In a market where people crave personal experiences and bypass ads they feel miss the mark, the pressure is on marketers to deliver relevant and riveting ad creatives that engage consumers, rather than annoy them. It’s a critical source of competitive advantage for marketers that want to activate and motivate audiences at scale. Without a blueprint to follow, though, many marketers are struggling.

Making the effort to combine the power of human ingenuity with insights gleaned from data analytics has its rewards, according to research by McKinsey, the management consultancy. It estimates companies that successfully integrate creativity and data enjoy a “2x difference in revenue growth.” Brian Gregg, a senior partner at McKinsey told WARC in an interview, “it’s the difference between growing 10% and 5%—a massive difference.”

Achieving such positive outcomes depends on organizations finding new ways of fusing creativity and data, Marco Esposito, a digital and creative strategy consultant based in Berlin, tells me in an interview. “It’s about moving from silos to squads, laying the groundwork for close collaboration between performance marketers and creative directors to align campaigns with the needs, characteristics and cultures of its customers,” he says. Formerly the Senior Content Performance Manager at food delivery app Delivery Hero, Esposito recalls Delivery Hero was higher than many on the learning curve when it came to making the match between ad creatives and key audience segments. “However, the capabilities of analytics tools at the time limited the ability of our team to measure results accurately and iterate rapidly,” he recalls.

Fast forward, and more marketing teams are combining talent and tools to produce campaign creatives that are memorable and hit the metrics. “It’s an idea that is spreading like wildfire as companies realize ad creatives are the source of their competitive advantage,” Esposito says. It’s also why his clients are “obsessing about ways to develop more data-informed design and processes to measure results as rigorously as they do all other aspects of their campaign efforts and outcomes.”

But how do companies knit data and design together more effectively to acquire and activate audiences at scale? This is where Playstudios, a consumer gaming company headquartered in Las Vegas, is showing the way by cleverly combining data and design to deliver campaigns that resonate with audiences and hit performance targets.

Evaluating and elevating mobile ad creatives

The approach is powered by what Assaf Shalev, Head of Creative Marketing at Playstudios in Tel Aviv and a Mobile Hero recognized for his app marketing accomplishments, calls “performance creatives.” These mobile ad creatives are both data-informed and customer-focused, and Shalev tells me they succeed thanks to synchronization between his team and the performance marketing team led by fellow Mobile Hero Noga Laron, Playstudios Head of UA and Growth. [Disclosure: I regularly interview Mobile Heroes as the host of Mobile Presence, a weekly podcast for which I am not paid. Recently, Shalev and Laron were guests on The Art And Science Of Building A Performance Design Team, a webinar I moderated and for which I am not paid. My esteemed colleague and mobile growth marketer Sylvain Gauchet summarized key data and advice from the webinar in this detailed post.]

Noga Laron, Head of UA and Growth & Assaf Shalev, Head of Creative Marketing, Playstudios
Noga Laron, Playstudios Head of UA and Growth, and Assaf Shalev, Playstudios Head of Creative Marketing, show how marketers can combine data and design to make compelling ad creatives.  PLAYSTUDIOS

Excellence in design starts with access to data. “At Playstudios, design and data teams sit in the same room and, more importantly, have learned to speak the same language,” Laron explains. This means stripping out the geek-speak and relying on strong direction based on solid numbers. “A lot of designers can be like divas, so it was important to provide guidance based on analytics, not emotions.” Rather than dumb down the data, the UA team elevated the conversation, making it inclusive and intuitive. “We focused on educating the design team about the pre-install and post-install metrics they need to move with their creatives, and we shared how creatives were performing in a kind of leaderboard so they would know and be encouraged to discuss what is working and what isn’t,” Laron recalls. “Today I can’t imagine running UA without creative sitting at the same table and joining in sessions to discuss and digest what the data is telling us.”

So, how does she call the winning creative? “We run a new creative test each week with the same audience, platform and geo,” Laron explains. “We measure them against each other, rank them and introduce the best ones into active campaigns.” To measure performance, her team focuses on top-of-the-funnel metrics first—a list that includes CTR (click-through rate), CVR (conversion rate) and IPM (the number of app installs per thousand ad impressions). After a few days, the focus shifts to ROAS (return on ad spend) and payer rate. Her advice: “When you identify a high-performing creative, try reformatting it in all possible formats.”

Video ads are the crowd-pleasers

Video ads drive the highest engagement, chalking up CTRs that are up to 7.5x higher than display ads, according to a recent report by Smaato, a global in-app advertising platform. Supporting this, the 2020 Mobile Ad Creative Index from mobile app marketing and retargeting platform Liftoff, which tracks costs and conversion rates across four ad formats (banner, interstitial, native and video) across a variety of app categories, also declares video the crowd-pleaser. At the top of the funnel, video ads ($3.39) and interstitials ($3.38) tie on price, the report says. But deeper in the funnel, video is the bargain, “promising the highest conversion for an affordable cost.”

What’s more, video stands out as the ad creative that offers value across both Android and Apple iOS. “For both platforms, it combines the lowest costs with the highest engagement rates (Android – 4.9%, iOS – 6.2%). It’s a similar story for Playstudios, which has had massive success with short-form video ads. “Bursts of compelling animation combined with powerful sound gets users excited about the content they see and the app you offer,” Shalev says. His advice: “Start with a short, catchy loop (four to five seconds) to find out what resonates with your audience.”

Focus on results, and be open to experimentation. Video offers data and design teams a rich palette of options and opportunities, increasing the freedom to experiment and the chances to succeed, Shalev explains. “Don’t give up if the video alone doesn’t hit the metrics; add narration or subtitles. Or you can change the background music or remove it altogether.”

Iterate, test and learn. For Shalev, it’s the way design should be. “You put a creative out there, the numbers tell you how well or badly it performs, and then you make the changes that get you to where you need to go.” He compares the process to building a staircase. “Every time you put a creative out there it’s like adding another step. If the data tells you a creative doesn’t perform, remove that step and replace it with another until you can climb the stairs.”  

Changing times mean shifting opportunities

“Test and learn” is solid advice given the explosion in time spent on mobile and in-app. These are digital safe spaces where brands and marketers can reach and engage (and activate) immense audiences—provided they combine data and analytics properly to personalize campaigns at scale.

Data from the State of Mobile 2020 report published by app store intelligence provider App Annie just prior to the spread of COVID-19 reveals the number of hours spent on mobile devices already far exceeds analyst expectations. Overall, the report says, consumers averaged 3 hours and 40 minutes on mobile in 2019, up 35% since 2017. Sensing a business opportunity, brands and marketers continue to shift massive budgets to mobile, a channel that has accounted for more than half of total digital ad spend for years now. Meanwhile, digital creative and communications agency Dentsu Aegis Network forecasts mobile ad spend will grow by 17.6% this year to take a 77.5% share of total digital ad spend with further growth powered by the potential of 5G. Fortunately, it’s money well spent. A whopping 90% of smartphone users recall seeing mobile ads within the first few days the ad was originally shown. 

Opportunity seekers will want to focus on in-app advertising, a channel set to triple, surging from $72 billion in 2016 to reach a projected high of $201 billion in 2021. At a time when consumer activity is focused at home, app-based messaging seems like a sure winner. Eric Seufert, a strategy consultant in the mobile sector and the editor of Mobile Dev Memo, cautions, however, that “boosts in engagement are not evenly distributed” across the entire app category. In the case of mobile gaming apps, for example, user time and attention is still “concentrated in a handful of games.” In fact, many major mobile games publishers are actually seeing decreased engagement. 

The message to marketers is clear: Make sure data and design work together to strike a chord with consumers. Engagement of lasting value is born of a combination of creative art and analytic science. Marketers that align teams for collaboration now will continue to see the rewards when today’s troubled times are in the rearview mirror.