On Creating and Supporting Effective E-Gaming Web Sites

12 April 2002

The e-gaming business has the dubious distinction of being the biggest online money-spinner after pornography. Currently there are somewhere between 1,200 to 1,400 virtual casinos on the Internet. While online gambling currently accounts for only 1 percent of the worldwide gaming market, Sebastian Sinclair, vice-president of Christiansen Capital in New York, predicts that in the years to come, it will exceed the $60 billion U.S. land-based betting industry. An article appearing in the June 7 issue of The Observer quotes estimates to the effect that online gaming business will be worth more than $125 billion by 2015.

What's driving the move to e-gaming is simple economics. Building a half-decent bricks-and-mortar casino costs a minimum of $400 million these days. Compare that with a virtual casino that you can design with under a million dollars in investment, and that will require about seven people to operate! Understandably, entertainment giants such as Playboy, The Venetian, and MGM Mirage have become very serious about their online offerings.

With so many reputed and not-so-reputed players having entered or planning to enter the market in less than five years, the industry is headed for an invariable shake-up. Iain Wilkey, a consultant at Ernst & Young has been quoted in The Observer as saying, "It's very easy to set up an online casino but it's increasingly difficult to make money out of it. . . We're now seeing an industry fallout as the stronger players with brands assert themselves. The smaller, opportunistic guys in places like Antigua or Costa Rica may have done well at first but most will be history." Even established names like Harrods and Aspinalls Online are getting their fingers burnt!

It is evident that as the competition heats up, only those operators that make their virtual casinos customer-centric will survive, others will simply perish in head-on collisions on the information super highway. Self-professed e-commerce experts are now entering the fray, eager to offer advice to anyone who would listen. However, even senior executives at some of the most successful e-gaming sites will tell you that when it comes to customer acquisition and retention, their understanding of the issues is far from crystallized. I have therefore designed this straightforward primer for those operators wanting to wager and win in the business of e-gaming. Here are 10 things to consider if you are thinking of designing an online betting site or evaluating your existing site. Based on these 10 dimensions of success, I have also devised an instrument that directly measures the relative performance of an e-gaming site.

  1. Target Market - As with any piece of communication, the first question to be answered in designing an e-gaming site is what we are trying to say and to whom. Like any other marketing activity, segmenting and targeting is the key to success. With thousands of competing providers, your product, i.e. Web site, needs to echo the needs, preferences, desires, tastes, and ethos of your customers. People's Net behaviors vary depending on their computer literacy, gender, national culture, and personality. The key to effective targeting is to first segment your market and then profile your best customers along demographic, psychographic, and behavioral dimensions. Positioning practices and Web design strategies should strictly be derived from this profile.

  2. Positioning - Simply put, positioning refers to the place a brand occupies in the minds of target customers in relation to competing brands. Most e-gaming brands on the market today suffer from under positioning--there is nothing special that customers can recall about these brands. In e-gaming, the differential advantage and positioning can be clarified and communicated by developing an online value proposition (OVP), the Web equivalent of unique selling proposition (USP). In developing an OVP, managers should identify:
    • a clear differentiation of the proposition from competitors based on product features or service quality;
    • target market segments that the proposition will appeal to;
    • how the proposition will be communicated to site visitors and in all marketing communications (e.g., tag line);
    • how the proposition is communicated across different parts of the buying process; and
    • how the proposition will be delivered and supported by resources, internal and external.

  3. Brand Awareness - Annette Hamilton, the executive producer of ZDNet has been quoted as saying, "E-branding is more important [than e-commerce]. And it must come first. Because few people will buy your stuff--online or off--unless you are top of mind." Chuck Pettis asserts that in the new economy, "brands stand as comfort anchors in the sea of confusion, fear, and doubt."

    Both offline as well as online communications are needed for creating brand awareness of your e-gaming site. The main objective for much offline advertising is to promote the specific Web address (URL). However, the URL is just the beginning. The company also needs to highlight its online value proposition (OVP) and entice viewers to visit the site by offering special sales promotions and offers. Offline ads on TV, in magazines and newspapers, as well as billboard advertising can facilitate brand awareness. Referrals from offline sources could also be harnessed to create brand awareness.

    Online efforts at creating brand awareness typically involve search engines, reciprocal links, paid banners or sponsorships, and e-mail. Search engines and directories are the primary method of finding information about a company and its products. Over 80 percent of Web users state that they use search engines to find information. Ways to boost the position of your Web site in a search engine include appropriate title, insertion of meta tags, deciding on the frequency of occurrence of a word or phrase, fitting hidden graphic text, and sufficient links to and from your site.

  4. Speed - Strictly speaking, speed is one of the performance aspects of a Web site. However, its importance in Web transactions, particularly in e-gaming, warrants that speed be discussed as a separate category.

    In discussing the importance of speed, Allan Reddy and Rajesh Iyer observe, "Like an interstate highway at rush hour, the Internet has too many commercial Web sites trying to reach the public. When the highway is crowded, the computer's speed matters little; the Internet can still be slow to navigate." The 2001 survey of e-gamblers conducted by The River City Gambler Monitor ranks speed as the most important feature determining if gamblers are going to gamble on a new site. "The site features that gamblers say they 'must have' if they are going to gamble on a new site are those that provide a 'very fast, easy, and hassle-free online gaming experience,' followed by those providing security."

  5. Security - While several authors treat security and trust as synonymous, their manifestation in the gaming environment does differ. Security relates to user privacy and the leakage of sensitive information such as credit card information and the like. Security concerns revolve around activities related to junk-mail by e-marketing organizations; activities of Web-based advertisements that track usage history and preferences through cookies; privacy concerns over malicious programs that can obtain a person's credit information and personal files; privacy concerns over use and transfer of personal information such as MSN's tracking of all activities of their subscribers; and concerns over distribution of private information for purposes other than the reason for which the information was initially collected. Trust is somewhat of a broader construct, and relates to the perceived integrity and reliability of the site operator.

  6. Trust - In the digital economy, the single most important factor for customers choosing an on-line supplier is trust. Devoid of face-to-face contact, customers demand a lot of reassurance before they will part with personal details and preferences, let alone a credit card number. Trust is gauged by a number of factors such as the reputation of the site operator, site certificates, the operator's disclosure of gaming algorithms and payout ratios, the site design, and even contact details of the site provider. (For a detailed discussion of these and other factors instrumental in trust see, "Want Your On-Line Gaming Venture to Prosper? Put Trust In It to Grow," available at www.urbino.net.)

  7. Context - Context refers to the site's layout and design and it shapes the content of a Web site. The ambience of the site itself and how it functions has a significant impact on whether customers are satisfied or dissatisfied with their site visit. The context of a site can take many different forms, based on the relative emphasis on functional and aesthetic dimensions. The functional dimension refers to site layout and site performance.

    Site layout involves decisions such as site breakdown, the linking structure, and the navigational tools used in Web site design. Site performance deals with issues such as speed, reliability, platform independence, and usability. Aesthetics involves decisions in terms of the color scheme and the visual themes used in designing the site.

    The key to successful content design is "mastering" a voice that appeals to your most valued customers. The content of the Web site needs to be logically organized. Webmasters of e-gaming sites need to ask themselves the following questions: Is navigation located in the same place on each page of the Web site? Is navigation clearly recognizable as navigation? Are all links clearly labeled and is the destination of each link obvious? Is the meaning of each icon or image that is used for navigation clear to the target market?

  8. Service - One of the main benefits of the Internet is its capacity to provide live e-care, or customer service. The immediacy of the Web has raised people's service expectations, particularly in terms of the response time. This necessitates that round-the-clock service be made available to prospective and current customers, both on-line and through live toll-free telephone support.

    The core of service delivery hinges on the seamless integration of service channels--customers should never notice any differentiation in service quality, whether you deliver that service by e-mail, by phone or through other communication channels. Moreover, full use needs to be made of the Internet's technological capabilities that allow companies to personalize each virtual service encounter, thereby increasing the customer's value-perception of the relationship and driving up loyalty and sales.

    Poor service has the potential of undoing a brand's reputation with a single click by an irate customer. By the same token, superior customer service generates much-valued referrals and enhances customer retention rate.

  9. Individualization - Web technology enables you to offer each customer a unique and personalized experience. James Herman of NerveWire writes that personalization glues your customer to your Web site.

    The terms customization and personalization seem to be used interchangeably. In the strict sense, personalization refers to customization of information and options for a site customer at an individual level. Mass customization, on the other hand, involves providing tailored content to a group with similar interests. Personalization technology is easy enough to integrate and has been around for several years.

    Personalization is a strong incentive for a Web site visitor to return to a target site. Personalized sites are a reflection of an individual guest’s self image in much the same way as brands reflect the ideal persona. Personalization of a Web site translates into loyal customers.

  10. Experience - Profit, the Canadian magazine for entrepreneurs, surveyed several Canadian Web sites for its 1998 cover story, "Websites that Work." Looking at the outstanding success of sites such as Black Photo, Fear Itself Seasonings, and Richmond Savings Credit Union, the authors concluded, "Entertaining while you sell is the key to Web success."

    Companies that understand how to give their customers a whole new experience on their Web site see the Internet as lot more than just a facilitator of e-commerce. Experience builds brand awareness, drives new business, and significantly enhances customer loyalty.

    Pine and Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy, argue that goods and services are no longer enough to compete in today's commoditized world; companies have to stage experiences and guide transformations if they are to satisfy and retain their customers. An experience occurs when a company uses its Web site to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable and transformational event. The transformation elicitor must first understand customers' aspirations before it can hope to transform. This requires focused targeting and accurate understanding of the needs, aspirations, and unmet desires of the target market.

The 10 factors discussed in this article definitively determine the success of an e-gaming Web site. Virtual casino operators need to periodically evaluate how they are doing in relation to competitors on each of these dimensions. Furthermore, the need for assessing internal consistency and synergy across the ten dimensions can never be over-emphasized. An appraisal of a Web site's performance along these dimensions is now possible with a diagnostic instrument that I have designed. This instrument is called Performance Index of Gaming Site (PIGS).

What is PIGS?

PIGS is a reliable and valid instrument that allows virtual casino operators to assess how well their site performs in relation to their direct competitors. In contrast to previous measures of site quality such as server logs, consumed time per page or visit, site transactions, and Web traffic, PIGS focuses not on site efficiency but site effectiveness as perceived by the target market. This psychometrically sound customer-centric instrument measures site quality on multiple scales, designed solely for assessing online gaming sites. All previous measures (including SITEQUAL) look at general shopping sites, not gaming sites.

PIGS enables site operators to compute an overall site quality score, which can then be compared to the mean overall PIGS score for sites where respondents (from various market segments) have actually played. Data suggest that PIGS score for a patronized site differs considerably from the PIGS score for sites on which respondents had not played. Most importantly, PIGS allows the site operator to precisely determine which aspects of site strategy and design need urgent attention. At a time when online gaming is facing unprecedented turbulence, an instrument such as PIGS should prove indispensable for gauging the health and vitality of individual Internet gaming sites. Analysts at investment bank Merrill Lynch estimate gaming sites has dropped from around 1,800 to 1,400 this year, the first decline since online gaming began. It is clear as daylight that complacency in this business can be fatal. Mohamed al-Fayed and Damian Aspinall will readily attest to this!

Sudhir Kalé is Associate Professor of Marketing at Bond University in Australia. He is also a marketing trainer and consultant for several types of companies including gaming. Sudhir’s research on marketing, social psychology, and cross-cultural communication has been published in leading international journals. Top companies the world over have benefited from his holistic approach to issues in marketing and management. Sudhir’s e-mail address is Sudhir_Kale@Bond.edu.au. Address for correspondence: School of Business, Bond University, QLD 4220, Australia.