Making Free Play a Portion of Your Basket of Benefits

Customer Benefits

It’s like cutting the carbs, without destroying the meal

Carbs are good.
Carbs taste great.
My doctor says to cut the carbs.
My friends say that it’s all about portion control.

The same thing goes for Free Play.
Players like Free Play.
Players want more Free Play.
Our CFO and Slot Director say to cut it out.

More and more reports emerge declaring that the excessive use of Free Play is an inflationary practice. It erodes hold. It robs time on device without changing time at device.

The question is, would you ditch it altogether if you could?

Before you break out into a cold sweat, I’m not in the market to ditch Free Play. I’m not in the market to jettison Direct Mail. We need to continue to do what we do well. The new rallying call is to dial back runaway discounting before we become wholesale providers of the gaming experience.

Why do we use Free Play?

In National and Regional trip markets, customers come for the waterfalls, the volcanoes, the food, and the retail shopping. In Local markets, the players still come to gamble, because they are, in fact, gamblers. As marketers, we need to let our players play. They like it. We provide it. We shouldn’t necessarily have to subsidize it.

Free Play has a purpose. It has a utility, with a beginning and an end. Free Play is used in the form of coupons, using Direct Mail to drive Frequency. Most databases show that around 70% of players make less than a weekly visit. Monthly coupons are set to motivate a weekly visit. Motivating a visit can get the player off the couch, but it doesn’t buy his play. The amount need not intoxicate the player, nor should it trump neighboring casinos. The entreaty, the message, and the delivery are the competitive components that should outshine other options for entertainment.

The problem is that we use Free Play as a salve to solve all ills.

We placate with Free Play for Customer Service Resolution.
A Free Play coupon is a shortcut to end a confrontation.

We ingratiate with Free Play within Player Development programs.
A Free Play coupon is used as a means to get a player to like us, rather than to further the relationship by getting to know them better.

We satiate winners with Free Play as the prize within Promotions.
We know that it’s not Free Money, but Points and Free Play are top prizes that aren’t considered hard costs.

We appreciate loyalty with Free Play, and allow Points to be converted at the machine.
When it comes to points, we set it and forget it. We forget to sell the fact that players are always earning their way to something. Point redemption circles back to, you guessed it, Free Play.

The most powerful motivational channel for Free Play is through Direct Mail.
When we get our backs up against a wall due to competitive pressures, we increase our Free Play coupons. Conversely, when we feel threatened by too many expenses, we carve and cut Free Play. These fluctuations play emotional ping pong with our players.

What do our customers really want?

Our customer is sweet.
Our customer is funny.
But give her neighbor a fatter offer, and your phone will ring.
Downsize her coupon, and she will stop you on the floor.
Stop sending a mailer to her house, and she will show up on your doorstep.
She will call after 5:45PM on the day that the mail drops.
She will bend the ear of a board member, stirring up concern from the top down.
Free Play angst is palpable.

When Free Play falls short of customer expectations, don’t blame the marketer.
Don’t blame the customer.
Blame the vacuum.

There is a vacuum of communication about benefits. Right now, the only means for a player to gauge how we feel about her is the number that we print on her weekly coupon. We may sell points at sign-up, but we rarely explain or sell the complete basket of benefits that hits the marketing budget. It’s a given. It’s a sunk cost. We’ve already plugged our reinvestment into the system.

Behind the scenes, we agonize about reinvestment in separate silos. We fret over setting and resetting Coin-In-to-Point ratios and Point-to-Free Play ratios. We spend months building and rebuilding tier structures. Monthly, we stare at our worth segmentation and consider upping each coupon in order to stay competitive with our neighboring casinos.

It’s not the number that we should be worried about. If we make it about the number, then it will be about the number. We need to recontextualize how we relate to our customers. We need to move from a transactional relationship, to one that’s based upon engagement.

With there being many ways for a player to spend his or her casino budget, a Direct Mail coupon is a poor way to show appreciation for a relationship. We must vow to not love our players through the mailbox.

The Solution: shifting from a transactional relationship, to one of engagement. Engagement celebrates our interactions with the player. Our interactions with the player are fueled by the sum total of the reinvestment decisions that we’ve made. Our skill is in how we present a full basket of benefits that includes Free Play, but is not dominated by it.

Nicole Barker