A comprehensive guide to organic and paid UA for mobile games

December 13 · Nick Schultz · 9 Min read
Building a successful UA strategy requires persistence. Combining organic and paid tactics, understanding your audience, and continuously optimizing your approach, you can attract and retain players who will keep your mobile game thriving.
User Acquisition

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Acquiring new users for your mobile game is like dating. You must woo and impress those you wish to attract by showing them your best moves. 

Capturing the hearts of new players to download your game comes with tremendous upside  — consumers spent an average of $1.63 billion on mobile game downloads in the first three months of 2023 alone. Meanwhile, competition is flooding the app stores with 460,000 games on Apple’s App Store and 390,000 on Google Play. 

There’s much to understand and consider if you want to grow your user base. Prioritizing new user acquisition (UA) demands a solid grasp of: 

  • What channels are best 
  • Proper budgets allocations for paid versus organic 
  • Strategy that makes sense for your business 

Increasing downloads might be a goal, but make sure you’re considering longevity and other methods to keep players coming back. Building a strong relationship helps ensure you don’t get dumped. 

If you’re looking for what it takes to acquire new users and which UA channels can help you get there, this article is for you. 

We cover both organic and paid UA strategies for mobile games and practical tips for attracting an engaged audience. 

What does a user acquisition strategy entail? 

No matter how well conceived and executed your game is, it needs new players to stay profitable and succeed. It’s as simple as that. A strong UA strategy leads users to download your game. Your continued UA efforts are the most impactful way to go from hundreds to thousands to millions of users. 

If you have experience with paid customer acquisition channels, you may have experienced initial downloads quickly. 

This is great until you start to see a drop a few days later. Users uninstall when they aren’t engaging with a game after one or two plays. While this is normal for an app in today’s market, a strong UA strategy entails a deep and wide vision for your business growth. 

It means creating a return on ad spend (ROAS) campaign. ROAS ensures you’re staying on top of your budget and with the information you need to invest in future budgets with precision. It means keeping up with the intense competition in mobile games — those 849,999 other seekers of connection on the App Store and Google Play. 

Metrics to keep an eye on for your UA strategy

The following metrics will help you understand where your UA efforts are paying off (as well as where they are not). Monitor how much you spend to acquire new users from various sources, such as paid ads. 

  • Cost per install (CPI): The price to acquire a new user from paid ads 
  • Cost per acquisition (CPA): Measures the total cost to acquire one user 
  • Return on investment (ROI): The returns you get from purchases and other activities in your game 
  • Cost per thousand (CPM): Also referred to as cost per mille, this is the amount earned per 1,000 views or impressions for ads 
  • Customer acquisition cost (CAC): The total cost to acquire a user 

In-app metrics — that cover what happens after players install your game —  tell their own story to help you identify the users who are highly engaged with ads and regularly play your game. Examining this data indicates how many high-quality users you have that you can build future campaigns around. These metrics include:

  • Lifetime value (LTV): The total amount a user is expected to spend on a game during their lifetime  
  • Average revenue per paying user (ARPPU): What paying users spend on a game 
  • Average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU): What daily active users spend 
  • Conversion rate: Percentage of users who make an in-app purchase or engage in a desired action, such as signing up for alerts 

Paid vs. organic: UA types for mobile games 

A UA strategy entails two main approaches: paid and organic. Be sure to use both to maximize your UA opportunities. 

Acquiring users through paid advertising 

Using the “pay to play” approach through paid ads is a common tactic. It’s an effective way to get new users. 

Platforms such as Google Search, Google Play, YouTube, and Google Display Network are excellent for getting started with paid ads. 

Start by concentrating on install volume — the highest number of downloads — and next-step actions for users to take after downloading. For example, you could ask users to watch an onboarding tutorial so they understand the gameplay mechanics. 

According to a report, the top paid UA channels are: 

  • Meta: 30%, including Facebook and Instagram 
  • Google: 30% 
  • Mobile ad networks: 10% 
  • Apple Search Ads: 10% 
  • Tiktok: 5% 

Paid ads allow your game to appear in front of a wide network of audiences. It’s important to assess and optimize your ad creatives so they stand out. If your creatives are outdated or hard to understand, you likely won’t drive many installs. 

Improve your ad creatives 

Ad creatives should be eye-catching, explain the mechanics of gameplay almost instantly, and include clear calls to action. 

If done right, players will download your game in droves. But what should you focus on first? Start with videos and playable ads if you haven’t yet explored this route. 

Video and playable ads

Video and playable ads are popular for mobile games because they allow you to showcase your game experience. 

Players get a chance to see the game’s complexities through catchy introductions and core gameplay mechanics. Playable ads do the same thing but offer users the chance to actually play the game and test it out. 

Remember that to get people to engage, you must think about your target audience and the factors that would motivate them to click, play, or try your game. For example, if your segment is really into character-driven games, you should showcase that the characters in your game are customizable. Test to find what works best and optimize as needed. 

Whichever paid channel you decide on, use data and analytics to better understand your performance. 

Organic user acquisition

Organic UA simply means you are not paying for your installs. While it may take longer to see a lift (compared to paid), organic UA offers an opportunity to get creative and try new ways of improving discovery of your game. 

For organic, use social media channels to elevate your brand’s awareness and build a strong community. 

App store optimization 

App store optimization (ASO) is an integral strategy of organic UA. It can be an easy, free way of attracting more users to your game. 

ASO presents another opportunity to improve your game’s creatives (through graphics, screenshots, and descriptions) so potential users can quickly grasp the core mechanics. Users will uninstall if there is a disconnect between what the user expects and what your game is actually about. 

When you optimize your mobile game’s listing in the app stores, you may increase the chances that it appears higher in the search results and, hence, installs. Think of it as SEO (search engine optimization) for mobile games. 

You can refine your mobile game through: 

  • Keywords: Use relevant keywords in the game title and description; use Apple’s App Store separate keyword field to input this information 
  • Icons: Make sure the icons you use make a statement and follow current trends 
  • Screenshots: Consider adding a promo video to showcase your game’s main features 
  • Reviews: Ask existing users to rate and review your game, which determines how your game ranks in the app stores 

Combine paid and organic strategies

A killer strategy involves driving conversions with both paid and organic channels. According to one report, you can get up to 1.5 organic installs for every paid install. 

Many mobile games start with paid UA to generate traffic, buzz, and downloads. Once the word spreads, they segue the strategy to include a more organic push. 

Combine each to maximize your UA efforts. 

Apple Search Ads

Apple Search Ads are useful because they appear in front of users searching for a game or app. These users are motivated to download something specific, so optimizing your Apple Search Ads will help you solve the issue of reaching the right people at the right time. 

Another reason they matter more now than in the past is the depreciation of IDFA, which makes it harder to offer personalized ads to iOS devices. 

Apple Search Ads are quickly becoming an effective channel for acquiring new users, allowing you to reach relevant and highly targeted audiences and demographics by location, gender, and sex. 

Reports claim a conversion rate of up to 50% on Apple Search Ads — an impressive number. 

Identify your target audience’s behaviors 

Take a look at your competitors’ audience. Competitive research can help you gain a grasp of target audiences that are similar to yours. Look for demographics such as gender, location, age range, and device types. 

You can dig a few layers deeper and think through the interests and behaviors of your audience, which leads to a better understanding of what motivates your users. Some players may come to your game to relax and unwind, while others use it to socialize with the community. 

According to Facebook, these are common player motivations:

  • Self-expression 
  • Social connection 
  • Progression 
  • Expertise 
  • Discovery 
  • Power 
  • Escapism 
  • Relaxation 

Knowing player motivations is a powerful part of connecting with your audience. It can be applied to other parts of your game, such as improving your ad creatives

Which channels should you choose? 

Pick the channels that you know you can reach your user base or find a group similar to your target audience. For example, consider TikTok or Instagram for a slightly younger audience, or Facebook for an older one. 

Use a combination of paid and organic strategies. Analyze the effectiveness of your UA efforts by tracking your KPIs and performance metrics. 

Like dating and getting to know someone, UA is a slow and steady process that takes time and effort. Keep iterating and find out what works best. Test, retest, and then optimize. 

If you want to learn more about how to improve your UA, read our other UA guides or check out our UA solutions