Continuing our discussion of the advent of social influencer marketing in the casino industry, we can all agree that implementation has been an easy decision to make, but what about the operations side of this equation?
We partnered with Shank Marketing to create a series of conversations with casino marketers experiencing success using social influencers and the influencers who are seemingly growing their audiences by leaps and bounds. We also had the opportunity to chat – AMA-style – with the operations pros.
Operations has always been a crucial partner in our efforts. Of course, we turn their floors into a fleury of activity with our marketing programs but bringing social influencers has upped the level of excitement. Yet, these operations pros continue to be a great resource and support as we expand our social influencer marketing efforts.
During this particular conversation, we spoke with Jay Ellenberger. Currently serving as director of casino operations for Seven Feathers Casino Resort, Ellenberger is a 24-year industry veteran, having worked on both sides of the casino floor – on the manufacturing and casino sides. Also joining our conversation was the Director of Partnership Marketing and Communications for Aristocrat Meghan Sleik. She has worked on the non-gaming side in her previous roles with MGM Resorts, Wynn Las Vegas, and R&R Partners. Also joining us was owner and operator of Slot Strategies, Buddy Frank, who was one of the first operations people to see social media and influencer marketing in action at a casino. Rounding out our group was Daria Wu, director of slot operations for Gold Nugget Las Vegas.
(Author’s note: This abbreviated report is probably a 15-minute read. Still, if you’d like to watch the entire discussion, you can access the recording on the social influencer webinar page of our Casino Marketing Boot Camp site.)
A New Wave
When a new wave hits any industry or pop culture as a whole, we often are left wondering what caused the wave or what came first to create the beginning of that wave. As the wave of influencer marketing washes over the casino industry, it’s essential to understand why and how it happened.
For Ellenberger, it came with a simple introduction to one of the biggest influencers today, Brian Christopher. That moment was the first step we took in the direction of what the future was bringing,” recalls Ellenberger.
For Frank, it was about 10 years ago when he was vice president of slot operations at Pechanga Resort Casino. “We’d hired a social marketing team (at the property), but at the time, no one paid any real attention to them. The popular Bravo TV reality show Millionaire Matchmaker had approached us,” says Frank. “They wanted to rent our comedy club for an event. It was in the early days of the reality show boom. No one was paying much attention to them either, but the social media team asked for the chance to use that platform for marketing, promising they wouldn’t spend a penny.”
Frank continues, “Our casino was packed. The room was overflowing. Not one penny was spent on traditional print, or radio, TV, or billboards. (They) Absolutely packed the place. That opened everyone’s eyes, and from there, it just grew. We built the team, and there was no looking back.”
Daria Wu’s introduction came through a conversation to brainstorm new and different approaches to drawing slot customers. “Our then social media manager (Courtney Carr) and I met. I said, ‘I want to do something different.’ And she introduced me to the concept,” says Wu. “It really opened my eyes. We had Brian Christopher visit. To have him on your floor for the first time and see what a true celebrity he is, I think that sells itself right there.”
Adds Sleik, “I’ve worked with a variety of influencers in my time, and I think my perception of influencers – coming into Aristocrat – was a little bit different than a lot of folks in the organization because of my experience. They had previously worked with influencers, just not necessarily in the same vein that we do today. But it is fascinating just to see.” Sleik described walking Christopher through a slot floor compared to an in-demand, internationally known DJ. Guess which one was most recognized?
“We couldn’t make it to the end of the hallway,” says Sleik. “It’s fascinating to see how this has changed and how it’s all started to snowball.”
Having a great idea or concept and then acting on it are two very different things.
Ellenberger consistently challenges his team with innovation and doing things that are different and unique to his market (or even the industry.) For example, the marketing team at Seven Feathers looked for more ways to interact with guests both socially and online in general. “We thought influencer marketing could be a great avenue for that. So, we took the leap. At the time, it was a fairly new concept, but we have grown so much since then.”
“We wanted to make sure that we stayed engaged with our guests when they aren’t on the property and show the excitement and fun that they could have by coming to the property and joining in the activity on the floor (they are missing) by showing the same online.”
Wu has a similar reason she started using influencers. “Our goal was to get away from just posting jackpot pictures. Everyone does that. By showing our games – including table games – we build trust with guests.”
For Frank, the CFO had the biggest “aha.” “They saw cost-effectiveness, and that opened the door to staffing a social team and spending some money in this category,” says Frank. “But let’s not forget that we’ve always had important social influencers among us, even though they weren’t necessarily e-influencers at the time. There are folks like Bob Dancer, who had a huge following among video poker players. And if he wrote and talked about it, you saw that.”
“Now, we’ve got people playing traditional slots, filling that same role — a trusted expert who’s not part of the property team. This is an independent source saying, ‘Hey, this is fun. It’s exciting and a great place to spend your money.’ So, it gave us credibility that you just couldn’t buy or create in any other way without an influencer.”
The Supplier View
The idea of using influencers is prevalent now with brands trying to reach consumers, but there is a growing adoption from B2B marketers. For slot manufacturers, this has led to creating content beyond the machine itself, which has traditionally been focused on the reels and bonuses.
Some operators have turned to influencers for training! The typical slot machine is sold to casino executives after seeing and playing the game. The missing link seems to be the slot attendants and other team members on the front line. Lacking materials for this sales force, Frank would use the videos created by influencers as training tools. And because, as Frank says, “influencers kind of cheat. They don’t show you all the times they lose. They tend to edit in the bonuses, features, and the big hits they get,” this allows slot attendants to watch their videos and their influence. In turn, attendants can become your best salesforce – selling your games better than anybody else.
Moreover, as slot titles become more engaging, the complexity also increases., the guest arrives at the casino knowing a bit more about that game and wants to experience a bonus they may have seen someone win on their YouTube clip
For Sleik, the approach was more inside out – from the manufacturer’s perspective and perhaps the first time a manufacturer created the demand for the product (as opposed to the casino operator). Having worked with influencers on the LVCVA account was very different. Focused primarily on creating conversations around the amenities rather than the casino floor, she remarks, “believe it or not, one of the things we never touched on the Vegas account was slots. We worked with everything else that you could imagine.”
Additionally, there are different channels to work with. How you assess them becomes critical. “We had some people come to us that although they may have been active on a few platforms, their main focus might have been a blog. Some were popular on Instagram, while some focused on YouTube. It’s just been interesting to see how this has started to transition, specifically in the slot space, and to see how a lot of these influencers are starting to capitalize on multiple platforms. I think that is really important as they continue to grow.”
Before the Covid pandemic, Aristocrat had been working with influencer marketing. “we had dabbled in it a little bit, but I think the most significant change happened when all the casinos closed. I think was an interesting situation for us as a supplier and also an interesting situation for the influencers,” recalls Sleik. It was one of the first times that influencers ran the risk of potentially running out of content. Some did run out of content because they had no access to a slot floor. For Aristocrat, this was an opportunity to invite influencers to the showroom.
Though not quite the same because there is no real money gambling happening in the showroom, it gave influencers access to the games. Aristocrat continued to roll out products the entire time, despite the shutdowns. Additionally, influencers aided in research and development. Aristocrat was able to share pipeline information with influencers, giving them the ability to introduce new products and deliver the news of when customers could look for the products on the floor, often creating demand.
Sleik says, “It’s our responsibility as a manufacturer to provide our partner casinos with the assets that they need to be able to do their job. One thing this whole experience has changed is our asset portal now has bonus highlight videos and the kind of content that works on social. One download and marketers are ready to use these assets. I think that we’re just scratching the surface from a supplier’s standpoint of what the potential truly is.”
“Obviously, there are going to be independent opportunities that we may choose to pursue for ourselves in building brand equity so that when an influencer does choose to go to a casino, they will hopefully play Aristocrat games,” continues Sleik. “But I think it’s also this twofold thing where we have to work directly with our customers to understand what an influencer looks like for them? Who do you prefer to come to your property? Who resonates the most with your audience? Then we can partner with them on that and then have that specific influencer visit the property and play the games while they’re there.
It is an evolving process. As an industry, we have learned a lot even in just the last year about how influence marketing can work and what works best. We will only get better at riding the influence wave.
More Than Just a Post
Frank sees something even bigger coming out of the wave.
There was an era when operators like (then) Harrah’s Entertainment and Ameristar used marketing dollars specifically to promote particular slot titles. Since then, marketing has shifted focus to giveaways, entertainment, and other time-bound attractions.
Frank says it is the social influencers who have brought a focus back on the slot products. Says Frank, “I’ll get people coming into the casino, which I haven’t seen before, ask me about a new slot I’ve never heard of that they knew about because of social influencers. The smart manufacturers get influencers all pumped up, and in turn, guests go in search of that machine. I may not have even heard about it yet.”
Frank adds, “If I want to know about a new title, man, I go right to the influencers. They tell me about the slot machine from their perspective. So, it’s valuable for the operator. It’s obviously valuable to the manufacturers because they get the word out. But it lets us know the perception of that slot early on. So, it certainly makes a difference in how we market our number one revenue-producing product.”
This is a marked evolution in how we think of marketing slots. Many of us have assumed it was the manufacturer’s role to market the slot titles. However, Frank sees relying on this way of thinking represents a potential missed opportunity. He recalls the introduction of Plants vs. Zombies. “It was a mild title, but we did our own promotional video on it. Guess what? It got picked up by all the video gamers. I think we were 10 million hits on that thing because they picked it up, amplified our brand, and the machine probably did a lot better than it would’ve done without that social push.”
Simplifying the Experience
The advancements in slot machine design have created enhanced entertainment experiences, but the flip side of that coin is that they’re not as simple as just pulling a handle and watching three sevens line up anymore. Often guests win without knowing how or why.
Many influencers – gamblers themselves – have become the proverbial person next to you that taps you on the shoulder to tell you how you won!
Justin Shank, who served as my co-host on these discussions, reminds us the conversations we’ve had with influencers all point to them being highly knowledgeable about the games and how they work. “They’re actually educating all of the people watching them,” he says and recalls that in his former role as a property marketing person and even know working with various properties, he is still learning about many slot machines from the social influencers.
Surprisingly, influencers are also influencing the design of the play experience in many ways. For example, Sleik notes they have begun to consider whether the content is compelling enough that a player would want to pull their phone out to record. “Do we give them enough time to do that? If something happens that’s too fleeting or quick, they might miss the moment,” she notes. “We have to make sure they’re able to capture the experience in a shareable way.”
A New Resource for Team Members
Ellenberger encourages new team members to search for influencers and watch them to get more insights about the slot products. “When we do orientation, we remind them to get onto the social outlets and watch, particularly our own channel. We encourage them to see who we have coming in – entertainers, shows, or performances. It is a great resource for our team members to learn more than they can from a poster or memo.”
Ellenberger continues, “It’s always been a challenge internally. We have the posters. We have information online and team websites. The third-party content online seems to pull all of it together. And, as far as learning how the games are played, we’ve reframed how we select our games now. We base a significant amount on what we can identify socially as well as what we can use socially to drive business.” So, for example, rather than putting a product on the floor and then showcasing it, they see what is trending to decide what products will make it to their floor.
Both Frank and Ellenberger concur that team members want to learn. When the influencers started popping up, team members were probably the biggest fans. In many ways, influencers are filling a gap in knowledge for team members.
A New Way to Consider Additions to the Slot Floor
These discussions have left me wondering what impact influence marketing is going to have. At the time of this writing, it appears we will all see each other again at the National Indian Gaming Tradeshow and the Global Gaming Expo. Will the normal showcasing of new slot titles, or will the information gleaned from influencers be the deciding vote in how operators make their purchase decisions? Will influencers set the trends, or will influencers be the tool to stimulate demand for a product. Could an influencer change a low-performing product to high on the power of their reach?
Sleik keeps an eye on influencers to answer some key questions. What are they choosing to play on their dime when we’re not involved with a brand? What’s happening when they’re playing? The Aristocrat team takes an active role, reading the comments, chatting with people, and asking them a few questions What’s your favorite game? What have you seen in this video that you are most excited to play? Occasionally, they surprise participants with a giveaway or two.
“We want to have that relationship with the players, says Sleik. “I think that there’s a lot of value in watching what happens when we announce that we’re going to have so-and-so come in and he’s going to play these three games. Then we take note of what happens over the course of that. Do we see that things continue to increase, or are we seeing conversion, and maybe some people are choosing to add more to their floor? Is it just bottoming out? Then we know maybe that’s not the right title.”
“I think all of these are still things that we’re testing. We’re figuring out the right recipe, and I don’t think we’re necessarily ever going to know because these influencers are becoming more and more savvy every day,” she continues. “And sometimes I feel like they know more about the games than sometimes people who work for the company. But, amazingly, they’re extraordinarily well-versed in the games. So, it really does validate them as a source of information.”
Marketing and Operations: A Match Made for Future Growth
The bridge between the operations and the marketing teams has become much shorter because of this new relationship with these slot influencers. So when you start marrying the two, you can get more done and get more buy-in.
With the state of marketing in change mode, it is more crucial than ever that we sit in the same room (even if it’s virtual) discussing what the influencers are doing and what we’re doing on social media and digital marketing.
Markets, consumers, and marketing are all changing. As a result, we’re adjusting our toolset and plans, and operations must be a part of that change.
Ellenberger adds, “We make a lot more decisions on purchasing games with marketing. We never used to do that. You never sat those folks at the same table. They were two different entities that really didn’t get along with each other in some places.”
Frank provides the best conclusion, “Well, amen. But, unfortunately, I don’t believe that has been a common trait in casinos. We tend to be very siloed, and in my view, if you don’t have gaming operations, marketing, and IT all on the same page these days, you’re not going to succeed.”