How To Start a User Acquisition (UA) Program (Part 1 of 3)

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A lot of developers worry about user acquisition (or “UA”), the process by which they attract users to their game. As a discipline, user acquisition has existed for about a decade, but it’s always changing. If you’ve found yourself struggling to make sense of it, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Plenty of established marketing leaders have experienced the same struggle, and the field evolves so quickly that opinions and processes rapidly become outdated and obsolete.

However, there are concrete steps you can take to set yourself on the right path. One of the most critical steps is to set your UA program on strong foundations even before you decide to hire your first UA manager or get help from a consultant or an agency. Those foundations are common to many apps and games. Whether working with existing properties across established verticals or setting up a program from scratch, there is a core set of universal, foundational questions that every business should ask as they get into UA. 

So whether you’re just considering starting a paid UA program or just want to get going with a few things, I encourage you to ask those questions and think through their answers. In this post and the next two in this series we’ll go through some of the most common questions, like goal setting, analytics, media deployment, and creative production. It’ll make everything you do easier, and help you make sure you have the right resources in place before you need them.

Goal Setting

Goals are often taken for granted, particularly the following: “we want to generate ROAS” (return on ad spend). Of course, everyone wants to feel as though the money they spend in advertising should at the very least pay for itself, and of course much more. But very few successful apps or games manage their UA in this manner. They typically don’t think much about achieving true ROAS because to do so would require an incredibly short payback window, and therefore would leave a lot of opportunity on the table. 

Instead, most successful UA programs assume some uncertainty. They assume there will be a degree of disconnect between the KPI being targeted and actual business value, usually within whatever range of ambiguity the business can permit . There is also no one set value of ambiguity. It varies based on the product. Maybe you’re using D7 revenue to estimate a cohort’s D180 return, which has a lot of ambiguity. Or maybe you’re focused on getting CPIs lower than your average LTV, which is a specific goal. Either way if you’re obsessed about ROAS you might find yourself pausing a campaign and waiting around for whatever payback window you’ve set, which goes against your other goals. (You should be targeting an intermediate step as a KPI and assuming, even if based on data, that it will turn into business value.)

The point is – goals matter and they can have unintended consequences. That’s why setting the right goals is critical. You need to be very sure that the KPI you’re targeting will actually drive business value rather than get in the way of it, which is easier in some cases than others. You also need to be able to translate that goal into something actionable for a UA program. (For example saying you want to bring CPIs below average LTV is one thing, but how does that translate to a campaign you might run?). It’s also critical to understand the difference between business goals and UA goals. A business goal may be something like generating revenue or hitting a certain monthly active user (“MAU”) target, while a UA goal has to be more tactical. 

A good UA goal, or KPI (“key performance indicator”) typically incorporates a few key items, such as:

  1.  It will result in enough data to differentiate traffic while also providing enough for analysis. A lot of algorithms will want at least ~5% of users to trigger your event, for example.
  2.  It will occur often enough, and quickly enough, that you can make budget decisions around it. It also needs to happen within the window that major ad platform’s algorithms look at, typically that means in the first 7 days. *That’s shrinking to 1-3 days with recent updates on iOS. 
  3. There is enough consistency in users that perform the action that the business is comfortable making assumptions about their future value (LTV).

Translating a business goal is something that a UA pro can help you figure out, but leadership needs to be part of it. It’s essential that leadership both (1) believes the UA goal will lead to the business goal and (2) are comfortable with any ambiguity or assumptions. Not having either of those agreements will lead to finger-pointing if expected business value doesn’t materialize, or lead to an inefficiency in allocating resources if there isn’t real buy-in on the belief in the KPI’s value.

Once you’re done defining your goals, you’ll be ready to move on to deciding how to track those goals. Stay tuned for my next blog post in this series where I’ll describe how to approach setting up analytics.

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