The social gaming disconnect: why free-play sites are struggling

9 July 2016

Only a few tribal social gaming sites are achieving their primary aim of driving more players to the land-based casino. Joe Witterschein of Tribal Gaming Services & Advisory Group digs down into the reasons why free-play isn’t delivering what it is supposed to for many tribal casinos and provides some valuable advice on how they can turn this situation around.

With the spread of real-money gaming seemingly stalled in the US, social gaming has stepped into the limelight. However, tribal casinos have not been uniformly aggressive in this area. This stems in part from concerns over the potential impact on the tribe’s land-based casino, compact issues and the ever-present ROI consideration.

For those tribes that have moved ahead with a social gaming offering, there appears to be a disconnect between the land based marketing team and the online provider. We have seen few examples of tribal social gaming sites that actually work to drive online players to the land-based casino. 

Whether this is down to a failure of providers to offer the required capabilities to achieve real-time online marketing of the land-based property, or of casino marketing departments to understand and to capitalise on what they have, is difficult to pinpoint.

This article offers up some ideas as to how this “disconnect” could be addressed. 

In its infancy, online social free play gaming was considered to be no more a strategic challenge to generate eventual bricks-and-mortar customer traffic by bringing the horse to water.

Surely stay-at-home players could be coaxed into brand loyalty and casino player development programs, aligning themselves and their wallets with a casino property that offered an abundance of amenities?

Being able to shake interested gamers out of their pajamas and onto a live casino floor was widely seen as an eventual win-win proposition. 

The disconnect 
But what if it isn’t a horse, and what if they don’t like water? We’re left with the misnomer and disconnect that is apparent in most of today’s current US-based casino online gaming offerings.

While those casino goers who regularly visit bricks-and-mortar casinos as a regular part of their entertainment and action-seeking diet may also find convenient and quick-fulfilling satisfaction for a few hours a week engaging with social gaming, what success has been achieved in the quest towards the holy grail; generating new visits and new revenues from previously unidentified gamers? 

With a few rare exceptions, the web sites of US Tribal casinos are largely void of easy-to-find and even easier-to-use free-play social gaming. A general Google search for online free-play gaming brings up a litany of options, most cryptically hidden behind a series of web address that hardly scream “based on US soil”.

This apparently too-dangerous-to-pursue flavour of web sites and game choices certainly impedes the average consumer from jumping wholeheartedly into the world of online casino gaming.

A casino’s ultimate dream of motivating players and thus driving traffic (and revenues) to their bricks-and mortar property can’t be even be remotely realised until the fear factor is diminished.

To achieve that, it is critical that a casino’s marketing department trumpets the advent of a social gaming offering linked directly to the casino’s web site. From there, the persistent and painstaking nurturing of online players into becoming loyal and profitable gamers at your property will start. 

Providers need to spend time with property marketing personnel. After all, arguably the major benefit to a Tribal online social casino will lie in the traffic it can engender for the land-based casino, and it is the marketing department that will develop the programmes and promotions to achieve this.

The platform must be sufficiently flexible to permit the implementation of a variety of marketing efforts. It must provide data on players, and must be capable of being linked to the land-based database so that players can be tracked 360 degrees. A leaderboard and chat room are “must haves”. 

Innovative thinking and execution online in order to drive business to the land-based casino is required. Too often, it seems that marketing departments of casinos that have a social gaming product tend to see it as something that takes care of itself.

They either fail to realise the capabilities of the platform, or the product they have fails to provide those capabilities. It may be both, but I suspect that the latter is the larger problem. 

It is clear that the providers must work to improve their offerings in this key area, but it is also evident that Tribal casino marketing departments must work to develop specific approaches to online players, with the goal of creating new land-based players as the end result. 

Bringing the horse back to water 
First off, both providers and marketing departments need to focus on getting the basics right. Make the online gaming product jump off the home page with easy-to-find and to navigate click-through buttons and icons.

This helps instill a greater sense of security in the mind of the player. Ensure your slot game brand logos are readable with high visibility graphics. Player “banking” credits should be front and center.

Run online tournaments where winners get prizes, promotions and free entry into draws that require then to visit the land-based property. Maybe even offer bonus-spins for additional credits, with the caveat that the spin takes place only at your player's club booth on the casino floor. 

Would it also be asking too much for your player development apparatus (referring to the host department here) to assign a host to your online gaming community? You’ve most likely already asked your online player to submit their name, address, password and contact information. So, now why not use it?

Social online gaming is after all by definition a social exercise. A dedicated chat room host to monitor the discussion and to track the play of high value customers is key. 

The online gaming metrics installed behind the scenes of your games platform will easily identify their frequency and time on device for you. You would be adhering to these sort of quantitative indicators within your bricks and mortar tracking system anyway, so just extend yourself under the same premise. 

Establish a slot tournament on the casino floor exclusively for your online players. Give them a reason to experience the excitement and action of playing with and being surrounded by other like-minded gamers. It is social gaming, don’t forget.

Have a highly visible “leaderboard” that is tied to your online game activity, but post that board in a highly conspicuous location on your casino floor. 

Give your online player an opportunity to share their opinions. Extend regular invites to “voice of the customer” listening sessions with senior management.

Occasional online surveys can be administered cost effectively to help you get the ball rolling, eventually creating new brand advocates who will readily desire making a special visit to participate in scheduled qualitative research. This benefits you as much as them. 

This approach also provides an ideal opportunity for that online social host of yours to do their thing, further cementing brand and property loyalty. Why not regularly schedule a player recognition party to acknowledge and thank your customers for their loyalty?

An auto-linked property player’s club card for your online social gamer then becomes a natural extension of your player development program. 

Finally, it’s worth emphasising the point here that social gaming can drive players to a land-based casino - one only has to look at the data. In a 2012 survey of gamers by The Innovation Group, 50% said they would increase their visitation to a land-based casino that offered prizes and comps in online social gaming sites.

Maryland Live, which has had a social casino for some time, reports that a sizeable proportion of online players who never previously visited the land-based casino have now done so and end up spending significantly more than the average player. 

Social gaming can do what it was intended to, and with the right product and the appropriate level of commitment from the marketing department it will serve as a strategic tool to cultivate players.

When and if government-endorsed “pay for play” online social gaming is permitted, you will have developed for yourself at worst a head start in consumer visits to your site, and at best incremental visits and revenues to your bricks-and mortar casino. Bringing the horse back to water, as they say. 

Joe Witterschein is President of Tribal Gaming Services & Advisory Group, Inc based in Minneapolis.