Casinos and manufacturers explore the potential of myspace and Facebook as opportunities for securing loyalty and mining for new customers

Troy Simpson isn’t exactly sure when Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino’s investment in social networking initiatives will pay off. But he is sure of one thing – that now is the time to get in the space.

“We have big plans because we believe the space, albeit the size and importance is unknown at this time, sometime down the road will be a very influential space to be in whether it be five or 15 years from now,” said Simpson, executive director of loyalty marketing for Barona.

The San Diego area resort-casino recently embarked on a pilot mobile marketing initiative, sending offers to opt-in players via barcodes on their cell phones. But that’s just the beginning, Simpson said.

Other casino companies also are venturing into the space. For instance, Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. recently implemented a new mobile marketing technology capable of delivering personalized, targeted promotions to guests at the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.  And Boyd Gaming Corp. recently launched B Connected Online, the personalized interface for the company’s new nationwide customer loyalty program.

Going for it

Barona is going beyond such efforts and truly embracing social networking. It is embarking on a social networking venture that will leverage its traditional tools for reaching out to players while also taking advantage of sites such as twitter, myspace, and Facebook, Simpson said.

Launched in March, it is a video shorts contest calling for entries of two-minute videos that show what the gaming experience means to them. “This is our first step in laying down the tracks for social networking,” Simpson said. “We believe the casinos that invest in this area will see dividends pay off exponentially in the future.”

Simpson said he believes the contest is set up in such a way to have a viral marketing effect – it encourages entrants to share their video short with their friends and to get them to vote for their short. Those people will receive free-play coupons that can be redeemed at the casino. As part of the contest, finalists will be invited to the casino, and will be encouraged to bring friends and family. Once the winning entry has been selected, it will be shown across the casino floor, and some $12,000 in overall prize money will be awarded.

“The ultimate goal with everything we do is to drive traffic to the casinos,” Simpson said.

The power of social networking is it can create a group of emissaries for the casino, he said.“We just need to understand that space and how we weave ourselves into it.”

Simpson notes it does require an ongoing investment. For instance, he said he’s noticed some casinos taking small steps to offer a blog or something similar online, but then not follow up.

“The minute you encourage someone to come for to social networking experience, and you don’t have anything dynamic or exciting, you’re probably not going to get that person to come back a second time,” he said.

Barona, he said, is taking great pains to ensure that won’t be the case when it reintroduces its Web site. “What we want to do is to make sure we have this actively managed social page that has a number of elements on it, that it just doesn’t have a blog,” he said.

Although the economy is down, that’s not a deterrent to Barona, Simpson said.

“We’ve always just believed that during times like this we think you just further accelerate on the gas pedal. We also know that we’re placing bets today, that we may not collect today, but we will collect in the future,” he said.      

Manufacturers weigh in

Gaming manufacturers also are paying close attention. WMS keeps close tabs on what’s happening in the social networking space as part of its ongoing research, said Rob Bone, vice president of marketing.

WMS’ research shows that 70 percent of the gaming demographic has access  to the internet, and 90 percent of those people have access to broadband.  “Casino people are already online. They’re a lot more capable and a lot more knowledgeable about the internet than the average population.” The very nature of gaming is changing. While gaming traditionally has been a private, solitary experience, players are embracing new experiences. “Gaming has become more communal, and it’s become more social, and it’s being enhanced,” Bone said. He likened it to the experience at a exciting table game. “The experience is still whether you win or lose, but it’s drastically enhanced by the people you meet, and the experiences you share.”  Social networking is “a way to identify what’s important to you and what type of experiences you want to have.”

 At WMS, social networking fits into the company’s strong focus on  “personalizing the experience to the player.”

WMS has been a leader in offering communal-type games, such as Monopoly Big Event, but also has taken personalization to a new level with its Star Trek game, part of its Adaptive Gaming segment. It allows players to establish a login number, so that whenever they return to the game, they can start where they left off, in the process reaching new, exciting play levels.

WMS and Harrah’s Entertainment took the Star Trek adaptive gaming product one step further by integrating the game into Harrah’s Total Rewards player loyalty program. 
“Their login is their player rewards card,” Bone said.

These are the kinds of steps Bone said may be ripe for creating social networking opportunities.

“Now you know who you’re talking to. It becomes a lot easier to put people in groups, whether it’s adaptive gaming or some of our future efforts. All of these are enablers. All these are technologies that allow us to create very meaningful personalized experiences or allow players to engage in community-style play.”

He said he believes players likely would enjoy communicating on sites such as Facebook or “It’s all about the whole concept of I want to relate to people who have common interests with me,” he said.

While declining to reveal too much about WMS’s plans in the works, Bone noted that one area of interest is tournaments and how they can be enhanced for players. “Why can’t you engage in tournaments with people you know and with whom you have a common interests? Why can’t tournaments be based on any game, or why can’t it be a game I choose? Why can’t I go up to a kiosk or the player rewards center and register my community of people to play a tournament?”

WMS already has invested significantly in its own Web site to interact with slot players and customers.

“Right now is the time to invest. We’re investing heavily, and we’re doing that because this [economy downturn] is a temporary thing,” he said.

Operators are paying attention, Bone said.

“There’s nothing more engaging and motivating than talking about technology and how it will enhance their business – how we’re going to transform this $100 billion industry into a best-in-class industry.”

One thing Bone stressed was that WMS’ goal with its Web strategies is not to compete with customers. “We’re trying to give a solution that enhances their brand and extends their brand. We’re trying to enhance their ability to connect with their players.”

Over the next 12 to 24 months, Bone said, the industry will see WMS deliver more games and strategies to help casinos leverage the player experience.

The partnership with Harrah’s is just the tip of the iceberg, he said.

Bally Technologies also is paying close attention to social networking, said Bryan Kelly, Bally vice president of technology.

 “Clearly Bally is interested in how we can communicate directly to the casino to drive new players to casinos or retain players,” Kelly said. “We are interested in that market and how we could help link those sites and those experiences to hopefully drive some new consumers to the floor.”

More research needs to be conducted to see if whether people on those sites have disposable income and would become casino gamers, he said.

“As a systems provider to the casino industry we could enable the linking of those sites and those technologies to our CMS, our player tracking system, to help create those bonds,” he said.

When Bally acquired Sierra Design Group, it also got Kelly and other executives formerly involved in a for-fun prize site on the Internet, so the company has some expertise and intellectual property that has potential in that social networking space.

Like Bone, Kelly cited the advent of community-style games.  “As the casino industry moves toward community-based gaming, we are working on that effort,” he said.

Bally’s Dual Vision product, which allows two people to play on the same machine, is a good example.

Tournaments are a natural for community-style events that are more customized to the players. “The consumer may want to create his own community. I might bring my buddies to the casino and want them to play with me in these community-type events,” Kelly said. “Clearly this is happening in the portal-based gaming world, [and] will migrate into the casino gaming world.”