Senior User Acquisition Manager
It takes curiosity, ambition, and perseverance to take a game and make it grow to success. People from many academic backgrounds and career paths find their place in user acquisition (UA), but one thing they all have in common is a passion for constant learning and applying those learnings to see results and get a game in front of players.
We met with Ekaterina Zueva, senior user acquisition manager at MY.GAMES, pushing titles like Rush Royale, Evolution 2, and World Above way beyond the finish line and discussing her journey into mobile marketing, her perception of where the industry stands today, and the three tips she would give to anyone to increase performance.
Unity: How did you get into mobile marketing?
Zueva: I started my path in mobile marketing mainly dealing with the in-product flow for users in cyber security apps. Entirely by chance, my resume was spotted by a recruiter for MY.GAMES, we had a series of interviews, tests, and short talks, and it was an absolute match. That’s how I ended up working in the gaming industry.
I graduated in economics with a specialization in finances, then did my masters in international business. So, as you can see, a bit far removed from user acquisition. When I started, I didn’t have any UA experience, so at first I was a junior manager. However, that background in economics has helped with the numbers, and has come in handy for building models and test significance.
Since then, things have changed, and I’ve had the opportunity to work on many projects and genres, like casual, mid-core, and core games, working with multiple DSPs, video networks, and channels like Unity.
Unity: What are the key challenges you see in mobile marketing?
Zueva: I’ve been in gaming for three years now, and I think that it has been a rollercoaster of changes and pivots for the industry. I saw rapid and constant changes and almost every month something new was happening. So, as UA managers, we have to keep up and adapt.
I think the main challenge is keeping abreast of those changes. There are always new products, features, and instruments that allow us to do a better job, but also data restrictions, privacy regulations, cyber security issues, etc. The list is long and ever-growing, so we must stay at the cutting edge or risk decaying and losing momentum.
Unity: In contrast to those challenges, what do you see as the driver for user acquisition? What motivates you?
Zueva: What drives me is that there is a very cool mixture of responsibilities and possibilities in user acquisition, and I know I am at the very frontier of this fight. The diversity and scope of this role make it fascinating.
As the person in charge of growing our products, I have to exercise leadership, test new hypotheses, and be creative with our strategy, manage budgets and spend the money where it makes sense.
I love when we are running soft and global launches, as it allows us to express that creativity and put all our skills to the test. It is pretty thrilling to develop a strategy, deploy it, and see it perform when you launch it. You might spend long hours working on that, but the excitement makes them light and easy.
The essence of user acquisition is optimizing and simplifying processes. I found myself learning how to code and build some automatization tools that remove a lot of the manual work. So, you see, it’s a profession where you have to be in learning-always mode, be curious, and find creative solutions that will make your campaigns perform – and your life easier.
Unity: What the future looks like for mobile marketing. What do you think is the next moonshot?
Zueva: I’ve been writing my thesis about the platform's ecosystem, and it’s pretty interesting to see how Apple and Google will develop their ad networks within the ecosystem itself. It looks like as platform holders they might take a competitive advantage with their own UA tools in the iOS and Android app markets, so I am curious to see how other players will adapt and how advertisers will deal with the rising prices. It seems like the market is shrinking in terms of the number of players.
I’ve also been reading a lot about the “earn-to-play model,” a business model that embraces the concept of an open economy and provides financial benefits to all players who add value by contributing to the game world.
I expect this to change the approach to game economics and how user acquisition managers acquire players. I see many companies including this in their R&D, so it’s a matter of time for us to see its actual impact.
Another issue is navigating the regulations about privacy after Apple released their iOS14, which restricts how we can track and target users in many ways. When I started working at MY.GAMES, we had only a few large ad networks, and now we are running campaigns through more than 20 channels to diversify our efforts.
Using other channels has allowed us to track some of the data that is no longer available on other sources, and this is something that I expect will be the norm as more networks get more stringent with their regulations.
Unity: What are your test and proven strategies for acquiring users – generating installs, retention, and ROAS?
Zueva: This is probably already familiar to people working in the industry, but this is a practice that involves many actors.
Looking only at marketing budgets and how to spend them won’t cut it. There has to be a thorough market analysis and take a long look at the product itself. What are the niche markets? What are the possible prices? And so on.
This information, combined with the data from other projects, helps us predict those metrics and make a strategic plan.
We’ve also been tracking “virality” and included that into our models to make more accurate financial predictions and forecast lifetime player value (LTV), which has allowed us to boost our user acquisition over time.
The market is not static at all, so testing while considering the need for statistical significance is crucial.
Unity: Expanding a bit on predicting user value. How do you forecast lifetime value (LTV) for players?
Zueva: We built models that help us predict a player’s LTV. While I know many marketers look at these patterns for the short term, we always consider a long horizon and include IAP and IAA revenue. We have polished this to the point where we have +/- 95% accuracy by the third day, which allows us to understand what every single user will bring us.
Of course, some networks have these models built in. Unity is an example where the Audience Pinpointer’s algorithm helps us identify and predict LTV, but that’s just one channel. Our models allow us to complement that information and see it as a whole, including channels that don’t offer that possibility.
Unity: Let’s talk about ad creatives. What are the trends you see, and how do you use them?
Zueva: At least twice a year, you see trending mechanics for ads coming to the market and all the big players using more or less the same approach. These trends usually come from casual and hypercasual games, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what they are doing.
Again, testing is the name of the game here. Sometimes, even those trends that you see in those genres work like a charm, sometimes, they don’t. When it comes to ad creatives, it might feel that results come from very random variations, so the only way to move forward and stand on firm ground is to test them all.
In our case, we have our regular set of ads, and also include retargeting. What is important is to understand what drives different users to come back to the game. Some just want to be reminded of the game and understand that we know they’ve been gone for a while. Some want to know about new content and storylines. Others come back only if we offer them something to show them our loyalty.
These come with very different approaches, so the ad creative needs to cater to that need and appeal to what they want to do next.
Paying it forward
Unity: What would be your recommendation to increase performance for user acquisition?
Zueva: I have three tips I can think of:
- Never, ever, stop testing: Always test everything, no matter how good something looks on paper or how fabulous an idea might sound. Test ad creatives, new platforms, and features that your channels are releasing. Everything in this business is in flux, so you have to make sure you are working with the correct information.
As someone who comes from finances, I can’t stress enough the importance of having control groups and statistical significance. Ensure the data you are working with is as accurate and relevant as possible.
- Let your campaigns run: There shouldn’t be any abrupt changes in campaigns to guarantee that the system would learn. As UA managers, we must exercise patience and restraint by leaving campaigns running smoothly and completing their learning phases. This allows us to collect valuable data to iterate and run optimizations.
- Follow the rules: Each ad network has its guidelines and regulations. Make sure you keep up to date with those and follow their recommendations. They built those platforms and know better than anyone how they work. If they tell you not to change the setting more often than once a week, don’t do it.
This last one can be challenging, as oftentimes UA managers get pressured to reduce or increase volumes. You need to be able to defend your position and abide by the rules of the networks, so your campaigns don’t suffer. Educate management about the mechanics of UA, so there’s a shared understanding and setting of expectations.
Unity: Have you experienced mobile ad fraud? If so, could you share your advice on how to tackle it –or avoid it?
Zueva: Fraud is painful for many marketers, especially when working with a new network from a developing country. My advice here is that it’s always better –and easier–to prevent than to tackle a security issue.
While signing service agreements with the ad networks, always look for what they offer regarding cyber-security. It’s important to have this conversation at the source before you start sending and receiving traffic through them. Make sure you have definitions of what constitutes fraud for you, how much of it will be tolerated, etc.
Even with those safeguards, fraud is common coming from new and old partners, so we need to keep an eye on that. The way we do it is via our mobile measurement partners (MMPs). They analyze many metrics for us and can quickly identify irregularities (harmful devices, strange conversions, multiple clicks or installs, etc.), so we can take corrective action.
Unity: Speaking of working with ad networks, how do you choose them for your marketing mix?
Zueva: We have several partners that show stable performance, but at some point, we just reach the maximum with them. At this point, either optimize by scaling back our campaigns or find another network that might serve us better. For this, we have a list of partners we can start testing and see if they are a good fit.
But being part of a big company has its advantages as well. We have several gaming studios working within MY.GAMES that have vast experience working with many networks, so simply going to them and asking how those networks performed in the past is very helpful when choosing where to invest.
Again, testing gives us the data to make those choices, and we always consider the actual ROAS coming from a channel and how hard it would be to scale back the volumes.
Unity: Where do you go to stay updated with the rapid changes in the mobile ad tech industry?
Zueva: Networking and conferences are super important. Meeting other people from the industry – even competitors – helps me stay up to date.
Ad networks and MMPs always publish important technical information every UA manager probably needs to know. DataAI and Sensor Tower are also essential sources of information, as they help us paint a picture of the digital landscape.
Unity: What is the best piece of advice you have got that helped your career in mobile marketing?
Zueva: I’ve always been an A-grade student, so I’m always afraid of making mistakes. I guess I always thought I would never get a second chance. Asking for help was never my forte.
More than advice, I can tell of a personal experience and what I learned from it. When I first started working at MY.GAMES, I was just learning how to do everything, and I was afraid of asking for advice. I was just afraid to fail, showing weakness or lack of experience.
So, my manager asked me to set up my first campaign – actually with Unity – I made a big mistake. I entered the wrong cost per install (CPI) number for India, and I didn’t set a budget cap for the campaign. I went home, and the campaign kept running all night, spending a large chunk of the budget.
The next morning, I learned about my mistake, and my manager told me not to be afraid to solicit advice and ask questions. I guess the story's moral is not to be afraid of making mistakes, asking for help, and learning from others.
Unity: What piece of advice would you offer to people who are just getting started in mobile marketing?
Zueva: Mobile marketing is a place with many paths. You can go towards analytics, optimization, brand management, PR, and more. Whatever the path you decide, just take a look at your soft skills, don’t be afraid of asking questions, and learn as much as you can from others.
Be analytic, come to the table with your ideas and solutions, and get your curiosity switch turned on.
Ekaterina lives in Amsterdam, and you might see her running a triathlon, playing the guitar, joining her husband in playing video games, or checking what the competitors are doing.
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