Online gambling is big business. Even before the Government published its Gambling Bill, which will among other things regulate internet betting, punters were flocking to their computers for an online flutter.
The reform of the UK's antiquated gambling laws has posed a threat to the traditional high-street bookie as more people discover how easy it is to place a bet from the comfort of their own home.
According to a survey published by gambling magazine Inside Edge and website 888.com, the amount of money staked online has rocketed by 566 per cent since 2003.
The stock market saw several flotations of online gaming companies in 2004 and, last week, the Gibraltar-based PartyGaming (formerly iGlobalMedia) appointed banking and PR advisers ahead of a possible stock market flotation (see p12), which could make it the first online gambling site to enter the FTSE 100.
The City has also identified online gambling as a growth market. But that growth has little to do with hardcore punters increasing their stakes and everything to do with gambling's arrival as a respectable activity.
'Gambling used to be the preserve of people who frequented high-street bookmakers and were easy to stereotype,' says Betfair's Mark Davies who is responsible for the betting site's marketing and communications.
'But as the high street has moved upmarket and become more sophisticated, so has gambling,' he says. 'Betfair and other online companies are an example of that.
'Twenty years ago you might have spent £30 to go to a football match and spent £20 in the pub afterwards. Now people spend £30 at the football, £10 on a bet and £10 in the pub. Gambling has become an acceptable competitor for leisure time.'
Betfair is among the more unusual online gambling operations. Founded in 2000, the company pioneered the betting exchange whereby punters bet on prices set by other gamblers. Gamblers can back or lay (bet against) particular odds and can even make live bets - stakes made while a football match or horse race is in progress.
Though Betfair's proposition is slightly more complicated than that of other online gambling firms, which tend either to act as online betting shops or hosts for other gambling games such as poker, PR tactics are not vastly different to those used by conventional high-street bookmakers.
All gambling companies tend to focus on the winner as a celebrity since the rags-to-riches story is easy to sell to the tabloids.
As Conrad Brummer, marketing manager of poker site Pokerstars, says: 'People like to talk to the guy who, through his own skill and determination, has won £5m.'
Pokerstars uses such case studies to promote itself as an online training ground. Poker players can play against others around the world and use their experience on the site to catapult themselves into international competitions such as the Pokerstars-sponsored European Poker Tournament, which has been taking place for the first time on this side of the Atlantic.
Like conventional gambling companies Betfair pegs a lot of its marketing and PR around key sporting events such as the Grand National and the Six Nations Rugby championship.
A Scottish player in the Six Nations, for example, could be called on publicly to lay England in a Scotland-England match.
How much pressure online betting is putting on conventional bookmakers such as William Hill and Ladbrokes is a moot point. William Hill PR director David Hood admits that the effect online gambling firms' offshore operations had on William Hill spurred it to launch its own online offering. But he insists that the recent refurbishment of its shops was more about moving with the times than any radical change to the profile of the average punter.
'You have to maintain your estate. No business can sit still. Your ability to offer new events to bet on has to go hand-in-hand with your ability to deliver them with new technology,' Hood says.
Ladbrokes incoming head of PR Ciaran O'Brien, who is currently board director at The Red Consultancy, says that 'what we do is generic for the brand as the dotcom element is only part of any business'.
He also points out that aside from the competition, online offerings are a good way to leverage UK bookmakers' 'honest' reputation to an international punter base.
Since the collapse of Sussex-based online betting exchange Sporting Options last November, online companies have also been keen to stress their solvency as businesses in a bid to regain some punters' lost trust.
After a period of rapid growth, Sporting Options was placed into administration and the police were called in to investigate the possible misuse of punters' accounts.
Companies such as Betfair, Pokerstars, Ladbrokes and William Hill emphasise the established nature of their businesses to reassure customers, and the fact that company funds are segregated from those of the gamblers who play with them.
Much of this could become standard if the Gambling Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords, is passed in its present form. Online gambling will find itself subject to a common standard policed by The Gambling Commission, the new gambling regulator.
Online gambling: the facts
- Four million Britons gamble online each month
- Poker is the UK's favourite casino game (39 per cent)
- Since 2003, there has been a 566 per cent rise in the amount of money staked online
- 36 to 40-year-olds win the largest amounts of money online
- 44 per cent of people like visiting online casinos because they can play from home
- 40 per cent of women gamblers say they gamble online to spare themselves the 'stress' of visiting a casino
- 77 per cent of those surveyed would not gamble their home, car or possessions for a large jackpot
- The average amount won online is £941.51 per month