Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I'm sure Caesars could be more dense, but I'm not sure how

I have spent my entire life in marketing. Marketing is one of those broad job categories that not everyone understands - if I were an accountant, you could make a decent guess about what my typical day is like, but as a marketing guy I doubt you have much idea what I do.

Marketing is pretty simple at its heart - it's all about shaping ideas. If I want you to think positively about Coca-Cola, I create images related to Coke that you already have a positive sense about. We all like friendships, love and cute animals. If I can weave Coca-Cola into those things you already like, you'll start to like Coca-Cola by association, or at least have a positive feeling when you see the Coca-Cola brand.

Then you have Caesars, the parent company of the World Series of Poker and the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. I can honestly say that I have never seen a major, worldwide brand more intent on destroying its own image than this company. I have written quite a bit about this over the years, including:

Six ways Caesars screwed up the World Series of Poker
WSOP 2015: Has anything changed?
Are you there, Caesars? It's me, Dan.

And just so you don't think I'm entirely biased against Caesars, I also wrote this:

How Caesars saved the World Series of Poker (2 parts)

The first story must have struck a nerve, because I received a flood of email from various senior WSOP people that sounded like Sean Spicer attempting to justify a 4am tweetstorm. That story was written three years ago, and despite its having gotten some high-level attention, exactly none of the six things I mentioned were acted upon. Caesars knows that they have a captive audience for six weeks every summer, so they feel safe in charging $12 for a hot dog and $2.50 for a banana.

This sort of callous attitude towards players has been a hallmark of Caesars' relationship with poker players since they first took over the WSOP in 2004. The most egregrious display of their insensitivity to their customers (in my opinion) was the decision to adopt the November Nine format. Caesars contributed exactly zero to either the prize pool or the players, but decided that, to achieve their own marketing objectives, they would call a halt to play for three months at the end of the world's largest tournament. They have done plenty of other things to offend and alienate players, but this was emblematic of their utter disregard for anything other than their own interests.

At this point, you might suggest that acting in their own interest is what business is all about, and you'd be right. But there is a unique synergy that is particular to the WSOP - players put up all of their own money. This is a company that is contributing nothing but a venue and media coverage, yet they are dictating how a tournament should play out for millions of dollars. And in the process, they are fundamentally changing the game.

[In their defense, the November Nine format has finally been deep-sixed.]

So what does this have to do with marketing?

There is a specialty of marketing called branding. My one-sentence definition of this highly complex topic is creating a unique name and image that presents a significant and differentiated market presence. Examples of companies that have done this extraordinarily well: Coca-Cola, Amazon, Geico and Apple - just reading each of those names likely stimulated images in your head. Example of a company that did this stunningly well in the poker market: PokerStars (although that has dramatically changed since their acquisition by Amaya).

Caesars has done the opposite. Their hard-nosed belief in their entrenched and safe position in the market has left hundreds of thousands of poker players with the most negative impression possible - one that convinces players that Caesars cares only about Caesars to the detriment of its players.

I'll give you two examples of this. As you probably know, MGM Resorts casinos began charging for parking last year, and Caesars properties decided to follow this unpleasant trend. They originally did something everyone thought was positive - the Rio was exempted. But last week they undid all of that by announcing that there will no longer be valet parking for the WSOP. Note that they didn't start charging for valet parking - they just stopped offering it except at the main entrance. They attempted to sell this as a benefit, claiming that the WSOP "still offers free valet parking," but since it's a roughly 1/3 mile walk from the casino entrance to the WSOP area, this is a specious claim.

This is bad for so many reasons that I'm not sure where to start, but I'll mention only one for now. Players leave the WSOP area at all hours of the night with substantial amounts of money. When there's valet service, a player can feel safe with a few thousand dollars. When the only option is a several-acre sea of cars with nonexistent security, it is only a matter of time before someone is attacked and robbed. If Caesars is lucky, no one will be killed, but I wouldn't want to take that bet.

The second example is even more specific, but it will give you a sense of just how little Caesars thinks of its players. Before I relate this - I won't spend a lot of time tooting my own horn here, but marketing, and online poker marketing in particular, is what I do. I have had a successful career at it, and I know what I'm talking about. 

I have talked for a long time about how the WSOP's online poker site seems to have no idea what poker players really want or look for. I finally decided to take some time and tell them exactly why I felt this way. I went back over my notes and composed a lengthy email to Bill Rini, the head of online poker for Caesars Interactive. Here's the email I sent:
From: Dan Goldman
Sent: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:02 AM
To: Bill Rini
Subject: Comments on WSOP.com
Hi Bill,

I asked [mutual friend] for your contact information because I really want WSOP.com to succeed, since it’s my only online poker alternative in Las Vegas. I realized as I was putting my comments together that I was actually giving you marketing advice, which I don’t really want to do. Instead, I want to point out a few things that I see through the eyes of both a player and a guy who’s managed a highly successful online poker operation before. I trust they will be taken in the intended spirit.

  • Whoever does your satellite planning and scheduling, particularly for the WSOP, doesn’t seem to play much poker. WSOP.com is an amazing mouthpiece for the WSOP brand, but satellites are treated almost as an afterthought. Here are just a few examples:
  • During the WSOP, you have a massive, captive audience for online poker. You do a reasonable (not great, but reasonable) job of promoting WSOP.com within the venue. But if you launch the client, it’s hard to know that the world’s largest poker tournament is even going on. I made this comment on my blog in 2015: “Let's use today as an example. It's Wednesday, and on Friday you have one of your biggest events, the Monster Stack. There are exactly ZERO upcoming satellites for the Monster Stack (OK, there was one at 4p. 4p, really?). Tomorrow, the day before the event, there are two. You should be running dozens.” Nothing changed at all in 2016. I spoke with other players, who all agreed that they would have played in as many Monster Stack satellites as they could – but there just weren’t any. The situation with other big events was the same. This is a massive waste of a marketing opportunity, both live and online.
  • You run 1-2 $10 rebuy satellites a day in which you guarantee (2) $500 lammers. This is a pretty good idea, and they are well-attended. Why two lammers? I suspect that your typical player is depositing $50-100. Why not have satellites that guarantee one lammer, and make them $3 rebuys? Or even $1 or $2? You could run a lot more of them, and I can almost guarantee that you’d never miss a guarantee.
  • This next item is appalling, even more so because it has now happened to me twice, once in 2015 and once in 2016. Here’s a complete description that I posted on my blog:
In a classic case of the left hand not having any idea what the right hand is doing - I won an online satellite for an event the following day, and didn't receive anything (no email confirmation, no call, nothing) about how to claim it. So I emailed support at about 1a, and immediately received an auto-responder saying you'd get back to me within 24 hours. I got no further response, so I called the support line at 9a. The first response from the woman who answered (who had to consult someone else) was, "Follow the instructions in the email we sent." Well, OK, but you didn't send one. "Oh, OK, hold on." A few minutes later, she returned and said (seriously), "We'll have someone get back to you within 24 hours." When I explained that the tournament was in 3 hours, she asked me to hold again. When she returned, she said, "Just go over to the WSOP and go up to the second floor." I explained to her that there was no second floor. Her response: "I don't know what to tell you. That's what they told me."
When I went to the Rio, there was absolutely no one who had any idea how to process my win. I got lucky and ran into Johnny, a WSOP.com guy who was very helpful last year, and he was a superstar. He stayed with me until they got my ticket, which took close to an hour.
This is inexcusable. Coordinating something like this is trivial. There is absolutely no reason why your onsite staff didn’t get this right the first time, and it wasn’t the only time it happened. I won 3 seats in 2015, and it happened every single time. Then, I won one in 2016 and waited in line for over an hour with a whole group of disgruntled WSOP.com satellite winners. I promise you that not one of them came away feeling better about the WSOP brand after this experience. And the fact that your telephone support staff doesn’t even know there isn’t a second floor at the venue makes it clear that you hired the cheapest possible labor and didn’t train them.
  • It appears that your operations staff is equally out of touch with the realities of online poker. As an example, yesterday many players received an email from WSOP.com that said, among other things (this is condensed):
You have not logged into your account for more than 9 months and as a result, we will begin to implement our dormant account procedure on 2/1/2017. The twelve-month period triggering dormant status is calculated from the date you last logged into your WSOP.com account. Once your WSOP.com account enters the dormant account period the account will be closed and we will charge a monthly administration fee of $4.99. The administration fee will be deducted from the dormant account balance once each month and will continue to be deducted until the balance of the account has reached zero. When my daughter, who lives in LV but only plays online during the WSOP, sent me this, I thought it was a joke. This is horrifying customer service. Yes, I am aware that it’s in your house rules (http://www.wsop.com/legal/house-rules.asp - btw, go have a look at this page, which was apparently last changed on August 4, 2104). Maintaining a dormant account doesn’t cost you anything. In fact, you’re getting interest-free money from these players, some of whom have probably forgotten that it’s there. You have a significant number of players who only come to LV for the WSOP. Why not use this as a marketing opportunity instead of instantly offending every player who gets this? (In case you don’t already know, the damage from this absurd email has already been done, as it’s circulating on message boards.)
When a company behaves like this, its customers know they aren’t important. The WSOP itself already does plenty of this (see Six ways Caesars screwed up the World Series of Poker and Are you there, Caesars? It’s me, Dan for some examples). WSOP.com is, perhaps inadvertently, reinforcing the arrogance and near-hostility that virtually every WSOP player feels. The pervading sense is that Caesars believes that the WSOP brand is invulnerable. It’s not. As I mentioned in one of my posts, look at  America Online or Paradise Poker as examples of what happens to dominant brands that don’t take care of their base.

This has gone on much longer than I intended. I have high hopes for WSOP.com, but unless you guys get in tune with your players, I don’t think you have much of a chance.

Here is the response I got from Bill about two hours later:

From: Bill Rini
Sent: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:02 AM
To: Dan Goldman
Subject: Comments on WSOP.com
Sent: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 11:02 AMTo: Dan GoldmanSubject: Comments on WSOP.com Hi Dan,
 Thanks for taking your time to share your thoughts.  We'll take them into consideration. Best, Bill

OK, did I expect Bill to jump into action? Of course not. These are suggestions, but they all make sense from a poker player's perspective, and none challenge the base marketing concepts of the WSOP. Here's a perfect example: Today is May 30. The WSOP begins tomorrow. Here is the satellite schedule from WSOP.com:

That's right - there are thousands of players here for the beginning of the WSOP, and there is exactly one satellite running between now and Saturday - and it's for the Employee Event, in which most people can't play.

This isn't rocket science. If you have thousands of your best customers in town for a huge poker event, and you have an online poker site, you promote your big event on your poker site. Marketing isn't hard; most of marketing is very easy: give people what they are willing to pay money for, and they will pay you money. You have the simplest possible task, with a year to prepare for it - how could you possibly be this dense?

[Side note: to reinforce how little attention my email actually received, you will note that I pointed out a typo on the WSOP.com web site, in which they say that the last time their terms were updated was 87 years in the future (August 4, 2104). If you click here, you'll see that page is still there, with the same typo.] [UPDATE: Caesars finally fixed this typo on June 1, 2017.]

My marketing career has mostly consisted of not making the little mistakes that kill companies. Caesars, up to now, has had success with the WSOP while continually tripping over its own feet. I had hoped this was the year when they got smarter, but it looks like we'll have to wait for at least one more.


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