Interview with Martin Calvert, Marketing Director at ICS-digital

"The trend to watch in the US is development of home-grown affiliates"

"I feel that it’s the less visible strategies that will really determine who wins and who loses in the US market," says Martin Calvert.
United States
Reading time 6:08 min
Ahead of his appearance at the Betting on Sports America - Digital conference and exhibition, the Marketing Director of international iGaming marketing agency ICS-digital tells Yogonet which promotional and acquisition strategies brands should consider as they attempt to establish themselves in new US markets.

Martin Calvert will take part in The Power of ‘Brand’ conference session, alongside Richard Downey (Senior Vice President, Global New Business, SpecialistWorks), and Brian Wyman (Principal Consultant, The Innovation Group), on December 2, the second day of Betting on Sports America - Digital. 

The legal US sports betting market may be relatively new, but it is already ultra-competitive, and operators seem prepared to spend big to establish themselves. What are the main trends you’ve seen in how the operators promote themselves? 

There are multiple trends that are clear to see like big money partnerships, acquisitions, celebrity endorsements and media spend. However, I feel that it’s the less visible strategies that will really determine who wins and who loses in the US market. In mature, regulated markets there is definitely plenty of sponsorship and mainstream media advertising and so on, but there’s also a ferocious battle for traffic based on the affiliate channel, onsite content and SEO - the lifeblood of any online industry.

While the most visible trends are around glitzy partnerships, the trend to watch will be the gradual development of a home-grown affiliate tier of business, and the steps operators take to help develop this essential aspect of the industry. Some operators will invest effectively to win the war of SEO and affiliation, while others will be too focused on the immediate battle for brand awareness.

Building a strong brand will be important for all the operators trying to establish themselves in the U.S. Does offline have a role to play in this, or will the focus be entirely on online channels?  

Brand-building is all about creating a shortcut to trust - and some of the most trusted options available to operators are in offline and traditional media. So, mainstream celebrity endorsements, tie-ups between brick-and-mortar businesses and online brands, broadcast TV brand mentions, and the like will be a key aspect for the major operators with dollars to spend.

However, as a digital-first industry, there’s still scope to build a brand online. In new markets like the US, a content strategy focused on anticipating and answering user questions is one of the best ways to build brand familiarity while on a budget. To become a trusted brand there are multiple options from big-money campaigns featuring movie stars to simply being the fastest, most accurate and most approachable online resource for players and fans. When it comes to earning and maintaining online traffic and building a brand reputation, operators might want to consider behaving more like media publishers rather than product/tech companies.

How might the promotional strategy of an established US casino brand looking to capitalise on the opening up of the sports betting market differ from the approach of a new market entrant?

Having an established brand is a massive trust factor – and this is something that US casino brands should try to leverage at every opportunity. In these cases, they can potentially make use of offline assets such as advertising in their physical locations, and in turn offering giveaways and incentives like casino vacations and the like. More than this, as established entities they’ve already covered a lot of ground in terms of ensuring that their operations are legal and have all necessary paperwork. While more official paperwork might need to be complied with as more states open up, it’s a process they’re familiar with that new brands may not be.

Speaking in digital terms, having an established brand has other advantages. When it comes to recruiting affiliates, having an established brand will help to sign up partners who will be more optimistic about the potential for FTDs on a site run by a familiar brand. At ICS-digital we take an SEO-first view of digital marketing in most cases, as achieving a steady stream of ‘free’ traffic is the ultimate goal for many online brands. With this in mind, established casino brands also have built-in SEO advantages that can help them get to the top of search results. With long-established sites, a large online footprint and, of course, a long track record of acquiring links is a big head-start in SEO.

However, it’s also true to say that many traditional casino brands focused on offline operations might lack the digital expertise needed to capitalise – and if they’ve not previously spent time on areas like SEO and PPC, they could be outpaced by newer, digital-first brands. For new brands, it’s all about getting an aggressive but effective digital strategy in place without being weighed down by legacy issues. Wholly online brands can afford to go ‘all in’ to make a success of their online strategy, while traditional brands may be torn between the online opportunity, and the day-to-day of offline operations.

The cost of US player acquisition is currently very high as brands scramble to secure market share. How can operators realistically reduce that cost and still compete against the major players? 

Acquisition costs can be artificially high in the short term when brands pay over-the-odds in PPC and other forms of paid media. In doing so, they’re driving up cost for the competition, and themselves. To some extent, there is a land-grab going on to acquire customers, but brands should focus on sustainable strategies and long-term success. It’s not the case that brands will capture a customer and keep them forever - every other regulated market shows that players are open to trying new brands and can be swayed with the right bonus, odds and user experience.

At ICS-digital and ICS-translate, our goal is always to encourage clients to make decisions based on data and not try to go punch-for-punch with the behemoths with seemingly endless budgets. To manage costs, it’s vital to identify the weaknesses in competitor strategy and actively seek opportunities to capitalise. Coming back to the importance of brand, those with a strong identity, a superior user experience and a real reason for existing will benefit from PR, content, SEO and social opportunities to bring traffic and deposits.

The harsh truth is that for those brands who don’t have huge financial war chests, who don’t have top tier brand partnerships, who don’t have an elite digital strategy and who don’t have a product that is genuinely superior, the gold rush of the US market could prove to be a mirage.

How do promotional tactics differ in the US market to those that have proved successful in Europe and Latin America? 

Each market differs based on the interests and appetites of potential players, the nature of regulation, and the depth of competition. The one approach that works across any market is to be guided by data. That means forensic competitor analysis and a relentless focus on uncovering opportunities to win brand coverage, website rankings and valuable traffic. While it can be hard for smaller operators to make a dent in saturated markets like the UK, in new markets there’s scope to climb the ladder - but it won’t happen accidentally or by chance. It’s why our strategies at ICS-digital are grounded in data and iterated relentlessly.

It’s clear that the right partnerships are important in the US market both for brand visibility, and, in some cases, to help with licensing. In terms of content, it’s vital to understand how sports fans like to consume granular data, with the need to maintain authenticity at all times. 

On the casino side, the presence of offline casinos has perhaps created an image of what casino ‘is’ that is different to the perception in Europe and other parts of the world. Perhaps there is more work to be done to present casino games as a form of online entertainment, rather than something more traditional. This is where investment in brand, rich media content and social is key to engage the profitable audiences that are the core customers of gaming brands in Europe and beyond.

As ever, while there’s a clear need to make statements and capture attention at a brand level, long-term success will absolutely hinge on the long game of SEO, and the maturation of a professional affiliate tier within the industry.

Finally, what does ICS-digital have planned for 2021? 

Of course, the North American market is very much on the ICS-digital agenda and we’re currently active in helping major operators and innovative start-ups to establish sustainable and effective strategies with that crucial focus on long term success. We’ll continue to grow our multilingual SEO and content creation services and look forward to extending our work in the areas of digital PR, sponsorship and paid media. We’ll be starting 2021 with at least one big award win under our belts – best campaign at the Global Content Awards – and this will set us up well to continue the expansion of our brand which focuses on all manner of language services.

2020 has definitely been an ‘interesting’ year but as probably the largest marketing agency working with an international gaming specialism, we’re excited for what the future holds - there will be new campaigns, new challenges, new opportunities … and new ways to grow our talented teams.

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