Audience Before Product – Learning the Las Vegas Lesson

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Ismail Vali, gaming marketing consultant and former CMO at PokerStars, explains how Vegas made gambling secondary to the experience – and how in doing so it made everyone a winner. Online gaming still has a lot to learn.


Learning Las Vegas

The Resort Casino phenomenon began with Las Vegas – an escapist paradise in the middle of the Nevada Desert. Just getting a potential audience to this destination takes effort, showmanship, money, innovation and re-invention. Constantly.

Once arrived in this Home of Gaming, how do any of the Casino Properties turn visitors into Customers? Especially when all of their games are the same?

The Experience

Product, in Las Vegas, is inherent, not explicit. Since all the casinos have the same games, Vegas Operators have made Brand their Unique Selling Point – packaging lifestyle ideas and concepts to suit specific audiences. Playing blackjack at The Bellagio, or The Mirage, or Treasure Island, are all infused with the sense of Place, and the Experience of that Brand, over and above the Product itself. You weren’t just playing roulette – you were playing at The Mirage.

Your reasons for playing any of the Products, at any of the branded resort properties, likely had little or nothing to do with “buying some gambling”. You came for the Shows, Siegfried & Roy magic, theme park rides on the 50th storey of a sky needle, nightlife, food, drink, shopping, and culture. Gambling was just there, and really very close by, all of those things, all of the time.

We share many similarities with our Brick & Mortar elders:

-Mass Marketing to capture a niche audience

-Portals to service that audience

-Branding for Difference (and Destination)

We also share a constant problem with Brick and Mortar:

Our Products

As they are all the same.

Whether brick and mortar or online gaming, we effectively have a Product Problem.

In Las Vegas, the product problem is secondary – they have made Gambling simply a part of the overall Experience.
Online our Product Problem is paramount – it is clear from any Slots webpage in any online casino, that we have more Product than we possess a Point for Playing them, and we have no clear solution to meeting Audience with Product, and gaining trial, engagement and commitment for the long term, regardless of however encouraging the short-term “month on month commercial gains” look. Now.

So, what is the clear take-away from the Las Vegas Lesson?

The Las Vegas Lesson

Never. Sell. Gambling.

Welcome the Audience to Sin City, Adult Playgrounds, Resort Palaces, and replace The Product with The Experience.

All visitors to Las Vegas are “living the Las Vegas Life” – for a few days, couple weeks, seasonally for junket tours, conferences, events, spectacles of sports and music, etc.

Regardless of any money won or lost, on Gambling, the vast majority of that audience will leave the destination, thrilled with their Experience…and with clear evidence of the great time they have had, visualised all over their Facebook, Instagram and Social Media presence. Which, we all know, goes a long way to proving that taking part matters – it’s not just the one good customer experience that leads to them referring ten friends anymore. Everyone can refer, via social media, hundreds, and more, and even better, they aren’t “really” promoting Gambling. They are highlighting a great lifestyle experience…

Gambling being just one facet of that inherent “Las Vegas Experience”. The one which makes the most money for the Hotels, Leisure, Entertainment and Hospitality sector…

Online – Lost in Translation?

Online, Brand is the Destination – we need a Brand, first and foremost, to simply deliver traffic to a specific online URL.

What does that Brand mean, however, over and above that web address and a nice home page logo?

Online, today, we fill Portals with Product. Regardless of Audience. We search, cyclically, for “Boom Products”, but forget the maturing audiences we already recruited to the last boom product we experienced – selling Bingo to Poker Players, for example, did not, exactly, work.

We have, however, followed the Las Vegas Lesson, and translated it to our own distribution channels, successfully, once.

Promotions in Online Poker brought The Experience, and meaning to our Brands, to iGaming.

Hundreds of unique promos, including, importantly, many that allowed people to engage for free, and win for real, recruited an Audience that did not see itself as traditional gamblers. They were not. They were, and wanted to be, Players.

Promotions here do not mean new customer deposit and reload bonuses, to be clear, but developed, meaningful and fun online events and entertainment. Catering to different sectors of the mass market Audience, and looking to engage, and gain attention from, each of them – for the immediate, and for the long, long term.

Look at any of the stand-out Promotions from Poker – ParadisePoker’s Free Million Dollar Game, Conquest of Paradise Island, Slaget om Norden, ShoppingMillion; PokerStars’ Sunday Million, Caribbean Adventure, PS-2X, WCOOP; PartyPoker’s Monster – they share one common thread: they made playing cards online, not the most interesting activity in and of itself, into so much more. They made playing online poker into An Event…a Must-Play Activity…scheduled in your calendar and proudly promoted on your Facebook Wall…even when you didn’t win. You took part…making you A Player. The progression inherent in PokerStars’ promotions sought to push the audience from beginners, to poker players, to PokerStars, to Poker Millionaires. A little but often revenue approach that, with the talented team I had during my stint as their Chief Marketing Officer, we sought to turn into a virtual Career Path for the player base.

The Online Poker boom period, from 2003-08, showed online gaming learn, and adapt to, the Las Vegas Lesson.

But this Lesson does not just work for Online Poker, the same as it does not just apply to playing Wheel of Fortune in a Las Vegas casino.

Hybrid Theory

A commitment to Player-Making (and Retaining) Promotions can be made across all Products online, today.

Every day, on every dot country variant of Operator sites, across all products, the promotional offering needs to feature “must notice”, “must be able to find”, and “must play” potential, in the same way that shows like Game of Thrones are classed as “must watch TV”.

Players have to feel they are, potentially, missing out on “something” by not locating, logging on, staying connected to, and playing with your brand.

It’s not just about the cash players could win or lose…it’s about the culture they take part in by playing with your brand, and the cultural phenomenon you’re building with, and for, your growing audience.

Equally, the learning from online promotions, the translated Las Vegas Lesson, can also play back towards the Brick and Mortar side of the business.

Any of the PokerStars Tours, and the ParadisePoker started WSOP Seats for a Dollar, all long burn promos, are clear evidence for this – when we started, as an Industry, to send players to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, The Rio Hotel was, initially, amazed at how much more popular their marketing for the annual poker championships was. It, in fact, had little to nothing to do with their marketing, and everything to do with the rise of online poker, and multiple competing Operators running satellites (low money entries played, and placed in, over and over, to “earn” the prize package, effectively) to win your way to Vegas for “as little as Free!”.

Online, we can mobilise thousands, even millions, of like-minded, segmented sections of the Audience to engage and play on a career path plan, to get to the part of The Experience they want – and that part is often, a live, real world experience. Just look at the thousands in the Bahamas every January for the PokerStars PCA, or any of the European, Latin American and Asia Pacific Poker Tour dates. All of whom have spent months playing online to win their way to the live Experience.

Even on a local, or regional, level, and importantly for USA and Tribal Casinos, given the State by State opening of the USA, with legality top of mind, it is possible to leverage Experience-based Promotions to push an audience from online engagement, to real word trial and commitment. Even with free to play games being the first product played online – the hybrid theory of the Las Vegas Lesson, as I see it, allows for migration, back and forth, between Brick and Mortar, and Online, important for those USA Casinos looking to gain experience online, now, and make money from new visitors at their Brick and Mortar resort, now, ahead of any legalised State Gaming online.

End Game

Learning the Las Vegas Lesson is key, I feel, for the future of any business with homogenous product, and lots of the same Product, available from myriad competing Operators. Promotions allow us, as a shared Betting and Gaming Industry, to sell An Experience, of our Brand, and Products, all the while, surprising, delighting, gaining and retaining, little but often revenue Players, and Members of your Brand, for the long, long term.

Ismail Vali is a Gaming Marketing Consultant and can be contacted at:

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