Interview: As homebound consumers stay glued to their smartphones, brands are redirecting ad spend toward mobile games

By Matt Barash, svp strategy and business development, AdColony

Heading into 2020, digital marketing experts had no shortage of predictions; then a global pandemic and the subsequent quarantine upended all of them. Or at least, almost all of them. 

To discuss what has happened to marketing across the first half of 2020, Digiday recently caught up with Matt Barash, svp of strategy and business development at AdColony, who told us that his most sweeping January prediction, the emergence of mobile gaming as a dominant digital ad platform, is still on track, and marketers are poised to rethink how they leverage mobile gaming as the world goes online from home.

Digiday: Looking at the past several months, so much has changed. At the beginning of January, what would have been your topline digital marketing predictions for 2020?

Barash: I still would have said that 2020 was going to be a year of chaos and disruption in marketing and advertising, and not just because we were heading into a year with the Olympics and a presidential election. Broadcast was purportedly on life-support, GRPs were falling off a cliff, the cookie was about to meet its maker, and the entire concept of digital identity, from an advertiser perspective, seemed totally undefined and fragmented. 

From CTV to mobile, were there any digital ad platforms that you thought were destined to perform particularly well, this year?

OTT and CTV have been touted as the utopian dream — one in which advertising would be perfectly addressable — but in-reality they’re riddled with fraud and challenged by a lack of uniform standards for measurement. But the one channel I would have remained bullish on was mobile, even in a situation where the ad tech bandwagon hit a few speed bumps or a market correction took place.

How has the pandemic and months of quarantine changed how brands engage with consumers? 

The sports world has screeched to a halt. Broadcasters are coming to the end of their seasonal calendars and will have a deficiency of original programming heading into the summer, especially without an Olympics to lean on. People are streaming entertainment, watching more news, engaging with their friends and family on social and playing games — especially mobile games. Marketers are reimagining their brand messaging and their agencies are rearchitecting how to effectively communicate to consumers on brands’ behalf with agility and by seizing opportunities wherever they can. 

It sounds like part of your original prediction — the resilience of mobile — holds true. Why? 

The future of addressable video lives, now, in the palm of your hand. The app is the new TV channel. And mobile gaming is today’s primetime. When we entered the “new norm” of sheltering in place, in March, AdColony began to distribute a survey and study the resulting data to identify marketplace trends and help our partners weather the storm. Our data showed mobile gaming jumping more than 24 percent, in March 2020, as mobile audiences grew more reliant on their smartphones for entertainment while sheltering in place. 

How significant a role has mobile gaming played in this outcome for mobile?

It’s a huge factor. Mobile game downloads increased by more than 60 percent compared to the 30-day period prior to the survey in March. 

Are there certain types of mobile games that are performing best?

The upticks were most clear across the categories that perform well for higher-income household decision-makers, parents and professionals: Casual mobile games rose 28 percent. Downloads in the board games category grew 16 percent, and there were some major acquisitions around that category too. Word game downloads rose eight percent, with a six percent lift in the already high number of sessions. Even more hardcore-gamer categories like action, adventure and role-playing have stabilized and started to curve up after an initial dip. 

How are the changes around mobile gaming — coupled with the pandemic — affecting marketers? 

Sixty-one percent of the marketers we polled said that the coronavirus situation is changing the types of content they’re comfortable having their ads placed adjacent to. But mobile games compound the broad reach of traditional TV. Plus, they’re powered by the best parts of digital buys — addressability, dynamic creative, analytics and attribution. That, combined with the surge in users, gives advertisers a unique opportunity to rethink how they leverage sight, sound and motion to engage consumers. 

Are there any risks marketers ought to consider around shifting media budgets away from broadcast and CTV?

If anything, those environments — especially CTV — can be risky. The scale of the ICEBUCKET ad-fraud operation uncovered by WhiteOps was particularly alarming. WhiteOps found that ICEBUCKET originated in a part of the programmatic supply chain that’s less transparent and without the availability of authorized reselling tools like Sellers.json, a place where media buyers and publishers don’t have a direct relationship. ICEBUCKET hid its bots in certain server-side ad insertion video ad impressions that platforms use to provide a more seamless viewing experience without delays. Basically, the incident highlighted glaring vulnerabilities in parts of the programmatic advertising marketplace.

How is mobile gaming different? 

Marketers need to be working with partners who can provide well-lit environments. In-app gaming is brand safe and accountable. Measurement vendors have built programmatic oriented solutions to solve for viewability, fraud and audience accuracy. Data is closely defined, non-fragmented and virtually universally accessible. And of course, for the time being, identity remains consistent. In an uncertain media economy, the app space is ripe with innovative and exciting opportunities for smart brand marketers to go big and level up with consumers.

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