Arguably the biggest buzzwords of a marketer’s day are “social” and “influencer.” More than just buzzwords, social influencers might present the most significant opportunity in years to lift your casino marketing efforts because they can attract and engage casino customers on an entirely new level.

On a larger scale, social influencers might create images of the Kardashians and Charli D’amelio (or even the recent Netflix documentary Fake Famous (check out the trailer). Still, casino customers have their own social influencer celebrities. More importantly, they are building virtual relationships amongst themselves. Leveraging the popularity of these influencers could very well be your next casino marketing hit.

What follows are highlights from our recent conversations with casino marketing pros who took part in the Winning Influencer Marketing series.

History of Using Influencers

Justin Shank (who, along with his team at Shank Marketing, co-produced the series with us) reminded us at the start of the series that the concept of influence marketing has been around far longer than social media. We have always had influencers in our midst, but we used to call them “tastemakers.” As a former publicist, Shank recalls using them for many of his past movie projects.

“It was somebody to whom you could send a product, and they would talk about it,” he explains. “Maybe they were a media personality or some other celebrity. Influencers started to really come up into the mainstream with the widespread adoption of YouTube. And the term ‘influencer’ came about when people started to notice these YouTubers starting trends and making an impact on society as a whole and gaining followers at surprising rates.”

There are people such as travel bloggers, food writers, and others interested in travel-related topics. They have been around for many years and, as a result, have gained large followings. The slot influencer emerged over the past few years. Their personal playing sessions — both live and recorded — have grown in popularity on YouTube and Twitch, and other live streaming services.

Bobby Thornton, director of marketing at Coushatta Casino Resort, reminds us that we have long-used influencers even though we did not classify them as such. We have another long history of using live remotes and radio personalities to draw additional attendance to various events. Shank adds that local media often have their own kind of celebrity status. These media influencers are typically highly respected and what they are interested in is usually highly regarded.

And Then There Was The Social Influencer

When I was part of Wynn Las Vegas’s opening team and we set our marketing strategy, we knew we wanted to align ourselves with influence sources. We worked with celebrities that people looked to for the next trends, but we knew we had to “manage” their work with us. So, we set certain expectations in advance to mitigate any “damage” that might be done to the brand because of something that the influencer might do or say.

Additionally, internal controls and often regulations forbid any filming on the casino floor unless prior notification (and sometimes approvals) is provided. When we filmed the Harrah’s brand commercial in 2001, we had to submit a time-specific, location-specific schedule with our request to film. Any changes to the plan meant a new submission was required. That was hard on the creative people attempting to produce the perfect commercial. Imagine how anyone looked at the average Joe and Jane when cell phones became media creation tools?

What if they said something bad about us?

What if they showed something we didn’t like or want to be shown?

Shank recalls the beginning, “There weren’t many influencers (as we know them now) out there, and yet there was still a huge concern about influencers coming in and saying the wrong thing. I remember talking to an executive at the time. I’m thinking we have all these comedians coming in here who are doing all kinds of crazy stuff when they’re on stage and even when they aren’t performing. They’re really no different, but as operators, we gave them (performers) a pass.”

Does Social Influencer Marketing Work for Casino Marketing?

For casino marketers ready to make the leap, the common questions seem to be about ROI? How can I show it works?

The answer is easily be found in the form of an event and its tracking.

Many of the more known influencers are also managing their audiences (so they can create monetization opportunities. One of the easiest things to do is for the influencer to pre-register their fans and provide you with the player card information. If there is no card number, you can quickly establish a new account to add them to the event or group tracking.

Thornton says they have seen incremental lift from these types of events, often attracting first-time visitors who have spent their gambling dollars with the competition. “As long as we can get the tracking mechanisms in place,” he says, “you’re able to justify these programs to the non-believers in your organization.”

According to San Manuel Casino Digital Content Manager Thomas, the resort has used promo codes with specific influencers when they are marketing the online play product. LaRocca can track signups and spend with both the online and bricks-and-mortar offering. “We did a slot tournament in partnership with Brian Christopher,” he shared with us. “He brought in 300 of his followers. We were able to track how many Club Serrano members were existing or new, along with their spending. We could also see how the spend compared to past trends for known customers.

Erica Kosemund, senior director of gaming brand and partnerships for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, adds that they are very transparent with the information Choctaw needs to analyze influencer programs properly. She shared her experience with Christopher (and his team) was similar. Christopher’s team provided the needed data, even providing information for those who would need new cards.

Influencers are just as vested in your success as they are for their own.

Getting Your Casino Social Influencer Program Started

In a previous post about getting started using slot social influencer marketing, Shank noted some easy steps you can take to create an influencer program for your casino that will help you determine a proper fit with your brand.

  • Start watching. What are influencers doing? How are their audiences responding?
  • Expand your focus to small creators, too. Many experienced headline-making influencers are creating multiple revenue streams, but slot influencers are still relatively new. Many of them started filming their own experiences. Soon people were discovering these videos and commenting. Eventually, these videos became more deliberate.
  • Spend a little time observing. Personalities develop over some time. Take care not to disqualify or, conversely, qualify someone automatically right from the start.

For Thornton, an annual slot pull event was the spark he needed to start an influencer program. “We were a little on autopilot,” says Thornton, “We wanted to do something different to change things up a bit and bring a different touch to something fun.”

We have all been in that situation. We create a successful event. We keep bringing it back on an annual basis, but it is less memorable over time and could use an injection of new energy.

“One of the things that the slot director and I discussed was to look at social media influencers,” continues Thornton. “We could identify who the best person would be for our brand and bring them in. That was the moment our first invited influencer came onto the property; we saw exactly how powerful social influencer marketing was.”

LaRocca remembers his aha moment. “We came across a video,” remembers LaRocca. “I think San Manuel was tagged or something, and we’re watching this video of an influencer playing our slot machines and other people playing too. People were playing for an hour or more. The view counts were amazing, and many viewers were contributing super chats and giving this influencer money to gamble with. It was fascinating.”

“And, I started thinking about what that audience,” LaRocca continues. “If I’m sitting there watching someone play slots for an hour at my computer on my screen, I must really love slots. And to me, it was like a perfect audience for a casino.”

The more the San Manuel marketing team started searching, the more slot channels they discovered.

LaRocca says he follows 20 – 30 different people that film at San Manuel consistently. Some have 35 followers; some have thousands. In many cases, these followers are Club Serrano Rewards members who love to gamble. He can walk the floor and often find many filming their play on their cell phones.

“I’ve been a huge influencer follower since its inception,” says Kosemund. “And so I knew when I came to Choctaw,” continues Kosemund, “I wanted to apply best practices from other industries to gaming.”

“I have watched lifestyle influencers work with beauty, and clothing brands leverage their influence on digital channels. During my first days at Choctaw, we began discussing how we could partner with influencers to talk about Choctaw and extend our reach into the feeder markets.”

“We really just dabbled at first. We took some time to see how other industries were approaching this new opportunity. We looked for learnings that we could apply and then capitalize.”

Getting Buy-in

Although a growing number of casinos are maturing in their utilization of social influencers, some are only now looking at this opportunity, and getting buy-in can be a challenge.

Kosemund’s advice? “Tell them to go ask their kids. In the beginning, when people would say ‘I don’t get it’ or ‘I don’t like it.’ I would always tell them to ask their kids about YouTube or influencers. They would come back to work excited and with so many questions.”

Kosemund shared a story of a vendor who raised his coolness quotient with a daughter after learning of influencers from the property’s marketing efforts.

She also recommends a post-analysis of videos. Some influencers will share metrics if it means they can help your leadership to understand the power of influencer marketing.”

And, like true casino marketers, build a presentation. You can easily use available hype reels from some influencers. Showing the excitement they are creating at a competitor property helps, too!

Thornton also experienced resistance at first. He was told, “those aren’t our customers. They’re young. They’re those social media people. “It wasn’t until we got Brian (Christopher) out here that they came to realize what a celebrity he was. Guests were coming up and watching. Our executive team realized he was famous – like celebrity famous. And as soon as they saw that, they were convinced. It was all it took.”

Thornton recommends you reach out to other marketers who have successfully used influencers. Get their executives to talk to your executives.

Ensuring a Successful Influencer Visit

Discussions of using social influencers in casino marketing would not be complete if someone did not have a story of a security guard turning an influencer away (or, worse, giving made-up reasons why filming is not allowed.) Kosemund says many casinos still adhere to no filming policies. That’s still a thing. Operators need to shift that mindset and accept that filming on the floor will not take away from anyone’s experience as long as there is an open line of communications. She says that one of the first steps she took as she began an outreach program was to ensure the compliance department would be comfortable with the filming.

LaRocca agrees that outdated policies need to go. “Why are we preventing this from happening so often,” he asks. “We have to evolve with the times.” We must realize that today people are filming their lives to share with friends, family and strangers alike.”

For LaRocca, he recalls his first steps were to engage WITH the influencers and their audiences. “We watched,” says LaRocca. “We commented whenever it was appropriate. Sometimes we shared their content in our channels. The goal was really to build a relationship with them first.” Then, when it was appropriate, his team could have more productive conversations when venturing into a partnership and setting expectations

Shank agrees an organic relationship must be the foundation of a true influencer partnership.

Thornton adds that updating policies and building relationships can often mean influencers might visit when you least expect it. “All we ask is that they contact us if they want to film on the floor. We’ll give them an authorization they can present it security in case they are questioned.

Thornton also tells us it is helpful to give them a few “house rules. “We ask that they don’t take videos of other people on the floor. We ask them not to video a table game. The cage (or any controlled areas) is off-limits. As long as they’re doing that, everybody’s happy.

He also stresses the importance of getting all team members on the same page. Each of the departments is versed in the handling of these ad-hoc visits. “When you see this, go up to the. Address them this way, kindly explaining the house rules,” he summarizes. And while there could be one-off experiences that don’t go as smoothly, this approach has generally been successful.

Selecting an Influencer

Now that you have addressed the internal, it’s time to pick your first social influencer, and many could be the right brand fit for you. In a post urging you to consider adding influencers to your marketing, I noted many of us are not ready to shell out six (maybe even seven) figures for an influencer. While the instinct may be to work with the influencer with a large following, the follower count does not necessarily equate to influence. Micro- or nano-influencers might be the best partners. These smaller tier influencers are obliviously good at social media. They have created a niche audience that understands the topics they post about and who love the content, generating up to five times the mega-celebrity influencers’ engagement rate. The loyal following and high engagement are why many brands are opting to work with micro-influencers and nano-influencers.

LaRocca agrees, adding that defining an influencer in and of itself is somewhat problematic. “Because there is still a shady side of influencer marketing,” he says. “It’s easy to buy likes and followers. You have to be vigilant. If I see someone with a follower count in the thousands but single-digit likes or comments on their posts, it’s a red flag for me.”

He adds that some of the nano-influencers tend to be loyal to you, and they genuinely love what you’re offering.

Some beginner influencers are dedicated to the craft. They may only have 25 followers today, but they are creating content every day. They are building their channel, their followings, and their influence.

LaRocca adds, “I want to work with that person because I know they are genuine and real. And while they may not have 10,000 followers or a million followers or something, they share a genuine response to the product. And I think sometimes that might mean a little bit more, what the larger influencer may deliver.”

He agrees that whom you partner with depends on what you’re trying to do and finding the RIGHT audience.

Thornton adds that working with nano-influencers can have a cumulative effect. You may have the one that reaches many people and a collection of the smaller ones that will reach smaller but different audiences.

For Choctaw, the focus is on the feeder markets. Kosemund agrees they are not trying to reach a national market. “Sometimes it makes sense for us to work with someone like Christopher, but we understand the drive-in market is crucial. So we look to influencers to elevate our brand, it (as an example) the DFW market. They have a lot of influence and engagement in travel, hotels, or destinations that align with us. They can get many people talking and create the buzz we want. We want their audiences to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that it (Choctaw) was only 90 minutes from DFW and an easy weekend trip’. There’s still much reluctance around crossing that border from Texas and Oklahoma. So we continue our efforts to change that perspective. Influencers help us.”

A Question of Brand Fit

Finding an influencer is one thing. Getting the kind of content you feel is a fit for your brand and reaching your goals is another.

LaRocca and the casino’s PR agency use Meltwater to identify the influencers that might best suit San Manuel. They maintain a database matching their needs with potential influencers.

Kosemund laughingly shares (and admits to) stalking target influencers. “Before we decide we’re going to work with someone, there’s a group of us that will review the existing content,” she tells us. “It’s our job to make sure that there’s going to be a brand fit with anyone who will be working with and representing our brand. If they’re coming to visit, they’re armed with talking points. We make sure they know how to pronounce ‘Choctaw” properly. We want them to know something about Native American culture. We provide the hashtags. We provide some background in advance, so they become true ambassadors for us.”

A successful partnership takes a little prep work.

LaRocca doesn’t shy away from asking for added value, such as the right to share the influencer’s produced content in the San Manuel channels. His experience has shown that influencer partners are very open to allowing that usage, as long as it is agreed to in advance. It furthers the property efforts as well as the influencers.

Kosemund agrees. “It all starts at the beginning of the relationship and being upfront about your expectations from your partnership with the influencer. Sometimes when we’re doing our research deciding on the right lifestyle influencer, we might pick them because of their photography skills. It’s an easy way to build our image bank.”

Start Planning

  • Carve out a portion of your budget to use influencers.
  • Consider slot premiers, pulls, and tournaments.
  • Create events and groups to track the incremental play and new member signups.
  • Participate in the discussion influencers have with their audiences when appropriate and treat their comments as you would your comment cards.

Finally, remember that while our target audiences need to hear our voice, it could be more important to listen to our message from the voices they care about.

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