Understanding Universal App Campaigns

Blog | 09 Apr, 2018

The future is bright for mobile apps. Mobile applications are forecasted to generate around 189 billion US dollars in revenues via app stores and in-app advertising by 2020. In order to reach these potential app users, marketers will have to embrace the power of automation, which can sift through a colossal amount of data to find the most valuable users.

In November, Google sunsetted app-install campaigns in favor of Universal App Campaigns as the primary mobile app promotion platform within AdWords, essentially nudging advertisers to embrace automation. Universal App Campaigns use machine learning and artificial intelligence to automatically create and serve ads to highly targeted audiences who are the most likely to download your app or perform an in-app action. UACs are effective at driving results through automation and they essentially save advertisers a ton of time by removing the human element from any targeting or creative optimizations.

Automation…so the machines are taking over? No.

Before we look at how to best utilize Universal App Campaigns, we need to understand the technology powering them—machine learning and artificial intelligence.
According to Google, 

“ Machine learning is a functionality that helps software perform a task without explicit programming or rules.” 

In layman’s terms, the computer algorithms can consume incredibly large amounts of data, draw conclusions, and take action without any human interaction. Whether we realize it or not, this technology is ubiquitous. For example, the music streaming service, Spotify, uses machine learning to assemble the perfect playlist, and the online shopping mecca, Amazon, uses AI to predict what products are on our minds.

Machine learning saves valuable time and allows for digital marketers to think strategically versus technically. Universal App Campaigns come as the digital ad industry is throttled by an increase in automation, such as Google’s smart bidding and data-driven attribution.

Apps are complicated.

Universal App Campaigns give marketers the unique ability to serve highly customized ads across the Google search, display, YouTube, Google Play, and AdMob networks based on an overall campaign goal (install, engagement, CLV) with the push of a button. We surrender our control of keywords and bids to the UACs, which will analyze hundreds of millions of data points to determine what the ideal ad and audience looks like. These complex algorithms have the ability to look at granular data points such as battery life and Wifi strength within the fraction of a second.

This type of real-time optimization is beyond the scope of what our brains can manage and why UACs drive 140% more conversions per dollar than other Google App promotion products, according to Google.

It is surely the dream of any digital marketer to spend less time pulling reports and endlessly testing ad copy while still seeing results; however, these campaigns still require a strategically minded digital marketer to be successful. Now that Universal App Campaigns have been running for a few months, we are able to identify a few levers that you may pull for better results:

First, start with clear marketing objectives.

Setup is quick and easy. Start with choosing a goal:

Install Volume: Target all users or users most likely to perform an action after downloading.

In-App Actions: If you want to drive engagement, you can focus on having users complete a specific in-app action.

Value: Google can predict future conversions and Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) to achieve a tROAS goal.

Remember: Only make small incremental changes to bids and budgets with any of these formats. Too large of a change can throw off the machine learning algorithm and throw your campaign back into the learning phase.

Universal Creative

You can maximize your reach by uploading up to 20 photos, videos, or HTML5 assets in a variety of formats. You may also write four independent lines of text. Keep in mind, only two lines will show up at a time, so it is important that they stand on their own. If you were only to upload one creative asset, Google recommends that you upload at least one video so that your ad is eligible to show on the YouTube network. If you choose not to upload any creative, Google will automatically assemble ads using assets from your Google Play store and App listing.

Utilize the Creative Asset Report.

If you are used to running campaigns on the Adwords Search Network,  then you will likely notice a significant lack of reporting with UACs. Google intentionally restricts ad placement and search query reports because they do not want marketers to make changes based on assumptions which could mislead the AI. In order to alleviate the frustration over the lack of reporting, Google launched the Creative Asset Report. This report can only be accessed from the campaigns tab within the “new” AdWords experience, and provides performance data on each individual image, video or text idea and may give insight into where our ads are best served. For example, if a 300×50 banner is performing well,  then you can assume that your ad performs better as a banner on a smartphone since this is the only size used for a mobile banner ad. Additionally, the performance grouping column will give insight into your “low,” “good,” and “best” performing assets.

Brand Safety:

You may not manually apply any negative keywords or audience limitations with UACs. Essentially, they are free to run wherever and whenever Google chooses. However; if you have brand safety concerns, you may work with your Google representative to manually upload negative keywords to preserve brand integrity.

Within the display networks, UACs are opted out of the following content labels by default: 

  • Not yet labeled (video+content)
  • Mature Audience (video+content)
  • Tragedy and conflict (video)
  • Sensitive social issues (video + content)


Universal App Campaigns are a powerful tool to drive installs and increase retention rates over a variety of Google networks, which were previously unavailable within a single app install campaign. We have been running UACs here at Jellyfish for an automotive client since November and we have seen a considerable uplift in app installs at a 75% lower Cost Per Install (CPI). Continued bid and asset testing can provide better and better results. I look forward to any enhancements that Google may add to this platform.

The success of the Google Universal App Campaign showcases the company’s investment in machine learning and the future of automation for the digital ad industry. It will be interesting to see what other AI-powered features Google unveils for app advertisers in the near future. In the meantime, Universal App Campaigns will give your app the boost it needs to stand out from the competition.

Continued Learning

Google recently launched an online course Introduction to Universal App, which dives deep into how to set up, optimize, and measure these campaigns.


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