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In contrast to other ad formats, playable ads are unique in that they aren’t just one component in a larger user acquisition funnel - they’re a funnel in and of themselves. The goal is to push users down that funnel, getting them to progress past the ad’s tutorial all the way through to the call-to-action.

This means we can break the ad experience into multiple touch points, just as you would when designing a mobile game. PlayWorks, which is ironSource’s in-house creative studio, quickly made that mental connection, understanding that we can effectively apply game design principles to ad design. The team did just that, marrying user acquisition and game design for the first time.

By treating playable ads like mini-games, the PlayWorks team was able to significantly increase various metrics, including “in-ad retention rates.” That’s when having a creative team made up of game designers and developers comes in handy.

Where game design and user acquisition meet

There are several parts to a playable ad: the tutorial introducing the player to the game, the gameplay itself, and the end card which displays the call-to-action (CTA). Depending on your UA campaign’s KPIs, any part can be optimized for retention. Let’s take a look.

D1 retention is our S1 retention

Instead of optimizing for Day 1 (D1) retention like you would in a mobile game, we optimize for Second 1 (S1) retention in a playable ad. At S1, retention rests on making sure users understand the ad is interactive and playable. This is where short, clear copy and icons like blinking hands work best. Tell the user they need to take action. Use strong action verbs like “match,” “tap,” “strike,” etc.

High S1 retention is a good indication of how well the playable ad will perform. If you set your KPI to S1 retention, it’s likely your campaign is centered around brand awareness. In other words, you want users to see your logo, associate your brand or game with a fun and enjoyable ad experience, and hope to convert them in a retargeting campaign later on. You’re measuring the initial look and feel, and first impressions of the ad.

S6 retention

In a 30 second playable ad, you don’t have much time to teach users how to play the mini-game. The user has to understand how the playable ad works in the first few seconds. That means the ‘tutorial’, which takes place in the first few seconds of the ad, must be optimized for retention.

There are many tips and best practices for increasing S6 retention - for example, show hands indicating where to swipe, highlight key buttons, offer obvious hints, and provide concise and explicit instructions that are impossible to miss.

At S6, you’re measuring the effectiveness of ‘onboarding’ the user into the ad. If the user doesn’t understand how to play the mini-game, they may get frustrated and close the ad. Or worse, they may continue playing the ad, install the app, and then uninstall later after realizing they don’t enjoy the game.

S14 retention

Halfway through the ad, at approximately 14 seconds, the user should be completely engaged, having fully understood the tutorial. The gameplay makes up the bulk of the ad, making it one of the most important, yet most difficult sections to optimize.

Just like in a mobile game, if the gameplay of a playable ad is too difficult, users will grow frustrated and move on. If it’s too easy, users might not feel like installing the app is worth their time. You need to find the sweet spot, setting the gameplay on the easy side of medium to get the best results. Guide them, but don’t give them all the answers. Keep them interested, and above all keen to come back for more.

It’s also important to know your genre. We’ve noticed an interesting correlation between game genre and difficulty: users who lose hyper casual playable ads are more likely to install. This type of information will guide your optimization strategy.

To still be playing the game at S14 means users have progressed through the tutorial or ‘early onboarding’ phase and are engaged within the core gameplay loop. Players at S14 are high-quality users who enjoy the gameplay, and thus are more likely to enjoy your game as well, making S14 a measure of overall playable ad enjoyment.

S30 retention

By S30, the user has completed the gameplay, reached the end card, and seen the call-to-action to install the game. This is as far as a user can get, making them the highest-quality acquired players possible. Any user who isn’t interested will have already x’d out by now. But not all players make it this far - and just because they have made it this far, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll click through to the app store and install.

In other words, quality can be very high, but scale is low, and the work of the ad is still not done. Ultimately, you still need to close the loop and entice users to click through and install. That’s what makes optimizing for S30 one of the more difficult bits of playable ad creative optimization.

In addition to the copy in the call to action, the colors of the button, and the graphics, it’s important to keep difficulty level in mind here as well. Did the player win or lose? The end result significantly impacts S30 retention, as users who win are more likely to make it through S30, and eventually convert.

Wrapping up

We understand that there’s no quick fix, or one-size-fit-all solution for increasing a game’s retention rates. It takes failing, optimizing, learning, and tweaking to first understand what makes your users tick, and then adapt your game design accordingly. Now, no matter the KPI, UA teams today can be sure that their playable ads perform as well as their games.

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