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Articles & Interviews - 4th Online Bingo Summit

4th Annual Bingo Summit - Exhibition Hall
The exhibition hall.

Four years on from its first outing, the 4th Annual Online Bingo Summit has grown in size, echoing the growth in size of the online bingo market. This year there were over 300 people in attendance at the event, which can now rightly claim to be the landmark event for the industry. It's been a long year in bingo terms since the last summit, which I went into great depth with over at the article about the 3rd Online Bingo Summit.

The last couple of times I've written about the event, I've used it as an opportunity to really get my teeth into problems I see in the industry. This year I'm going to refrain from doing the same as to be honest, I don't really want to be repeating the same gripes I've already covered elsewhere. Also, a large amount of the summit covered similar ground to last year's event, and a lot of things have remained unchanged in the general marketplace.

Instead I will focus on some of the positives from the event, and cover the changes / developments in some key areas. Rather than cover actual panels individually, I'll once again condense it down into some headline themes, starting with one of the biggies from last year, bingo hitting the mass market.

Bingo Still Not Broken Through To The Mass Market

CEO Panel members
The CEO Panel members.

Which Bingo's figures say there are now roughly 265 UK facing sites, which is roughly 10% up on the amount of sites at last year's event. Despite this, it would seem that the amount of online players has not really increased much, according to Gambling Commission figures. However, Parlay's Peter Trinz went on to say that despite these figures, there was still a potentially massive amount of growth waiting to happen for online bingo. He stated that the industry shouldn't see the growth as just a UK issue, but should be viewed on an international level.

It would seem the growth in bingo sites in the UK has slowed somewhat and the marketplace has matured to a degree. As for the 265 bingo sites, it's worth noting that as well as new sites increasing the numbers upwards, there have also been a number of sites that have closed down as well, masking the overall percentage of growth. The potential purchase of Cashcade by PartyGaming was held up as an example of the consolidation that's still happening in the marketplace, and expected to continue as the marketplace continues to mature. Personally I think we need less bingo sites in the UK, not more, especially when it comes to the march of soulless clones and network skins. However, it would seem that wish is not likely to happen, even when consolidation and growth are accounted for.

I'd agree with Peter Trinz's claims that bingo has still not hit the mass market appeal that has been predicted. I think this is in part down to people's perceptions of the game and its inherent simplicity. Despite bingo's limited game play, I'm surprised this large appeal is yet to materialise, especially given the increased exposure the UK public has to it on TV these days. With TV advertising in the first quarter of 2009 already bigger than the whole of the advertising spend in 2008, this is surprising to me. Could it be that the advertising is in fact reinforcing people's negative perceptions of the game, thanks in part to its unimaginative and cliched manner?

The belief at the summit was that the game needs a big breakthrough tied in with a big and trusted partner such as Tesco, but personally, I do worry that just tagging a brand to bingo is not enough: there has to be something more compelling than just saying here's Tesco Bingo, now everyone play. However, even without this big breakthrough, things are still looking rosy in the world of online bingo, with revenues expected to continue to rise. It was estimated that by 2012, online bingo profits would reach the $2billion mark. If the US market should reopen in the next year or so, those figures could be even higher.

Bingo Still Not Broken Through In Europe And The Greater World

Phil Fraiser introduces the online bingo summit
Phil Fraiser introduces the online bingo summit.

Interestingly, there was a lot more optimism about the opening up of potential new markets around the world. Previously the USA and Latin America were definite no-goes for the industry, but recent regime and legislation changes could pave the way to open up these markets. It was suggested that people start preparing for the opening of these markets now. Not actually targeting them yet, but spending time evaluating the local culture of the game and what to do to attract the audience.

Europe remains particularly patchwork at the moment, with some countries like France and Germany potentially opening up under pressure from the EU. Italy and Spain continue to be the biggest potential markets in the short term, but both remain problematic and caught up with bureaucracy. Other areas are also starting to get the bingo bug, with South Africa being one example that was held up. Should America open up again, it would no doubt become the biggest market for the game and its impact would be huge. Unfortunately though, at the moment it remains a case of wait and see.

Bingo Still Not Broken Through On TV

European bingo show
European bingo show.

Given the emphasis on TV last year, and the hope that it could be bingo's big break, events have not lived up to expectations. With the canning of the much heralded ITV Bingo Night and the continued underwhelming TV experience of shows that are little more than what Debbie Mason described as "PC on TV". An international show from Croatia was shown as an example of low budget Prime Time entertainment, but to be fair, it was little more exciting than watching a room full of people marking off their bingo tickets.

However, the show did give pointers as to what could be done. Players get extra bonuses for being in the studio playing, and you could buy your tickets to play along at home. The games of bingo were interspersed with light entertainment. It was mooted that for such a format to succeed in the UK, a different approach to those already tried would be needed. It would be one that would need to engage the public with top quality presenters, and foster much more of a community based spirit.

The one big change from the talk of TV bingo last year was the change in classification of TV gambling shows from gaming to TV shopping. There was some split opinions on whether this was a good or bad thing. On the plus side the change of classification has made things a lot easier for the operators. Now they can actually mention the prizes are in pounds and be up front that the shows are about gambling. On the other hand, it was argued that it could be potentially problematic for the industry, as it increased the exposure of vulnerable gamblers to gaming.

Bingo On TV panel
The Bingo On TV panel.

Generally, there was a lack of enthusiasm from the panel that bingo was likely to make a viable TV option any time soon. However, that's not the end of the story, there's been news during the last week that PartyGaming have partnered up with Channel Five, so Bingo Night could potentially be reborn. At the moment though, details of what the two will do are still sketchy. Either way, bingo's future on TV is far from rosy.

Bingo Still Not Broken Through On Mobile

Things have remained quiet on the mobile front. Cozy Games offered an iPhone version of their online game, but that is not strictly a true mobile bingo solution. The iPhone software runs on Wifi rather than on the phone network. The true online bingo experience of chat and tickets remains beyond the realms of modern handsets and technologies. In fact one of the experts mentioned that the time for the much vaunted convergence has passed, with the differing technologies all now hopelessly out of sync with each other. Let's hope he's right, I'm sick of hearing about the last decade, so let's put it to rest.

Bingo 2.0

This year saw an increased interest in using web 2.0 as a means of attracting players, engaging players and retaining players. Last year twitter was not mentioned, but this year it was popping up everywhere. There was one session dedicated to using web 2.0, its potential pitfalls and the potential benefits. Examples of successful implementations of web 2.0 in existing bingo sites were highlighted, such as My Tombola and Wink Me.

Virtue Fusion's bingo balls in the exhibition hall
Virtue Fusion's bingo balls.

The panel looked at aspects of reputation management, and managing the sort of potentially negative content that users could create. There has been an explosion in sites and affiliates trying to market via the various web 2.0 channels available, with varying levels of success. It would seem that giving the players extra web 2.0 functionality such as profiles and other forms of outlet could help to cement player loyalty and traffic when done right. There's also the benefit from the SEO side of operators' websites that the additional user generated content (UGC) could help to keep sites fresh and improve their ranking as well as giving players an extended opportunity to interact with the sites.

I've brought this up at the round tables I've attended in the past at the event, how so far sites have failed to utilise UGC effectively, and to a certain extent they continue to do this. I'm a great believer in giving members the opportunity to create content be it though submitting articles to posting on the forums. It's both great for keeping the site fresh in the search engine's eyes and for giving users a sense of participation at my sites.

That said, operators are only going half-way with this. Many are offering these sorts of features but hiding them behind logins and password entries. If the search engines can't see in, they can't index the content to get it into the rankings. Web 2.0 is primarily about sharing things with the wider audience, but so far operators are yet to embrace this due to the potential pitfalls it could have such as negative comments and customer moaning.

This point was brought home by panel speaker and Playing Bingo favourite Nickie Shute. She spoke about managing these kinds of behaviours openly, effectively and quickly. For all sites wanting to go down the web 2.0 / UGC route, they have to put in place robust and considered resources for handling just such issues. For too many this web 2.0 is just an afterthought, and as long as they treat it as such, then bingo will continue to miss out and misunderstand its potential.

What Retail Bingo Has To Offer

Phil Nisbit of Mecca Bingo
Phil Nisbit of Mecca Bingo.

For myself as a land based fan as well as an online fan, the stand out session of the event was Angus Nisbet's talk on Mecca Bingo and the new and improved interaction between land based and online sectors of the game. Previously the two Mecca Bingo arms had been detached from each other, with there being great suspicion from the retail section about featuring their online sibling in case they lost their already dwindling members to online bingo.

Following recent shake-ups and reorganisations at Mecca, the two have started working together more closely. Mecca online now features more prominently at the clubs, and the two are finding innovative ways to cross sell to each other. Things like including vouchers for online in the bingo books was held up as example of finding the synergies between the two arms.

It was also mentioned in various panels that retail chains continue to be popular in the online world thanks to the perceived trust and familiarity that a high street presence could bring. It was mentioned that online brands should maybe try going into retail or increasing their perceived trust by expanding their real-world presence.

A massive online chain like Foxy could possibly try and make a presence in the retail world to further strengthen their appeal and trustworthiness online. Funnily enough, I fell for an April Fool's saying they'd bought their own hall just a few months earlier. It may not be such a far fetched idea. Dave Holt of the Sardis Cooper group of independent clubs raised the question that maybe clubs like his would be interested in such retail and online partnerships, and there were certainly a number of behind the scenes discussions to just that end.

During Angus's session, he also mentioned that people shouldn't write retail bingo off, despite the doom and gloom you see around the subject. I think many online only people were stunned at the figures he quoted. The figure of 20,000 people was quoted as a fairly typical peak number of players of online bingo each night. Compared to retail bingo the figures seemed very small: retail bingo could claim roughly 200,000 players at peak times during the night, a massive difference between the two games.

Continuing on the theme of not writing retail bingo off, the Mecca Beeston club was held up as an example of how the retail game is trying to change and broaden its appeal. It was encouraging to hear that Beeston had exceeded the company's expectations for admissions by roughly 25-30%. And, just when we thought retail was on its uppers, it emerged that Mecca has another 5 of these sorts of clubs planned. It seems that retail bingo is finally taking its need to improve its service to heart, and taking fledgling steps in this direction. Maybe with online bingo growing in popularity, there is still a lot of room for making the two benefit from each other in as yet unthought of ways.

The 2nd Online Bingo Awards

The 2nd Online Bingo Awards
The 2nd Online Bingo Awards.

It was good to see a change in the way that these fledgling bingo awards were voted. The first awards was a free for all where anyone could vote for any site they chose. My complaint was that companies that had a large number of staff at the awards could skew the vote as they all voted for themselves. This year things were done differently, with companies only having one vote for the whole company. To my mind this is a lot fairer and makes the awards that much more considered and relevant. I'd still like to see a player element included, but that's maybe expecting a bit too much.

However, there was some issues for me about the sites that had been included in the respective shortlists that I covered elsewhere. Overall though, I think these awards are shaping up to be one of the best out there, along with the BingoPort players awards, and give an accurate insight into what's happening in the online bingo world.

The 2nd Online Bingo Awards
The 2nd Online Bingo Awards.

The awards fell thus:

Best Online Bingo Operator 2009

Best Online Bingo Portal 2009

Best Newcomer 2009

Best Affiliate Programme 2009

Online Bingo Software 2009

Best Marketing Campaign 2009

Best Innovation 2009

The event was again hosted by ex Bingo Caller Of The Year Peter Lewis, with much style and entertainment, and sponsored by PaySafeCard.

Conclusion

Once again, Bullet Business has managed to cram a lot of great content into two days of online bingo focused discussion and networking. Some of the content felt like it was repeated from earlier events, but overall, there were definite shifts in focus for the event. This is the de facto event for the online industry, and it will be interesting to see how things move for the 5th summit in June 2010.

Related Links

Bullet Business' Online Bingo Summit
Flickr Photoset from the 4th Online Bingo Summit 2009

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