“Never work with children and animals.”
If Tony Rodio ever heard the comedian’s famous axiom, it didn’t deter him from interviewing a penguin before an audience of school kids.
In November 2011, Rodio, president and CEO of the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, staged a press conference with a live African penguin to announce the opening of Happy Feet Two at the IMAX Theater. The resulting video, which got lots of play on YouTube and other outlets, not only promoted the movie, but presented the Trop as an entertainment destination, and did it with playfulness, humor and a big dose of adorable.
It’s just one of hundreds of videos the Trop has posted to its website promoting everything from aerialist Nik Wallenda, who walked a tightrope over the Boardwalk in advance of his casino show, to the resort’s popular ’70s disco, Boogie Nights, which broadcast a four-episode online reality show in 2012. The videos—as well as six-second mini-clips on Vine, Twitter’s new video-sharing app—also give the resort the opportunity to push its Trop Advantage card.
Of course, it’s not all fun, games and warm-fuzzy images. Last fall, after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the New Jersey coastline, Tropicana used Facebook, Twitter and TripAdvisor to keep people informed about the state of the city, which shut down for five days after the storm. And post-Sandy, amid misleading reports about mass destruction in the resort town, the worth of digital media was incalculable, says Diane Spiers, Tropicana’s executive director for media services.
“These platforms were critical to visually depict that we had reopened for business virtually unharmed, that the Boardwalk was intact and not destroyed,” Spiers says. “They were also utilized to communicate the latest updates for closing and re-opening.”
Such is the power of new media, which has created instant access, limitless marketing opportunities and a hotline to millions of potential new customers. It has also spawned an information machine that’s hungry for content, 24 hours a day. How can casinos keep it fed?
The Medium and the Message
Social media is so ubiquitous it seems to have always been part of our well-documented lives, yet it’s relatively young. Facebook—with 1 billion users comprising one-seventh of the world’s population—came online in 2004 (at the time, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network was limited to his Harvard classmates). It was followed by YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. Since then, a dizzying number of social sharing sites have lined up like so many dominoes, all with their own discrete demographics. And while these platforms have not eclipsed old-school media—yet—they’ve turned marketing on its head, and forced casinos to define the outreach that makes sense for their customer base.
“In terms of how we communicate with customers, we’ve seen more changes in past three or four years than in the previous 20,” says Scott Voeller, senior vice president of brand strategy and advertising at MGM Resorts International. “The ecosystem has become so widespread and so fragmented, it’s mind-boggling. That’s the challenge we all have as marketers, to identify the outlets we think will be most effective.”
The fast-evolving digital landscape means companies are sprinting just to stay in place, Voeller adds. “Someone once said in today’s environment we need to live in beta, and that’s very true, because what’s relevant in social media today may be irrelevant tomorrow.”
Despite the seeming dominance of digital media, however, budgets have not done a wholesale shift from traditional to online platforms, at least not at MGM. “The digital slice is getting a bigger, but not significantly so,” Voeller says. “We do a lot of testing and learning. We tend not to make large up-front commitments until we know something is proving out.”
Rock, Paper, Scissors
So what’s working today? While some pundits have sounded the death knell for traditional media, reports of their demise may have been greatly exaggerated. Brands are built on multiple platforms, Voeller says, and while digital is “clearly an advantage,” it’s still incremental in its impact.
“When you think about what we’re communicating—top resorts, best in class, unique customer experiences—that’s difficult to do on digital channels in a way that can sell the emotion through,” he says. “Building an emotional connection, getting people to believe what you believe, still needs to come through traditional channels. You have to have a nice blend between fully considered traditional and what is considered digital and social.”
Television is still “the best channel for driving an emotional connection,” and commercial radio can create a sensory “theater of the mind” to evoke positive response, Voeller says. As far as other media are concerned, marketers seem to agree that direct mail, well crafted and focused, is still very persuasive. And while email blasts are already considered old-fashioned, the content is being retooled for delivery on smart phones and other mobile devices.
If anything, it’s newspapers that could be going the way of the dodo bird. According to a February report in USA Today, digital advertising in the U.S. last year topped spending on print for the first time in history, and media companies are scrambling to “quarantine” their more profitable units from the ailing print side. In a survey conducted last year, the Pew Research Center reported that newspaper readers are rapidly graying. Of those polled, 48 percent over the age of 65 had read a newspaper the day before. But only 6 percent of people from 18 to 24 had done so.
Tropicana still uses a mix of old and new—including newspapers—to reach its customers.
“The theory is that an advertiser must reach its customer at least five to six times utilizing various mediums,” says Spiers. “That’s what we do using direct mail, outdoor, radio, print, emails, SMS text messaging, and social and digital advertising.” Customer-preference profiling enables the resort to determine which message will resonate with which patron. “This not only reduces internal costs,” says Spiers, “but ensures we’re maintaining that emotional connection with each guest on as close to an individual level as possible.”
Thanks for Sharing
One seismic change in the digital age is the end of the marketing monologue, in which businesses would spoon-feed their message to a public that could not talk back. Now, through websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, consumers are having their say, and their compliments (or complaints) can be far more persuasive than clever slogans or other commercial messaging.
“Marketers and advertisers used to control that conversation; now the consumer has taken charge,” says Jim Gentleman, senior vice president of account management for SK&G Advertising in Las Vegas. “Word of mouth used to be friends and family, but today, TripAdvisor has opened up word of mouth around the world.”
The public’s newfound bullhorn—Gentleman calls it “the democratization of marketing”—is both a mandate and an opportunity, allowing resorts to showcase their successes and also manage customer gripes. The ability to field complaints in an online forum—and do it graciously and well—not only solves one problem, but can create a halo effect that may generate more business.
“Frankly at this point, brands don’t have a choice,” Gentleman says. “Whether you’re buying a car or booking a resort, you can find almost anything out about that place or that product online, and if a customer has a bad experience, they’re going to write about it. I look at it as opportunity for brands to take a negative experience and turn it into a positive. There will be dialogue going on whether the brand is involved or not, so they have to get active in that space.”
MGM is on it: the company has social media managers at every property, plus more in various corporate departments.
“Upwards of 40 people or so are focused on only that,” Voeller says. “They’re listening to customer complaints so we can react and adjust. They’re listening to all the positive comments.
“Social listening is an amazing research tool, because you’re getting constant real-time feedback. It takes a lot of hard work, but it allows us to build our database and grow our customer-acquisition strategy.”
Asked for online marketing strategies that worked, Gentleman cites SK&G’s “Modern Seduction” campaign for the Aria resort at CityCenter in Las Vegas. Along with TV and print ads, “We went further and created webisodes, 30- to 60-second video vignettes that told the back story behind the ads.” The stylish short films featured gorgeous couples at play at Aria’s pool and in fabulously appointed rooms with spectacular views of the skyline.
The Palms in Vegas benefited when MTV’s The Real World broadcast its 2002 season from the property. “That put the Palms on the map,” says Gentleman, and it’s still paying off: “The Real World” suite, a lavishly decorated 3,000-square-foot apartment with three bedrooms, pool table, wet bar, and of course, communal showers, leases at a premium—for $7,000 to $15,000 per night.
And the Bellagio scored a hit when Ocean’s Eleven filmed there in 2000.
“Bellagio was a very successful property when it opened,” says Gentleman, “but boy, when it became the venue for that movie with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Andy Garcia, and you saw the property in all its glory with the fountains and the shots outside… Needless to say, that worked really well for the property.”
A second reality show, Rehab at the Hard Rock, is another story. In 2010, Hard Rock International (a separate company that owns the Hard Rock properties in Florida, but not in Las Vegas) sued the Las Vegas property, saying the TruTV series “revels in drunken debauchery, acts of vandalism, sexual harassment,” and other hijinks that could alienate customers and tarnish the international brand.
Yet in a backhand way, Rehab actually may have worked as a marketing tool, at least for some viewers.
“That brand is known for its rebellious, edgy nature, and Rehab probably captured that and more and for a certain demographic,” observes Gentleman. “But there’s no question it probably alienated a significant customer base who said, ‘That’s not the kind of place I want to go.'” The show was canceled in 2010, two months after the lawsuit was filed. But Rehab itself is still wildly successful, and just marked its 10th anniversary.
From Fans, Friends and Followers…
While Facebook “likes” are all well and good, online applause also should prompt action, propel business, and generate patronage and revenue. It doesn’t take a massive budget to do it effectively, says Nancy Smith, CEO of Masterminds, an advertising agency based in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
“People say only the Caesars, Boyds and MGMs can do a great job of this and have hundreds of thousands of fans, but smaller regional resorts, Native American resorts like Pechanga (in Temecula, California) and FireKeepers (in Battle Creek, Michigan) are doing phenomenal work with fewer resources.” FireKeepers, for instance, has some 200,000 online fans, and reels them in with targeted promotions, like a slot tournament that registers only through Facebook.
“Marketers say, ‘I don’t care about fans; how can I get them on the floor?'” Smith says. “The bottom line is, people are looking for a promotion that will draw them there. There are way more social media channels than a casino could ever participate in in an efficient manner, but from a customer service perspective, the big ones are Facebook, Twitter—which is heavily used by poker players—and YouTube, which is the second-largest search engine in the world, followed by Pinterest and Instagram.”
Beyond promotions, best practices demand that casinos post continuous content, entertaining content, new content and what Smith calls “exclusive content,” which could be as simple as a behind-the-scenes video of the headliner warming up backstage or a clip of a chef preparing and sharing his favorite recipe.
“Most properties should post every day, but keep in mind, it’s not the quantity of posts but the quality.” Poor-quality posts—without video, without photos, without something to grab viewers and make them take notice—will be overlooked and soon disappear from the newsfeed.
Tropicana’s Fan of the Month promotion—Spiers calls it “one of our most successful ever”—rewarded people who posted “the most positive, genuine messaging” by entering them into a drawing for a grand prize. “We’ve also created a few Fan Appreciation Days for fans and followers to take advantage of exclusive offers,” says Spiers. “It’s our way of saying thank you for being our brand advocates.”
That sort of advocacy—achieved through communication, promotion or downright seduction—is worth all the effort, says Voeller. “Even if they don’t converge from ‘likes’ to patrons, at the end of the day if someone is sharing a ‘like’ with their network, that means that product is getting a thumbs-up. But turning people into brand advocates—that’s the best metric of all.”