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Bets are placed on social media as a quick way to reach gamblers

Tony Astran tweets for a living.

Not that it's all the Seneca Gaming Corp. publicity manager does.

But keeping tabs on the company's Twitter account, Facebook profiles and status updates is no longer just a second thought for those who shape the brand image of the region's casinos.

So Astran, who spends the bulk of his time handling public relations duties and writing copy, sets himself a goal of posting at least two messages a day to the popular social networking sites under the Seneca Gaming profiles.

It's just one of several ways the casino industry is using popular technology trends to accomplish an age-old goal: publicity.

"If something new comes out, it's easy to say, 'Well, that's not my guest,' " said Jim Wise, Seneca Gaming senior vice president of marketing. "But I think the successful companies aren't afraid to latch themselves onto these new communication vehicles and to utilize them and take advantage of them."

Casinos across the country have long mastered the art of cultivating databases of frequent players and using that information to keep customers coming back. That often means offering free items -- hotel stays, concert tickets, meals and drinks -- to those who play, and play often.

Seneca Gaming's three casinos -- Seneca Niagara, Seneca Allegany and Seneca Buffalo Creek -- are no exception. The company, in reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, estimated it cost $39 million to provide promotional items including lodging, food and beverages to customers in its 2009 fiscal year.

So the ability to immediately reach customers and get quick responses from patrons by e-mail can mean filling the last seat at a big-name concert or passing unused complimentary items to another customer.

"For the Seneca Gaming Corp., the ability to have immediacy is critically important," said Wise, who worked at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs before joining the Seneca Gaming management team last year. "Many visitors, whether they're consistent casino gamers or whether they're periodic guests, make up their minds at the last minute. They don't always plan out a trip."

The Seneca casinos offer three levels of player cards, Seneca Players Club, Select Club and Chairman's Club. The gaming corporation has more than a million names in its database, Wise said, including about 500,000 who have visited the casino at least once during the last 12 months.

E-mail, Wise said, has become a "very important communications piece to our existing database," allowing the casino to supplement direct mail with follow-up reminders and last-minute invitations.

"It makes great sense," Wise said. "It's a terrific way to communicate with people. It builds your brand. It has immediacy. We can click 'send' and send out 3,000 e-mails, and people have it within minutes."

When it comes to brand management in a digital age, few things offer the immediacy of online social networking sites.

Websites including Facebook and Twitter have given the casino industry another way to shape its image and interact with potential gamblers who might not already be in the customer database.

"It really builds the brand and provides a great deal of energy to demographics of people who are evolving into having more time and wallet capability to come to a casino experience," Wise said.

While the company uses Facebook to interact with customers, as well as to post pictures of events and jackpot winners, part of Astran's job is to monitor and respond to comments left on the public pages, which aren't always favorable.

Astran said he closely monitors what is said on each of the accounts.

"A good rule of thumb is to understand the medium and respect the uniqueness of it compared to other media," Astran said. "And with Facebook, I think, no matter what the industry is, people are looking for honesty and they're looking for transparency."

Like other forms of advertising before it, social networking is just one more tool for casinos to use to lure customers. And as new avenues of communication come out, Wise said, casinos will aim to be at the head of the curve.

Astran pointed to a quote by an old hand at promotion: circus entertainer P.T. Barnum.

"He said, 'Without publicity, a terrible thing happens: Nothing.' " Astran said. "I think it's the way today. It may be e-mail, Facebook and Twitter -- who knows in five years -- but one thing is for sure is that we'll be on top of it."