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IN-DEPTH 12 February 2019
Lies, damned lies and board reports
Industry veteran Kevin Dale offers tips to get the most out of revenue reporting in the boardroom
By Gambling Insider

Even if you’ve had a shocking month, there’s always something to shout about. To avoid the probing of your revenue or customer metrics, you might selectively highlight the favourable results and downplay the rest. If all else fails, you emphasise progress in the product pipeline. After all, board meetings are supposed to be upbeat, growth-trumpeting, forward-looking affairs, aren’t they? Behind the bedroom door, a variation on the following conversation might play out:

Director: “Great news folks, see page 1 of the board report. Gross gaming revenue (GGR) is up for the second month in a row.”

Board: “Yes, but looking at page 8, stakes don’t seem to have risen by anywhere near the same level as GGR. In fact, they’ve plateaued this last month.”

Director: “Not up so much, but still healthy and we have done very well on margin this month.”

Board: “I’m not sure that results going in our favour is necessarily the same as us doing well. Look at page 4 in your Appendices – if I compare stakes to last year, this should have been a bumper month for us: the football season has just started and stakes are plenty down on the same month last year.”

Director: “Ah, well we’ve been pricing our sports a bit higher recently because you were worried about our margin levels last time - that might have something to do with it. Also, on games margin, we launched 3D American roulette too with the double zero. This seems to be popular. Did you see the gaming margin improvement on page 2?”

Board: “I thought you said somewhere that gaming margin had improved because of the two new high rollers on blackjack who dropped a fair bit with us. Besides, they’ve only taken our VIP business up to the levels it hit back in May.”

Director: “Yes, they play blackjack mostly, but also a bit of roulette. The new VIP rewards programme has been well received by all VIPs. Also, you mentioned last month we shouldn’t be over reliant on such a small number of users, so we’ve focused more on acquiring new players to reduce that dependence too. Did you see our new player acquisition numbers on page 2?”

Board: “Yes, I did notice that and it is certainly a good sign, but I think some of your marketing costs seem to have risen too. Am I right in saying net gaming revenue (NGR), i.e after bonus costs but before acquisition costs, hasn’t grown much in the last couple of months?”

Director: “Last month, we agreed to a big push for the new season and so invested quite heavily in our welcome offers. We do though believe this is money well spent. We should be able to retain the players nicely, especially with our new bet-builder product and the live casino we’re about to launch.”

Board: “The new products look great, but now that you mention it, how is retention tracking?”

Faced with some tricky numbers? We’ve all been there. A strategy of highlighting the positives while promising jam tomorrow is fairly common. Healthy GGR numbers might benefit from a temporary margin improvement one month, while a new-season boost could be your saving grace the next. But how do you survive the perfect storm of poor margin in the off-season, for example? Given the complexities of our business models, you could forgive the odd non-exec for glazing over midway through these results presentations.

But they’re not daft either. How long will it take your board to see through the smoke and mirrors? A positive approach isn’t necessarily wrong as such, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves in the process. It’s forgivable to distract from the weakest indicators, but not to ignore or misread them. We really do need to know why some of our metrics are looking a bit forlorn, but for that to happen, we first need to communicate them clearly.

Gaming results can be skewed by a whole number of factors and if we don’t filter these out, none of us will be any the wiser. Here are some tips below to help get you through revenue reporting.

1. NET OUT MARGIN VOLATILITY
Gaming is a unique sector in which financial performance is heavily influenced by chance and the volatility of results; much like our own customers’ ups and downs. A string of winning favourites, for example, is all it takes sometimes to transform what would otherwise be a healthy performance.

By presenting stakes and comparing these to GGR, we can net out part of the difference here. This is obvious maybe - but surprisingly uncommon. Margin is further complicated by the fact it is not only a function of player luck and sporting outcomes, but also our own product and pricing strategies. If we really have made product mix, takeout or over-round changes recently, then normalise the data or map theoretical margins against those you achieve. Without stake reports and margin analysis, GGR reporting can be meaningless. Whether or not the board decide on optimal margin levels is a whole other issue.

2. BONUS COSTS
Similarly, any change to your bonusing and incentive offers can potentially make a bigger difference to NGR than any other factors. Tell the NGR story separately to the GGR one but with a good handle on promotional cost breakdowns and how they relate to acquisitions, conversion rates and retention levels.

3. SEASONALITY
You often see reports comparing revenues to the previous month and yet ours is a seasonal business. This is less so in gaming than in sports, but it’s still a factor, especially as sporting events are typically used for acquiring customers, who are then cross-sold into gaming products.

It might look good comparing results to the previous month a few times a year, but you have to ask yourself (before someone else does), what these comparisons really mean. Year-on-year charts tell a better story, but if last year’s numbers are a bit iffy, then benchmark your results against seasonal metrics for the industry. Better yet, my previous Chairman Nigel Payne insists on 12-month moving averages which flatten out seasonality completely - leaving nowhere to hide. If you’re not comparing apples to apples then, as certain as whoever made the little green things, we all end up confused.

4. HIGH ROLLERS
Whales are a key part of our ecosystem. They help justify the high acquisition costs we face and drive up revenues per user, or ARPUs; but they can also distort results. Enhance your board reports with VIP summaries, median and mode ARPUs, or present your results without the impact of VIPs - and not just when they’re winning. Whether you want to reduce the volatility of your VIP business though is a different issue again.

5. CONSUMER METRICS
Gross and net revenues are also intertwined with your customer metrics. There are a whole range of these you could present, but it shouldn’t be a case of cherry picking the best each month.

Acquisition numbers and costs (CPAs), active players, retention rates and ARPU all belong in every board report. If you know your business model well enough, you’ll also know a big spike in acquisition numbers will normally be accompanied by lower ARPUs in the same month.

First, they didn’t all join at the beginning of the month and second, your averages will be watered down by a higher proportion of one-off visitors. Similarly, you’ll also know, for example, a spate of bonus abuse might flatter your acquisition numbers today, but you should be forewarning of an ARPU decline next month. By netting out the impact of margin, seasonality, bonus costs, VIPs and some customer metrics, monthly reports will start to make a bit more sense – not just for your board, but for you too.

Amid the quagmire of interdependencies, creative reporting only serves to invite doubt or forensic analysis. Ideally, we should be completely familiar with our business model and be able to present the true picture, regardless of the ugly numbers that crop up. If you present it warts ‘n’ all, while setting out the plans to correct any issues identified, you’ll net the rewards.

Finally, pictures really do tell a thousand words, so serve up dashboards over spreadsheets every time. It speeds up the process of communicating performance. Imagine the conversation above without chart support, for example. Have a few extra charts at hand for the inevitable drill-down questions as to why that metric has gone south. Tell a clear story and don the rose-tinted specs by all means, but ditch the blinkers.

Kevin Dale has spent the last 20 years in digital business, including roles as CEO of Gameaccount Network (GAN plc), and Marketing Director of Eurobet, Sportingbet and Betfair.
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IN-DEPTH 18 October 2019
Automating acquisition

Alex Czajkowski discusses the automation of acquisition within online gaming.

It’s almost every operator’s perennially hot topic - acquisition. While acquisition strategies can vary market-by-market, there is a case in every market for automating more of the process to improve conversion rates or significantly reduce acquisition costs. In any market, you can segment your prospects, regardless of your product, into two: inner-directed and outer-directed. Inner-directed prospects know what they want; your job is to get out of their way, but be there for any obstacles that occur in achieving their goal.

Typically, this is to join, deposit, get a bonus and play. For example, when I go into a store to buy a laptop and having to deal with some sales clerk who knows less about them than I do (and in fact may be financially incentivised to push me to the wrong selection), I know what I want; get out of my way. But the sales clerk may know something I don’t, like how last year’s model is now significantly reduced and the changes were largely cosmetic.

Our inner-directed online gaming prospects benefit from a bit of guidance in their rush to register. No, they don’t need to know of password format requirements; they’re using a sufficiently robust password to begin with and they’re experienced players. But by reminding them that with every play they are accumulating loyalty points they can redeem for cash, this could be welcome news at a new site. So while we don’t want to interfere with the inner-directed prospects hurling themselves through our conversion funnel, we do need to be there to inform and support. This also helps ensure a higher conversion rate, not to mention an opportunity to really introduce the brand voice.

Sure, you could use distracting pop-ups, or unmemorable banners alongside the necessary forms. But those are all one-way communications. You’re talking at the prospect rather than with the prospect. Sinitic.ai, a leading AI-enabled, gaming-focused chatbot provider, or more specifically, an automated intelligent customer experience (AICX), enables operators to engage in “asynchronous conversations” through this process. It uses proactive yet passive messaging through an open, automated chat window. In this window, the chatbot prompts as the player moves through the forms, offering to help but also reminding the player of site benefits and interesting news (e.g. there’s a new game to try or a big match tonight).

Should our inner-directed prospective be intrigued by any of the prompts, they merely have to chat back to the bot. With language-specific NLP (natural language processing) behind the bot, the prospect and the site can have a natural conversation about that topic. They could even discuss any relevant topic the prospect may choose to ask about, such as: What are the odds on Liverpool vs. Arsenal tonight? An integrated chatbot can answer these questions, in real time, as straightforward or cheekily/sassily as you want your brand voice to be.

The outer-directed prospect is just the opposite; they need assistance. They are like the new dad standing in front of 300 choices for car seats for their first baby, with prices ranging from $50 to $500. Only one word comes to mind – help. Here, an intelligent chatbot can walk this prospect through the registration, deposit and bonus processes, field by field if necessary; just as if there was a customer service agent holding their hand through the process, but with no delay, as a human agent would be handling multiple chats and not be truly one-on-one. An integrated chatbot should know where the prospect is in the journey, right down to the field in focus on the form, and prompt appropriately.

Again, the chatbot can also insert “marketing messages,” new promotions that may be of interest, game suggestions for the newbie to try and matches they want to bet on. These all help in the conversion process, not to mention churn; one key reason online casino operators so quickly lose their first players is the players play the wrong game and have a fast bust out, leaving disappointed. This can be prevented through chat-supported onboarding with proactive chat for churn prevention.

In some markets and cultures, prospects skew more to this outer-directed side. For example, in Japan, prospects want to know everything going into a site, while in Vietnam, they do want their hand held. In more mature western markets, inner-directed players may be more prevalent, but the key is automated intelligent chat support for both segments. Speaking of Asian markets, one clear difference between the west and specifically China, is the necessity to leverage one-to-one direct sales communications to bring players onto the site. For China, operators have rooms full of imported Chinese speakers, at no small cost, chatting with prospective and existing players over WeChat and other social platforms. These one-to-one chats for acquisition can also be automated, right down to including the 20% or so of messaging we classify as flirty.

Sinitic.ai's AICX solutions can push messaging through virtually any channel, be it the ubiquitous (and popular) web chat, SMS, WeChat, Line, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp etc. So wherever your preferred hunting ground for players is, you can set loose an AI-based chatbot to harvest players with the same methodology you use in the call centre. But of course chatbots don’t take breaks, get ill, ask for raises or housing or travel expenses - all real call centre issues. “Chatbots are the new email,” some say. But they are actually better; they are as synchronous or asynchronous as the player wants. They can be chatty and real time (synchronous) or stand-by ready, simply announcing a relevant message that may or may not initiate a reply from the player (asynchronous).

Chatbots are increasingly the preferred way for players to interact with a site; why dig through the FAQ when you can just ask the chatbot? Why not even navigate using the chatbot? “Take me to the game with the biggest jackpot.” Using AI and NLP, Sinitic.ai’s AICX solution can add an entire new level of interactivity to your site, delivering automated acquisitions, improved conversions, reduced churn and better player lifetime values.

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