The cannabis industry is huge and showing no signs of slowing down. With cannabis soon to become legal in Canada, and many U.S. states already allowing recreational use, it’s poised to become a $32 billion industry by 2020.
What was once a niche, underground movement is going mainstream. But one Canadian mobile developer is already ahead of the curve, having built a successful gaming studio around a single title—the weed growing game Hempire.
Vancouver-based LBC Studios has kept their small team of 20 focused firmly on delivering the best weed farm game on the app stores, while also staying smart when it comes to marketing. It has resulted in over six million installs since Hempire’s worldwide launch in April 2017.
In this exclusive interview, LBC’s marketing director Kevan O’Brien took some time out to explain how marketing lessons from the non-gaming world have helped fuel Hempire’s success.
Realizing a childhood dream
O’Brien got his first taste of the gaming industry at a young age. His uncle, Gordon Durity, who worked for EA (Electronic Arts) at the time, gave him a tour around the gaming giant’s headquarters, and it left a huge impression on a then fourteen-year-old O’Brien.
O’Brien’s interest in the gaming industry grew over the years as his uncle worked on video games such as SSX, Def Jam Vendetta, FIFA, and Need for Speed. “It just showed me how cool it is to work in the gaming industry,” says O’Brien. “As a kid, it seemed like heaven.”
In the last couple of years, O’Brien has had the chance to unleash his marketing expertise—honed in the mobile and digital arenas—on the gaming scene. Initially joining East Side Games (Pot Farm: Grass Roots, Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money), he’s now found a home at LBC, where he’s in charge of user acquisition, app store optimization, creative marketing, and helps grow the studio’s community.
Day trading through Twitter
O’Brien first saw the power of social media and marketing in the world of online investor relations. As mobile technology developed, the rules of engagement suddenly changed. “People didn’t have to be on the trading floor of the stock exchange to make a $60,000 investment move,” he says. “They could just press it on their phone—tap, and it’s gone.”
O’Brien’s then-CEO noted that big companies released trading information to social media—Facebook and Twitter—before this made it out through a press release or email. So he managed to get ahead of the game—if only by a couple of minutes—and make savvy digital investors a lot of money. Pretty soon, the big companies came asking for help, and he and O’Brien stepped up.
“I was basically using Twitter to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to look at this stock because there’s some interesting news to look at,’” says O’Brien. “Just like what the Wolf [of Wall Street] did, but I was using Twitter to attract attention. It was a no-brainer to see digital as the future of marketing, and also, when we saw the results, being able to attribute an investment to a tweet was really exciting.”
“It’s similar to what I’m doing now [with Hempire],” O’Brien says, “except instead of one or two big investments a day, it’s 2,000 to 3,000 purchases. We’re tracking everything from a rewarded video view to a $150 IAP (in-app purchase).”
The confidence to buy
To demonstrate the value of a purchase decision, you need to reach them multiple times, especially for a free-to-play mobile game. It’s a lesson O’Brien learned early on, and it’s one that still holds true.
“In investor relations, what I learned was we had to make about seven different touch points for somebody to make an investment decision,” he says. That means reaching their inbox, their newsfeed, a newspaper article, a few tweets, and maybe a press release. “Then they’re confident to make a decision,” says O’Brien. “The ability to track and report that was what was really valuable early on.”
And with mobile, tracking becomes much more powerful.
“You’re able to see everything down to the device ID,” says O’Brien. “And with the attribution and optimization opportunities that ad networks provide, you’re able to find what that sweet spot is to make people confident to purchase in a game.”
With smaller purchases, that confidence might come from the game itself, but for big-ticket in-game items, players will always look at the bigger picture.
“That’s when people are looking at the game’s community,” says O’Brien. “They’re looking at the type of ads, the quality of them, and are they personalized. Are they relevant to me? They’re looking at emails and seeing, ‘Hey, this email is really talking to the community. They’re giving really cool contests. It’s really engaging. I want to stay playing this game. I feel confident spending $100, because I know a year from now there’s still going to be a lot of stuff to play with this money.’”
Small changes, big results
App makers should think small when it comes to optimizing mobile ad creatives. It’s a great little tip from O’Brien, particularly for small studios with limited ad creative resources.
“A lot of [traditional] marketing was the creative—it’s all about the call to action,” says O’Brien. “But now, in mobile, you’ll see as big of a percentage change in conversions from changing the color of a button as you will from a whole new background photo.
“If I had spent more time looking at small changes to make incremental improvements, I think I would have been more successful than thinking strategically about a big, visible change.”
Picking an ad partner
When it comes to ad partners, LBC is fussy. But that’s important in what’s a serious relationship.
“One of the most important things is obviously its integration with how our game’s engineered and our attribution,” says O’Brien. Next come thoughts about the scale of the audience and potential reach—including hitting all the required geos. And personal relationships also go a long way.
But at the end of the day, mobile is a numbers game, no matter how great things look on paper. “I don’t care if you’re the nicest person in the world with the best dashboard and the biggest audience,” says O’Brien. “If you don’t give us returns, we will not run with you.”
The hemp-powered future
With the cannabis industry only set to grow (no pun intended), LBC looks to be in a great place with Hempire.
The studio is about to move to a new office, while staying firmly rooted in Vancouver—Canada’s cannabis capital. And while new mobile games are in the works—too soon for specifics—LBC remains focused on growing Hempire, and the community, that have served them so well.
That means more Hempire features on the way, and it means more marketing opportunities, including esports sponsorships and a possible appearance on a cannabis-fueled cooking show.
“We are seeing more people searching for cannabis and weed in the App Store,” says O’Brien. “Just watching the waves start coming in is pretty exciting, and hopefully we’ll have a big tsunami of weed marketing in 2019.”