One company has had the digital table to itself since Nevada legalized online poker for real money this year: Station Casinos, which introduced its Ultimate Poker site in late April to capitalize on the new freedom. The company has been eagerly pressing its advantage, with marketing that includes promotions for the site at Station's 18 Nevada casinos.
The battle for at-home players will be joined Sunday, when Caesars Interactive Entertainment begins an ad blitz for its World Series of Poker site, or WSOP.com, which had a soft launch on Sept. 19. The campaign by independent shop Zambezi, of Venice, Calif., will include TV, radio, print, digital and out-of-home advertising as well as partnerships with Caesars' casinos. Ads will emphasize the "whenever, wherever" availability of online play, as well as the unique advantages of playing at home.
In this TV ad below, for example, a man who struggles to conceal his facial expressions (or "tells") finds relief at home, saying, "Online, I don't need a poker face."
Another spot for WSOP.com features a man who celebrates a bit too much at the casino after a winning hand. That's a no-no in poker, but at home he is free to do any kind of victory dance he wants. A radio ad plays up the idea of winning "real money in my undies," or, somewhat unpleasantly, catching "a flush while I flush."
The campaign is purposely "cheeky" in order to make online poker inviting, said Chris Raih, founder and managing partner of Zambezi, which won the account in February. "We are creating new behavior. This is the first time that it's legal and regulated and online," he said. "So we are trying to remind people about all the opportunities they have to come play a few hands."
The campaign will only run in Nevada, the first state to legalize online poker for actual money. The two poker sites use location technology to verify that players are inside Nevada, where play is open to people age 21 and older. The verification method includes verifying users' IP addresses and then asking them to reply to text messages, after which cell phones are pinged once an hour, according to Caesars Interactive Entertainment. Players are also age verified.
Both sites offer gameplay on computers but plan to add mobile devices soon.
With digital play expected to come soon to other states, online gambling could emerge as a major new national ad opportunity for agencies and media properties. H2 Gambling Capital, which tracks the industry, forecast last year that the internet-gaming sector could spend up to $4 billion on marketing over the coming half-decade.
Both New Jersey and Delaware expect to see legal online gameplay begin this fall, USA Today recently reported.
Nevada's law limits digital play for real money to poker, but there's plenty of enthusiasm for the game. Ultimate Poker dealt its first hand on April 30 and had dealt 10 million by Aug. 1, the company said in a statement last month. In addition to saturating casinos with signage, Ultimate Poker's strategy includes significant direct marketing. The brand has tapped into Station Casinos' databases, which house contact information for roughly 80% of the gamblers in Nevada, said Joe Versaci, chief marketing officer for Ultimate Gaming, which is Station's parent brand for online gaming.
Ultimate Poker has a marketing partnership with Ultimate Fighting Championship, whose majority owners, Frank Fertitta and brother Lorenzo Fertitta, also own Station Casinos. Ultimate Poker is running TV ads like the one below.
The brand, which had been using a combination of boutique agencies and in-house resources for creative, is now conducting a review for a creative agency, Mr. Versaci said. At stake in the creative review is a potentially sizeable account as Ultimate readies to enter New Jersey's online gambling market, where it has inked a partnership with Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City. Its media buying is handled by U.S. International Media, which is headquartered in West Hollywood, Calif.
In Nevada, WSOP.com is using its namesake World Series of Poker event to lure online gamblers, with tactics such as offering digital players a chance to win their way into the $10,000 main event in Las Vegas. WSOP has also created a loyalty program called Action Club that will allow online players to earn points that can be converted into credits for discounted room nights, shows, dining credits and merchandise at Caesars-owned properties. Caesars Interactive Entertainment is majority owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp, which owns, operates or manages more than 52 casinos in six countries.
The TV campaign will break Sunday night in Nevada during AMC's "Breaking Bad," while the WSOP.com brand is appearing on room keys and in poker rooms at Caesars' Nevada properties. The campaign also includes digital videos, such as the one below. The brand's media agency is Publicis Groupe's Zenith.
While the ad buys are local, "that doesn't mean in the future we wouldn't extend outside of Nevada to drive people here to play," said Michael Staskin, VP-marketing for Caesars Interactive Marketing.
One possibility is that the state of Nevada sings compacts with other states allowing for play outside of Nevada, which would substantially grow the market -- and create more ad business. "Nevada will have a healthy business on its own," Caesars Interactive Entertainment CEO Mitch Garber said on a recent media conference call, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal. "I think it's in everybody's interest at the end of the day that there be compacts among states and that there be shared liquidity."