The New Word of Mouth

How to influence social media and mobile marketing

When it comes to spreading the word about your property, don’t forget the almost 7 billion mobile subscribers out there.

When the new SLS Las Vegas resort opened in August, it sparked a level of ballyhoo that Sin City hasn’t seen since the gold rush (read: pre-recession) era. The energy ignited by SLS can be attributed in part to a deft social and mobile marketing campaign that talked up the plush new property on multiple digital platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—to a database of about 5 million customers, mostly in Southern California, where parent company sbe Entertainment has some 60 nightclubs, restaurants and hotels.

Unlike established casino companies that have grafted interactive and mobile marketing onto more traditional frameworks, SLS’s digital strategy was intact and dominant from the start (in general, sbe eschews paid advertising). And it was fine-tuned in anticipation of the grand opening.

“Over the past year we’ve re-launched all our websites as responsive sites, meaning they’re mobile-friendly—that’s really a direct reaction to our guests and their lifestyles,” says Veronica Smiley, sbe’s chief marketing officer and a former corporate VP of brand, advertising and communications for Caesars Entertainment. “Our customers are on the go; they’re not always in front of their desktop, they’re not always making decisions in advance. And when they want to engage with us, we want to make it as easy and fabulous an experience as possible.”

More responsive web design—which automatically adapts a website’s content, imagery and resolution to the dimensions of the user’s device—has resulted in “a huge uptick in growth, visitation and bookings” on the SLS site, Smiley reports. “It just makes us hungrier to look at how we can optimize their experience. People run their lives on their phones today; they run their companies on their phones today. So we have to be there.”

Picture This

The approach is paying off in more ways than one. Before SLS drew back the velvet rope August 23, the property’s Facebook page had 190,000 “likes.” In the past year, the company overall has experienced a whopping 300 percent growth in Instagram followers, from 25,000 to more than 75,000 and growing, says Smiley. In fact, she adds, when it comes to SLS, Instagram has bested even Facebook and Twitter as the leading consumer-driven marketing vehicle.

“Twelve months ago, people were still saying, ‘Who uses Instagram?’ It was just a few people here and there. Now, who’s not on Instagram? In our run-and-go lifestyles, where we don’t have time to retext, a picture will tell the most impactful story in the shortest amount of time. You can take a quick look and fantasize while waiting in line at the supermarket.”

The photo- and video-sharing app acquired by Facebook in 2013 has experienced hand-over-fist growth, going from 22 million active monthly users to 100 million current active users in a single year. Though it still lags behind Facebook, YouTube, Google+ and other mega-sites, Instagram has become the fastest-growing social media site in the world.

“It’s our aunts and our moms, too, not just our cool friends,” says Smiley. “And that’s important to us, because we have to reach a much bigger audience than just a slice of L.A.”

With an assist from Instagram users, SLS created buzz in the months before opening through its interactive “Be Legendary” campaign. It not only referenced the property’s past in iconic images (the former Sahara was once home away from home for entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe), it also invited followers to post their own favorite photos.

SLS was “giving a nod to the history of the Sahara but also talking to today’s consumers, who are more interested in a lifestyle and boutique-hotel experience,” observes Jim Gentleman, senior vice president of account management and strategy with SK&G, a Las Vegas advertising and marketing agency. “From a social media standpoint, inviting their fans or followers to upload photos they think are legendary was a way to get them involved with the new campaign.” That in turn added to the drumbeat of expectation about the property.

“It’s all about engaging and sharing,” says Gentleman.

The Payoff

Engaging and sharing.

Ever since digital media conquered the universe, marketers have talked up those feel-good (but slightly slippery) concepts. Their bottom-line value has been hard to quantify—until now. According to a recent study commissioned by the social data company ShareThis and the Paley Center for Media, positive online buzz not only feels good but can have a measurable effect on a business’ bottom line.

Weighing the impact of social sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Yelp and other networks, the study showed that good reviews can boost the perceived value of a product or service by an average of 9.5 percent. Conversely, online thumbs-down can reduce the likelihood consumers will use a product or service by as much as 11 percent.

“It is incredibly meaningful when you think about what’s the most impactful way to get you to try a new restaurant or check out a new hotel,” says Smiley. “Is it a print ad or is it someone who tells you, ‘I just had a fabulous dish, and here’s a picture of it?’ It’s not rocket science. It’s great to provide paid media to get the conversation started, but the biggest impact is when people feel empowered to recommend you and tell friends, hopefully in a positive way.”

Collectively, social media has given consumers a level of influence unheard of in the pre-digital era. When they’re happy, they can become a property’s best brand ambassadors.

“Back in the day we used ‘push’ campaigns, running TV ads or press ads or billboards to push a message out to the audience,” says Smiley. “Now it’s a completely different landscape. Social has been such a strong channel for us, we’re constantly working to engage with the community—looking at the comments they make, responding, regramming (retweeting on Instagram) the fabulous images they send us… It really should not called a campaign any more. It’s a conversation.” 

The Softer Sell

And that conversation had better do more than pitch, says Gentleman.

“Ultimately with social media and mobile media, you have to create content that people will share with their own networks,” he explains. “Giving them a chance to contribute or participate or win something of value or learn something relevant puts you way ahead of the game. A little promotion is fine as long as that’s not all you’re doing with your social media feed.”

Too much sell, he says, “and they’ll tune you out.”

Which social media platform predominates, and do casinos use them differently to reach different groups of people?

“Facebook is still the 800-pound gorilla of the social media world, with over 1.32 billion monthly active users,” says Ryan Leeds, vice president of strategy at Masterminds, an East Coast advertising agency. “Twitter is great for real-time news, event updates and deals. Pinterest is best for featuring non-gaming content such food and beverage, travel tips and info, humor and weddings. Instagram is a great option for casinos that have options for a younger demo, like nightlife”—the demographic targeted by SLS.

Marketing expert Jamie Turner, author of How to Make Money with Social Media, recently posted a list of the 52 top platforms “every marketer should know.” They’re divided into three categories: platforms that help people network (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.); platforms that help them promote (YouTube, blogs, etc.); and platforms that help them share (Hootsuite, for example).

From Bing to XING, from MyLife to MySpace, from Vox to Vanila to Reddit, Delicious and Drupal, the list is expanding. The temptation may be to jump aboard all of these sites; Leeds says avoid it.

“It’s always good to test out new platforms as they come up, but only if you have the resources to really do a good job,” says Leeds. “It’s much better to stick to a couple social networks—whatever is manageable for your team—and do them well.”

Smiley agrees. “My philosophy has always been if you’re going to be there, do it well. Have a plan. People don’t really have time for content or communications that aren’t quality.  If you’re there just to be there it’s a waste of brand.”

The Extra Mile

Now, back to that conversation between a company and its customers. It goes without saying that good dialogue has to be two-way, with occasional pauses and built-in response time. In simple terms, it pays to shut up and listen.

HubSpot cofounder Brian Halligan has called it the “megaphone versus hub analogy.” When companies utilize their websites and social media as nothing more than broadcast channels, they forget about “actual humans on the other side of the screen.” Thinking in terms of an authentic, thoughtful, one-to-one conversation “helps you improve the content you deliver, the design you create, and the calls to action you employ,” Halligan says.

Though a company may have dozens or hundreds of representatives ready to field online complaints or answer questions, ideally any communication should feel like a one-to-one exchange between human beings. Because it always is. That said, those representatives must adopt and maintain the brand voice and reflect an identity that’s consistent and congruous.

Gaming companies are “literally creating guidelines in terms of the kind of vocabulary, the process, the procedure their people use when issues come up, to be true to their brand,” says Gentleman. “If you represent the Borgata in Atlantic City, that brand tends to be playful, entertaining, with a quality element. It may be a little different from how Aria and Bellagio speak to their customers. You cannot speak as yourself. You need to speak as the brand.”

It’s been said that customer service is the new marketing—and good customer service is certainly the best marketing. According to research from the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, a dissatisfied customer will tell between nine and 15 people about his or her experience; and about 13 percent of dissatisfied customers will tell more than 20 people. But resolve a disgruntled customer’s problem, and that person will also spread the word—telling four to six people, but this time, with enthusiasm. (And by the way, it takes an average of 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.)

“Companies like MGM or Caesars have growing departments of digital social media folks and that’s what they do—they’re online,” says Gentleman. “If people didn’t enjoy their stay or had problems, they use it as a way to also try to proactively deal with it.” It may sound like housekeeping, but it’s also a marketing message, says Gentleman. It could mark the difference between winning or losing a single customer, who then may help you win or lose a dozen more, and so on.

In these famous words from Forbes magazine: “Treat your customers as if they were newspaper reporters”—or the latter-day equivalent, bloggers with Twitter feeds.

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Rules of Engagement
How much is too much and what really works?

Ryan Leeds, vice president of strategy at Masterminds, typically recommends posting online content regularly, once per day as a general rule, more often if you have something to say.

“For instance, if you have an exciting event coming up, you may want to live-Tweet about it, which could mean posting multiple times an hour. Conversely, you may not have much going on, and may consider skipping a day rather than trying to force content. Testing different frequencies and finding out what schedule works best for your property is always the best way to go.”

Contests and giveaways “should always support a relevant business goal,” and should involve more than a simple sign-up, says Leeds. In other words, make it fun and shareable.

“If your goal is to educate fans about an on-property car giveaway, consider asking them to share what their custom license plate would be or explain why they need a new car, and award entries into the on-property drawing to people who participate. This gets them thinking and dreaming about the prize and gets them invested in the promotion. Just keep in mind that the more work it takes to enter, the fewer people will participate.”

Gentleman suggests engaging customers by posting a favorite chef’s recipe, or a YouTube interview with an artist who’s coming to your concert venue. “Or it could be a contest or giveaway that will award someone a trip or a weekend stay at your property.”

But the social media phenomenon that tends to reap the most clicks-to-conversions are lists, he says: “Top 10 things to do this season, top 10 favorite foods.”

Quizzes, too, are a surefire way to get people playing your game. “It’s human nature; people like to test themselves to see how smart they are,” says Gentleman. But online tests of intelligence or trivia are not all play. They’re also business, and a smart way to gather data.

The next time you find yourself taking an online IQ test or a quiz to find out if you’re Betty or Veronica from the Archie comics, “You can almost bet there’s a marketer in there,” says Gentleman, “gleaning information for a marketing offer down the road.”