Rovio’s Kieran O’Leary Reveals the Winning Playbook for Lasting Player Retention

Rovio’s Kieran O’Leary Reveals the Winning Playbook for Lasting Player Retention
Posted on September 15, 2021

Lockdowns have opened opportunities for mobile gaming companies to dominate app downloads and top the charts. But sharp spikes in playtime could be short-lived if studios don’t up their retention game. 

Marketers in this boom market should brace for harder times ahead, according to data from Newzoo, a research firm providing market intelligence for games, esports, and mobile. It warns that heightened consumer interest combined with the low barrier to entry to mobile gaming means the lowest barrier to exit as well. “Retaining the influx of new and returning players in 2021 will be one of the key challenges for developers and publishers.”

It’s a challenge that gaming giant Rovio has long mastered. Its iconic Angry Birds app was launched in 2009, hit over two billion downloads by 2014, and spawned multiple movies plus app spinoffs. Angry Birds 2, launched in 2015, has over 100,000 players who’ve been playing the game for more than six years.

It’s an impressive record that Rovio’s Kieran O’Leary says is powered by the company’s consistent focus on optimizing what matters most. “There is no way you can succeed without keeping your users engaged,” says O’Leary, who rose up the ranks from Director of Growth and VP of Marketing at Rovio to his current role of Chief Operating Officer. 

In this episode of CleverTap Engage — our podcast/video series where we interview marketing leaders achieving meaningful customer engagement — co-hosts Peggy Anne Salz and John Koetsier sit down with O’Leary to deconstruct the strategy that has allowed Rovio to win players and keep them coming back for over a decade. He also discusses the importance of personalization, smart approaches to segmentation, and the challenge of marketing in a world without identifiers.

Acquire to Retain

Getting players to buy into your game is hard enough, and now, with App Tracking Transparency (ATT), getting them to opt-in to tracking is an even bigger battle. This dynamic amps up the pressure on marketers to get engagement right, O’Leary says. “We don’t go after installs, we go after players who stay engaged and ideally spend in the game.” 

At a time when acquisition is more competitive than ever, he urges marketers to think big and go deep. “There is indeed this very crucial necessity to keep players engaged, and not only within your game but within your larger audience network, within your portfolio of games.” This is where more is definitely better. “Building an ecosystem where you can efficiently move your players from one game to the other is a very big deal.” Techniques marketers can harness to keep players engaged range from cross-promotion to affinity programs.

The Future is Fiercely Personal

Rovio is a growth company tuned into hot trends and topics (which O’Leary says is one reason why it recently acquired hyper-casual games studio Ruby Games). But a sharp focus on the bottom line requires a broader view of KPIs and how to use them. 

“We’re not just segmenting users on KPIs, we’re using a full range of tools to identify their psychological profiles [in order] to deliver to them the right kind of content, the right kind of offer,” O’Leary explains. This approach has not just allowed Rovio to become “way more advanced than a lot of other verticals out there.” It lays the groundwork for Rovio’s next big move. By 2022, O’Leary says, the company has said “we would offer a tailor-made level to all players out there.” And if anyone can achieve this ambitious goal it’s certainly Rovio, a company on a mission to “craft joy” and “provide personalization to players.”

 

 

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FULL TRANSCRIPT 

John Koetsier

How do you win in mobile for more than a decade, more than 10 years straight?  Welcome to “CleverTap Engage,” episode nine.  My name is John Koetsier.

Peggy Anne Salz

Well, John, apparently you craft joy, and you make an amazing experience in the process.  My name, of course, Peggy Anne Salz.  We’re here at “CleverTap Engage.”  And everybody knows, when it comes to crafting joy, Rovio has a super successful franchise.  Yeah, franchises like Angry Birds, right.  But it’s not just a blockbuster title, because you can probably count the number of game publishers who have more than, as you put it, you know, more than a decade, 12 years of continual massive global success and also masses of brand fans.

John Koetsier

On one hand, absolutely.  And we want to know why and how.  This show, of course, is about engagement and retention.  I’m not sure there’s a better example than Rovio.  So who are we chatting with today, Peggy?

Peggy Anne Salz

It is Rovio, John.  We are starting at the top of the mobile food chain.  We are going where it matters.  Our guest, he was a marketing manager at Ubisoft on console games, worked at IBM, led marketing at Gameloft, led marketing at Outfit7, we’re talking “Talking Tom” here, of course.  Then he was the Director of Growth and VP of Marketing at Rovio, where he is today.  He is Chief Operating Officer there.  His name is Kieran O’Leary.  And it’s great to have you.  Welcome, Kieran.

Kieran O’Leary

Hi, John and Peggy.  Thanks a lot for inviting me and all the kind words as an intro.

John Koetsier

Super happy to have you.  You are always super insightful about everything mobile, obviously.  And in fact, you know what, let’s get something straight right off the top.  You have a very Irish name, and you speak with a French accent.  How did that happen?

Kieran O’Leary

Well, I’ve had to explain that for the last 33 years.  I do have an Irish father, but I was born and I grew up in the middle of Burgundy, so not even Paris, like, in the most rural part of France.  That’s the reason.

John Koetsier

Excellent.  Love it.  Love it.  Love it.  Kieran, let’s talk about Rovio.  Such a string of success.  How on earth do you stay at the top for over a decade?  Almost nobody can do that.  You see these flashes in the pan, they have one hit, you know, you see it in music, you see it in apps, you see it everywhere.  How do you stay at the top for over a decade?  

Kieran O’Leary

Obviously, it’s not a simple recipe.  But if I had to be schematic I would say, A) you need to be focused on your core business, not getting distracted by things that might get your attention, but do not contribute to moving you forward.  Then, I think, like, and you have that in the mission statement that you started with, then it’s a matter of understanding perfectly the audiences that you’re addressing, and then being forward-thinking.  I mean, we live in one of the fastest-paced industries that you can find around, so you have to do that.  We’ve seen disruptions such as the switch to free-to-play or changes in technological operations like what Apple just introduced with ATT.  And I would say that what makes us even more special is our brand.  So, you said it yourself.  In our case, we’ve carefully and lovingly preserved the Angry Birds brands.  That’s part of the core DNA of who we are.  And even though we’re expanding with new IPs, that’s certainly something that we give a lot of love to.  

Peggy Anne Salz

I had to say, when it comes to love, I love your mission statement, “Crafting joy.” That is really straightforward, on the money.  But, of course, some things are not so straightforward.  You know, it’s acquisition versus retention, a little bit of a duality there, because you’re thinking about acquiring new users, or going deeper with existing ones, that’s always the question, and the relationship also changing with iOS 14, 15 coming, Android changes as well.  How do you see that duality, Kieran?

Kieran O’Leary

I think these two dimensions are very intimately intertwined.  Like, the sort of acquisition strategies that we are running heavily impact the retention profiles.  Like, acquiring players is only fruitful if you can keep them engaged.  And as a matter of fact, you can see that for developers like us, we don’t go after installs, we go after players who stay engaged and ideally spend in the game.  So, if we take the fact that acquisition is more competitive than ever and that now we got new changes, again, with the ATT enforcement that we just mentioned, there is indeed this very crucial necessity to keep players engaged, and not only within your game but within your larger audience network, within your portfolio of games.  So this is why focusing on building such an ecosystem where you can efficiently move your players from one game to the other is very, at least for us, it’s a very big deal.  So there is a variety of techniques to make that happen, from efficient cross-promotion to a lot of affinity programs, which are two areas that we invest a lot on.

John Koetsier

Let’s hone in on engagement for a second because, of course, that’s critical to having a player, having a user, having a customer that sticks around, right?  And something that’s come to my mind, is there a good engagement versus bad engagement?  I think, you know, things maybe like FarmVille, right, a decade ago, or maybe even a team strategy game where you get this notification, “Your city’s under attack.  You have to jump in, defend,” all that stuff.  And sometimes you almost feel upset that you have to jump into the app and do whatever it is to make the app happy, make the game happy, you know, progress or something like that.  How do you see that kind of…again, is there a difference between good and bad engagement?  

Kieran O’Leary

Players should stay engaged because they’re having fun, they shouldn’t be staying around because of the fear of missing out, which is the underlying basis of what you just described.  It’s a very subtle nuance, but I think we can achieve high engagement and retention without resorting to some sort of manipulative tactics.  And if I look at the entire industry, and World of Warcraft was plenty of that for quite some time, because of that…even they did change.  So I think that this degree of, like, awareness about these tactics is getting traction, and that’s for the best.

Peggy Anne Salz

You have one of those brands that is enviable, right.  You transcend channels.  It’s not about, “Am I going to do a push notification?  Or am I going to do out-of-home?” You know, you build and sell experiences, and huge ones at that, you know, you have your two biggest games, I don’t need to tell you, Angry Birds 2, Angry Birds Dream Blast.  But what’s interesting is that you don’t build an experience, you build a universe.  And that sounds very unique.  Very exciting.  What do you mean by that?

Kieran O’Leary

So, I mean, it means that there is more than the gameplay.  It means that you’re tapping into a lore, that you have, like, unique traits that link you to the game that you’re building.  So, I won’t pretend that when Angry Birds came for the first time, a lot of research was behind it.  I think it was a perfect match between all the characters that we had and this sort of gameplay that was invented.  But to keep the momentum then, we’ve done a lot of research, identifying why people had any sort of appeal for the brand.  And as we’re developing more projects, it’s crucial to respect the brand, to respect the universe that we’ve built, and making sure that whichever game we end up doing, is ticking the boxes of what brand…what made the brand successful in the first place.  

So, you also need to be mindful that different audiences have different expectations, like in Dream Blast, which is addressing, like, a public of casual posing new players, the expectations are very different from what we will find for players in Angry Birds 2.  But you always go back to the roots of, why was it a success in the first place?  And this might sound anecdotal but, for example, the fact that physics is attached to Angry Birds 2 is crucial.  In a game that is relying on physics, Dream Blast and Angry Birds 2, the two of them are doing it, they’re already ticking a lot of boxes.  And then colour-coded characters.  Again, sounds pretty simple, but this is something that we want to stick to.  So then, we build on that, and we try to have a very coherent ecosystem.  But it all starts from, why is the brand the success that it is?  How we can transpose that into gaming experiences?

John Koetsier

I love that, Peggy.  That is the universe, right?  It’s got the plush toys, it’s got the movie.  It’s expanded far beyond just a mobile app.  You have, of course, sunsetted some games.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.  Hardhead Squad is one that you just sunsetted, as an example.  Walk through the thought process on just cutting your losses.  What do you go through?  How does that work?

Kieran O’Leary

So, I mean, we start from a very high ambition level.  I mean, you said it yourself, I think one of the reasons why we succeeded in the past is that we set the bar pretty high.  So, we have a definition of what success means.  Then the entire process of the soft launch, with all the phases that we go through, from technical to retention and monetization, is about assessing, can we hit that goal?  Are we seeing the right trajectory to hit the KPIs needed to make it a success?  And if we take, well, the Hardhead Squad, we’ve learned a lot, but we just came to the realization that the gap to fill was just too large to make it a success.  So, this is why we decided to pull the plug.  And I mean, this is the business we’re in.  There’s, of course, a lot of emotional attachment to the products, and it’s never good news to stop them.  But it’s the right thing to do.  And I think we can learn and iterate from these learnings.

John Koetsier

That takes some guts, that takes some…also some humility, right?  Some people will just try and keep throwing millions of dollars of acquisition spend after a game that’s, obviously, not quite cutting it.  And so, you’ve done that.  Now you just bought a hyper-casual studio, Ruby Games.  Why did you do that?  And is it both tactical and strategic?

Kieran O’Leary

We’re a growth company, so obviously, we’re interested, by default, in any game genre that is growing fast.  And there is no arguing about the fact that hyper-casual has demonstrated that in the last couple of years.  And there is no reason to think that it’s going to stop here, they have been delivering hits when we talk about Ruby, and we think they’re in a good position to keep on doing that.  Then that also one means to, well, diversify the revenue stream.  We’re mostly relying on IPs.  Hyper-casual brings the advertising business to your stream of revenue.  So, that’s also good.  And like we discussed before, I mean, the loss of the idea phase making it harder than ever to acquire new players.  So we think that building this highly new audience network is the key to success in the future.  By building the right ecosystem where you can move, efficiently, one user from a game to the other, we can be better than advertising networks, if anything, because we have the IDV.  And with the IDV, we have information that networks out there don’t have.  So that’s the reasoning.  

Hyper-casual also, because there used to be an assumption that these were low-quality players.  And I think this has been proven wrong in many occasions.  And they happen to have a very high cross affinity between games, as in the propensity to try everything and nothing.  And we think that this is very interesting when we have such a large portfolio as ours.  

John Koetsier

Cool.

Peggy Anne Salz

Fascinating psychographics there.  There’s really a whole story in not just acquiring the right users, but moving them through the ecosystem, moving them from game to game.  That’s fascinating.  But I want to leave engagement for a moment.  I want to look at retention, retention lessons.  What have you learned in your long career?  What’s a retention lesson you can share?

John Koetsier

Not too long, but, you know, somewhat long.

Peggy Anne Salz

Not too long.  I mean, from IBM onwards.  I mean, it’s a fascinating track record.  So, I expect a really good answer, but no pressure there.  I’m just saying.

Kieran O’Leary

Yeah, no pressure. I mean,  I’ll start with a very, very dumb statement and a very obvious, that there is no way you can succeed without keeping your users engaged.  Maybe less obvious is that there is no one single recipe to keep your players engaged.  Like, depending on the game genres that you have, well, people are expecting different things.  Like, for example, to be concrete, RPG game, it’s all about power.  It’s all about increasing your stats, it’s all about the depth that you can go into, whereas if you play a casual game, it’s all about this feeling of solving puzzles and getting better at it.  So, you give different progression vectors, and to identify that you, again, need to start from, where are the expectations from the audience’s that you are building games for?  So, if you don’t have a perfect understanding of this, you’re clearly fighting an uphill battle.  I mean, there’s a theatre of choices out there.  So, you might as well make sure that these games that you’re working on is fully catering to the needs of your audience.

John Koetsier

There’s a whole universe of other apps, FinTech, you name it, utilities, what can non-gaming mobile growth experts learn from the gaming world?

Kieran O’Leary

So, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think we can humbly say that we’re a step ahead when it comes to segmenting and…

John Koetsier

That is not arrogant.  You are maybe 10 steps ahead.  There is no doubt about it.  I’ve seen a definite trend.  Peggy and I have commented on it before, of brands hiring people from the gaming industry to grow their mobile stuff.  So, that’s not arrogant at all.  

Kieran O’Leary

Well, thanks for backing me up with that.  But, yeah, segmenting users and not…what we’re saying is we’re not just segmenting users on KPIs, we’re using a full range of tools, for example, to identify their psychological profiles to deliver to them the right kind of content, the right kind of offer.  And like we said that by 2022, I think we would offer a tailor-made level to all tiers out there.  So, this is the key.  And I think we’re way more advanced than a lot of other verticals out there because we segment and provide personalization to players.

John Koetsier

Amazing.  Amazing.  Well, thank you so much for joining us on “CleverTap Engage.” We really do appreciate your time.  

Kieran O’Leary

It was a pleasure.

Peggy Anne Salz

I have to chime in there.  It has been very interesting to hear about the tools.  You always sort of wonder…want to ask, you know, is that your own IP?  Or is that for sale for the psychographic segmentation?  That I think is the meat of the matter, John.  We definitely have to dig deeper into that.  But in the meantime, thanks so much for sharing, Kieran.  

Kieran O’Leary

My pleasure.

John Koetsier

Absolutely.  And for our audience, if you’re watching the video, hey, the audio podcast is also available, and it’s easy to consume on the go if anybody’s actually going anywhere these days.  And if you’re on the audio version, guess what?  We are amazing.  We’re so pretty.  It’s incredible.  You can watch us in video and our guests as well.  Check out YouTube to just chill and watch us, you know, Netflix and chill, maybe “CleverTap Engage” and chill?  Who knows?  Maybe that’s going too far.  Off to you, Peggy, before I put my foot in my mouth any farther.

Peggy Anne Salz

No, but that was a winning combination.  I like the idea.  And of course, you heard it here.  I mean, listen to Kieran, you know, this podcast is about finding the world’s best marketers, getting their top tips.  We did both.  And we focus on major brands with big stories to tell, big stories to share.  So if you fit the bill, ping John or myself on LinkedIn or Twitter, and hey, let’s get you set up for your own show as well.  Until then, this is Peggy Anne Salz.

John Koetsier

And this is John Koetsier for “CleverTap Engage.”