Engaged Nation links land-based and online social gaming

26 May 2017

In 2008, Jerry Epstein, a senior partner at PR firm FleishmanHillard, got a call from a client who was worried about the internet.

A lot of people worry about the internet, but this client — Bill Paulos, owner of Cannery Casino Resorts — had a pretty good reason. In 2008, online gaming was thriving, but was pretty separated from the U.S. land-based gaming industry, due to its not-exactly-legal status. But it was looking as if it might get legalized, which would make it easier for existing land-based casino companies to integrate.

"I'm a regional player," Paulos said to Epstein. "How am I going to compete with the likes of IGT and Caesars?"

Paulos probably needn't have worried. Since then, the road to legal online gaming has been long and slow, full of false starts and stakeholder infighting. But the phone call turned out to be very productive all the same. Because what Paulos really wanted to know was if Epstein wanted to try to develop something that would use online gaming to drive people to the casino properties, in a way that was fun for the person being marketed to. And so they developed Engaged Nation.

Paulos and Epstein, of course, aren't the only people who have tried to find ways to link online and land-based gaming. In New Jersey, currently the largest legal online gaming market in the U.S., online gaming operators must work in partnership with Atlantic City's casinos. Online social casinos were a market worth $1.97 billion U.S. in 2015, and many land-based casinos host online social casinos on their websites, to keep their brand name in front of customers' eyeballs while they're playing at home.

What is Engaged Nation?
Engaged Nation, essentially, combines casual social gaming with a property's rewards program, allowing players to earn points redeemable at the property by playing online games.

CEO Jerry Epstein

CEO Jerry Epstein (photo by Gabe Ginsberg)

"We call it 'edutainment,'" Epstein says. "Our goal is to get people to have fun online, but unlike a social online casino, they never pay for it. There's no tokens to buy, and they get rewarded for playing games. When we call it 'edutainment,' it's educating them about what's happening at the property in a fun, easy, rewarding way."

The platform Engaged Nation uses is called R.E.A.C.H., which stands for "Revenue-generating, Engagement, Activation, Conversion Hub." A white-label Software-as-a-Service product, the R.E.A.C.H. platform is customized and integrated into each client's website, where players can access it through the property's player's card program.

"Our goal is to be completely white label," Epstein tells Casino City. "White label the name, the look — everything is custom-designed, because we don't want people to feel like they are being taken off the site."

Engaged Nation provides games that aren't the usual online versions of traditional casino games. Instead, they're jigsaw puzzles, trivia games, crosswords, memory match cards and the like. "We've got one section called you-pick-'em that could be, you know, who's going to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards," Epstein explains.

While cultural events like awards shows and major sports matches are always popular, more often, the games are customized to reflect events or promotions happening at the client property.

At The Meadows in Pennsylvania, where the platform is branded as "WebPass eADVANTAGE," a game called "Bonus Keys" brings players around the site to advertise the casino's dining options. Daily games are themed to advertise the property's table game selection. Epstein says the WebPass page is now more popular than the casino's homepage.

When customers play these games, they accrue reward points.

"People put tremendous value on these, like 'I've spent time, I've earned them,'" says Epstein. "They can then go into a session and redeem a variety of rewards. And it's based on segmentation, so the more you play at the property, the better your reward."

He says that he and Paulos were in part inspired by McDonald's famous Monopoly promotion.

The R.E.A.C.H. platform contains three system programs: OUTREACH, CAMPAIGNREACH and FULLREACH. OUTREACH allows properties to craft individual targeted communication programs that run for short periods. The CAMPAIGNREACH program combines online engagement with brick-and-mortar promotions for medium-length campaigns, perhaps running for five or six weeks. The FULLREACH system integrates fully into a property's existing websites to provide perpetual engagement.

Meadows earning methods

Meadows earning methods

"The market wasn't ready for us"
Epstein and Paulos were well placed to get in early on digital marketing for the casino industry. Epstein had been at FleishmanHillard, a public relations and digital marketing firm, for 18 years. In that time, he'd worked on tech-related projects such as the introduction of the Sony Playstation, and on branding for several Las Vegas casinos, including Excalibur Hotel and Casino, Luxor Hotel and Casino, MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Las Vegas and New York-New York Hotel & Casino.

He'd helped write the business plan for Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and done some work for the Flamingo Las Vegas and the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Paulos was an important client, holding multiple executive positions during his tenure at Circus Circus Enterprises (which became Mandalay Resort Group, which was acquired by MGM), and "was instrumental in actually building and running a lot of those properties," says Epstein.

"Combining my understanding of technology and the casino industry and general marketing, we developed the Engaged Nation platform," he adds.

The rest of the casino industry, however, was slow to embrace digital marketing. In fact, for its first few years of existence, Epstein and Paulos were almost hopelessly ahead of the curve.

"If we went out and we talked about digital engagement, in '08 when we came up with the name Engaged Nation, people were like 'Oh, do you sell wedding rings?'" Epstein remembers. "I went to one of the first Facebook conferences with the head of marketing for one property — multiple properties, actually — and on the way out he said to me, 'Are you kidding me? Facebook? Like, they think they're going to make it? I wouldn't put a dollar on this!'"

Even as recently as three years ago, Epstein says, prospective clients weren't inclined to make digital marketing a priority. If they did, the going wisdom was that they needed an app — a focus Epstein thinks is misguided.

"If you take a look at the demographics within the casino industry right now, about 65% of people aren't downloading any apps on a monthly basis," he says. "And at the end of the first month, if you have 5% of the people who downloaded it still engaged, you're doing a great job."

But things are changing rapidly, and companies are starting to realize that digital engagement isn't optional if they want to stay competitive. However, the industry landscape is changing so rapidly that many companies find the digital experience overwhelming, Epstein reports.

Epstein stresses that digital marketing "shouldn't be siloed," and adds that "now, we hope, people are inviting their digital experts to the table and it's not an afterthought."

One reason that a fully integrated digital engagement plan is so important these days is that so many people have either become inured to or outright avoid traditional digital marketing practices.

"We're bombarded with 5,000 sales and branding messages a day," Epstein says. "We engage with about 12."

"One of the biggest apps on the marketplace, moving forward this year, is ad blocker," he reports. "People can actually tune you out if they so choose. So the word engagement, and digital engagement, really comes at a premium. It's not just the old reach of frequency and how many eyeballs am I getting. It's really more of a strategic approach — how do I break through with my message when there's so much going on in the marketplace, so that I don't become white noise?"

The SilverPASS homepage

The SilverPASS homepage

Of mobile and motivation – and, of course, millennials
Now that more properties have adopted Engaged Nation's services — the company's website lists eight client properties — they're starting to collect some solid data on how customers are using the program.

"When we built the system, we had some expectations, and we're even amazed that we were able to exceed it to the level that we had," Epstein says.

He tells a story from a focus group they ran last fall, wherein a woman asked when they were going to charge her.

"Someone across from the table said, 'Do you play?' and she said, 'Every single day. I live 20 minutes from here.' She says, 'I go on and play, and I take a look at the food and beverage specials. So I eat here three, four times a week now, because I don't like to cook.' And the person says, 'Well, how do you utilize it?' She says, 'What do you mean? I go on, I take a look, I print out my reward, I go to the property.'

"And he said, 'When you go to the restaurant, how do you get there?' She says, 'Oh you know, I walk across the floor.' He says, 'Do you pass machines?' She goes, 'Of course I pass machines!' He says, 'Do you play?' She says, 'Oh, they want me to play more!'

"I just sat there and watched. And she said, 'You know something? They're not charging me, I'm getting something in return, and I like to play. So I'm OK.'"

The focus group found that customers generally liked the program because it was different, and that most client properties prefer to focus on older customers. Much of the target market is retired, with disposable time as well as disposable income.

Engaged Nation's customer base also contains a good proportion of office workers, according to their traffic data. Epstein reports seeing regular traffic from about 15 or 20 accounts at one IP address. Suspecting cheating, they looked into it — and discovered a group of colleagues at a company that shall remain unnamed, competing against each other.

More often, however, players save the actual playing of games until they leave work, according to the traffic data. Epstein reports that a frequent pattern of behavior is for people to check their e-mail at work, click through to a promotion, leave work — taking their mobile phones with them, obviously — and then play the games on a computer or tablet when they get home. Total mobile engagement varies by client, but averages between 30% and 45%.

"It's being able to be useful and accessible on every device," Epstein says. "We're mobile-friendly and responsive with our site because that's critical today. And yet, about 20 to 30% of websites still aren't mobile-friendly and responsive. That's the most recent data that I saw."

One demographic Epstein reports that he's not often asked to target is younger players — millennials, the enormous demographic now in their twenties and thirties, whom marketers have been slavering over for the past few years.

"Operators are saying to us, 'Listen, if you can generate an extra 1% volume on my floor with my current customer, versus investing in a millennial where you might get a 100% uptick in my bar business, I'd rather have the 1% on the floor,'" Epstein explains. This is a big change from just a year or two ago, when it seemed like the entire gaming industry was having a collective heart attack about low slot revenues from the student-loan-holding set.

"I think that a lot of operators were trying to push a demographic that wasn't ready to be pushed," Epstein says. "And in time it will change. It's also going to be interesting to see what the manufacturers come up with that they feel will be more enticing to the next generation."

The future of digital engagement
As the online and land-based gaming ecosystems converge, Engaged Nation faces new challenges in adapting its product to the complexities of the industry. Epstein reports being in talks with manufacturers about how to use Engaged Nation's promotional games to educate players about online social casinos — which most properties only adopted as a promotional measure to start with — using a single login.

"We might take one of their games, put it into one of our sections, and you play for a virtual currency. But you can only play for a limited period of time," Epstein offers as an example. "And then once you log in, we can port you over to another section, which is the social online casino. There we can help to generate awareness through videos and other promotional things that you earn the virtual currency for. And then we've got leaderboards, we've got game challenges — that's really more what we specialize in."

A major between a standard online social casino and an Engaged Nation program, Epstein says, is that social casinos usually have a large amount of churn in their players.

"In a lot of cases, they'll send out five, 10, 15 e-mails per month, because they know that the longevity of most of the people is not that incredibly great," Epstein says. "The social online casino operators [that] we have been talking to are interested in us helping them promote, retain and generate a different kind of loyalty than they have seen from their product in the past."

Snow Me the Money homepage

Snow Me the Money homepage

Epstein says that Engaged Nation looks at its application as being complementary to, rather than competitive with, regular social online casinos. "We're not looking to get into specifically that area as a specialty," he says. "But we do know, as an example, that when we do videos and put up content from a manufacturer, in the past, we have helped to drive people to their machines on the floor, and we know that we can do the same things for their games online."

Engaged Nation has not yet done any work for the small number of real-money online casinos operating legally within the U.S., but they're starting to prepare for it, especially in light of possible legalization in Pennsylvania. Epstein says they figure they can do all the same things for an online real-money casino that they can do for a social online casino, generating awareness and driving traffic.

"It depends, just, bottom line, on what the regulations are," he explains. "We have to be very aware of that, and I think that is still yet to play out in most jurisdictions."

Epstein also thinks that, as legal online gaming spreads in the U.S. and different kinds of gaming intersect in more sophisticated ways, responsible gaming measures will also have to grow and change. "My personal opinion is that, as it continues to move forward, there needs to be some level of monitoring online, just as there is in the casino," he says. Engaged Nation currently is "very, very mindful" of its outbound marketing — "We take a look at the exclusion lists; we take a look and make certain that we're following all the rules and regulations of not only the gaming boards in every jurisdiction, but that we're smart about doing it" — and Epstein believes that everyone has a role to play in promoting responsible gaming.

In the meantime, however, Engaged Nation is keeping itself busy developing its client list and tracking its impressive ROIs. The first batch of results shows that, while a carded player at a casino visits the property an average of 2.6 times per month, a carded player that uses the Engaged Nation platform visits 3.9 times per month, and players that use the rewards visit 5.6 times per month. The research firm that conducted the focus group called the program "one of the strongest subliminal motivators that he's ever seen," reports Epstein.

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