early development phase of the game. This way they can give early feedback, feel proud being a beta tester, and tell their community about what is going on.

One strong example of this is Space Ape’s work with influencers on Rumble League. The London-based developer invited Team Secret to its office, presented the game and hosted a small tournament between the pro team and the developers themselves. Whilst the game and consequently the verdict on the game’s success is not out yet, Space Ape Games is already executing a highly advanced marketing strategy several months ahead of the launch. This is a lesson to learn for mobile game developers who are traditionally focusing on the launch day only.

“We believe that by involving influencers very early during the development process we have a much better chance of understanding why they think the game would be interesting for their audience and shape the game accordingly. It’s not really about making the game for the influencers — but rather figuring out what they find interesting as a clue to what might be interesting for their millions of fans. The more informed an influencer is about the game development process and landscape, the better armed they are to seize opportunities that can push their channel to the next level.”

— Mickey Elimelech, CMO Space Ape Games

TL;DR: What every marketer should know

We hope the best practices and knowledge generated by our research are enabling you to capture the full value of working with influencers. Whether you are a small or large developer, there are plenty of good reasons for engaging with them. And if you just want to have four of them as a key takeaway after reading this article, here we go:

The non-tracked majority: Most users download your game after watching an influencer video, but are not clicking on the link in the description. Consider multiplying the number of downloads gathered through a tracking link by 4x.

Ripple effects: Be aware that similar games will generate downloads if you work with an influencer on promoting your game. Whilst the ratio is 10:1, be aware that it could also be driving installs of competitor games.

Download fatigue: There is no second chance for a first install. If an influencer is making another video about the same game within twelve months, it may drive up to 3x less downloads compared to the first video.

Micro-influencers: If you want to test the waters, work with smaller influencers who have up to 200k subscribers — their CPI is up to 3x lower compared to established creators.

By taking these lessons learned into account, marketers can significantly optimize their investments into acquiring and engaging users pre-launch, at launch and post-launch. After all, influencing the bottom line is key when becoming an adult — here is to the next 21 years, mobile games industry!

Co-author and research lead: Francesco Crovetto, Business Development Manager Google Play

What do you think?

Do you have thoughts on influencer marketing for games? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.

Google Play Apps & Games

Tips, trends, and industry thoughts for app and game developers building businesses on Google Play.

Tobias Knoke

Written by

Thinker, Reader, Speaker. Gamer, Traveler, Believer. Head of Game Publishers @YouTube EMEA. Previously Business Development @GooglePlay

Google Play Apps & Games

Tips, trends, and industry thoughts for app and game developers building businesses on Google Play.

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