Long read

Ladbrokes, True Geordie and the art of the influencer

With Ladbrokes recently walking away from its deal with a prominent YouTube personality, how much does influencer marketing really lend itself to the online gambling industry?

It’s 2019 and influencer marketing is through the roof. The practice has its problems *cough Fyre Festival*cough but the latest studies would suggest it is fast becoming the most effective way to advertise a product.

There has been 83% year-on-year growth in influencer marketing spend in the US and Canada, according to marketing measurement company Instascreener, while a SmallBizGenius report suggests Google searches for influencer marketing have risen by 1,500% over the last three years.

The same report estimates that influencer marketing delivers an ROI 11 times higher than traditional forms of marketing, with brands raking in $6.78 for every $1 spent on the strategy in 2017. With numbers like these, it is easy to see why the gambling industry has embraced the concept.

Drink it in

Influencer marketing works best when the individual – usually an instantly recognisable star with a high level of trust and exposure – advertises a specific product. Vodka brand Ciroc, for example, was the second highest spender on Instagram influencer marketing in Q2, ploughing $3.4m into its agreements with artists including Rick Ross and DJ Khaled.

Perhaps the most startling example of the power of influencer marketing is gamer girl Belle Delphine. The 19-year-old social media star (4.2 million followers on Instagram) tapped into her business brain and decided to sell bottles of her used bath water for $30. They sold out instantly.

Gambling is not a tangible product however. You cannot drink it, unlike Ciroc vodka or gamer girl bath water. The sector is a variety of different brands offering similar services, be it online sports betting, online casino or online poker. So how can gambling companies use influencers effectively?

“As far as the gambling industry is concerned, particularly surrounding football, there’s arguably never been a more important time to establish a way of engaging audiences on social media,” says CheckdMedia partnerships manager Lucas Swain. “With the whistle-to-whistle ban and increasing pressure to end shirt sponsorships, second-screen engagement may soon be the only way for operators to advertise during major sporting events. This is where influencers can assist greatly,” he adds.

Benjamin Woollams, sales director at Influencer, agrees and believes operators could even capitalise on a gap in the market by using influencers to address responsible gambling concerns by highlighting prevention tools available to players. “Social media influencers can be used to raise awareness and educate an audience on the rules and regulations of gambling,” he says. “The great thing about influencers is that it is often live, reactive digital content that allows the audience to engage instantly. This is extremely useful in an industry that relies on live games and moments.”

Free comes first

Coral has embraced this strategy by recruiting former England striker Alan Shearer and Love Island star Chris Hughes to advertise its Correct4 free-to-play (F2P) football predictor game on Twitter during matchdays. The operator creates trust with its audience by using well-known celebrities to promote its products rather than social media affiliates, which, as we have seen in the past, can cause unwanted regulatory headaches for gambling firms.

Paddy McDermott, performance director at FTP specialist SportCaller, believes F2P is a great way to create trust with an audience because you are not immediately asking consumers for their money. “The best example we have seen of brands using personalities to push our games has been well-known names in the sporting world playing our games or giving their selections,” he says. “Free-to-play is an easier push for influencers because it avoids attracting negative press in representing a pure gambling product.” He adds: “As in the case of Coral using Chris Hughes, he can help operators reach entirely new audiences while promoting a product that does not ask their followers to part with any cash.”

Coral’s sister brand Ladbrokes has had a slightly trickier time of it recently. In August, the operator told EGR Intel it had ended its sponsorship of The Kick Off, an online preview show presented by YouTube personality True Geordie. Ladbrokes said the partnership was no longer commercially beneficial despite two successful seasons of sponsoring the programme.

True Geordie has more than 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube. He commentated on a boxing match in 2018 between two of the video streaming platform’s biggest stars – KSI (20.4 million subscribers) and Logan Paul (19.8 million subscribers). He has ginormous reach among a digital-first audience and his passionate rants about Newcastle United made him an engaging host for a football-focused preview show, but people inside the industry had concerns over the age of his viewing audience, with many viewers likely to be under the age of 18.

“The gambling industry has much stricter regulations and guidelines, and rightly so,” says Woollams. “It is important to only work with influencers who have an audience that is predominantly over the age of 18. Influencer insights and analytics play an important part in targeting the right people and it allows us to make sure we are within guidelines.”

Swerved a bullet

Four days after Ladbrokes and True Geordie failed to agree terms on a sponsorship renewal for The Kick Off, a series of extremely explicit direct messages authored by the YouTube star were leaked on Twitter. The messages, sent privately to another user on Instagram, were so explicit that many believed the exchange was fake. In the aftermath, True Geordie uploaded a YouTube video called True Geordie Responds, admitting the messages were real while taking a ribbing from his friends.

The sigh of relief from the Ladbrokes marketing team in Gibraltar was almost audible here in London. Imagine if the response had been uploaded alongside videos adorned with Ladbrokes branding. The gambling industry is already public enemy number one in the UK, which is why choosing the right ambassador is so important. They need to strengthen brand image, not make it worse.

One source close to the situation said: “Luckily the deal was cancelled before the screenshots came out as negotiations had fallen through. Hindsight is a wonderful thing given the vulgar posts that emerged, as he is clearly not on brand. I was always of the opinion that he was wrong for Ladbrokes, and now the new team in Gib have seen through it and pulled the plug – thankfully at just the right time.”

According to Woollams, YouTube is the best platform for a personal approach to influencer marketing as it allows the creator to get their personality across in a way that connects physically with the audience. Each social media platform has its own set of pros and cons from a marketing perspective and operators should do enough research to ascertain which platform will have the desired effect. “Instagram is the ideal platform to build a following by creating beautiful content and telling stories through images,” says Woollams– although it doesn’t always work out like that. Arii, an 18-year-old lifestyle influencer from Miami, hit the headlines in May after failing to sell just 36 t-shirts from her newly-launched clothing brand despite having 2.6 million Instagram followers. Another lifestyle influencer was caught out in August when it became clear she had doctored the sky in each of her travel photos as all of the clouds were identical.

Most consumers can spot disingenuous influencers from a mile away and any trust that has previously been built up with the brand is immediately lost. A 2018 study from Bazaarvoice reports that 47% of customers are tired of influencer content that appears inauthentic and that 62% of customers believe influencer endorsements take advantage of impressionable audiences.

Telling a story

So which platforms are best suited to gambling industry influencers? “This varies on both the content and the target audience,” says CheckdMedia’s Swain. “Different social platforms have differing age demographics depending on the vertical. For example, if an operator is seeking a younger football-loving audience then Instagram should be the focus because it is favoured most commonly by fans aged 24 or under. However, it’s probably the worst platform for virality,” he adds.

But could Instagram be about to lose its influencer crown? As part of a trial ordered by Facebook, the photo-sharing site started hiding the number of likes on posts in several countries including Australia and Japan. “We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive so you can focus on sharing the things you love,” Mia Garlick, Facebook Australia and New Zealand director of policy, said in a statement. “We want to see whether this change can help people focus less on likes and more on telling their story.”

If the change is implemented permanently, this will surely ignite a shift away from vanity metrics and towards a sharper focus on actual sales. The lane switch was designed to decrease the competitive element of the app for the average user, protecting people’s mental health by ending the constant craving for validation through the collection of likes, which should be commended. But how will this affect the influencer space? Influencers will arguably have less negotiating power because they will no longer be able to point to the amount of likes they get per post to potential brand partners. Brands will of course still be able to see the total number of followers though, which is a reasonable guide for popularity but offers little insight into conversion levels.

A popularity contest

As demonstrated by the True Geordie debacle, the internet’s flavour of the month can quickly turn sour. While brands – including gambling operators – exert considerable power over their influencers during the production and publication of branded content, they cannot control an influencer’s personal views or behaviour. This is problematic because brands are then guilty by association if any negative publicity should occur.

Take BetVictor brand ambassador Michael Owen for example. On the face of it, he is the perfect celebrity partner for a gambling brand. Owen was an England international at 18, he enjoyed a hugely successful football career including spells at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United, and has become deeply entwined in professional horseracing following his retirement.

Owen, who regularly pens articles on the BetVictor blog, decided to ruffle a few feathers in September with the release of his new book, Reboot. In the build up to launch, the book was serialised by several Reach PLC publications including The Daily Mirror and an extract about Owen’s time at Newcastle United led to a very public Twitter spat with his former strike partner and aforementioned Coral ambassador Alan Shearer.

According to The Athletic’s Chris Waugh, Owen was already universally disliked on Tyneside, even before he took aim at Shearer – a Newcastle legend. “Shearer is rightly regarded as a living legend in Newcastle, while Owen is remembered as an ungrateful mercenary,” writes Waugh. “This latest very public row only strengthens those sentiments further.”

Will this make Newcastle fans avoid BetVictor? And is this even a bad thing? Owen has 3.8 million Twitter followers and his response to Shearer hit 11.5k retweets and 53.6k likes. The video above was shared by Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker (7.4 million followers) and republished in just about every UK news outlet. A quick pivot to the original post on Owen’s timeline shows it was posted directly above a video of him giving a Premier League preview for BetVictor while wearing a polo shirt with the operator’s logo on it. This is excellent exposure that would never have been achieved organically.

Perhaps influencers going off-script is not such a bad thing after all. Brands could smash their targets by embracing the commotion rather than rushing around for the fire extinguisher.

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