Alexey Khobot, who joined Fonbet shortly after its launch in 1994, created the company’s first software and now develops robots, spoke to SBC about its early approach to marketing and the ways in which legislative restrictions have influenced promotions.
Early years – the reasons for no marketing
“The company has been around for over 25 years, but only recently started focusing on marketing,” said Alexey Khobot. “Our first marketing specialist joined the team just in 2015 to set up the marketing department. There are several reasons for this, both external and internal.
“From an internal point of view, betting companies were doing quite well and made good money without any need for promotion. Nobody really considered that you needed to communicate with customers and build a relationship with them. However, as it turned out, the average purchase size could be increased with the right strategy.”
Moving on to external factors, he pointed out: “Betting company ads were illegal for a long time. The regulations were only loosened in April 2017. Now Russian law allows betting companies to promote their services on all sports-related channels, including licensed sports media websites, with sports team sponsorships, and on sports broadcasts online and on television. Meanwhile, regular TV advertising is also now permitted after 23:00.”
The first campaigns – promoting the FNL and Match Premier Cup
With the support of its first specialist, Fonbet completed its first marketing campaign with the Football National League (FNL) in August 2015 – albeit with a creative spin because of the ad ban, which prohibited it from being a sponsor and having an advertising contract.
Alexey Khobot explained: “The company started partnering with the Football National League, the division just below the Russian Premier League (RPL), as the league’s title partner. The Fonbet name was integrated into the name of the tournament itself and its logo. There was no direct advertising of the betting company in the stadiums, but the combined logo was used everywhere. This partnership lasted two years.”
Opening up on another case a few years later, he shared: “In January 2019, Fonbet and Match TV held a football tournament in Qatar with exhibition games between football clubs. The Match Premier Cup was also the first time Match TV had organised such an event.
“They used to only handle broadcasts, and had never organised any sports competitions or sold sponsorships contracts. Fonbet had been working with the Match TV team for some time, and trusted that its professionalism would lead to success.”
It was the off-season and the audience’s interest for the tournament was high, but the top clubs were prohibited from bringing their betting company sponsors to Qatar. Fonbet, as told by Alexey Khobot, had an interesting solution to the problem.
“We created a landing page where users could vote for one of the teams,” he said. “There were also bar charts showing which team was higher or lower in the rating. Nobody was expecting much activity, but the page eventually got over 20,000 votes and about 10,000 shares.
“We created the landing page on our own and spent almost nothing on it, yet the return was excellent. We played on the fact that football ultras love to show loyalty to their team and enjoy the competitions among the clubs. I can’t imagine anything working better for this tournament.”
Cementing the change in strategy – promotion through top events
On one hand, operating with advertising restrictions is not easy for an operator. On the other hand, they can also be helpful since it tilts the company towards an affinitive audience.
As Alexey Khobot sees it: “Even if there were no restrictions, Fonbet would still want to promote itself through sports media and broadcasts. This is just our strategy.
“If the ads are on TV, then it should be on sports channels and during sports broadcasts. If the ads are online, then the websites should have sports-related information and statistics. If we are working with influences, they should be focused on sports. Betting is a fairly niche product. Placing ads on general entertainment platforms is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
He went on to outline Fonbet’s now established strategy to advertise during top sports events and sponsor top leagues. “Top sports events are what bring mass customers and fans,” he said. “The understanding is that our target customer is a fan, a person who loves and enjoys sports, and more importantly is interested in it. It is quite likely that this person is already placing bets on sports or is about to place the first one.
“Top events such as the Nurmagomedov vs Poirier fight and the football World Cup in Russia attracted a mass audience. During this 2018 tournament, our customer base grew significantly. This was perhaps one of the main drivers for growth of the company in recent years.”
By contrast, smaller sporting events hold less interest for Fonbet from a marketing standpoint. “In something more niche like second or third divisions, the audience is obviously smaller,” Alexey Khobot explained. “It is often the professional players who prefer to bet on these smaller divisions, but most of them already know about Fonbet. Some customers deliberately try to cheat and deceive the company – such players are not welcome as customers.”
Red is for winners – understanding the Fonbet rebrand
Five years ago Fonbet rebranded, which included changing a logo that was used for its first 20 years. Yet, SBC News learned that this wasn’t simply a superficial design change.
Alexey Khobot shared: “The colour red was not chosen by accident. Firstly, none of our competitors used it. And secondly, red is the colour of leaders. It might be a little aggressive, but red is associated with winners. Fonbet was the first betting company. Now we know that the logo was a good choice, it really stands out no matter where the placement is.
“Three years ago, Fonbet started offering an English language version as the company does not only operate on the Russian market, but is also present in Kazakhstan and Cyprus. There are also international plans for Fonbet KHL, the international professional ice hockey league we sponsor. It takes place in Europe and Asia, so on KHL boards Fonbet is in English.”