The evolution of the gambling industry has always been intrinsically linked to the diversification of its channels.
From the racecourse, to telephone betting, retail shops, online and now mobile, industry players have faced the need to adapt each time a new channel has presented itself.
3.7m people a year in UK now bet online via their smartphone, desktop computer or tablet - and digital growth certainly isn’t slowing down, either.
A recent study by Juniper suggests that by 2019, nearly 10% of the adult population of the planet will have gambled online or on a mobile device, and the biggest concentration of these gamblers will be in the UK and Italy.
Crucially, however, our industry is one of the few that doesn’t see one channel replace another over time.
Rather, they co-exist, creating an audience of customers that's genuinely omnichannel. In our case, at William Hill, these multichannel users today represent a striking 22% of our customer base.
This rise of digital and omnichannel customers has caused issues in all areas of retail, issues that have been covered extensively on this site in the past.
But in the case of the gaming industry, the size of the omnichannel segment of our customer base has meant this sector has faced more pressure in responding to the challenge quickly.
While this has required significant investment and effort, the industry has ultimately benefitted from tackling this head on; it’s enjoyed additional growth, an expanded competitive set, and enhanced experiences for customers.
Initially this was simply to meet user demand, opening up a new, alternative avenue for betting and gaming online.
However, whilst location remains a key driver of customer loyalty for our retail stores, online is a completely different story.
There are far fewer barriers to stop digital customers from switching between competitors, meaning the industry has had to shift its approach towards a concerted effort to develop a truly compelling customer experience.
Like the rest of the industry, William Hill has created a unique internal culture, which has played an important role in nearly a century of success.
However, to tackle this new challenge, it was recognised that William Hill needed to look at innovating its own management structures and internal culture.
At the same time, it needed to preserve the proven business structure that had served it and its staff well.
It’s no secret that real innovation often comes from small, nimble technology startups, rather than out of huge, decades-old PLCs.
The rise of digital has forced bookmakers to become somewhat more innovative, but nothing has come out of these organisations in recent years that has really disrupted the betting market.
Similarly, the best organisations - in terms of digital experience and responding to the insights generated through user analytics - are those that can quickly adjust their approach and experiment with potentially risky new strategies.
It was to this end that we pursued a unique strategy in establishing WHLabs, designed to embody a dramatic cultural and management shift away from the traditional structures of William Hill the FTSE company.
By establishing WHLabs as a self-contained experimental division, we can provide the right environment for innovation in an agile, ideas-driven culture, without fear of impacting the core William Hill business.
Once a development has been shown to be beneficial to the user experience, it can then be incorporated in to the wider business.
One of the key principles behind the new division is that projects should not be target and statistic focused; experimentation is important and taking risks should be encouraged.
At the same time, we still need to be able to gauge just how effective and popular our developments have been with customers.
At the heart of this has been a need to enable modern, data-driven marketing efforts.
Building a detailed profile of a customer has always been a fundamental challenge for the marketing departments of bookmakers, and indeed most retailers.
Now in the digital and multichannel age, bookies are tasked with building a profile of a customer using data from disparate devices, the customer’s in-store betting habits, and wider data on the customer’s general likes and preferences.
To make the most of this, we need a site that can efficiently adapt to what we learn about these customers, which is why Project Trafalgar was initiated.
A modern, responsive new front-end web and native app platform, it gives a more consistent experience across devices and, crucially, takes control of code drops in-house.
That empowers our development teams to assess and react to our users’ experiences, making site changes, running A/B tests and quickly deploying new features.
It's about taking the profiled data and turning it into actionable insight that improves a user’s journey.
Through Trafalgar we can make those changes and deploy new things quickly and in-house, ultimately delivering a host of intelligent touch and conversion points at the right moment in the user’s journey.
Personalisation has been a major topic in recent years throughout the retail sector. What started as a tool for encouraging sales and driving loyalty has become an expectation of customers, with those businesses that fail to accurately tailor their services falling behind the competition.
With more than 1.3m sports betting opportunities available on the William Hill site each day and the increasing usage of mobile devices, surfacing the right content at the right time is critical.
WHLabs is therefore working to develop a sophisticated personalisation system that uses betting history and behavioural patterns to recommend.
To understand the scale of the task, think Netflix recommendation capability and multiply that challenge by a “product” set (prices and markets) that updates minute by minute.
Crucially, WHLabs is aiming to bring together both customer data and contextual big data to build a definitive picture of its customers.
Intelligent use of the information from across our owned channels can only go so far.
This is a major investment to tackle a challenge that is faced by all digital marketers, not just those in the gaming sector.
“Why would a bookies care about tech?”
The scale of our technology capability and ambition takes people by surprise if they’re never used our products.
We get interesting reactions at events and in conversation from people whose perception of what our business does is very wedded to old memories of waiting outside a betting shop for their granddad as a child.
In reality the gambling and gaming business is a technology game and has been for a long time.
The complexity of delivering and transacting across millions of products is huge.
Add to that our investment in digital marketing and our commitment to improving the customer experience and it suddenly becomes clear that not only do we have to run a brilliant core business, but we have a need for the innovative capabilities of WHLabs as a standalone unit.
Not only because we share the same customer expectations as any other retail sector - personalisation, new and enhanced user experiences - but also because the need to be innovative in how we approach all elements of our existing proposition is driving a cultural shift towards an agile, data-driven ethos.