New Media team keeps Harrah’s up to speed

Social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook have been invaluable tools for casinos. They can foster a sense of familiarity with guests, but they are anything but casual. Plenty of work goes into manning the new-media ramparts for Las Vegas casinos.

Harrah’s Entertainment took its embrace of new media to the next level by launching its New Media team in February. The group, directed by David Koloski, includes Eric Petersen, the manager of social media strategy, who takes the company’s interactive Tweeting and Facebooking very seriously.

“As a customer-service tool, it’s huge,” Petersen says. “This is free market research in real time.” But that research often comes with a price: When everyone has a digital audience, service hiccups such as long lines or poorly cleaned rooms can become PR nightmares. New-media pros are learning to help minimize the fallout.

“It’s important to reach out empathetically, to identify the real issue and reach out to the right people to get it resolved,” Petersen says. Even when nothing can be done to “solve” a problem, like when Tweeters vent about poor service after the fact, the most important thing is often just to show that someone cares.

“There’s an evolution going on,” says Jay Fenster, Petersen’s “social media rockstar,” who is responsible for most of the Tweets for Harrah’s 10 Las Vegas properties. “Once, Las Vegas was all about personal relationships—between players and hosts, for example—but as it’s become more about databases, a lot of that human aspect has been lost.

“Social media lets us bring that back, interact personally with thousands of people at a time.”

“Twitter central” for Harrah’s is a few modest offices on the Paris Las Vegas’ mezzanine level, more nose-to-the-grindstone than technocratic looking. In Petersen’s office, a hand-written memo, “Remember—you’re always auditioning,” fights for space on a dry-erase boards with the latest metrics, evidence that the company—and the team—take their work seriously.

And it’s real work. The first hour and a half of the day is taken up by getting out initial messages for the properties, choosing what will add value to followers’ timelines. With a lot of competing points—gaming promotions, room specials, upcoming events—Fenster walks a line between giving followers useful information and giving them too much info. It’s as much an art as it is a science.

After that’s out of the way, it’s time to start responding to Facebook and Twitter comments, questions and concerns. Again, the most important thing, Fenster says, is to “let them know that someone is listening.”

A professional travel writer since the age of 16, Fenster first came to Las Vegas to write a “best of” guide for the city, and in 2006 parlayed his experience into a job writing marketing material for Harrah’s. This year, he jumped to the New Media team, and a guy who once spent his time describing the Stratosphere Tower or the MGM Grand’s Lion Habitat now talks up Harrah’s latest offerings, 140 characters at a time, building a “you’ve just got to be here” feeling by sharing news of recent jackpots and celebrity sightings, as well as also playing online concierge and answering questions about the properties.

It’s hard work, but there’s also fun involved. Fenster and Petersen are just about always on the clock, snapping pictures and sharing discoveries via their BlackBerrys late into the night. Their red-carpet antics led a rival photographer to dub them the “properazzi.” With official clearance, they cover the nightlife scene with the panache of freebooters.

In the end, it’s all about making connections and building interest. Increasingly, both can happen online. Social media is about meeting customers where they are. You can bet that casinos are going to be doing more of it in the near future.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

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