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In 2021 mobile is the key to targeting gamers – and consumers of all stripes

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By Jonathan Harrop, Senior Director of Global Marketing & Communications, AdColony

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that advertising in games became fashionable for forward-thinking brands and agencies in 2020. Many are saying that advertisers “turned a corner” on the channel as an avenue to reach consumers.

Case in point: Disney’s Marvel took notice of Travis Scott’s success and partnered with Epic to keep the Avengers and company relevant for the audience by focusing an entire Fortnite season around them, in a year without movies. Levi’s has a collaboration with Nintendo and Super Mario. BMW has sponsored not one, but five massive esports organisations.

But when we look deeper at what 2020 was across both gaming and advertising, the picture of what 2021 should look like for a savvy marketer changes a little.

It comes down to mobile.

For every Travis Scott x Fortnite moment, there are hundreds of millions of smaller engagements happening across hundreds of thousands of games and most of those moments aren’t occurring on Twitch, on Xboxes, or even PCs – they’re on mobile devices.

Gaming Beyond the Controller

More than half of US consumers increased their time playing mobile games last year, and while “time spent” in other channels, like social media didn’t translate to ad revenue, the mobile games channel exploded.

When AdColony surveyed consumers globally directly last year, we saw a 50% growth in mobile usage compared to pre-COVID times, including a 23% growth in new smartphone gaming activity. Globally, downloads were up every quarter of the year compared to 2019, according to Sensor Tower and App Annie.

Mobile games have the scale, reach and frequency – and, as we are seeing from the data, it’s one of the only media channels that is still growing. Other than subscription video, it’s the only publishing category that benefited from the lockdown rules that wrecked what would have been a banner year for advertising.

While the awakening of media buyers to the fact that gamers don’t just live in their parents’ basements and spend all their money on snack foods and energy drinks is good news for millions of young Gen-X and Millennials who are okay being called “gamers,” it doesn’t really help reach the broader consumer set. Mobile does. For PC and console gamers, there’s an 80% overlap between those platforms and mobile games.

But the demographic reach potential for mobile games explodes out from there to virtually every audience an advertiser might want to reach. Eight in ten Americans play mobile games at least once a month, with more than half playing weekly or more frequently than that. And they aren’t eschewing advertising: nine out of ten accept ads in games when they are executed well, such as rewarded video, where the user watches a video ad in exchange for free content or in-game currency.

Meeting Consumers in “The New Normal”

The shift in consumer behavior has also moved from the desktop to the mobile phone. Growth in consumer goods went up 7.2% from January to September last year, while there was a concurrent 6.1% decline in consumer spending on services (e.g., hotels, restaurants, movie theaters). People are buying more stuff and fewer experiences.

Widespread vaccine availability is still a few months away, so leaning into your digital and mobile customer acquisition (and indeed, branding at large) strategy will pay dividends, just like it did for those who were ahead of the curve going into 2020.

Even after the pandemic is “over,” for a lot of the ways consumers interact with brands, things won’t go back to the way they were. How many people who would never have thought to have groceries delivered are never going back to the store for orange juice? A lot. Curbside pickup is here to stay. App-based ordering and QR-code menus are here to stay.

Don’t Take the Wrong Lesson from Mobile

Mobile by itself is not a clear winner, because for most consumers, there’s no such thing as “mobile” in the same way there’s no such thing as just “TV” – there are TV channels, radio stations, and so on.

“Maybe I’ll just advertise on mobile web!” you say. It’s 2021 and most people are in-app, so you’ve just ignored most of your audience. For most consumers, their mobile phone is their collection of apps. Outside of the occasional search, most consumers first stop when they open their phone is an app, not their mobile browser.

I might take a short political deviation here as a good example of this thought process — Parler, the right-wing social media network set up because [mostly American] conservatives viewed Facebook and Twitter as “too liberal,” was removed from the app stores in the wake of the January 6th US Capitol attempted coup. Instead of simply typing “Parler.com” into their browsers, and adding a home screen bookmark, former Parler users (some of whom, I’m sure, didn’t support the subversion of democracy) were installing an entirely unrelated app, Parlor, or an app called MeWe.

Like I said, not the most brand-safe example of how people view their phones, but the point is clear: Apps win over mobile web.

Speaking of brand safety, “Maybe I’ll just advertise on social media, then, I already do that,” you might say. Take a step back and think about what content your ads will appear next to. These days, it’s a crapshoot.

Brand safety on social media is at an all-time low, and even beyond that, it tends to just bum people out, even if they don’t realize it. If you know anything about marketing, you know that happy people remember ads better, and they also form positive associations with brands.

So what is the best top-of-funnel channel to get consumers to engage with your brand on mobile? As I mentioned at the top, mobile games are the winner. Whether you want to address gamers, or people who’ve never held a controller in their life, you can probably find them playing a mobile game.

Embrace the change, experiment, and dive into channels that weren’t on your radar at the start of 2020. For those that do, 2021 will be an opportunity to emerge smarter and stronger than ever.

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