Marketing budgets are different… “A horse of a different color,” as the Wizard of Oz would say.
Along with Halloween and pumpkin spice everything, the annualized budget season arrives around Labor Day like the dreaded headless horsemen—four months of wrangling, sandbagging and brinksmanship.
Casino budgets follow an arduous process that averages four months, during which you also operate the property. Prepare to gain the “budget five” pounds eating that extra morning budget bagel and that fourth slice of late-night conference room pizza.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Casino marketing budgets are built the same as other departments… but different. The key is to make the differences work in your favor. By nature, marketing budgets are dissimilar combining history, analytics and financials with the practical magic of crystal ball forecasting. That said, when it comes to approaching the casino annual market budget, you often see three common strategies. 1) You may be in a lucky situation where your budget is an auto pilot, plug and play approach. 2) You may be charged with justifying each dollar monthly and quarterly using a zero-based budget approach. 3) Or, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you approach budgeting never knowing what you’ll get.
Four Budget Hacks to Consider
Today’s marketing budgets are different from other casino departments because of the deluge of data available. Marketers with trackable programs draw on data to craft their annual budgets using quantifiable metrics. A typical digital age marketing budget uses data over assumptions to arrive at measurable conclusions. Marketing department expenditures are allocated based on market history, property financial results, specific program analysis, data base analytics, target markets, competitive factors, and goals and projections.
The heart of the budget process is the thinking that goes into the allocation of those expenditures. The starting point is a market analysis and market share analysis. Then, understanding your total market and where your property stands in the market defines overall budget goals.
However, the best budgeting returns result from program analysis. Some departments like database, loyalty club, PD, sales, social media and promotions should have substantial reporting that can make decisions easier. Other departments such as traditional media and public relations, not so much.
The primary building blocks of strategic budgeting is a review of the past year’s programming to see what’s working and what is not working.
Find your strategic niche
To keep expenditures on target, define your properties brand position in the market. This technique is unique to casino marketing budgets and will control wasted spend while keeping the center of attention on revenue generation. Once you establish your properties unique position, you are better able to allocate dollars to each marketing department with a laser like focus. This method will also help reduce wasted, off-target spending.
This process is normally accomplished through focus groups, market research, surveys, in house and social media questionnaires, employee input and observations. The procedure should uncover the key differentiators that set your property apart. This will allow you to hone in on a niche that becomes a competitive advantage.
Les McMackin of Foundation Gaming, owners of the Waterview Casino & Hotel in Vicksburg, Miss., and the Fitz Casino and Hotel in Tunica, Miss., knows a thing or two about building casino marketing budgets. McMackin was senior vice president of marketing for the 16 property Isle of Capri Casinos corporation and now runs marketing for Foundation Gaming.
McMackin said to look at both your brand position in the market and your product position. “Customer experience is more about the product then the brand,” he explained. “When you’re setting financial goals for a property, it’s important to have an honest conversation about where your product stands in the market.”
If your product is not on par with the rest of the market, where do you allocate your casino marketing budget programmatically to overcome shortfalls? “While your brand may be strong in service, you might have to mitigate for a weaker casino product by funding a higher reinvestment or additional club benefits,” McMackin said. “You have to force yourself to look into the mirror and identify your brand differentiators along with your product.”
Begin with the beginning in mind
The choice to build a bottom-up, zero-based budget often originates from a need to generate maximum efficiency from each marketing dollar. The process is a necessity with startups and acquisitions. Furthermore, zero based budgets are also a favorite of small to medium sized properties used to boost limited resources.
Zero based budgeting justifies every expense and every revenue dollar, often on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. Randall Snodgrass understands the zero-based process from experience. Snodgrass is vice president of finance for Maverick Gaming, which recently acquired the Wendover Nugget and Red Garter casinos in Wendover Nev. His experience at Delaware North Gaming and CFO of American Racing and Entertainment taught him the value of zero-based marketing.
“Zero based budgeting works because it’s easy to start with high level numbers and build out,” said Snodgrass. To Snodgrass, marketing budgets are different because, “you are applying a scientific process to something that is not an exact science.”
With takeovers and startups, Snodgrass’s “zero” in the zero-based marketing budgets is to begin with the market studies and add his own experience. “You can’t always take market studies on face value,” he said. “Market studies are by nature quantified assumptions.”
In zero-based marketing budgets, Snodgrass focuses on programs that build the data base. “Once you’ve established a data base, you can move to a traditional budget,” he added.
The fact is most marketing budgets end up as a reflection of the past, not a guideline to the future. But technology and rapidly changing markets are pushing companies to add forward looking forecasts to annual budgets. The end game is to become more adaptable and flexible.
Every marketing budget starts with financial goals for revenue and expense set by the company. To begin, marketing leaders ask each department to meet operational goals. These might be goals like player acquisition, player retention, sales department goals, player development goals, social media and mobile lead conversion.
A marketing budget with quarterly benchmarks assigns trackable goals for all revenue streams and channels. The goals become the revenue and expenses you assign to each department. In a benchmark marketing budget, you spread the goals over four quarters. You then hold quarterly reviews with each department head to insure your plan is on track and successful. By adding quarterly benchmark goals to each department, marketing budgets can help adapt to changes in real time and upgrade the all-important function of forecasting.
What’s the Difference?
Differences are strengths in building a marketing budget.
The availability of a wide selection of analysis gives marketing a clear path to decision making. The position of the brand and property product points out a clear direction for allocating revenue and expense. The ability to establish and track quantifiable goals aids projections for future programming.
Using these tools will help make the budgeting process more productive … and you won’t have call in the flying monkeys.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of Casino Journal.