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Back to Basics: Social Marketing 101

Forget about the finer points of social media marketing; some of the biggest casino companies haven't mastered the fundamentals.

One of the most successful commercial promotions of all time was AT&T’s memorable “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign of the 1980s. With five simple words and the image of a sweet-faced mom sitting all alone, the phone company yanked at the heartstrings of American consumers and guilted them into making more long-distance calls.

In this era of lightning-fast digital communications, it’s possible to reach out and touch everyone—family and friends, colleagues and customers—instantaneously, collectively and continuously. But in business, constant contact is only a means to an end; unless it adds to profitability, it is wasted motion, a squander of human capital and operational costs.

Rick Campbell, former casino executive and marketing director for the CMS Group in Las Vegas, says the gaming industry in many instances has failed to exploit the profit-making potential of digital and social media marketing. Even big companies with seemingly limitless resources can be found spinning their wheels in ongoing but fruitless online chatter, using a shotgun approach instead of funneling offers and other communications to the most receptive customers, and delivering a monologue when they should be engaged in a dialogue. They are counting their Facebook “likes” without turning these “friends” into customers— loyal, paying, repeat customers.

“When you think of the intersection between players club systems and social media, we should be a lot more advanced by now,” says Campbell. “It’s not that hard.”

Know Your Customer

It’s the simplest rule; maybe that’s why it’s so easily overlooked.

Campbell recently consulted with a team of casino marketers who were jubilant because their property had accumulated 4,000 Facebook followers. The elation faded fast when Campbell started to poke at the results. “Out of those 4,000 followers,” he asked, “how many are your players? Do they have player cards? Do they live close by? How many are even in the U.S.?

“Well, they just sat there with their mouths open—they couldn’t answer any of those questions,” says Campbell. “It floored me because there’s so much information about players that’s right at your fingertips. All you have to do is open your hand and grab it. But even now a lot of casinos are not doing that.”

As basketball coach John Wooden might have said, those team members were mistaking activity for achievement. Sure, they were putting out the information and getting a healthy response, at least in terms of quantity. With a little more legwork, they could have cross-referenced those online thumbs-ups against their player tracking system, found out who among the 4,000 were actual customers, and then filled in the blanks about each and every viable “like”—who was a local, who was a regular, who liked to play poker, who stayed regularly at the hotel.

“By filling in all those informational pieces, the casino knows that Bob Jones likes bass fishing, slot machines and Andrew Dice Clay. When he comes to Vegas they can send him an invite to the comedy club instead of shooting it out to the entire database, where half the people might not even like comedy,” says Campbell. “They can provide better service and a better experience.”

They can also avoid annoying customers who hate Andrew Dice Clay. It’s not an insignificant benefit; repeatedly sending the wrong message can erode the impact of all of your messaging. As Campbell says, “If I like groups from the ’50s and ’60s, please don’t send me tickets for Rascal Flatts.”

He recounts several instances in which freebie casino concert tickets ending up being sold on Craigslist or simply passed on to the first willing taker. “I saw one of the big players at the slot machines while the concert was going on. She had given the tickets to her next-door neighbors, who weren’t players at all.” Hence, those comps were truly on the house, with no return at all for the properties.

By ferreting out meaningless “likes,” marketers also will learn if their outreach is effective; if it’s not, they can change it up accordingly.

While a percentage of players will always resist giving up their birthdates, cell phone numbers and other personal minutiae for a casino database, it’s important to persist, says Campbell. “When marketing departments and player reps get shot down often enough, they just stop asking. Smile and take the extra steps. ‘What’s your email address, Mr. Jones? Can I get your user name on Facebook?’ There are a lot of Bob Joneses out there; you want to make sure you’re reaching the right one.”

Right Words, Right Time

Digital technology and the speed of the internet have enabled companies to connect with their customers immediately, make a pitch on the basis of known preferences, and invite responses in real time. (There’s a reason they call it interactive.) Yet some casino companies are “still trying to use their social media channel as an advertising tool,” says Campbell.

“When they say, ‘Hey, we’re having a concert,’ or ‘We’re going to give away a new car,’ that’s not opening a line of communication. They should be asking, ‘What would you do with a brand new BMW?’ or ‘Hey, for the next two hours I’m offering Alan Jackson tickets, buy one, get one free. Who’s up for that?’” In short, it is now possible to turn every communication into a conversation. Never forget there’s another party on the line.

Once you know who you’re talking to, find out when they’re listening. In general, Campbell says, Facebook users are most active between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., spiking at 3 p.m., and Twitter users are both early birds and night owls. According to Union Metrics, the best day to post to Tumblr is Sunday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. But generalizations are dangerous; when experts differ about the prime time for online engagement—and they do—it’s important to look at your own performance metrics.

“You’re only looking for your followers,” says Campbell. “You need to find out when they’re going to be reading through posts and checking accounts and being online.”

Social media dashboard programs—HootSuite is among the most popular—allow companies to find out when their patrons are jumping online, reading through posts, checking multiple accounts and making plans for the weekend; dashboards also make it simple to optimize online posts so they pop up when the most customers are viewing.

Bring ’Em Back Alive

Suppose they’re not viewing at all. If your email blasts have a low open rate, “then you can start segmenting your list by who is not responding to your emails,” says Mariana Mechoso Safer, senior vice president of marketing at HeBS Digital, an internet marketing and strategy consulting firm in Las Vegas. “Any company that provides email marketing services should be able to tell who is opening the emails, what they’re clicking on, and if they’re booking.”

If they’re not, take action. “For one client, we recommended a re-engagement campaign for customers that hadn’t opened an email in a period of, say, three months,” says Safer. “We suggested sending them a very targeted offer saying, ‘Hey, we’re still here and we have this special promotion just for you.’ To get them to re-engage, you have to make it something really special and exciting.”

Also be aware that you can communicate too much. Just as misdirected offers can turn off your customers, so can an avalanche of emails or text messages. When you are omnipresent, you can become invisible. 

“If it’s a general email, we don’t recommend sending out more than two a month,” says Safer. “But if you’re more targeted with the message and the email is something the consumer is interested in, then hit them up once a week or even more—for instance, if you want to send a text message about a last-minute deal at the restaurants. Especially for casinos, send it to your locals, not someone who is a fly-in. But I think daily is way too much.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

The use of smart phones and tablets has exploded in recent years. According to data from the Pew Internet Research project, released in June, 56 percent of Americans over the age of 18 now own a smart phone, and about 30 percent of adults in the U.S. own a tablet, up from just 3 percent in 2010.

Yet some of the biggest casino companies in the world haven’t developed truly user-friendly mobile websites, says Nancy Smith, CEO of Masterminds, an advertising agency in New Jersey.

“From a digital touch point perspective, mobile is becoming more important with every passing day,” she says. “Known, qualified players are getting their marketing info on the go, through text messaging, mobile apps and from mobile websites; the number of people transacting their business on their phone is increasing by double digits every month practically. Yet I’m shocked at the number of casinos that don’t have mobile-friendly websites. And I don’t mean a website that just sizes down to the size of a phone, where you can’t read anything or do any business.”

She cites the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and Revel in Atlantic City as casinos with effective mobile websites. The resorts did not just squeeze their regular sites onto smaller screens, but wholly reconfigured them for simplicity and ease of use. Because those properties opened in 2010 and 2012 respectively, they probably had nothing to unlearn in terms of technology.

“Ninety percent of the other (casino websites),” says Smith, “are just exercises in frustration.”

Especially if they’re slow on the uptake. According to a 2012 New York Times report, web users have such a need for speed they will balk at waiting even four-tenths of a second for a mobile site to load—“literally the blink of an eye.” And if your website is slower than your competitor’s by more than a quarter of a second, at least some of your customers will patronize the competitor.

Moving Targets

The utility of a mobile website is critical, particularly for users who are checking in on their devices while in transit.

“Eighty-five percent of hotel reservations—and this includes casino hotels—are made for the same night or the following night, or are extending a stay,” says Safer. “You want to cater to the fact that they’re on the go and accommodate for the touch-screen nature of the mobile device.”

If a customer has a strong interest in a property or inherent loyalty, how long will they work with a troublesome mobile site?

“There’s no shared data on that other than what we can see in terms of low conversions and high bounce rates,” says Safer. “Take Marriott, for instance; they have a 22 million-page desktop website. What would it be like if all they did was just shrink that website to the iPhone screen? Think about how difficult it would be to find that specific property or phone number or map or the things that people really need to find on a mobile device. We put ourselves in the consumer’s place and ask what we would do if we were served with that type of experience.”

Tablets are another matter, and should offer “the same amount of content a desktop website has,” with touch-screen navigation, handy swiping capabilities and pleasing visuals. The Retina screen of the iPad means photos can be “very stunning in terms of color and high resolution,” Safer says. But never trade functionality for pretty pictures.

Of course, brand messaging on all sites should be cohesive and complementary. “Google data shows a really high percentage of people that will use all three devices—desktop, mobile and tablet—in one day to achieve one goal,” Safer says. “The Google study said that in terms of planning a trip, 47 percent of people surveyed started on their mobile phone, 45 percent then continued on a PC, and then 3 percent continued on a tablet.”

Listen and Learn

Pinnacle Entertainment’s loyalty program is one example of how casino companies can successfully engage with their customers both in person and online in a way that strengthens both modes of customer contact. In a 2012 fourth-quarter earnings call, Pinnacle’s Chief Marketing Officer Ginny Shanks spoke of “reinforcing the emotional benefits” of the myChoice program by making senior leadership at the company’s seven casinos immediately accessible to preferred customers. Along with myConnection, a “mobile VIP concierge,” myChoice enables members to chat directly with their hosts and casino general managers; amazingly, Owner’s Club members even have a direct line to Pinnacle CEO Anthony Sanfilippo.

That extraordinary access is backed up by fun, ongoing online interaction that invites participation. When the Stadium Sports Bar & Grill opened at the Belterra Casino Resort in Florence, Indiana in May, customers were treated to luscious images and video of the culinary team creating a banquet of desserts; they were then asked to vote on their favorites. Concerts and other entertainment are teased online before the show is officially announced; quizzes and contests keep fans on the alert and entertained.

In an innovative blend of traditional media with handheld devices, Pinnacle now produces print ads, direct mail pieces and brochures that interact with smart phones. The technology “brings the document to life, so to speak, brings more information on the product, gives you some video or interactive questions, and even gives gaming tips—if you’re new to blackjack, it will walk you through some basic gaming strategy,” says Matt Ryan, Pinnacle’s vice president of relationship marketing. “It’s a different way to engage—a print ad is not a static piece of paper anymore.”

Perhaps most importantly, the company faithfully gathers data on its patrons during every interaction: through emails and phone conversations between customers and the host team, by monitoring customer preferences on-property, and by interacting with customers online. The rewards are always appropriate. “If they continually go to the steakhouse, we comp the steakhouse,” says Ryan. “If they go to concerts of a certain genre, we get to understand that as well and make sure we’re meeting their wants and needs.

“The more we can do to make offers and events and entertainment strategy unique and personalized, that’s extremely important.”

Nancy Smith hails the thoroughness of Pinnacle’s approach, and says other companies would do well to follow suit. “There’s no bigger marketing challenge for the future than to be sure people can transact business, access all information and get the customer service they want” on their digital device of choice, Smith says. For now, she adds, “Most casinos are still truly behind the times.”

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