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IN-DEPTH 30 August 2017
The mobile marketing challenge: Personalising push notifications
Push notifications have the potential to provide a rich and exciting channel of communication between an operator and its customers. How should betting companies go about maximising their potential?
By Tom Lewis

"Are you cheating on me with another game? Come play, I’ll forgive you!"

Push notifications. When used poorly, they hold a reputation with end users as a distraction at best, and downright annoying at worst, an assessment that 52% of respondents to a November 2015 survey by mobile engagement platform Localytics and Research Now agreed with. However, deployed effectively and with the right considerations in mind they can be a useful tool for operators in driving customer engagement. According to research by the same company, those who opt to receive push notifications demonstrate 171% more total engagement with a mobile app.

A direct line of communication from a website or app to the customer, push notifications are messages that pop up on desktops or mobile devices and can be sent at any time, with users not required to be on the relevant webpage or using their devices to receive them.

While there are idiosyncrasies in terms of how different mobile operating systems allow for the use of push notifications – an iOS user must opt-in, whereas Android users must expressly opt-out – the general principles of how to deploy them effectively remain the same. Greg Karaolis, Head of Online and Innovation at SBTech, makes note of four key areas that betting companies must get right when sending push notifications: “As with most effective forms of customer communication, the aim is to send a targeted, engaging, actionable, and timely message to your users. Let’s take these one by one:

• Targeted: Ensuring you segment and understand your customer base so you don’t spam users with messages about offers, sports, events and bets they are not interested in.

• Engaging: Ensuring there is an offer, or a price boost, to ensure you grab the user’s attention. Or if it is a subscription-based notification around incidents or special offer, ensure they are well worded and grab attention, or include some kind of rich media.

• Actionable: Similar to above, this is ensuring that the user deeplinks to the right page, or has the bet preselected to make it is easy to take action from the notification

• Timely: This is about understanding when your users are most likely to be receptive to push (e.g. the hour before the event) or even better if it can be based on their own betting patterns. For example, if you expect a user to normally bet one hour before kick-off for the Champions League, if it gets to 15 minutes before this, a timely push with an offer may be the offer they need to get them to bet.

Mario Ovcharov, Chief Marketing Officer at platform provider UltraPlay, echoes Karaolis’ feeling that targeting push notifications to users with eye-catching, actionable content is the key to making them successful: “Getting spammed every day for the same bonus, especially in our industry, is unlikely to have a positive effect.”

Ovcharov emphasises the importance of personal choice in ensuring that players are not turned off, noting that users are far more likely to respond to messages that are tailored to their interests. Elaborating, he states: “If you can subscribe for updates on a certain sports team or casino game that you like, that will be a much more effective manner in which to drive user engagement and prevent players being turned off. Expecting an untargeted and standard array of bonuses to have any great effect is not the future for this approach.”

Karaolis’ point regarding timing is worth re-emphasising, especially in light of the fact that the timeliness push notifications for sports betting operators is far more important given the acute nature of certain sports. Expanding on the point, Karaolis says: “If a customer has an interest in a match but we don’t send the push in good time to induce the bet, the match finishes and we have lost turnover. Regular ecommerce companies don’t face the same the problem, so the timing is much more critical for us.”

“Rich notifications” mark another manner in which betting companies can more effectively drive user engagement through push messaging. So-named due to their employment of media beyond the written word – images, videos, audio and GIFs are the obvious examples – rich notifications have been shown to have a far higher response rate than their less jazzy cousins. A 2016 study conducted by US marketing firm Urban Airship found that pictures boost direct response rates for push notifications by 56%.

This is an area in which gambling could learn a great deal from other customer-facing industries. “There has been little use of rich media to make push messages more engaging, and certainly targeted and tailored push messages are not widespread in our industry,” notes Karaolis, adding that: “No one promotes cash out of bets through push, or really personalised bet suggestions, and if we look at the wider ecommerce space we certainly see more tailored and targeted messaging there rather than the generic mass messaging we see prevalent throughout the online gaming industry.”

Targeted, timely and vibrant notifications are clearly a must for operators when looking to avoid the risk of turning players off and having your messages dismissed as spam. As Mario Ovcharov underlines, “It is a problem if players are just seeing the same information over and over again. It has to be more intuitive than that. Even sending something like ‘Ronaldo is injured today’ can move a player to be against Real Madrid, for example.”

Tying these elements together at the head of all these important factors is a growing need for these messages to be personalised to the individual user, in a manner that goes beyond a simple deployment of the opening gambit “Hi Firstname”. Analysing a player’s betting history for their casino games and sports markets they favour is undoubtedly crucial here, in order to push updates to players that are relevant to their interests and make them more likely to engage with the push notification. Analysing more than 1.5bn mobile push notifications between January 2015 and March 2016, marketing agency Leanplum found that adding various elements personalising these messages increased open rates by 800%.

Karaolis agreed when the issue of personalisation was put to him, and made a point of stating that “it’s not that difficult to get this right”.

He expands: “If you understand what your users like to bet on, when they are most likely to be receptive to a message, and what types of offers engage them, by user, then you have the most chance of cutting through with your message. Simple examples are promoted bets that they have won on before, for example, ‘Man United did the job for you last week? Can they do it again?’, then the offer. Sending push messages with enhanced cash out offers is a very good way to show customers that the message is only for them, for example: “Two legs of your acca have won, cash out offer was £90, now £100.”

While there shouldn’t be a tremendous amount in the assessment offered so far to take betting companies by surprise, Karaolis and Ovcharovs’ points relating to targeted and personalised messages are well worth making. As previously stated, they have carried a troubled reputation since they came to greater prominence following the June 2009 launch of the Apple Push Notifications Service. A survey by aforementioned marketing platform Localytics revealed in late 2015 that between two and five pushes per week would drive 46% of respondents to opt-out, while 6-10 a week would lead 32% of respondents to uninstall the app altogether.

“Quite a lot of operators don’t like using push notifications for this reason,” says Mario Ovcharov on whether their reputation as intrusive is merited. “Those that do use them do so on a basis of pushing untargeted bonuses, which is something I think will change as the industry continues to evolve with mobile technology.”

Concurring, Karaolis adds: “At the moment, the reputation is somewhat justified. In general I get the same set of push notifications from every operator on a Saturday with little feeling that there is something valuable in this message for me.” Clearly, it is important that operators properly measure the click through rate and bet placement in order to ensure any notifications are hitting the mark, and that they are prepared to scale back should a drop in engagement be noticed.

As for what the future holds for this emerging and increasingly prevalent means of user engagement in the gambling industry, Ovcharov highlights that the technology’s excellent potential as a retention tool. The concept of being able to place an offered bet simply through tapping the on-screen notification is one that Ovcharov mentions with enthusiasm.

Factors such as problem gambling must be taken into account, as with any form of marketing in this industry. As Karaolis makes clear: “Tackling problem gambling and protecting vulnerable individuals is something the industry has recently started taking very seriously, and rightly so.

“Obviously we have a responsibility not to market to people who we know are at risk, and we also need to be careful with sending push notifications to someone who may have downloaded an Android app before we have been able to verify their age.”

However, what is clear is that push notifications hold rich potential for betting companies as a means of boosting engagement. Operators and suppliers alike must now ensure that the framework and know-how is in place to ensure they can meet this potential, moving away from untargeted marketing blasts and towards being a more refined a personal channel between user and operator.
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