Topline numbers show eSports has made it to the big leagues–which is why many publishers are aligning with Skillz. Its mobile eSports platform connects billions of mobile gamers through competition. Our host Peggy Anne Salz from MobileGroove catches up with Justin Sampson, Manager of User Acquisition at Skillz, to discuss how he and his team draw from audience insights to acquire and activate users with a deep passion for gameplay without digging deep into their budget to do it. Justin, a Mobile Hero recognized for his app marketing expertise, shares some of the secrets behind his top-performing campaigns and creatives and valuable advice for marketers determined to be (and stay) at the top of their game.


Hello and welcome to Mobile Presence.  I’m your host, Peggy Anne Salz, with Mobile Groove, where I plan, produce and promote content that allows my clients to reach performance goals and scale growth.  And growth is what it’s all about here at Mobile Presence – growth with mobile and we get the inside track on how you can grow your mobile app from the UA experts because it is their daily job.  And we do this, we do this on a bi-weekly basis, if you’re missing these episodes then go check them out again because they are definitely worth it.

And of course, they are amazing UA ninjas as well because they have been chosen and recognized for this success from the company Liftoff, a full-service mobile app marketing and retargeting platform and they have earned the title of Mobile Hero and that’s why we have them, as I said, on the show.

So, I’m excited about the series and I know it’s the one that you’re excited about because I’m reading your tweets, I’m checking out how you’re connecting with me and another thing I’m really excited about out there, however, and you should be too, is the massive growth of eSports.  I was just reading a Newzoo report about it, it is huge and it is something that’s going to be also on our radar going into 2019. 

And to talk about how to grow your app but also to talk about the concept of eSports and the type of audience for eSports, and just get that all really on the record because this is again what he does as his daily job is our guest today, he is Justin Sampson, Manager of User Acquisition at Skillz.  Justin, great to have you today on Mobile Presence.

Hey Peggy, great to be here.

So, I’m excited about this, it was just by accident I was actually going through some emails and checking out what everyone is getting into and, again, great reports from Newzoo, other coverage about it – eSports is definitely, definitely high on the radar but tell me first about yourself and Skillz because there’s a great connection there that I want to go into but I first want to understand what you do over there.

Yes, certainly.  So, as you mentioned previously, I manage the user acquisition team here at Skillz which falls in the consumer marketing division.  I started as a marketing analyst back in November 2015 and moved my way to managing the team.  Before that, I worked at Accenture as a consultant and I studied statistics and economics at UC Berkeley before that, so that – that’s a little background on myself.

For Skillz, Skillz was founded in 2012 and created patented a technology platform that can be integrated into any mobile game out there and it provides features including tournament organization, anti-cheating, anti-fraud mechanisms, and broadcast narratives for over a million tournaments a day, and so that’s kind of the Skillz core platform.

I mean, I mentioned it, it’s definitely hot, we’re going to be seeing a lot more and hearing a lot more about eSports but it’s also kind of a misunderstood megatrend, you know.  In a way, everything sort of rolls in there but how would you actually describe it?

So, eSports is kind of, as it stands today, synonymous with kind of hyper-competitive gaming.  What Skillz aims to do is kind of democratize the accents to eSports which is why our tagline is “eSports for everyone”.  It’s primarily now a console-based computer-based phenomenon that we are trying to bring to mobile and there are 2.6 billion mobile gamers out there so the market for integrating eSport, having people play eSports on their phone is actually quite vast.

Well, let’s talk about that, Justin, you brought me to it, great segue, people are playing this on their phone but what kind of audience does eSports attract?  I mean, when I think about it, I’m thinking about the gung-ho tribes of people who get into sports and want to really live the life, almost live only in the game but it’s quite different from that – what are your observations telling you?

So, Skillz games certainly tend to attract people with a more competitive nature than average obviously the games are player vs player, so that helps inform our creative concepts and lends itself to certain types of interests that might have an affinity towards playing competitively.  Our users also – they’re playing on the go – this isn’t a 20 hour a day thing, all our top users do play every day for quite a good number of hours, a lot of people play at home while they’re watching TV, while they’re in the bedroom, sitting on the couch, so there’s a lot of overlap between traditional mobile gaming.

There’s also a nice mirroring between physical games and their digital equivalents.  We find that people who like to play bowling in real life, you know, also like to playing bowling in the digital world so that’s somewhat of an obvious but also, you know, relevant overlap and it makes targeting for games that have a physical world counterpart a little easier to promote on the UA side.  That’s what I would say the kind of audiences that we’re targeting at a broad level.

But on a more sort of granular level, you know, because it is always important to start with the audience, you’re seeing a vast number of I guess audience segments, it’s very broad for you.  Is it what – do you dip into the fact that you’ve got this really strong data science, data marketing background from Accenture and elsewhere to help you keep all that clear because you’re looking over – you have the companies in your eco-system and you’re assisting them in acquiring users for their games, but it’s also quite broad.  How do you sort of do the macro and the micro?

Yes, certainly.  Well, I’d say the number one thing is it’s important to have a great team and we have a great team here, but then on the macro and the micro, it’s also important to dive into the data and get your hands dirty, you know, paying out insights from wherever you can find them is crucial.  I was looking through some insights data several months back and I noticed that a lot of the – in certain games that we have, the relevant interest was like maybe like a baby magazine or like baby clothes and things like that, so the first thing you might think to do is okay, I’m just going to target that interest group on Facebook or whatever to see if I can get some users but once you think a little bit deeper, it’s like who are the people who were actually interested in these things?  Well, it’s the parents of the children, so then, you know, you start to think about different creative messages that you can create for this demographic and then you just put a bunch of different concepts that might speak to them, take down the ones that don’t work and then iterate on the ones that do.

Having a keener eye on the data and looking at that data every day is – it’s crucially important because we promote so many games, it’s kind of easier to silo those games and then you think about, okay, this is working for game one, this is working for game two, and then you start to see trends kind of across the games.  Then, if you have a creative concept that hits across multiple games, that’s really the golden egg, right, because then you don’t have to come up with a thousand different creatives, you have one creative you can put across a hundred games, change up certain elements of it to make it game-specific and then boom – you’re deploying vast amounts of capital on that concept which is – it’s great to see when the team and myself, when we come up with a concept that’s really hitting, you know, it’s just really great to see.

I’m just curious because I’m sort of imagining you, Justin, you’re sitting at something like NORAD with all these screens in front of you – how many games, first of all, are you managing?  I mean, it’s interesting company, Skillz, I’m excited by it, I might be writing about it in Forbes very soon indeed because you have this vast eco-system – you probably have one heck of a daily routine?

So, we have, you know, we have thousands of games on the system.  We let the top ones bubble up to the top and then we promote, at any one time, ten or more different titles that we’re pumping traffic into, measuring the effects and that’s only growing.  When I first started, we were pumping traffic into one and so…


It’s been really interesting to see a system scale the way that Skillz has scaled.  You know, we were number one on the Inc. 5000 in 2017 which kind of helped prove out the business model but just getting there was pretty mind-blowing in terms of what that took in terms of the data pipelines that we needed to make sure we’re working, the creatives that we needed to be testing, all the different elements of the system that worked on a very small granular level – kind of me just putting up some ads on Facebook and making my own creative versus having a fully built out system and processes and things like that to make sure that everything is running smoothly has been quite a ride.

I can imagine, that’s why I like having you here on our show today because we’re benefiting not just from your insights as a UA expert and marketer but we’re also – as you said, thousands that you’re looking across and we do have to go to a break right now, Justin, but when we get back, we’re going to be talking about your data insights and how they’ve allowed you to make some amazing matches between audiences, campaigns and creatives, but, listeners, we have to go to a break now, we’ll be right back.

And welcome back to Mobile Presence.  I’m your host, Peggy Anne Salz with Mobile Groove and our guest today, Justin Sampson, Manager of User Acquisition and Mobile Hero at Skillz.  And Justin, right before the break, we were going to just dive into what I think is probably one of the most interesting aspects of your work which is data-driven creative thinking because you have to pay attention to your data but you also have to be very empathetic, think about your audience, think about the creatives that work there and I’m sure in all of that you’ve got some interesting stories in both directions to tell us.  The surprises that were the great big surprises, or maybe even your favorite failures for that matter.  Let’s start and be optimistic – some of your coolest examples or surprises that became top performing creatives for you.

Sure, so this one I came up with a few years ago, and it was kind of one of the first creatives I came up with and when we started, when I started, I was doing my own tracking, you know, my own analytics, making my own creative, it was really an end to end UA service that I was figuring out.

You were a one-man show, Justin.

And so one creative I came up with, again, this was a few years ago, and some elements of it are still being used today – at its core was just a bowling ball.  So, the background is, I was just kind of serendipitously thinking about – it’s a really strange story but I was randomly thinking about a painting by Rene Magritte called “The Treachery of Images” where there’s a wooden pipe on a brown background and in French underneath the pipe, it says “This is not a pipe” in French, and so it’s true when you think about it because the painting isn’t a pipe, it’s a picture of a pipe.

And so don’t ask why I was thinking about, I promise there’s a point and so the point is that I thought maybe I’ll try that concept on a strike bowling ad and so, you know, at the time, my photoshop skills and video editing skills were not as refined and the team would tell you today that they’re still not very refined but what I did was I put a wooden bowling ball on a brown background and then I put the text – “This is not a bowling ball, this is an ad for Bubble Bowling Game where you can win prizes by competing”.  That was it, that was the entirety of the ad, it was an image, I put it up on our ad networks and all of a sudden, it was bringing in, you know, it was converting like a beast.

CTR, the click-through rate, was not terribly good because it wasn’t so compelling from a visual standpoint, so it wasn’t very clickable – the conversion to install, from click to install, was fantastic.  People who read it knew exactly what they were getting into and then the conversion from install to payer was also way above what we had seen before.

We were bringing in the cheapest users that we had ever brought into the system and so we were able to scale that up not only on Strike Bowling but then as other games came into the system, you know, that concept, it’s rather simple, right, this is not a bowling ball, this is not a golf ball, this is not a pool ball…

They couldn’t scale it because you’d got all those games, kind of cool.

And then you’re not even – even with things that didn’t even really make sense like we have a match 3 game called “Diamond Strike” – “This is not a diamond” and it didn’t even make a ton of sense but people loved it.  And I don’t believe it was that people knew the painting and that the ad was kind of like a subtle reference but I think the idea, you know, around the meta aspect of the ad really spoke to the audience and that was when we really started to like deploy and lock up capital on one creative.

So, since then, you know, I’ve come up with other hits, now my team comes up with hits, you know, everybody comes up with hits and when we, again, when we see something really resonating with the audience, it’s a great time on a team because we’re all thinking about how can we iterate it, there are new concepts and then there are iterations, so you come up with a new concept that hits, and then you’re just iterating, you know, iterating and iterating and trying to optimise it and get the most out of that creative but, you know, how do you go from something not existing to something existing?  That’s the creative part and that’s, personally, I love that.

It’s also a lot about thinking outside the box in where and how you can engage your audience – you have a lot of women and mothers and the like playing these games and you have to sort of think outside the box, say “Okay, where can I get their attention, how can I get their attention?”  It’s maybe different websites, different channels, different ways.  What can you tell me about your creative thinking when you turn it to, okay, one is making the creative and the other is being very creative about where you find your audience?

Yes, certainly, there are a few different ways you can target typically.  There are the traditional lookalikes which you just take a list of users, throw it up, let the algorithms do their thing, then you can hit different interest groups.  One of the things that I think is interesting is on different video ad networks and DSPs trying to match the creative to the specific app that’s being shown.  And so you can actually understand, a decent amount of an audience by the app that they’re in.  So, that’s one way of targeting.

A lot of times, you throw it up on different interest groups, see what’s sticking and you test across a wide test matrix, you know – you just don’t want to just test one concept on one audience, you really put three or four concepts up on ten or twenty different audiences and you start aggregating the data, seeing what’s working and then that really points you in a direction that you can iterate.

It’s also a little bit about thinking, almost seeing your audience – I heard this at a conference once, see your audience as a bunch of zebra or something and you want to know the watering holes because when you find the watering holes, if you’re a lion or something, you find your prey at the watering hole.  I don’t say we want to prey on our audience, don’t misunderstand me, but it was at a conference and it was the whole idea of here they are, a bunch of zebras, you want to get bunches of them – find their watering hole.  Do you take that approach and what kind of interesting watering holes have you found to find some good audience who are going to be engaged and interested?

Thanks for the analogy, Peggy.

No prey here, but anyway – it is an interesting topic and everyone’s looking at it, so what are you seeing?

The way I think about the creative is kind of the intersection of people and analytics, and so it’s always – it’s really great to be looking at the data and understanding the numbers but then it’s equally as important to try to understand like what does that mean in terms of who your user is as a person, and it’s crucially important to put the audience first.  And so we’ll start out with what are things that – why would people use the platform?  Well, they like to compete, they don’t want to waste their time just playing a regular game, they want to play an eSports game, right?  They like that kind of, kind of like do something better, right.

And so you can start to incorporate that into the ad and then when you target that at a specific interest group or a specific region, you can begin to make, you can iterate that and find the ad that’s truly resonant and then begin to scale that up.  I don’t want to say the same thing over and over again but that’s kind of the way that we typically approach it.

And I would imagine also just as at a high-level view, can you just give me like a timeline, how long do you watch something until you’re convinced that you have a hit on your hands?

So, that’s kind of an interesting question.  So, it’s really easy actually to pick out the top ads.  You can find those right away, it doesn’t actually take that long to realize that an ad is going to be a hit.  You can do it in a few thousand impressions, right, because it’s so resonant and that top ten percent or even five percent is really easy to pick up.

What’s somewhat harder to discern between is that middle, and it’s also really easy to pick out the bottom one, the ads that suck, those are easy, cut them, the audiences that suck – when I say suck, I mean from a performance KPI perspective.

It’s 30% and under, it’s just way, way low or it’s way, way high and you’re talking about that huge middle.

That middle, that’s where it gets tricky, that’s where some of the analytics come into play around hit detection, early hit detection, where shall we spend, what’s worth an iteration, what’s not worth an iteration, being able to understand that is important to us.

I may have you back just to tell us about that, Justin, that’s fascinating.  I hadn’t thought about hit detection in that sense but yes, absolutely, there are signs that are going to tell you when you’re hitting it big in the middle ground and when something is worth another iteration or not.  Unfortunately, we do have to go to a break but, listeners, don’t go away, you can hear that we’re having first of all a great time here but also really valuable insights so don’t go away, we’ll be right back after the break.

And we are back.  Welcome back to Mobile Presence.  I’m Peggy Anne Salz with Mobile Groove and we have today Justin Sampson, Manager of User Acquisition at Skillz.  Justin, before the break, we were talking about some interesting topics that I may have you back again but in the meantime, you know, a lot of our audience, yes, they’re going to be interested in UA and we’ll get to that in a moment, but others are – they might be interested in the business of what you’re talking about which is democratizing the access to eSports, which I think is exciting and a great mission that you’re on.

But, how would one then engage with Skills?  I mean, you’re making this possible – how would they benefit?

Sure, so the platform has elements of B2B and B2C, so I obviously come in on the B2C side with the games that we’re actually promoting which can all be found at or on your mobile device.  Not all of them can be found there but a good portion of them are there, so that’s how you can engage with the different games as a consumer.

On the B2B side, as a developer, there’s kind of two ways to engage with Skillz.  You can be an indie dev, you kind of just want to do a project, then there’s a self-service platform accessible through or self-service SDK that’s accessible through for developers – you go in, there’s a tutorial and it’ll take you step by step on how to integrate the Skillz SDK into a mobile game, and the process is very much the same under a managed service as well where we – there’s just somebody there, you know, working on the account.  So those are the different ways that folks can engage with Skillz.

What about getting into UA?  It was really interesting, I was at a conference recently in Berlin and I was just like, “Damn, I studied the wrong stuff, I swear” because someone got up and told us what data scientists and data analysts and data marketers – that a 6 figure salary is table stakes – a 7 figure, even 8 figure is something.  So, I mean, there’s plenty of reasons to get into it from that perspective but there still are people that are on the fence about UA.  I mean, what would be your advice to them, what they need to be doing, the skills they need to have – no pun intended – or what they need to be thinking of, maybe beyond the money.  A lot of people do it for love, not for money – what would they love or what should they love about UA?

All the skills, all the skills of UA.  Yes, I mean, first of all, you want to dust off your data skills, you need to have a keen understanding of data, you know, what it means, how to manipulate it, how to do things quickly, you know.  Also understanding when you truly understand data, you can understand the 80/20 rule really does apply, 80% of the insight versus 20% of the effort, and so you can only do that and be quick if you do have a keen understanding of data.  This is where my statistics degree came into play.  I’ve always enjoyed mathematics.

And so, that’s one, being able to analyze your data, manipulate it, SQL, R, Python, being proficient in Excel and those are kind of – those are table stakes really.

I would say it’s important to believe in the product that you’re promoting, you know, that’s when you’re going to be the most engaged and it’s important to be engaged because there’s a lot of creative thought that goes into UA.  I’ve thought of creative concepts walking around a farmers’ market on a Sunday, I’ve thought of creative concepts watching a movie, you know – that creative spark can really hit anywhere and you want to be able to capture that lightning in a bottle and make sure you don’t forget it.  So being engaged and really wanting things to work as opposed to just going through the motions is crucial.

And then I would say take a few hours or days or a week, whatever, to learn the best practices and processes, there’s tons of tutorials online, really become an expert on what the traditional thinking is and then once you understand what the traditional thinking is, then you can break it, then you can figure out how to make it better and that’s kind of what gives you your edge.

And probably that’s sort of your daily routine, finding rules and – finding something to break with a hammer to get something really amazing as a result.

Yes, yes, we have some good hammers on our team.

Well, Justin, it’s been great having you on the show.  I mean, I’m sure that our listeners are saying “Yes, I want to find out more, I want to keep up with Justin”.  You do have an amazing blog and I’ll tell the readers where they can read that over on the Liftoff website but how else can they stay up to date with you?

Sure.  The team is hiring aggressively so connect with me on LinkedIn, we’re trying to expand, we’ve been a lean mean fighting machine and so we want to bring in the people who are going to be able to help with our mission, there’s that, reaching out to the Skillz Facebook page, the social presence is a good way to do it.  The main way to get in touch with me would be through my LinkedIn.

OK, and we’ll have that of course in the show notes as well.  And that, my friends, is a wrap – of course more weeks will be coming jam packed with more Mobile Heroes from more amazing companies, so do stay tuned.  And if you want to read up on Justin or any of the other Mobile Heroes in the series, check out their dedicated page and blog over at 

And if you want to keep up with me throughout the week or find out more about how you can be a guest or sponsor on Mobile Presence, then you can email me,, Mobile Groove and of course you can check out my portfolio of content marketing and app marketing services.  You can also check out this and all earlier episodes of our show by going to or you can find our shows on iTunes, Stitcher, Spreaker and iheartRadio simply by searching Mobile Presence.  So until next time, remember, every minute is mobile, so make every minute count.  We’ll see you soon.