Paid Advertising Sucks For Game Marketing

by Justin Carroll

Nosferatu moments before sinking his fangs into the neck of an unknowing victim.

The average click-through rate (CTR) across all ad formats and placements is 0.06%. Here’s why paid advertising sucks and what you can do about it.

Obviously game developers and publishers wouldn’t spend money on paid advertising if they didn’t feel it worked. So, how can paid advertising suck if it works? Well, because I believe what it gives with one hand it takes away with another. Short term wins in paid advertising are typically long term losses.

My argument isn’t that paid advertising doesn’t work, my argument is that it sucks. Let me explain.

What is paid advertising?

When I say paid advertising what I’m talking about is paying to advertise on marketing channels you don’t own. Here are some examples of paid advertising:

  • Banner ads
  • Search engine marketing (SEM)
  • Facebook ads or promoted tweets

That’s in contrast to channels you own where it costs nothing to communicate to your audience. Here are some examples of owned marketing channels:

  • Your company and game websites
  • Social network profiles
  • Email marketing

Now that we’ve got our terms defined let’s look at a few ways paid advertising sucks for game marketing.

1. No Money, No Visibility

Since paid advertising is, well, paid, once you stop paying you no longer get the advertising. In other words, no money no visibility.

You could pay to be at the top of the first search engine results page (SERP) for certain keywords, and you’ll get a lot of traffic by doing that. But when you stop paying for SEM then you and your bump in traffic will immediately disappear.

It would be much better for you to obtain that placement organically with your own content marketing efforts, rather than having to pay a lot of money to be there.

Paid advertising results are largely dependent on your ability to spend money and keep spending money.

Invest in marketing techniques and strategies that continue to keep you and your games visible long after you’ve paid for them.

2. Everybody Hates Ads

Ad-blocking is at an all-time high. Given the average CTR of 0.06% (down from years passed), the evidence is clear, hardly anyone see’s ads anymore, let alone clicks them.

A global online game publication recently told me that half of all their traffic has ad-blocking technology. Everyone knew ad-blocking was increasing, but 50% is truly sobering.

Game players don’t want to see or click on ads, no quality players want your message shoved down their throat.

An advertisement is a one-way communication, it only asks something. Instead, use paid advertising to give players something. Make this a new rule in your company. Every time you ask something of someone you must give them something for free.

3. A Thief In The Night

Most free-to-play (F2P) mobile games monetize with a combination of in-app purchases (IAP) and mobile advertising networks. But what always happens, and I see this a lot, is developers start seeing clicks away from their game as lost revenue.

And they’re absolutely right.

When your ads send players away from your game you risk losing money. Actually it’s worse, you risk losing players. And that hard, cold reality puts a tremendous amount of pressure on developers to alter their game experiences in ways they wouldn’t normally in order to keep their games from failing.

Ad networks steal potential revenue and threaten the game experience.

In fact, King, maker of the smash hit “Candy Crush Saga,” eliminated in-game ads in 2013 for this very reason. And so have many other big mobile game developers since.

Commenting on game design, even for monetization, stresses my philosophy of the two spheres. But if you’re intent on using in-game advertising I highly recommend first experimenting with home-grown native advertising in place of ad networks.

4. You’re Out Of Control

The advertiser’s environment is something you’ve no control over. And any number of things can go wrong. Because of that, control is often reduced to money, either spending more or stopping the campaign altogether.

For example, let’s say you’re spending a lot of money per year to advertise a candy puzzle game. And let’s say another, already popular candy puzzle game catches on. Well, it’s the click of a button for them to pump a bunch of money into the same channel.

And that’s just the beginning, there’s also mixed on-page messaging to consider, the varying of advertiser traffic demographics, click fraud and so on.

Paid advertising leaves your money vulnerable to factors that fall outside your control.

Owned marketing channels, ones for which you are in absolute control, run a far better chance of yielding a return on your investment (ROI) now and in the future.

5. Paid Advertising Is Dumb

Paid advertising gives you no intellectual property (IP) to use for your next marketing effort. And therefore, every time you start a new campaign you’ll spend the same amount of money if not more.

Let’s say you spend a bunch of money in display ads on the biggest game review site you can think of. What will it cost to do the same thing next year? It’ll probably be the same, if not a little more considering price increases.

The advertiser owns the IP, which is the ad management system.

Now, let’s say you take actions to build up your email subscriber list as a way to grow an audience and convert casual players into loyal fans. That’s IP you can reuse and reapply towards subsequent game marketing efforts.

Paid advertising expenses are recurring, rising and leave you with no intellectual property (IP).

Look for ways that you can build an arsenal of owned IP that will serve you long after its paid for.


Paid advertising isn’t an enemy as much as it’s an untamed beast. If unleashed with the right technique it can help champion your long term marketing strategy. The problem is it’s rarely used that way, it’s often simply used to gain a quick bump in traffic in hopes of staying power. Or as I like to call it, a fool’s errand.

Paid advertising is a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

Game developers and publishers are best served by focusing the majority of their marketing efforts on long term marketing techniques and strategies through owned marketing channels.

If you’ve currently planned thousands of dollars in paid advertising for this year, how will its results serve your company’s long term goals in ways that haven’t been proved a myth? Not being able to answer that question is a threat to the survival of your company and its games.