When It Comes to Marketing, New Jersey Online Gambling Sites Have Missed the Mark

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With over a year under its belt the US online poker industry has been the proverbial mixed bag.

The industry has been full of highs and lows (and plenty of plateaus); there have been criticisms and praise; and there have been reasons for optimism and pessimism.

One area where the online poker operators have drawn heavy criticism is when it comes to their marketing efforts, which have failed to turn New Jersey residents into informed consumers.

But these early failures also allow for plenty of optimism.

It’s no a secret that marketing hasn’t been effective

The biggest problem with marketing in New Jersey has been its lack of creativity.

The ads campaigns have been little more than a continuation of the same marketing strategies that have been in use in the industry for the better part of the last decade. In some ways, it’s even been regressive.

And in the world of a constantly evolving Internet, where MySpace gives way to Facebook, which gives way to Twitter Instagram and so on, this is simply not good enough.

If you think I’m the only person who feels marketing has been a problem, think again.

Everyone from lawmakers, to other members of the media, to the online operators themselves have noticed the failure of New Jersey’s online poker sites to effectively market their product early on.

Some will say it’s simply an awareness issue that will simply take time to overcome.

“We think it’s going to take time for the online market to grow,” Tom Ballance, the president of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa told the Wall Street Journal back in April, 2014. “This is a business that hasn’t been legal, and a lot of people don’t know it’s legal.”

But others see a failure in execution, such as New Jersey’s iGaming champion State Senator Raymond Lesniak, who said as much at the iGaming North America conference in March:

In the WSJ article from April, Lesniak went even further (read as: went off the rails) claiming that the current ads and marketing efforts simply weren’t targeting the right demographics.

“You have someone out there in a boat fishing and trying to gamble, or someone toasting marshmallows around a fire and gambling. They just don’t strike the right tone,” Lesniak was quoted as saying.

While online poker sites would do well to stay away from targeting deep sea fisherman and campers (think of the wi-fi issues there!) Lesniak’s broader point is a solid one: Marketing campaigns have to be tweaked to focus on the new demographics and the new climate.

Plenty of industry/media are also laying the marketing failures largely at the feet of the operators.

I recently appeared on Rich Muny’s Poker Advocacy podcast with poker journalist and New Jersey resident Diamond Flush, who stated her belief that a lot of the companies in the industry have “mailed it in.”

DiamondFlush made a simple plea to operators to try something new, even suggesting that hiring a small plane with a banner ad trailing behind it to fly up and down New Jersey beaches would be a cheap and innovative way to increase brand awareness.

It’s these types of methods that seem to be lacking in New Jersey.

An example of real world marketing

While I’m far from a marketing expert, I do have a little experience in this field from my previous life in the non-gaming world where I managed a health club.

Like targeting bodybuilders and gym rats, it’s pretty easy to identify and target informed online poker players, the hard part of marketing is to educate and convert non-poker players (or in the case of a health club, 9-5 office workers), and this takes:

  • Time
  • Effort
  • Ingenuity
  • Multiple campaigns

So far, New Jersey operators have put in the effort and devoted time to marketing, but ingenuity is certainly lacking, and the sites have been mainly focused on strategic marketing instead of blanketing the entire state.

There is a business adage that says something along the lines of: “Customers need to see your brand seven times (this number can vary) before they start to associate it with your product.”

This is why companies spend money on signage, and place their business cards in high-traffic areas, and take out newspaper ads, and do direct mailing, and radio spots, and TV ad buys, and Internet marketing, and so on.

Any one of these marketing campaigns may fail on its own, in fact, when taken separately a lot of these marketing campaigns never recoup the cost of running them.

But as another adage states, “the sum can be greater than the parts,” and this is why it can be difficult to quantify the effect these marketing campaigns have on brand awareness (which leads to indirect sales) as opposed to the direct sales they bring in.

Your direct mailer that costs $10,000 may seem like an utter failure if it only pulls in $4,000 worth of sales, but what you can’t quantify is the increased brand recognition.

And this is the thinking we need in the nascent online poker market; get our brand out with signage, direct mailers, online, TV, and print ads, word of mouth, sponsoring events, and so on. Some may not produce the immediate results to make them seem successful, but they will indirectly lead to more players.

What’s been going on in New Jersey

Unfortunately, in New Jersey the established casinos are seemingly relying on their already strong brands and their existing player databases to market their new online products –figuring they have a built-in player base to utilize.

But as we’ve heard from Caesars and the Borgata, the vast majority of online gamblers are new to their player rolls.

It’s a different type of consumer, one that will not be reached via standard marketing methods.

It’s not that New Jersey online poker rooms aren’t spending –they are, or were– it’s that they seem to be coming from the point of view that they already have brand recognition and what brings in the hardcore poker community will also work to attract Joe Schmoe.

There have been exceptions

Don’t get me wrong, not every dollar that has been spent marketing online poker has been wasted, not even close.

One initial bright spot was partypoker’s alliance with the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia 76ers, which was a great moment for New Jersey online poker, and the signage was/is visible to anyone watching a Devils or 76ers game on TV. This partnership still has a lot of potential and is certainly making inroads when it comes to brand recognition.

Ultimate Poker has also done a great job with their online web video series, and with innovative promotions.

While these marketing campaigns still focus on “aware” poker players, Ultimate Poker has been using new vehicles and thinking outside the box, instead of pulling out the cookie cutters and rehashing a previous promo.

It’s these methods (YouTube, sports partnerships) and adding in direct mailers, sponsoring a beach volleyball tournament, and hired airplanes that will make partypoker, WSOP.com, and Ultimate Poker identifiable with New Jersey online poker.

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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