Guest Contributor

by Aleney Chan, Director of User Acquisition at GameChangerSF 

Facebook, Google, and Apple continue to dominate the mobile app marketing industry, capturing over 70% in mobile ad spend in 2019. It’s no surprise that Facebook, Google, and Apple remain the top global media channels for mobile app marketers in terms of ad spend, quality, and scale. These companies have a vast amount of data to utilize for campaign targeting, which makes it rather difficult for other media channels to successfully compete.

Source: GameChangerSF internal data 2019 


But relying on Facebook, Google, and Apple is not the only option. Before we explore some of the benefits and challenges of mobile marketing outside of the “Big Three,” let us take a brief look at the different marketing channels in the mobile ecosystem. 


Other social networks—There are of course numerous other social networks including Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Pinterest, Reddit, etc. By now, many of these social networks have their own mobile advertising platforms and have somewhat similar audience targeting capabilities—including demographics, interests, behaviors, and even lookalikes (though only available for select social networks). However, the other social networks have a smaller user base, especially in comparison to Facebook and its properties including Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram. 


Source: Statista 2020 


Mobile programmatic / DSPs (Demand-side platforms)—A mobile DSP is a platform that connects to a supply of in-app ad inventory through ad exchanges and programmatically enabled ad networks. These platforms utilize proprietary machine-learning algorithms to manage media buys across a supply of in-app ad inventory and make predictions of future user behavior based on previously collected data. The audience targeting capabilities include location, device, and app category. DSPs can also target audiences by lookalike modeling, third-party data, and retargeting. It is also important to note that there will be a longer learning phase for the algorithms of DSPs compared to social networks. This is due to a shortage of first-party or proprietary data and the need to collect enough data from campaigns to train predictive models. 


Mobile ad networks—Many ad networks act as a “broker” between advertisers and a supply of in-app ad inventory called publishers. Perhaps the more prominent types are video ad networks. There are fewer targeting options due to the lack of data that is available. The audience targeting is usually limited to the location, device, OS version, and publisher level. Although many ad networks claim to have algorithms that help optimize campaigns towards ROAS goals or purchase events, these algorithms are not as advanced compared to the social networks that do have more data points. This leads to frequent manual optimizations through the blacklisting or whitelisting of publishers. Consequently, the learning phase also takes a longer time as ad networks need to collect a statistically relevant volume of install data in order to determine the top performing app publishers and effectively optimize campaigns. 


Pre-install networks—Examples of pre-install networks include Digital Turbine and Pinsight Media. These networks partner with mobile carriers and Android device manufacturers to have an app pre-installed on a factory-fresh device. Pre-installs should not be confused with installs. Since the mobile attribution partner only tracks the installs and not when the  app was loaded onto a device, the advertiser will only get charged per install once a user actually opens the app. Additionally, the targeting options are mostly limited to the country, carrier, and device. The volume potential of installs will depend on the available countries and carriers, with the carriers having their own separate requirements such as the maximum file size of the app. With very few audience targeting levers available, one can imagine that the audience targeting remains very broad. Campaign optimizations will be mainly focused on device level whitelisting and blacklisting. 


Branching Out Beyond the “Big Three”


Facebook, Google, and Apple may not be your only marketing options, but making the decision to move beyond the mainstream requires due diligence. Now that we have explored the different marketing channels, let us discuss some considerations you’ll have to wrestle with when deciding which option is right for you. 


1. Fewer data points and less audience targeting precision— Perhaps one of the more obvious reasons why most mobile app marketers rely heavily on Facebook is its deep breadth of data and scale all in one place. With tons of data, Facebook is currently able to provide the most precise audience targeting capabilities which also enables advertisers to gain better insights on their audiences. This can be especially helpful when you are a new brand or are launching a new product and want to learn about how well your brand or product resonates with a specific audience.
Although other social networks have similar audience targeting features, the level of precision is not comparable to that of Facebook at their current stages. In contrast, other mobile marketing channels outside of paid social have even fewer data points and are therefore even less precise in their targeting capabilities.


2. Self-service vs. managed service—The simple truth is social networks offer a self-service solution to advertisers. This makes any campaign change a breeze. However, when working with most mobile DSPs and ad networks, campaigns are often managed through the platform’s media strategist or account manager. Managed services are very common with the exception of a few select media sources. There is often a lack of control over campaigns and inefficiencies exist when working directly with a media strategist in order to make any changes to a campaign. This is especially the case when removing apps in the campaign targeting, let alone making bid or budget changes. The campaign changes will certainly not be instantaneous as in the case of working on a self-service platform. It is also important to be mindful that most managed service providers require minimum fees.


3. Transparency—Another drawback to working with a managed services provider is there is usually less transparency when it comes to pricing, ad placements, and campaign reporting insights. This is not always the case as some media sources are more transparent than others, but this is certainly an aspect to consider when exploring new media sources.


4. Campaign management efficiency and automation—In recent years, Google launched App Campaigns (formerly known as UAC, or Universal App Campaigns). This is a way for mobile app marketers to advertise apps across Google’s properties including Search, Display, Discover, Google Play, and YouTube, which essentially gives the algorithm control in deciding where to allocate the budget across different placements. Similarly, Facebook is also taking a further step from its already objective-driven AI approach with the release of its Campaign Budget Optimization feature.The mobile marketing industry is continuing to shift toward a more AI-focused automated approach. There are many other media sources that have or are planning to adopt a similar approach. This takes away full campaign control and reduces transparency, especially in Google’s case.


Automation seems ideal at first, as there may be less time spent on managing individual campaigns and ad sets, and more time focused on analytics. However, a completely automated campaign management feature does not necessarily make life easier for a mobile app marketer. This will require more advanced expertise of each of the media sources. Creative optimizations have become the primary lever for marketers. This will push for the greater need to create and distribute a large number of ad variations very quickly with tools like MultiVid. 


Achieving your app marketing goals  


Which media channels should I be spending with outside of Facebook, Google, and Apple? 

How many media channels should I be running with? 


There are no definitive answers to these questions. A “one-size fits all” approach does not exist, although there are a couple of media channels that are currently a much better fit than most. 


While more media channels are migrating toward an AI or algorithm-based approach, these changes are still in various stages and are by no means perfect. When looking to diversify the mobile marketing portfolio, it is not just about being mindful of the different aspects of each media channel—it is imperative to also have robust data to influence campaign optimization decisions. 


The mobile app advertising industry continues to evolve. User behaviors may change across different social media networks. It is important to focus on what makes the most sense for your product and ROAS goals in the dynamic mobile app marketing economy. 


To receive a detailed assessment of your media strategy and get help scaling your app, contact us at