There was a time when the digital world was strictly one for innovators and the younger segments of our population, but the world has changed after the shock of a pandemic and subsequent buffet of closures, mandates and restrictions.
Baby boomers cut the cord and discovered the ease of buying online. Something as routine as shopping for groceries became immensely convenient as providers such as Instacart and Uber Eats offered to do the shopping for you and deliver contactless and within hours to your front door. Moreover, they took to their Facebook profiles to stay connected and discovered a world of entertainment on TikTok.
I remember when casinos started using social media to advertise their offerings, but my journey to digital apostle started before then, as we worked to create one of the first casino websites for Harrah’s New Orleans.
Times Sure Have Changed
Our way of communicating digitally has gone from brochure-style websites to search engine marketing in the early years of this century. In the decade that followed, social platforms began capturing the attention of adults. So, we needed to be there. Today, our communications are shorter and to the point, as guests have shared cellphone numbers to receive the latest offers and news straight to their phones.
With each year that passes, we discover new channels and new ways to maximize the utilization of our digital footprint. Today, we are hearing rumblings of operators shifting from heavy reliance on the U.S. Postal Service to more timely digital distribution of offers.
When I was working with a regional operator, that sort of heresy would have been shut down in a second, and the notion of believing social media was a viable communication channel was laughed at. Sure, Las Vegas successfully wrapped its arms around social media, but they had shows, restaurants, nightclubs, and hotel rooms to sell. Many regional operators were hesitant to dive into the social media pool.
While most marketers have been using digital marketing tools for years, their importance in connecting with new and existing customers grew faster than many were prepared for. Additionally, traditional media has evolved to allow casino marketers to pinpoint the delivery of their messages, often down to the address level. All these changes continue to move quickly without the sign of ever slowing down.
Search Engine Marketing
Archie appeared online in the latter part of 1990 as the first tool that attempted to organize online content. As the number of websites continued to expand through the 1990s, other search engines became available. Today, Google and Bing account for nearly 100 percent of online searches.
It was no surprise when search engine providers developed a business model to finance their work: pay per click. Search engine optimization consultants followed suit by expanding their capabilities to assist clients with the advertising opportunities offered by search engines.
However, being “found” online is a marriage of many elements.
Matthew Capala, founder and CEO of Alphametic, will tell you the real jackpot of customers is online. Getting found involves understanding the language your target audience is using (to look for answers to their questions) and building a website that is full of usable content (that answers those questions).
“The first thing you want to do is evaluate the content on your site and develop a strategy that answers all your future customer’s questions to establish trust and confidence,” says Capala. “The gamer wants to see your gaming floor. The entertainment seeker wants to see your upcoming events. The business executive wants to see your facilities to host a corporate retreat or a conference, etc.”
Search engine marketing is not just for destination markets or resorts. We increased Monday-Thursday hotel bookings in a tiny, regional market with easy tweaks to content and a solid keyword pay-per-click strategy.
Emails and SMS
Some people reading this column have never known a time when they did not use email. Some remember using it for the first time.
Like most casino operators in the year 2000, Harrah’s struggled to find its footing in the burgeoning internet economy. We were forbidden from launching online casinos. After buying a small stake in iwin.com, Harrah’s accelerated its strategy of using the web to find customers and started the often-painful process of collecting email addresses. In retrospect, we can see this effort might have been ahead of its time.
However, they were not alone in understanding the need to have this additional point of contact with customers. Fast forward 20 years and one pandemic, and we saw the value of knowing more than a guest’s mailing address.
As we started to reopen our shuttered doors in 2020, guests needed to know the safety precautions we implemented, and if anything had reopened, changed, or closed. There is no slight to USPS, but any of these could change more than once between the time we release a file to the printer and the time it arrives in the mailbox.
Email and SMS became a lifeline. Then, intelligent marketers wondered, “What if I send an offer this way?” And they did. Moreover, in some cases, redemption rates went up. We were able to drive visits within a tight window. No one on the floor on Tuesday? Let’s send a bonus offer to see if we can get some visits by the end of the gaming day.
The value in electronic direct marketing is not lost on marketers (or finance directors). In some cases, core mailer redemptions have dropped while electronic direct marketing has increased, along with profitability. Why? Some customers just realized they preferred getting their offers this way, and in most cases, the expansion of sports betting has brought new, younger customers through the doors.
The point is, if you are still struggling with email and SMS, it is time to find the solutions you need as consumer desire for one-to-one communications continues to increase.
It is hard for me to trace when we “knew” social media would be a viable channel for casino marketers. I do, however, remember sitting in a conference room as my boss rolled his eyes at the mention of social media.
I knew there was potential, but it was hard for many Luddites to grasp that initially.
And yet, it was the chief information officer at the (then) Isle of Capri Casinos that stood before a room of marketers and declared millennials were bringing boomers into this digital age. 2020 saw boomers shoving the generations that followed them out of their way as they claimed their stake in the landscape of social media.
“We need to throw out the idea that social media—in whatever form it comes—is only for the young,” says Shank Marketing principal Justin Shank. “You just have to look at the numbers to show you the casino audience is there.
“It can vary by channel and region, but everyone is on social media today. Period. Of course, there will be outliers—people who don’t have smartphones, etc.—but the argument is moot today. I mean, really, we’re past that.”
It is a fascinating study for me to look at the evolution of our use of social media in casino marketing. In the beginning, many saw it as another promotional channel, posting our giveaways and specials. I think those may have been the days when people also said, “social media is free.”
That line always made me laugh, because even if all we were doing was copying existing information and pasting, someone had to do it. Something had to be resized. Someone had to respond to comments.
Then Facebook (or is it Meta) changed the game on us like a dealer changing decks in the middle of a great hand. Now we had to pay to play or work a lot harder to get the same reach we were getting yesterday “for free.”
Now we understand the social game as one of engagement instead of collecting likes and followers. We must be more thoughtful in what we post. We must create content that will make our followers comment and share with their networks.
“It’s all about the emotional stuff,” agrees Shank. “It’s about the way that you can connect. It’s not a billboard. It’s not an advertising channel. You can use it that way, but the whole point of advertising on any social network should still be to engage with them.”
It is also of interesting to note that Twitter has quietly held a position for years as the go-to social platform for poker players and sports fans (who are now visiting our new sportsbooks across the country).
The number of social platforms a casino marketer should work with varies by the customer base, but, as savvy marketers, they should be experienced as consumers in all the platforms to understand the trends and opportunities. Just look at the growth of casino social influencers as a great example.
Hidden Treasure of Community
Social networks have grown because humans desire connection. From the early days of chat rooms and message boards to today’s Facebook groups, social media has always been ideal for creating community.
Before the pandemic, I experimented with creating a community of casino marketers that could serve as a place to share or bounce ideas off each other. It was small until 2020, when everyone looked to connect somehow. The community grew to even include casino marketers outside of the U.S.
Years ago, a casino operator created a closed community for top-tier customers to chat and share. Today, more casinos are using these access-only communities to build their business.
The ability to create a community with customers and extend their connection to your brand is practically limitless.
The Transformation of Traditional Media
According to eMarketer, advertisers are projected to spend over $19 billion in connected television advertising. That is up from the $6.42 billion spent pre-pandemic in 2019.
As more and more casino customers cut their cable cords, streaming continues its upward trajectory in viewers and ad dollars. Connected TV or “over-the-top” media (OTT) seems to be the answer to the question GMs have asked me for years, “How do I know my advertising spend is worth it?”
OTT encompasses all video content streamed via the internet—think about your cable provider’s on-demand content or a streaming platform you pay for separately. It is not an exaggeration to say this new way of watching television has reshaped the advertising that supports it.
When you watch a program on your favorite broadcast or cable network, you may be served multiple ads, all within a single break in the program. You might refill a beverage. You might channel surf for a bit. If you have recorded the program, the chances are high that you will fast-forward through the entire break. With OTT, the breaks can be much shorter than standard programming. That’s the benefit to the viewer. More importantly for marketers, viewers cannot skip your message.
You can target a viewer no matter what they are watching or the platform they are watching. More importantly, you know exactly who saw your ad, and with tracking, you can even understand what actions they may have taken (like going to your website). For the advertiser, you are no longer “wasting” your message on a general audience.
Audio targeting through podcasts and streaming is also growing into maturity, and will soon occupy a spot on our media buys.
Several digital advances have reduced friction in the guest experience. As a brand marketer, I cannot deny the impact of brand experience on the longevity and success of the brand itself.
As these same customers have changed how they get and retain information, they have also experienced what it is like to get a product, service or experience with the least friction.
When they start getting products shipped straight to their door in two days or less, when they can get a ride to a location and pay for it without having to dig around for a credit card or cash, or when they can find several programs by simply telling Alexa what they’re in the mood for, they become less accepting of their pre-Covid casino experiences, particularly lines and paper.
On-property digital processes have made the experience exponentially better and much more like those adopted in the past two years.
Cashless technologies certainly took the spotlight during the 2021 Global Gaming Expo. While many may be looking at this innovation as a clean, safe way to rid ourselves of handling money that (let’s be honest) can be pretty filthy, GHI Solutions President Claudia Winkler reminds us the purpose is “to create a faster, easier way to get the money into the customer’s hands.”
Self-service kiosks are not new to the casino industry. We have had them on the floors to handle transactions such as TITO exchange and checking customer accounts. Still, there is no denying the pandemic focused our efforts to make them more useful (and often with reduced downtime). Guests can now have a self-service menu with a choice of promotional, check-in, food, and more. Additionally, many operators have installed kiosks to assist team members in navigating their employment.
Operators such as Caesars have adopted virtual concierge technologies that will let you order room service to be delivered to the pool or let you check out of the hotel without having to stand in a line again. Hilton Hotel’s app will allow you to check-in, choose your room and use your phone as your room key.
Many casinos are beginning to look at their sometimes-abandoned mobile apps with fresh eyes as new technology can allow them to send targeted messages and create geofences, often making the app a kiosk in the palm of the customer’s hand. Customers now understand how useful an app can be to see their points, comps and offers on-demand and take advantage of the full spread of offers.
The Challenge of Technological Advances
However, like most great advances, some prices must be paid. While many of these changes can reduce costs on one budget line, we still need humans to drive these efforts. Often our team member skill set can still be playing catch-up.
Partnering with providers and resources can mean increased or new expenses. So, we must move forward with partners in a way that will help our business and skills grow to take full advantage. Placing digital media is not as simple as buying a billboard we know will have a lot of traffic. Expanding our social media footprint means we must be prepared for quick responses almost 24 hours a day. Self-service technology can have a learning curve that some guests might not be ready for. So, we must be prepared with a backup plan to service those guests.
Yes, there is much to consider, but as we continue to expand our gaming offerings, digital tools and communications move further and further to the forefront. The possibilities are only limited by the imaginations of anyone looking to improve a process or connection.