In 2014, U.S. commercial casinos’ gross gaming revenue (GGR) totaled an unprecedented $37.9 billion, according to UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. Although the sector broke industry records, it represented an annual growth rate of less than one percent.

Casinos are now asking how they can stay competitive and increase their growth going forward. The solution for any offline business is the same: develop an online presence. By offering customers a digital casino experience congruent with their brand, and using digital channels to increase consumer touchpoints, casinos can engage their customers, increase their lifetime values and even acquire new patrons.

DIGITAL REAL ESTATE         

The online landscape represents a relatively new frontier for casinos, whose heritage stretches back to 1931, when Nevada regulated gaming to help finance the Hoover Dam and diversify its revenue amidst the Great Depression. States’ fiscal needs continued to drive the industry’s expansion: from New Jersey legalizing Atlantic City casinos in 1976 during an economic slowdown to Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana and others regulating gambling when the 1980s boom years ended.

The casino industry was firmly established by the time of the Internet’s meteoric rise in the late 1990s. As such, their marketing strategies continue to place a strong emphasis on traditional above-the-line channels.

As we all know, times have changed. In 2015, the web is ubiquitous—84 percent of American adults are online today, according to the Pew Research Center—suggesting that casinos will increasingly embrace digital as a powerful engagement tool.

Taking the plunge into digital involves two key phases: first, leveraging existing assets, and second, increasing external reach. The first step involves engaging existing customers, raising both the frequency of their property visits and their spend-per-visit on gaming and non-gambling activities (restaurant meals, hotel stays and shows). Creating an optimized user-experience online and on mobile forms the foundation of this phase.

Through keyword research, casinos can define a list of keyword phrases covering all aspects of their property. These will vary from generic, location-focused terms (“Minnesota casino”) and brand-specific terms (“poker room and slots room”) to long-tail phrases detailing the casino’s unique selling points (“Largest casino on the East Coast”) as well as non-gambling attractions. Improving sites’ organic search ranking, these keywords will also form the framework for webpage content.

It’s vital that casinos develop their online content with their customers and Google in mind. While the search giant will penalize the rankings of sites with thin content, casinos’ customers will also reject webpages that don’t bring their property to life with words, images and even video in an online setting. The key is to understand the ultimate action the customer is to take. To stimulate a visit to the property, content can include appealing calls to action (CTAs) and time-sensitive language to encourage room bookings, restaurant reservations or further exploration of the property’s table games.

Beyond the basic webpage content, it’s essential that navigating the site is an intuitive and seamless process. A poor user experience (UX) will deter 88 percent of online consumers from returning to a site, according to Econsultancy’s research.

To encourage return visits to the site, casinos can update their content frequently with property news and promotions. The best on-site medium for this is a blog. Through regular posts that are succinct yet engaging, casinos can ensure their customers maintain an ongoing relationship with their properties.

What will encourage customers to regularly check-in with casinos’ blogs? An effective engagement tool is regular e-mails from the property. To build their e-mail database, it’s important that their homepages display a newsletter sign-up form prominently and also for casinos to encourage customers to sign-up when they visit the property in-person. Casinos can then develop e-mail campaigns to market their property to their online database. Exclusive restaurant, hotel and entertainment promotions can ensure this mailing list expands constantly.

As well as promoting the property website, e-mail campaigns can also focus on increasing customers’ engagement with their social media channels, which are powerful engagement tools in their own right. Primarily, they can focus on Facebook, which is used by 71 percent of adult Americans, and Twitter, which 23 percent of Americans use regularly, according to the Pew Research Center.

Best practices suggest an 80/20 division between engaging social media content (poker tips and slot machine history, for example) and promotional posts driving followers directly to the property website. For maximum engagement, content will be posted consistently—five to 10 Facebook posts a week and three to 14 Tweets daily for Twitter—and during followers’ peak activity times, usually between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

SOCIAL IMPACT

Growing the brand’s database is the second phase and can be done via digital and mobile channels. Most importantly, offering a digital casino property will also give customers access to their favorite offline games and therefore increases their connection to the property through a digital medium.

U.S. smart phone ownership has reached 74.9 percent, according to comScore. It’s therefore vital that casinos acknowledge the new mobile reality of their customers. Following Google’s mobile search algorithm update in April 2015, a mobile-optimized website is now a necessity rather than a luxury for casinos. Even more important to note is that U.S. users actually spend 86 percent of their mobile time in apps, according to Nielsen.

Casinos can respond to this trend by launching their own apps. Savvy casinos now offer concierge iOS and Android apps allowing customers to reserve hotel stays, book restaurant tables, buy show tickets and read the property blog without leaving the application. Once installed, push notifications keep customers updated on all the properties’ latest promos so they therefore remain highly engaged.

It’s vital that casinos develop their online content with their customers and Google in mind. While the search giant will penalize the rankings of sites with thin content, casinos’ customers will also reject webpages that don’t bring their property to life with words, images and even video in an online setting.

The ultimate step is creating a digital casino as an app, mobile web and desktop offering. Complementing the property’s real-world casino, a social casino allows customers to play slots and table games for free and earn points that can be redeemed on-property, thereby further strengthening their ties with the casino.

In contrast to real-money iGaming, which is regulated in New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware, social gaming is permitted in all 50 U.S. states. Appetite for social casino games is also strong: according to SuperData’s research, approximately 35.4 million Americans play social casino brands. Given games’ high correlation with real-money casino gambling, a social offering can become a powerful engagement and brand-building tool for casinos’ properties.

The strong connection between social gaming and real-money iGaming means that casinos in states where online gambling could soon be a reality can use a social brand to prepare for the market’s arrival. With Eilers Research forecasting that Pennsylvania, California, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts could legalize real-money iGaming by 2020, casinos in these jurisdictions can expand and segment their customer databases in anticipation.

Meanwhile, casinos in states where real-money iGaming is a more distant reality can focus on the customer engagement value of developing a social casino offering. In the third phase of their online strategies they can also use their social brand to acquire new customers.

CUSTOMER ACQUISITION

A challenge shared by most businesses is competition for customer’s entertainment dollars. In our digital age, launching an online casino can act as a viable acquisition channel. This allows casino properties to extend their reach beyond typical geographic boundaries to target customers in neighboring states, further afield and even internationally.

Casinos’ apps can be a core acquisition focus. According to TUNE, around 50 percent of iOS and Android apps are discovered through users’ app store searches. To optimize their concierge and social casino apps’ ranking, casinos can focus on app store optimization (ASO). This involves using both relevant keywords and developing engaging app page content—app descriptions, screenshots and even video previews—to persuade potential customers to install.

Aside from apps, search engines remain the way the majority of consumers (54 percent) discover new online brands, according to digital marketing firm Conductor. Keyword research and optimization will remain an ongoing process for casinos. As they target new markets and adapt their products both online and mobile, keyword focuses will evolve to encompass both localized search terms as well as product-specific terms.

The digital landscape’s evolution now allows for greater experimentation for social gambling keywords. With Google’s AdWords platform now permitting social casino ads targeting the U.S. market as of March 2015, casinos can leverage a channel that requires an important initial investment yet will achieve quick results as their organic search builds.

Arguably the most cost-effective and time-intensive acquisition channel is performance marketing. It’s responsible for as much as 35 percent of customer acquisitions in Europe, and is gradually taking a more prominent role in the U.S. market. To complement their use of affiliates, casinos can use media buys with third-part traffic networks, which provide a short-term acquisition foundation for their property.  

Will the U.S. commercial casino sector break through the $40 billion GGR threshold this year or in 2016? One thing is certain: the casinos that focus on engaging their customers and acquiring new ones via a digital approach will place themselves in a strong position to maximize their own revenue going forward. Are you ready to start renovating your online property?