Articles & Interviews - 3rd Online Bingo Summit 2008
The 3rd Annual Bingo Summit.
One of the key indicators of the strength of the online bingo industry is the Annual Online Bingo Summit. Now into its 3rd year, the event is organised by Bullet Business and was held in London on the 17th and 18th of June 2008, at the Royal Garden Hotel. Once again I was there to take part in the two days of panels and discussion and get the feel of the issues important to the industry and how this has changed over the last year.
First of all I'll give a brief introduction to the event, followed by more in-depth features around what were in my opinion some of the standout concerns and themes over the two days. If you'd first like to take a look at last year's events, you can read the 2007 Online Bingo Summit coverage here.
If you needed any proof about the growth of the online bingo space, then this summit is a great pointer to the vibrancy of the market. The first summit in 2006 attracted 60 attendees. Last year's event saw that total rise to 180. This year there were 250 places at the event, and once again it was a sellout. The event pulls in a wide range of people in the industry, from around the world, representing all aspects of the online bingo. Over the two days there are panels on a wide range of subjects to do with the game, taking in legal aspects, new growth areas, innovative marketing, growing the business and day to day operations.
The exhibition hall.
Alongside the panels, it's a great opportunity to meet up with people from the industry. It's particularly good for me as I spend most of my time either talking to people down the internet or the telephone line. It was pleasant to meet up with fellow bingo writers like Nickie from Balls Up, Ben from Bingo Hideout, Scott from BingoPort and the team from Free Bingo. On the professional side it was also good to meet up with a range of people from affiliate managers, to bingo hall and online bingo owners. There's always plenty of gossip and behind the scenes information to be had and that's worth a ticket on its own. There's also an exhibition hall where you can see and discuss some of the payment and software options available.
As for the actual content of the summit, some areas of coverage in last year's event were not in evidence so much this time around and others were noticeable by their absence. Last year's event had a heavy leaning towards mobile bingo and the network vs standalone debate. These topics were barely touched upon this time. The one subject that came glaring through to me was that of bingo and its emergence as a TV format alongside the online format. As a topic for discussion it popped up time and time again, whilst barely registering back in September 2007.
There was less about the technology behind the game this time, and fewer payment methods were discussed. Europe was on the agenda again this time around, as were legal and licensing issues for operators and their marketing. Some of the sessions were very similar to those that run last year, so rather than duplicate coverage from last year, I'll skip over those areas and instead concentrate on the newer areas and some of my thoughts about what was covered.
I've grouped my coverage into a number of areas: you can read the more in-depth coverage by choosing the topic below. The articles are pretty long, so if you don't fancy reading them online, I've compiled them into one handy Word document that you can print off and read at your own leisure. You can download it here.
The Bingo Landscape Today
Online Bingo Power Panel.
There were a number of interesting statistics and figures given out over the two days, which help paint a picture of online bingo in the UK. It feels like a lot has changed in a very short time, and whilst there is still optimism in the growth of the game, a number of factors such as increased competition have slightly taken the bloom off the jubilant atmosphere at last year's event.
There were conflicting views about the extent of growth online bingo was yet to enjoy, and a range of interesting theories around what to expect next. In this article I want to pull together a number of these themes to help illustrate the (to pinch a term from the summit) landscape of online bingo in the UK and some trends across the different areas of the game such as marketing, technology and operations.
The Size Of The Market In The UK
The first most notable figure is the growth of online providers. The latest figures presented were of 243 sites online providing bingo, growing at a rate of roughly two new sites a week. In September 2007 that figure was around the 200 mark, and the summit before that, 150. These figures come from the UK Bingo portal Which Bingo. These 43 news sites represent an increase of approximately 25% from the amount of sites at the time of last year's summit. It's worth bearing this figure in mind as a pointer to how competitive the market has become with the increase in new sites.
The next set of figures comes from research carried out by the Gambling Commission as part of their quarterly review of player activity in gaming in the UK. It highlights a slight drop in online bingo players over the last couple of quarters, although there was some questioning of the results due to potential skew in the figures and the size of the Gambling Commission's survey (8,000 people).
As well as the figures taken from their survey, the Gambling Commission estimates that there are around 500,000 people in the UK playing online bingo. It's unclear how they arrived at these figures and if it includes players with multiple accounts, but overall that figure is almost double the figures mentioned in last year's summit of 250,000 people. There's some contradiction in the figures here as the Gambling Commission has seen a drop in players in its survey, so I'm not quite sure how that squares with the increase in players overall. But if the Gambling Commission's figures are correct and there's less players playing online bingo and more sites online providing the game, it shows how competitive the next year will be in the space.
As for operators, the recent figures supplied by Bingo Port's research has the turnover in online bingo estimated at £600 million, with profits to online bingo operators being around the £120 million mark. Whilst all these figures have some question over them, they help to give a good indication of the market today. In Peter Trinz of Parlay's session, an additional useful figure was thrown into the mix; they estimate that there's as many as 15,000 concurrent online bingo players at peak times every night.
The Perfect Bingo Storm
Warwick Bartlett's presentation.
In the Online Bingo Landscape session, Warwick Bartlett of the Global Betting and Gambling Consultancy used the analogy of the perfect storm to illustrate why bingo has become such a success during the last couple of years. He put the game's growth down to the influence of a number of factors that coincided in recent times and helped to drive the online bingo explosion.
Many of these factors are well known, and have been covered before in depth, but there were a couple of interesting new ones that can be added to that mix. Warwick stated these reasons as the prime drivers.
- The implementation of the UIGEA in the US forced many gaming operators to seek out new products and markets to explore.
- The introduction of the smoking ban in the UK.
- The penetration of cheap broadband in the UK.
- The change in legislation around the advertising of online bingo TV.
Alongside these historical reasons for the growth of the game, these were cited as a couple of new economic factors driving players to the online space.
- The high cost of fuel stopping people going to bingo clubs.
- The credit crunch meaning people want better value for money and avoiding the auxiliary costs, online bingo represents good value for money.
Warwick went on mention that the share of bingo in the online marketing space was still growing, driven by this perfect storm. However, he estimated that this growth would level out in coming years as the very simple nature of bingo would hinder its wider appeal, unlike sports betting which has a much more changing and varied nature due to the sporting and lifestyle events it follows. There was an estimation that the total bingo market would be worth around £1 billion by 2012, so there is still much to play for in the future.
This somewhat gloomy estimation on the game's future was in stark contrast with an earlier presentation given by Peter Trinz. In his presentation he talked about Parlay's belief that online bingo was yet to go mass market, and as a result the current success would pale compared to the potential growth and market for the game should it break into the mass market.
He used the technical concept of disruptive technology to back this up, talking about how the bingo was yet to reach this state where it became an everyday piece of culture / technology that a large portion of the population used regularly. This state of crossover could potentially be reached by a number of factors such as the convergence of the game on mobile, online and TV driving a mass take-up of the game. Another driver would be the emergence of bingo being offered as part of a big global brand like Amazon or eBay.
I'm not quite certain that bingo has this much chance of expansion in its current form. Whilst I can see where Peter Trinz was coming from in this respect, I think Warwick Bartlett's estimation is probably closer to the truth. That said, I'd love to be proved wrong in this. Given Parlay's continued expertise, and its own moves into the TV space, if anyone could potentially help bingo hit this prophesied high note, they would be one of the forerunners to achieve it.
New Markets And New Brands
The topic of brands was once again an important one. Continuing with themes from Peter Trinz's presentation was the idea that if the game's penetration into the mass market was set to grow, then big media brands would be one driver of new players, and entry into other channels such as TV would be another. He discussed how so far, online bingo was really only tapping into quite a small player pool, most of which were actually already bingo players. The potential for a big media partner or a TV show to drive a non-traditional bingo player online to try their game is huge.
The importance of hitting these non-traditional bingo players was touched upon in a number of the panels. A number of offline channels were mentioned as a means to promote the game and reach these new potential players. TV I'll talk about in the next article as it merits a page all of its own, but other channels are also available to promote and give a taste for the game: print media was one example given, sponsorship, and casting my mind back to last year, bingo was being taken into cinemas as well.
It's also important not to underestimate the impact of sports books moving into bingo. It was mentioned at one point that bingo was proving popular to sports book gamers as a side product to fill time between big sporting events and other timed events on the sites. The importance of brand in the sports book arena is another important draw for new bingo players.
Peter Trinz gives his presentation.
As was mentioned in a couple of the panels, the truly big win would be when a non-gaming brand introduced the game to a huge, non-traditional market. This would tie in with Peter Trinz's talk of that big crossover to the mass market. The potential to expand the player base if the likes of a brand like Coca Cola, Tesco, eBay or similar took steps into the market could potentially be the tipping point to take the game into the wider mass market.
As the market matures in this country, it's yet to be decided which of the trends is likely to win. The more downbeat view of a slowdown would seem to be the most likely given current economic conditions and the glut of online sites out there. The expectations of others during the summit would reinforce this. Simon Collins of Foxy Bingo mentioned they were expecting a 50% drop in growth during the next year, and the summit chairman Phil Fraser mentioned the slow down in the growth of the online bingo market, down to 3% per month from 10% per month the same time last year.
Overseas it's a different picture, and there was a lot of discussion around the European market. At one point it was mentioned that currently the market in countries like Spain, Italy and Scandinavia was like the UK circa 2004. This means there's still a lot of potential growth for countries who'd like to chew their way through the complicated legal and regulatory issues that addressing those regions would entail. The biggest growth of the game during the last year was in the Sweden, where online bingo had really taken off. In Spain the market continues to grow and is according to Peter Trinz a potentially bigger market for bingo, but due to various cultural and legal factors, the market is likely to be slower growing in the near future.
Given Parlay's position as a global provider, they're well placed to monitor what's happening in the international space. He went on to mention other countries as slowly emerging as worthwhile prospects for growth - Germany, France (but not until legal issues are cleared up) and Italy. Poland, The Baltics, Ukraine and Hungary were also mentioned as promising new territories. As for places to avoid for the time being, the US, Latin America and China were seen as difficult territories to aim for, and as in the case of the US, completely out of the game.
Consolidation And Two Bingo Tiers
The topic of consolidation popped up again a number of times during the sessions, as well as having one session devoted to the topic. One interesting theory put forward during the Online Bingo Power Panel was the idea of the bingo space separating into two tiers in terms of the sites online. The top tier would feature the heavy weights such as Gala, Foxy, Mecca and Sun Bingo and the other smaller players would make up the lower tier where it was difficult to compete with the bigger players. This idea was touched upon in other sessions as the future of the space was compared to the current poker market where several big players currently control the majority of the business.
Simon Collins gives his presentation.
During Simon Collins' presentation on Foxy Bingo, the idea of two tiers was reflected in the data he gave from BingoPort about the most recognised sites. The results were 1. Gala Bingo, 2. Mecca Bingo, 3. Sun Bingo, 4. Foxy Bingo and 5. Ladbrokes Bingo. These would certainly be amongst my choice for the top tier of online sites. In my estimation as well, based on the figure of 15,000 concurrent players at peak times, these five sites would have around half to two thirds of all the online players on them at any one time.
The need to consolidate is still an important one, but interestingly in the online bingo space, it was mentioned at one point that it wasn't really worth many online sites consolidating with each other. Given the small pool of players for the game, and that many players have accounts at multiple sites, the prospect of buying another site for its database of players becomes less appealing. There were cases for consolidation as well, but in a more vertical manner, for instance, online bingo sites consolidating by joining up with other online games and lifestyle betting partners.
There was also the prospect of further vertical integration with sites consolidating a number of outside services into one base of operation, so for instance a bingo provider buying and integrating its own software and payment solutions. In the consolidation panel, it was mentioned that many outside firms are underestimating the revenues that online bingo can bring in, especially in the field of sports books. It was mentioned that the average online bingo player is a far more reliable and steady source of income compared to other online gaming genres. With this in mind, it was mentioned to watch out for further consolidation between sports books and online bingo providers.
This year all talk of consolidation came firmly with talk of the C word, convergence. As well as online, there was the idea that TV, retail, mobile and print could come together to provide a compelling bingo offering. As I've already mentioned previously, it was believed that it would be especially powerful if that convergence came with a new non-gaming brand behind it. There were also ideas floated that online bingo could consolidate itself more with the retail game and find ways of tying up between the two still very separate entities.
Market State Conclusion
So, there we have it, the market is still very buoyant and still growing, albeit at a smaller rate. Now, if Parlay are right and bingo goes mass market then it could make for an interesting couple of years. Given the coverage of the game on TV, and new shows springing up tied into the bingo format, this could just happen. That said, if more and more sites come to the table and the player base doesn't increase significantly, there's going to be less to go around for everyone. The real winners will be the big brands, which are set to keep their market share and further their exposure via various 'convergent' means.
But, there's still space in the marketplace for the right sort of product to make a big impression. Wink Bingo was held up as an example of such a newcomer on several occasions, but for every one that manages to succeed like Wink, there's another 10 that just sort of sit there and do little more than exist. Going forward, succeeding in online bingo will increasingly be about differentiation and brand.
The market is maturing, but it's nowhere near the top of the hill yet. In my estimation, whilst things might slow down slightly, the next 12 months will see a continued increase in both players and sites offering the game. Like in retail bingo, I know there's a big untapped audience out there (and I don't just mean men - more later) that's wanting to try the game online and no doubt with the right driver, will try it and also become regular bingo players. The question will be increasingly be, who can get their attention first and profit from it.
TV - The Next New Bingo Thing
Stuart McCarthy's presentation.
There was one topic that had a lot of time devoted to it across the two days, and remarkably was barely mentioned at the last summit. The topic was online bingo's involvement with television. This covers a couple of different topics, firstly the use of TV as a means of delivering bingo to both paying and non-paying players and secondly and more briefly the explosion of online bingo advertising on TV.
Stuart McCarthy of Sky Bingo gave a fascinating panel on bingo on TV, but the topic resonated throughout a number of the panels. Similar elements were picked out time and time again, to the point it seems that bingo on TV is maybe a bit of the 'latest big thing'. As to its real potential, it depends on what you want out of it as an operator and whether or not the right format can be achieved and subscribed to by the audience.
There was a lot of talk about convergence over the two days, in the sense of offering bingo on multiple platforms. Having worked in interactive television for the BBC myself in the past, I felt like I was on old and familiar ground. The levels of excitement in the online bingo industry about TV is eerily similar to the excitement there was for it back at the BBC. But before people embrace the convergence ideal too much due to their current enthusiasm, they can take parallels from what happened in the media.
For existing broadcast TV, convergence is now little more than a footnote, despite piling lots of money into some excellent content and concepts. Given what's available, people still in the main like things the old way best - as in just watching TV. Further to that, convergence has led to compartmentalisation of the various elements of delivery (red button, mobile, web) and the uptake of cross platform content has always been pretty uninspiring. There are exceptions, but generally it's not that popular. Convergence has been hindered by what the viewers actually want and partially because of the limitations of the technology. In my opinion the bingo industry could do well to learn from the last 6 or 7 years in the broadcast media, and temper its own expectations about TV as a potential platform.
Given all the press and enthusiasm, it's easy to mistake TV bingo as the next big thing for the industry to move into, but personally I'm not so convinced. I can see it succeeding on some levels, but there are a lot of ifs and buts alongside that. That said, I will try to pull together a number of the different topics and strands relating to bingo on TV in this one piece, featuring information gleaned from all the panels and some stuff mentioned outside of the panels.
TV Bingo - Its Forms, Purposes, Pitfalls And Potential
In some ways, TV is a good medium for bingo, and can help to gain the game exposure and deliver new converts to the game. Stuart McCarthy of Sky Bingo puts this down to some aspects of 'by association' credibility that TV lends to bingo, such as a perception of scale and integrity. Alongside these positive aspects, other pluses include the size of the potential TV audience, which lends itself to big jackpots, exciting visuals. There are positive benefits for the viewers also; gaining a sense of participation and excitement that online bingo is a bit weak at offering.
The game has taken many forms on TV, ranging from the top production values of ITV's Bingo Night Live, to the relatively cheap appeal of something like Bingo Joy's offering. Depending on which business model is chosen, TV offers a number of positive business incentives for an online bingo operator. Primarily it is a means of generating new revenues and players outside of the insular online world. Secondary to the business aspect, there is also the added benefits of brand recognition and creating a buzz. For those offering free TV bingo like ITV currently is, it's a tool for introducing new players to the game, and then converting them to members at their own online bingo site.
ITV's Bingo Night Live was generally seen as pretty much the closest to a main stream crossover product, despite not having a real revenue generating aspect to it beyond recruiting new players to their online bingo site. The show has been a bit of a hit in the time slot it occupies. It's been averaging 250,000 viewers per night in its first week, and according to the non disclosing conversation Stuart McCarthy had with people from ITV Bingo, it's been a very successful acquisition tool for the site.
Personally, looking at the players online at the ITV Bingo site I'd question that. They may have picked up lots of sign ups for their bingo, but the amount of players on the site and prizes are fairly lackluster compared to other bingo sites and services without the driver of a glamorous nightly show.
The paid for model is the one more likely to be of interest to the average online bingo sites. There are a number of examples out there, most notably the Big Box Bingo show, Gala Bingo and Bingo Joy. Big Box Bingo is integrating itself with online bingo, but initially it was a very similar offering to ITV's Bingo Night with the added layer of actually purchasing tickets. Gala Bingo's channel is 24 hours a day bingo, and as a result very expensive to run.
For operators choosing the satellite channel option, there are a number of things to consider. The location of the channel on the EPG can be detrimental to the success of a channel. Gala Bingo and Big Box Bingo are both down in the 800s, an area not often visited by the average viewer. Bingo Joy is in a better position, but maybe hampered by its lack of production values. There is also a big cost attached to having shows on TV. It was estimated that Gala Bingo's TV channel costs £4 -5 million to run each year. It was noted that Mecca Bingo had its own TV channel but shut it down due to the cost.
It also looks like things will not be easy for bingo on TV. There is currently a review going on by Ofcom surrounding whether gaming on TV should be classified as teleshopping. The feeling at the summit was that this was most likely to be the case. This would effectively pitch any operator wanting to get bingo onto TV against the likes of QVC and the other shopping channels. There are certain limits on the amount of teleshopping time available to broadcasters, and given the potential commercial difference in gains between traditional teleshopping and bingo, it could become very difficult to get bingo onto some channels.
There are also a number of issues around what TV bingo actually is by legal definition. It's not true bingo in the sense of the retail game (as arguably online bingo is not). Instead the game on TV is a glorified lottery: it's not played live in the way bingo is and there's no skill element (stopping the caller) involved either. In Australia their own National Bingo Night show was exposed on a leading current affairs programme as being rigged, and in its small print it goes as far as to say viewers are not playing bingo but entering a trade promotion lottery. If it was decided that this type of game was in fact a lottery in UK law, it would find itself in a lot of trouble and unable to continue.
With all this in mind, Stuart McCarthy ran through the existing shows with an aim to highlighting which of the formats would be a winning one in terms of mass market appeal and cost benefits to the operator; the Holy Grail to use his terminology. If you haven't already guessed, the answer was none of them. Each model has its own inherent flaws and issues, none of the shows yet really bridge that gap of true convergence and true crossover to the mass market.
Now, both Stuart and I agree on what would constitute the winning format for bingo on TV. That would be a show with a prime time Saturday night slot here in the UK, presented by some top-flight celebrities (Ant and Dec in Stuart's presentation). This is something I mentioned here back when National Bingo Night first aired in America, so it was nice to see that feeling echoed by someone in a position to actually do something about it.
But Stuart went a bit further than what I had in mind: for him this prime time weekend show would be the Holy Grail, but it would also add a paid element into the mix. Unlike the free aspect of National Bingo Night and Bingo Night Live, the pay-to-play model would be that of Big Box Bingo or Bingo Joy. I think the show would be a hit without a paid aspect, and possibly like ITV's show act as a funnel to online operators. Actually buying the tickets first could hamper a show of this nature in my opinion, especially as it would be going up against the National Lottery. But, as this is mythical Holy Grail is yet to appear, it's hard to know how it would pan out.
International Shows And Cultural Differences
It's worth taking a look at the international scene to see how that has fed into the UK's new range of bingo shows, channels and multimedia offerings. It also gives an interesting insight into the potential audiences and exposure the right proposition could bring. Warwick Bartlett mentioned that TV bingo was a mainstay in Eastern Europe. He went further to give examples of countries where it's popular and the sort of figures these shows can draw.
For instance, in Serbia a weekly bingo show attracts 2 million viewers each week whilst in Macedonia 1 million viewers play TV bingo each week. In Russia they hold the world record for the biggest bingo game ever, played on TV with 3 million players who bought 7.6 million bingo tickets and played for $1 million. The national lottery providers run the shows in these countries, and Warwick went on to state that maybe bingo would be a great product for Camelot to try.
Peter Trinz and Stuart McCarthy both mentioned the USA show National Bingo Night and its Australian spin off. Interesting points were raised both about figures and the cultural differences of the US show with the UK TV image of bingo. First up, viewing figures for the USA version of National Bingo Night averaged around 6.1 million per show. Over 22 million tickets were downloaded as well. Currently Bingo Night Live is pulling in around 250,000 viewers a night, which given its late night slot is pretty remarkable. These shows in other territories give an idea of where UK TV bingo could be with the Holy Grail format mentioned earlier.
The point of the cultural difference was also interesting. Peter Trinz talked about the scale and razzmatazz of National Bingo Night, the big RNG, the auditorium like set, the spectacle. He then compared that with a still from a UK Bingo advert that featured an old lady sat under a hairdryer playing bingo on her laptop. It was very telling. If a UK show could pick up the sort of glitz and excitement of the US show, it could make for some great entertainment and help to change the stereotypical vision the mainstream audience has of the game, and that this sort of ad panders to.
The Online Bingo TV Advertising Explosion
Whilst there was this interest around TV bingo as a delivery platform, there was also talk about using television as a means of promoting online bingo sites. If you've spent any time watching TV in the UK recently, you can't help but notice that online bingo is everywhere. September the 1st 2007 opened a floodgate of online bingo adverts on the TV thanks to relaxed laws brought in as a part of the 2005 Gambling Act. There had previously been a small number of adverts for UK online bingo prior to that, but the real push into TV came from that date.
Foxy Bingo has been one of the leading advertisers online, and as well as their distinctive adverts, they've also made their name sponsoring the Jeremy Kyle show on ITV. Simon Collins of Foxy talked about Foxy's TV advertising in a couple of the sessions and spoke about how competitive it was becoming to advertise on TV. The cost per acquisition (CPA) has been rising generally for operators, and whilst TV adverting helps to build brand and gain exposure, it wasn't just the brand advertising that benefited from it.
At one point the relative cheapness of daytime TV was mentioned, and its effectiveness for targeting a very specific female demographic in the north of the country. Personally I get really hacked off with the overly feminine adverts on TV. If you've followed my blog here at the site, you'll see it's a particular pet peeve of mine. Unfortunately (for moaners like me) we're likely to see a lot more advertising like this on TV, focusing on exactly this female demographic. That can only mean one thing in my opinion, the idea that bingo is a women's game will continue to be reinforced, despite compelling evidence to contrary, but more on that in the next article.
Understanding And Misunderstanding The Audience
The exhibition hall.
Surely, the most important element of any online bingo site is the players. There was a lot of talk about them during the summit, how to get their money, how to keep them playing, how to entertain them and more. In this article I want to cover some of this player focused discussion. You'll have to indulge me here, but I'm also going to have a bit of a moan about what I personally feel are some big misunderstandings and assumptions coming from within the online bingo industry.
I really feel that within the industry there is a certain mindset that is quite closed, and very focused on what online bingo is about. This is understandable, because above all else, bingo is a commercial enterprise and like any commercial enterprise it forces a certain mindset and narrow field of view. That said, some things said at the summit give me the impression that people in the online industry are not really seeing their players in as wondrous a light as they should be.
A Different Perspective And Make Up To Retail Bingo
From what I've seen of the people working in the online industry, there's one missing element that I think really hampers them from a bingo perspective and that is that most of them aren't really that interested in bingo. Now, that may seem like a bit of a startling proclamation, but hear me out here and I'll try to explain. If you work in retail bingo, you're automatically forced into direct contact with the game, the players, the culture and all that side of it that online bingo workers don't deal with (excepting chat hosts).
As well as this divorced position from the social aspect of the game and its players, the actual demographic working in online bingo is very different to the typical demographic working in retail bingo. There are some sweeping generalisations here, but broadly speaking, the majority of staff working in bingo halls up and down the country come from the lower ranks of society. This is in sharp contrast with the business suited, more educated and financed people who work in online bingo. This gives rise to a different dynamic of motivation and approaches to business, and it's my belief that in some cases online bingo sometimes suffers as a result of this more business motivated mindset.
This is not to belittle anyone working in either field, on the contrary, if online operators become aware of this different dynamic they have to their players, they can react to the challenge of trying to improve things for their customers, without whom, they have no business. I'm lucky in some ways as I've had experience working in retail as well as having this glimpse into the way online business works. I personally believe the two separate entities should strive to be closer to each other than they currently are. With that in mind, there is going to be a lot more personal opinion involved in this piece alongside information about the summit.
I Am A Bingo Player, Not Just A Number
It's telling that the number of people at the summit who actually regularly play bingo is very small. Of the people I spoke to, several admitted they don't actually like bingo, others said they don't play it and others seemed fairly dismissive of your average bingo player, relying on easy assumptions and misguided profiling. Last year the question was asked how many people in the room had actually played bingo, and less than half the people raised their hands. I don't think a similar straw poll was taken this year, but I'm fairly certain the split would have been the same.
I think this removal from direct involvement with the customer has led to complacency in some quarters and also some disdain towards punters. At one point one speaker mentioned he wasn't sure he wanted a nanny who played bingo online looking after his children. In another session online bingo players were likened to monkeys in a cage that would mindlessly spend their money when prodded with the right stimulus.
Now, retail bingo and online bingo both exist to make money; there is no denying they are both the same in this respect. In my opinion, the making money part seems to be the main focus of online bingo, sometimes at the expense of what actually makes bingo in a hall fun and entertaining. The whole set up of the game in the online environment is to encourage playing and spending without limits. How do I mean? Well just imagine some of the stuff that happens in online bingo happening in a real bingo hall...
The regulars are all sat down with their books, waiting to play when in walks a new player. The manager of the club gives them £10 free just to sit down and play. The regulars look on in disgust. The new player tries to spread his cards out in front of him, but there's not much room on the top of the table as there's a fruit machine and roulette wheel slap bang in front of him.
The next night, this new player comes in again, this time to pay to play. He goes up and buys his tickets; instead of free money he's given a match bonus and gets twice as many books. The regulars look on in disgust. Now, this new player is no mug, everyone else in the hall has one book to play on. He goes up and buys 10 books to play at once. He's not daft though; he's playing in the hall next door as well! You can understand why the regulars are a bit miffed; maybe they should start buying three or four strips to keep up. The club manager rubs his hands in glee, with the higher par fees he's charging everyone tonight, he's raking it in.
Then one of the regulars wins, a line. They've just won £25 and it's made their night. They go to leave the hall but are told they can't take the money with them as the minimum cash-out is £30. Elsewhere, a new player wins £200 on their deposit match cards and goes to leave. Likewise they're told they can't, the manager takes them to one side and tells them they have to spend their £200 eight times before they are able to leave the building with it. They're kindly pointed back into the hall where rows of shiny slots that take up to £10 a credit to play are waiting for them ominously. Then an announcement goes over the PA: starting from tomorrow, the 5 players who spend the most amount of money in the next week will win £10 each, so get spending!
Ok, can you see my point? Online bingo is set up in a way to maximise the potential money the operator can gain from it with little regard for the quality of the experience for the player. This wouldn't happen in the real world but it's easy to get away with in the online world as the operator has no personal contact with the player. It's fair to say that not all sites operate like this, places like the Tombola powered Sun Bingo have tried to eschew these methodologies in favour of a more retail type of game. They understand the retail world and have tried to incorporate its dynamics into their offering. The majority of other online bingo sites are far from doing similar.
At one point on a panel on bingo software, one operator asked why the maximum number of tickets allowed per game was only 99? The reply was along the lines of it was easy to set it up to make it more. Personally, what I would have liked to have heard is 'how can we limit the amount of tickets available per game to make it fairer for everyone?' but I don't think that's a question I'm ever likely to hear at the summit!
If the practices that online bingo halls used were tried out in a real club, there would be blood on the Party Bingo boards. Online players should be treated the same as retail players. Their money will be taken, but the players will have an entertaining night as a result and not be harried into spending money they don't want to by in your face paraphernalia in the game window, like slots and casino games.
In fact, I 'd go one further and suggest that online bingo operators spend a day or two a week working in the retail space. Some do occasionally send their staff out for the odd game, but for me that's not enough. You need to eat, drink and sleep bingo for a period of time to really get the feel of the culture and intricacies of the game and the way people play in the real world. Obviously the personal aspect can't really be replicated online, but there are other ways to make players feel welcome and entertained.
It'll be interesting to see if online bingo is able to get over this need to make people spend money and try and offer some entertainment and personal service in the same way the retail version is able to. There were some glimmers of hope during the summit; a couple of times it was mentioned that it was important for players to win as much as it was to lose. There was also talk of the appeal of jackpots for players, and the need to make them achievable. This is another positive move to my mind that will benefit the players.
What About The Men?
Over the last couple of years I've devoted more than a few words to online bingo's insistence on painting itself as a women's game. The summit raised this bugbear of mine once more, and a number of panels touched on the subject of online bingo's (incorrectly skewed) demographics. Fortunately there were also some positive messages and figures that support my argument and hopefully could be used as proof positive to snap the industry out of its misguided notion that a narrow demographic of females is the best place to market to and design their sites around.
A number of sites have already got the message and make a point of marketing in a way that attracts male and female players. They make sites that look good without resorting to big swathes of pink and cartoon lady characters and as a result they have sites where there are a large number of men playing as well as women. For those that don't try to make their sites gender neutral it's not surprising that they have a high percentage of female players vs male players, and herein lies the crux of the problem.
Now, these sites with a heavy female slant always lean heavily on the general figures given out that about 85% of online bingo players are women, and that a very specific niche of women are their ideal audience. So, what do they do as a result of these figures? They target this specific sector mercilessly and build their sites and brand around attracting that audience. Once again I'll use the analogy of a real hall, and it's when you go to a real hall you soon see that none of this gender targeting happens. Colour schemes are bright and attractive without being feminine, most of the decor and posters are gender neutral, there is no emphasis on one sex or the other.
Why doesn't the gender bias of the online bingo world happen in the retail world? Well, it would be crazy for a retail club to actively behave in a manner that would exclude half of their potential audience. Retail bingo knows it wants both men and women at their clubs because at the end of the bingo session, if there are more players it makes more money. When I worked in bingo there was always a good strong showing from the blokes. Okay, there was still a skew toward the women that was probably two-thirds to three-quarters women to men, but the point is, men do enjoy bingo. When they go to a club, they aren't made to feel like they are in a female environment.
This in turn gives men the confidence to get other men to go to bingo with them. Increasingly I see groups of blokes at the bingo hall I play at. For years there have been blokes going to bingo on their own or with their partners. In fact I have often seen workmen going into the bingo hall for the lunchtime session, specifically so they can have a cheap lunch and a pint whilst they also get the entertainment of a game on their break. If the club's decor and environment is conducive to attracting males, they will come with little care of being called names or pointed at.
However, online this isn't the case - sites like 888 Ladies, Party Bingo, Foxy Bingo etc. all have an environment that's attractive to females whilst repellent to men. These notions and design choices have been in evidence since online bingo took to the web. And here's another place that online bingo makes assumptions about the tastes of its customers. There are plenty of women out there who find these stylings as off-putting as the men - and if a certain, more educated / professional female is the new growth area in bingo, why on earth would they find a pool full of pink balls or a nagged housewife an appealing image to get them interested in bingo?
And talking about the figures that point to a high percentage of 20-45 year old females playing online bingo, where did they come from? Were the sites involved in the calculation of the figures showing a strong female bias in their marketing and design, and were these factors taken into account? The truth is I don't know, but personally I think these factors were a big influence in how these stats turned out. What's more, these stats have now become a self-fulfilling prophecy and are continuing to drive online bingo to brand itself in the main as a women's game. As it is they're effectively shutting men out of the equation and continuing to feed on this ludicrous notion that to make money it has to target and brand itself for a certain type of woman only.
Now, you just need to take a step back from the figures and notions that the UK online bingo industry has so melded itself to and take a look elsewhere at sites that are doing it right, and the figures and facts from other bingo related areas. So, let's do just that. I'll start with Sun Bingo (in its current form) and look at them. They offer bingo in a fairly gender neutral site design. Their TV and print marketing shows both men and women playing bingo. They are the biggest online bingo site. At last year's summit they revealed their split of players was nearly 50 / 50 male to female. Any ideas why this might be?
Irene Gahan's presentation.
Not convinced? Ok, switch forward to this year's summit. During Irene Gahan's presentation on Rehab Bingo she talks about how they've marketed the game in Ireland. Rehab Bingo is going great guns over there, and she notes that Ireland is a country with no real tradition in retail bingo, let alone online bingo. Now, their site, like The Sun's is pretty gender neutral, despite being fronted by a lady. They've been marketing their site in Ireland in a number of ways, most notably with the sponsorship of a top-flight football team. She reveals that Rehab Bingo's player split is 45% male to 55% female players. Once again I ask, any idea why this might be?
If you're still not convinced, then let's take a look to Europe. This figure popped up last year, and once again this year. In Spain, more men play bingo online than women. There are some cultural differences around why this is, but still, it shows you men like to play bingo. Sweden's state run Svenska Spel also has more male bingo players than female. Outside of the summit just last week a Liverpool Echo feature on the Bingo Night Live statistician Nicola Dixon quoted her thus, "The figures are great and the number of people registering to play on the ITV website is going up all the time - my husband Edward’s a fire-fighter and all his mates are addicted to it." I've bolded the important passage there for those UK online bingo sites that might have skimmed over it.
So, this begs the question. If men like playing bingo, spend money on bingo and are wanting to play bingo, then why are so many UK operators making it hard for them to do so? With all the talk about overseas markets and new markets, maybe some of these sites should concentrate on this UK based market that's largely being ignored and in some ways, completely alienated from the game. If online bingo operators would rather not take the male pound, then they are welcome to send it this way. I'm hoping a few offenders may read this, and if that's the case, get off your arses and do something about it before your sexist marketing makes it impossible for men to feel comfortable whilst having a game of bingo.
High Rolling Big Stakes At Odds With Bingo
There was some discussion over the two days about player protection and responsibility towards the players. The industry is good at offering ways to help problem gamblers, in some ways more so than in the retail world. There was talk of pooling information on problem gamblers between sites as well as mechanisms and procedures in helping players exclude themselves and get help.
Along the theme of finding and stopping problem gamblers, David Nordberg talked about online bingo in Sweden. It was interesting to note that they have a high instance of problem players (around 10%) in Sweden. They have tried to actively help their players help themselves by giving those that volunteer an artificially intelligent software called Player Scan which watches a gamer's spending and alerts them when they are going out of control. It would be interesting to see this sort of software brought to the UK market, especially given certain sectors of the tabloid press looking to slate online gaming at every opportunity.
It's good to see this level of concern in the industry, but I still have some concerns about the way online bingo is presented that possibly encourages players to spend more than they should. I've already touched on this, but traditionally bingo is a pretty low stakes game in the retail world. Online bingo likes to portray itself as good value, but at the same time it offers slots and side games that have a variance of pricing that could potentially cause problems to any potential problem gamblers at the site. I've seen slots that cost £20+ per spin on bingo sites, and to me that's very much at odds with the low stakes nature of traditional bingo, as is allowing players to buy 100s of tickets in one game.
Personally I think that if online bingo wants its responsibility to its players to be taken seriously, it should look at toning these sorts of high stakes games down in the future. These sorts of high cost side games might sit fine at online casino sites, but bingo is not casino, not by a long chalk. Unfortunately, as many in the industry know, like retail a large portion of the profits come from these side games. It's not an area I'm hopeful in seeing improvements in, but whilst there are people out there like Tombola who avoid such side games, they are very much in the minority.
It's a real shame there wasn't a specific panel on the area of problem gamblers. There was a booth set up in the exhibition space with a representative from Gambling Therapy, but he didn't seem very busy during the times I was out on a tea break. The lack of interest in the booth was a bit worrying, especially as Gambling Therapy is sponsored by a number of big name gaming enterprises. I hope next year there will be some more focused discussion around the topic of problem gamblers and bingo and ways to limit spending on the sites can at least be floated and discussed openly.
The One Missing Payment Method
The PaySafeCard presentation.
Finally, like most of what I've written here, it's from the perspective of a bingo hall player in the online world. This is something I mentioned last year, but I still believe that there's still one key enabler to get traditional retail players online that has not been utilised, and that's a retail payment solution that works online. This summit there was only one presentation given about a single payment method, as opposed to last year where there were three payment methods featured.
PaySafeCard gave a presentation on their over the counter payment method that can be used to fund bingo accounts. Basically, you can go to one of the suppliers, buy a prepaid card and then add it to your bingo account. The more payment methods made available to players the better for operators. There were figures given around the number of people who don't have a credit card or similar, and they were quite interesting. In parts of Europe the figure without a credit card is around 67%. In the UK 70% of the demographic groups D and E don't have a credit card, and a large number from those groups enjoy bingo in the retail environment.
On the face of it, PaySafeCard and similar prepaid cards offer a good alternative to attract both the groups without cards and those who may be wary of using a card online. However, for my money there is one fatal flaw. Whilst it's easy to get money onto the cards and then onto the sites, it's not easy to get it back off again if you have a win. Typically you need some sort of bank account or card to be able to get any winnings out of the account, which for me defeats the purpose of using them.
What's still missing and very much needed is a system that allows players to do what on the face of it seems a very simple thing. Basically, what would lure many players online would be the ability to walk to a till, pay their money and then load it into the bingo site of their choice. So far this can be done, but it's the second part that's the problem. In the event of a win by the players, they get a voucher they can take from the bingo site, walk into the same retail location and get paid the money directly back to them, no ID required, no card or anything. That I think would be the ideal scenario for a lot of potential players out there.
It amazes me someone like Gala or Mecca Bingo haven't managed to implement a system like this yet. I think it could be the ideal way for them to encourage some of their more reticent users to go online and try the game. One bingo hall manager I've spoken to on this subject mentioned he's been looking for a system that can do just that himself, as it would be just the thing to get certain elements in his club to try the game online. Let's see if anyone can make this leap before the next summit comes around.
Bingo Awards, The Network Debate, Affiliates, Legal And Europe
In this final section, I wanted to briefly mention some of the other themes that caught my attention from the summit. There were a number of sessions that were very similar to sessions last year, unsurprisingly as in some areas there has been very little change since September 2007. Whilst still valuable, I won't go into too much depth here as you can always refer back to my coverage of last year's event.
The Online Bingo Awards
This year saw the inaugural 1st Online Bingo Awards held as a part of the summit. The shortlist was announced before the event and the results voted on by summit attendees during the first day.
This represented the first ever industry specific awards ceremony for online bingo. The ceremony was held on the Tuesday night following the first day's summit activity. The awards were presented and compered by the 2002 Bingo Caller Of The Year Peter Lewis (who coincidentally used to call in my old home club). Peter put on a good show and was a very entertaining compere.
The results were as follows:
Online Bingo Operator Of The Year: Foxy Bingo
Best Online Bingo Portal: Which Bingo UK
Best Newcomer: Paddy Power Bingo
Best Affiliate Programme: Income Access
Online Bingo Software: Parlay
Best Marketing Campaign: Foxy Bingo
Innovation: Parlay / Bingo Bets
Peter Lewis presenting the Online Bingo Awards.
Firstly, it's great to see online bingo get its own awards to give it the recognition in the gaming world that it deserves. Normally online bingo is lumped in with the other online gaming awards, but I think now it's mature enough to demand its own. Personally there are some concerns about the way the awards were voted on. There are some disadvantages that maybe make it a bit unfair. Some companies have large groups of people at the summit who are naturally going to vote for their own company.
Also, in some cases it surprised me to see the nominations, and it surprised me even more to see the winners. For example, Income Access won the best affiliate programme, which was a real surprise as they only have one bingo site on their network, and it's a dollars based one that's not well known in the UK. Bingo Program is another that popped up in there, and has also won previous industry awards, but I'm yet to find an affiliate who works with it and rates it.
But still, I do tend to be overly picky in these sorts of things. It'll be no surprise then that most of the things I voted for in the awards didn't come in, but the good point is it wasn't down to me, it was down to a cross section of people working in the industry, so there is some balance somewhere down the line. Overall it's good press for the industry, and something to aspire to for online bingo operators hoping to make it on the list in next year's awards.
The Network Debate - Gone Now?
One of the most striking things for me compared with the amount of talk the subject got last year was the lack of discussion on the standalone vs network debate. There was very little mention of the benefits of joining a network, and it seems that most of the new sites hitting the space do so as part of a network. There is still room in the marketplace for the odd standalone site to make its mark, as Wink Bingo has done, but they are becoming less frequent and less viable.
With the vast majority of new sites hitting the market place being on some network or other, it would seem that the network model is the winner. But, as Wink Bingo has shown, there are benefits to stepping outside of the networks whilst still using their software. Maybe the next debate should be around how network sites and white labels can claw back some control of what they're able to offer to consumers. The Wink Bingo success is firm proof of the benefits of taking such a stance. Given the bland sameness of many networked sites, allowing them some free rein to develop their own personality could just be the real saving grace for many of them.
The Bingo Affiliates Panel.
The use of bingo affiliates was discussed in one dedicated panel, and was further mentioned during the summit. With such a small part of the summit dedicated to affiliate activity, it was good to see so many bingo affiliates in attendance. There were a good number more affiliates this year than at last year's event. For dedicated bingo affiliates (like myself) there isn't really any event that covers just the affiliate side of promoting the game. Given the growth in both good and bad bingo affiliate sites, this could maybe be a subject that demands its own gathering in the future.
The main panel on the subject of affiliate marketing featured a number of bingo affiliate publishers and programmes. Given the sort of detail that could be gone into around affiliate marketing, the debate was pretty basic and only really had time to cover some pretty straightforward ground. There were similarities with last year's panel, and it seems that not really a lot has changed since then. Affiliates still have the same gripes about the programmes they work with, and online bingo operators still have the same concerns about some of the practices that bingo affiliates use.
On a wider note there still seems to be some enmity towards the work that affiliates do with bingo programmes. I don't think it's an understatement to stress that if you're launching a new site, affiliates can go a long way to making or breaking it for you. Once again I'll point to Wink Bingo as an example. They came on the scene with the strongest affiliate reward I've ever seen. The first few months there wasn't any site not promoting them as a result, and this has contributed a large amount to their success. There is increasing awareness that a good affiliate can be a good cost effective means of customer acquisition, but it's not all good news.
For me, from some quarters there still seems to be the notion of affiliates as being a necessary evil. In the opening panel, affiliates were cited as one reason why operator's profits were being cut. In the wild, there are still a large number of providers with affiliate programmes that are less than user friendly and completely under resourced. Others show their lack of enthusiasm for affiliates with uncompetitive offers and strict terms and conditions. Without a willingness to respond at the same level as the quality programmes in the marketplace, these unwilling programmes are missing a great opportunity to gain new partners and customers.
From the panel there were requests for affiliate programme operators to improve their approaches to affiliates in some cases. It was mentioned that affiliate schemes needed to realise that most affiliates run their business as just that, and each has a different business model, and what works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other.
From the affiliate point of view it was interesting to note that operators were finding it more and more difficult to get onto some bingo portals due to the sheer demand for slots. It was also mentioned that affiliates could act as a filter between players and bingo operators, and how some affiliates would not publicise certain services due to the poor quality service they've got from them. Personally this is something I believe all bingo affiliates should actively participate in, testing the sites they promote to see if they offer a good level of service before they advertise them to their readers / users.
In the consolidation session there was talk of the consolidation between online bingo affiliates. Unlike the online bingo world, there has been very little of this consolidation taking place in the affiliate space. To date I only know of one such consolidation, but for reasons of non-disclosure I can't mention where that has happened. Promisingly for online affiliates, there was talk of operators looking to purchase high quality affiliate portals and brands. Given the ingenuity of most affiliates, this sort of sideways promotion and acquisition could turn out quite lucrative for both parties.
Legal Issues - White Lists And Jurisdictions
The Legal Panel.
Following on from the implementation of the 2005 Gambling Act in September last year, there has been little new to consider. There's information on last year's legal panel in last year's articles, so you can follow them up there if it's of interest. There's also information around the site about white list licensing, so once again I won't go into it here. I do need to update my lists here, because in the intervening time since I last updated my white list page, a number of operators have since gained a white list license. This is a good sign: now 99% of what I'd consider the main UK focused site are legally licensed in an approved jurisdiction.
And speaking of white listing, there was a presentation given by representatives of the two local non-UK areas of Alderney and The Isle of Man. Robin Le Provost of Alderney Gaming was involved in the panel last year that directly tackled licensing. He returned this year to give a joint presentation alongside Garth Kimber from the Isle of Man DTI. They both talked about the benefit of licensing with each of the various islands. If I was in such a position as to need one, I think Alderney would pip it for me due to its low ongoing costs. Alderney seems to be the choice for online bingo operators: I can't really recall seeing any online bingo operators that have based themselves on the Isle of Man yet, but I'm happy to be corrected on that point.
The Alderney and Isle Of Man Panel.
As of last year, the high taxes involved in getting a license here in the UK has meant that there have been no new takers since the last summit, and of the licenses still pending, they seem to have been taken out just in case and will not likely be used. It was also interesting to note that there was talk of companies moving from the jurisdiction of Malta to Alderney, due to uncertainty and concerns of the technical infrastructure, political situation and possible changes in the local legislation.
As I mentioned in the Bingo On TV section, there is discussion around the legal definition of what is TV bingo. The legal panel had concerns about problems arising in the future surrounding what TV bingo is, as there's no set definition in law. As it stands it can be perceived as a prize draw or numbers betting. Given recent scandals around call-in quizzes on ITV, any sort of potential issues with bingo on TV should be guarded against to prevent the press getting any sort of ammunition against the game.
Finally, and with relief to many operators, it was mentioned by the legal panel that they thought it highly unlikely there would be any changes to UK laws in the next few years given the amount done with recent gambling laws. But, they also warned that if there were any issues that did crop up and need the attention of the UK Government to implement new laws and legislation to fix, it was unlikely to respond very quickly to the industry. The retail side of the business knows this only too well following the lack of action on VAT and the slow movement surrounding the lifeline of the extra class B3 slot machines.
Europe - Italy, Spain And Sweden
The Legal Europe Panel.
As the next big market for online bingo (excepting UK blokes of course...) Europe was in focus again, with some very similar presentations on the legal requirements for going into the Spanish and Italian markets. There is still little clarity on when the governments of the two countries will finalise the legal framework for online bingo to be provided, but it is on their agenda. There's information on the legal situations in those countries in last year's coverage, so rather than duplicate it I'll once again send you back to last year's articles. I personally find it quite confusing and as I'm not focusing on those regions I won't go into it beyond the overview I gave last year.
The other big European market to be looked at in detail was Sweden: David Nordberg gave a presentation on what's happening there. The marketplace in the Scandinavian country has blossomed and now reached maturity. Alongside the government-owned and run Svenska Spel (where David works) there are 30+ online Swedish online bingo sites. He mentioned that there has already been some consolidation in the Swedish marketplace with a couple of big sportsbook sites buying smaller properties. The game has become very popular in that marketplace and they play the 75 ball variant.
In Sweden bingo has a high percentage of problem gamblers, and as Svenska Spel is government-run they do a lot of work around trying to help and stop problem gamblers. In the last article I mentioned the voluntary software they offer to players to monitor their spending, and it's a good indication of how much effort they are putting in to reducing the number of problem gamblers. They estimate around 10% of their players are problem gamblers - as a result bingo in Sweden is classified as a dangerous game. There is speculation of legislation being put together around licensing, and it could prove a problem if bingo is classified in this manner, as the state government would monopolise the dangerous games whilst opening up the softer games. As of yet there is no firm information on if this legislation will take place.