Revival Instincts

Now that bingo can be advertised as a gambling game it is seen as more exciting. Gala chief Richard Sowerby reveals how direct marketing is winning back lapsed players.

Denise Van Outen calls it better than sex – and as no-one is likely to question the fullness of her sex life, it must be exciting.

Bingo seems to be enjoying a revival, thanks in part to concerted marketing efforts by the industry itself.

Until gaming laws changed in 1997 bingo was not allowed to be advertised for what it is – a game that involves gambling. But since then, marketing efforts of the main players Gala and Mecca, plus the added weight of the National Bingo Gaming Association, has meant that bingo has, for the first time, had marketing magic weaved around it.

Gala’s fortune began to change at the start of 1998, following a £287m management buy-in from Bass. This was led by Richard Sowerby, a former board account director at DMB&B and Gala chief executive.

Sowerby’s first move as Gala sales and marketing director was to appoint WWAV West as direct marketing agency.

Sowerby made this appointment, without a pitch, based on his experience of the agency while handling the Western Union business at DMB&B. He says: “I felt they were the best exponents of direct marketing expertise, database management and analysis.”

One thing in Gala’s favour was a healthy database – a membership-card system that meant every time people entered a club, their membership card was swiped.

Sowerby says: “We had, and still have, a database that is the envy of the bingo and leisure industry. But it was being badly used. We had a situation where a manager might communicate with the same person eight times in two weeks. There was no science involved. Databases must be used in a correct and creative manner.”

The gaming laws also meant that any Gala advertising was, by necessity, misleading. Bingo clubs would be advertised as social clubs, with cabaret and food. People applied for membership thinking they were to join a social club or a leisure facility; on discovering it was bingo, they didn’t return.

WWAV West account director April Wilson says about half of members never played after joining initially.

Wilson says: “Bingo is also quite promiscuous. Competitors offer different promotions and if people think the prize money is higher somewhere else, they will go there.”

Attracting bigger spenders

Sowerby says since the decision to analyse and segment the database, “we have a far lower number of members – but they are much higher spenders”.

The profile of the average bingo player is changing too. Sowerby describes the traditional bingo player as a woman “aged 50 to 60 years old, married, of low income, who watches lots of TV, and whose husband goes to the pub or stays at home while she plays bingo”.

“Now,” he says, “the average age is mid- to early-40s and getting younger”.

Sowerby explains: “One key reason why bingo attracts younger people is because it offers an unthreatening environment to women. There are not many places women can go without being harassed. Young women are using bingo to start a night out. They have a flutter, a drink, something to eat and then go on somewhere else.

“The lottery has given the country permission to gamble. But the money you can win is not life changing, but life enhancing.”

The money is certainly more than you would expect. Gala pays out more than £10m every week in prize money, shared throughout its 149 clubs across the country.

Sowerby says the WWAV West direct mail programme has not set out on a grand scale to generate new members – but rather to regenerate lapsed members.

Players’ profiles

The database is profiled and segmented into different cluster groups, according to how often people play and how much they spend at the clubs.

“The groups vary from people who play a few times a week to six times a year,” says Wilson. “Each group has a clear profile definition and we communicate with each in a specific way.”

Sowerby says: “Direct marketing is an enormously important tool for us because it can be used with such accuracy. At the moment, because we have so much data, our programme is reactive – but that will change.”

The DM activity is hitting the bottom line says Sowerby. He claims Gala has seen a significant income increase during the past two years.

Rivals will catch up

“We are still ahead of the game – none of our competitors are involved in serious direct marketing; they are only beginning to understand it,” says Sowerby. But he also believes that it won’t be long before rivals catch up.

JWT Manchester also handles above-the-line work for Gala. Sowerby says: “The advantage of my background is two-fold: I have an absolute belief in creating brands and in the need to have an integrated programme. Marketing needs a number of elements to make it work.

“Because I am a company owner, I don’t have to keep on justifying the marketing budget, nor do I have to keep on justifying what marketing is trying to do.

“Marketing people always have to justify themselves to the finance directors, but in this company, marketing is a given.”

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