Nothing about 2020 has been anything close to normal. This has especially been the case for app publishers and their monetization teams. While app usage is up across many categories, some brands has curtailed ad budgets amid the overall economic uncertainty.
So what can these app and ad ops teams do to put themselves in the best possible position going forward? To find out more, we recently chatted with Chas Castell and Ben Green from PubRev+, a premier independent global consultative agency providing commercial optimization and strategic revenue creation for app publishers.
Q: What are you doing during shelter in place? Are there any apps you're finding yourself using more frequently these days?
- Ben: Casual games, news, YouTube, COVID symptom tracker. As with so many other people during this time, I’ve been seeking both escape and connection. I divide my time between feverish scanning of the news and long escape sessions playing games to distract myself from the news I’ve just absorbed. Also, I now buy stocks apparently. I can’t say trade, because I haven’t sold any yet, but I have caught the Robinhood bug.
- Chas: I’ve ended up playing a lot of our publishers’ games with my children - trying to balance keeping their screen time at a minimum with the fact that they’re now at home and see me playing fun games all the time. (Of course I’m also checking integrations and adhoccing, right...)
Q: Among the publishers and ad ops professionals you know and work with, what is the mood like for them right now? What's top of mind for them?
- Ben: The ones I’ve spoken to are nervous, concerned to see how the industry will shake out. There’s still so much uncertainty about everything. Top of mind is holding onto jobs as ad dollars dry up or and there is some desperation over finding work again in a market saturated with job seekers. It actually looks like the elimination of third-party cookies is going to wreak more havoc than the pandemic – at least for publishers. The lapse of funding for enhanced unemployment is going to cause another contraction in advertising as people tighten their belts again. Now we’re seeing lots of cycles being taken up with iOS 14 and the fatigue that comes with that.
- Chas: It’s mixed. When COVID first hit, there was the usual fear of what would happen to the market. Many brand verticals obviously stopped spending, but performance advertising has remained strong. As we’re now in the next phase there’s a sort of normalcy that’s begun to set in, and some of the travel and event advertising is coming back. For the first time that I can remember people are conscious that the market outlook is very dependent on the political landscape, and the relative competency of the federal government to control the virus. What people are left with is just massive uncertainty. Of course performance advertising is about to be rocked by iOS 14.
Q: What does the current landscape look like right now for mobile apps?
- Ben: People have more time on their hands so some apps are going to get a boost, but media apps are struggling because people have no need to look at a small screen when they're stuck at home all day in front of their big one.
- Chas: CPMs for some ad units are down, while for others they are flat. We are still seeing some end-of-month burst campaigns from brand advertising - it’s a mixed bag. The uncertainty and the normalization of that uncertainty in the market feels very familiar, honestly. We know that consumer spending is going to come down. I think people are just waiting for things to really get bad. Going into Q4 this year reminds me of Q4 2016, where there were so many odd drivers of highs and troughs in the ad marketplace. Like 2016, the U.S. election will be a not-talked-about variable on confidence - and energy - levels in the marketplace, which will affect spend and supply chains.
Q: What do consumers want and expect from mobile apps right now?
- Ben: Entertainment, distraction, trustworthy information.
- Chas: Yeah, I think a lot of distraction. If you look at what is getting into the zeitgeist, it’s comedy and music. All the things that society generally craves when they have to get away from reality. What’s so bizarre is there are two Americas at the moment: one that doesn’t really believe there is virus and is living its life as usual, and one that understands the dangers and urgency but doesn’t know what that means for the future.
Q: What steps should mobile app publishers and developers be taking now? What about ad ops teams?
- Ben: Pivot. Experiment with ad models and types that you wouldn’t normally consider in a world saturated by CPM display. Look at CPC/CPA. Look at smaller advertisers, niche products. Brand dollars are up and down, and we don’t know how long ad verticals will have to tighten their belts. If we start the new year in the same lock down there will be a lot of layoffs, which will affect everyone in the brand space. Consider alternatives. Build direct relationships with products and influencers that align with your app’s brand.
- Chas: I would have said this months ago, but especially with iOS 14 looming on the horizon: look at IAP and paywalls for new content; we have always said to anyone who can listen that the future of mobile advertising is going to be about giving the user choices in the ads they consume. Building trust with your users so they understand and agree to the permission marketing that is happening. Be innovative. For all the cutting-edge technology we have, our industry is just as slow to innovate on creative solutions as others. Do something novel with ad choices in your app. Show the user you want them to have an amazing ad experience. CTV is experimenting with that sort of thing, and reaping the benefits of higher CPMs and better BI.
Q: While sessions for many apps are up, ad demand is down. What steps, if any, should publishers take to rectify this gap?
- Ben: Build a dialogue with users about sharing certain information. Create a value exchange. Reward them for providing gender, geo, age, etc. while making it clear that no personally identifiable information will ever leave the user’s device. Only aggregated information will be shared and ONLY for the purpose of targeting more relevant ad information. If users are brought into the conversation about advertising, they’ll be more tolerant of it. Especially given that relevant advertising can actually be a boon.
- Chas: In addition to finding other monetization loops, look at client optimization. The significant revenue comes from client optimization, fixes and best practices. There is only so much you can do server side. We’ve been getting a lot more publishers who understand the need to have their client code in the best shape, and just how impactful that is to their bottom line.
Q: What should mobile app publishers and developers do now to best position themselves for success once COVID-19 clears?
- Ben: Put in place alternative revenue channels now. Even when the brand ad dollars come back, there’s going to be a bloodbath as people do everything they can to compete for them - including offer rock bottom CPMs.
- Chas: We know that consumer spending is going to fall. We know that the unemployment numbers are going to have a major knock-on effect to the stock market. And we know that the federal government can’t keep people even vaguely afloat forever. We’ve been talking about a market contraction for a while - COVID has just accelerated it, and now we’re going into full recession. The mobile app industry has never really been through a recession. Brand budgets aren’t suddenly going to go back to radio or print or anything like that. It’s taken years and years to persuade brands to spend on mobile, and there is too much infrastructure to change budget allocations now. CTV might start taking more and more from mobile, but that world is so fractured I don’t see that affecting mobile for a good few years. As Ben said, the biggest challenge is going to be competition from other apps. Get yourself set up now with client optimization and creative monetization loops, so you are in the best place to maximize the ad dollars when they come back. Of course we still don’t really know how total ad spend will look going into 2021, but at PubRev+ we think the major brands will want to invest heavily and be associated with that feeling that people will get as we roll out home tests and trial vaccines, and start coming out of COVID (not to mention a new, steady hand at the federal level). I can just imagine lots of 5th Avenue meetings where brands model their post COVID messaging after what Coke has been doing for years, and attach themselves to a feel good emotion - because it will be a worldwide feel good emotion when we get to whatever the other side of COVID looks like.
Have any additional questions for Chas, or want additional insights on app monetization? Let us know! You can reach Chas at chas at pubrevplus dot com.
Interested in more insights from Chas? Be sure to check out this 40-minute Q&A with Chas on how COVID-19 has impacted in-app advertising and how mobile marketers can use their skillsets to support their favorite causes.
About the Author/Interviewer
Matthew Kaplan has over a decade of digital marketing experience, working to support the content goals of the world’s biggest B2B and B2C brands. He is a passionate app user and evangelist, working to support diverse marketing campaigns across devices.