Within the latest issue of SBC Leaders magazine, SBC Americas’ Editor, Jessica Welman, spoke to Catena Media’s then Vice President of Content for North America, and now a consultant at the company, Dustin Gouker, reflecting on the firm’s growth over the past four years and the increasing number of opportunities within the online casino space. 

Admittedly, it felt a little strange being tasked with talking to someone else about how Catena Media’s North American operations work. I was Employee #2 when Catena started the division. Employee #1, Dustin Gouker, now serves as Vice President of Content for North America. 

We worked together through pre and post-PASPA repeal, over 20 state online gambling launches, and a period of growth where it seemed like all we were doing was interviewing new content creators. What started as a portfolio of sites covering a handful of states with a skeleton crew grew into a behemoth in the US affiliate space in the span of four years.

It’s been 18 months since I last worked with the Catena team though, and in that time, the company has continued to grow both internally and through key acquisitions like Lineups.com and i15 Media. If I thought we had changed at break-neck speed over four years, speaking with Gouker, I realised perhaps as much, if not more, change has been packed into the time since I left.

There are the obvious, external changes like the addition of a data-driven site like Lineups.com, but with that comes internal change. For Gouker, integrating a site like that into a portfolio comes with internal changes as well.

“We try to let the acquisitions be what they were,” he explained. “I think we try to use as many differentiated approaches as possible.” Moreover, he noted there are opportunities to improve existing successful formulas by sharing what they know with new acquisitions in addition to learning from them. 

Learning as they go is essential for Catena. The company is one of the top affiliates, but that status isn’t something you achieve then rest your laurels upon. Catena definitely had a head start, but things have changed since 2016.

“Five years ago, we were really the only ones focusing on North America. And it was almost too easy at that point because the amount of competition was so low. Then it started getting aggressive quickly,” Gouker recalled. 

“We’re still the leader in North America, but there’s so much more competition and that’s not just from the will that other affiliates have brought to this but traditional media as well, which really only manifested itself in the last year and a half.”

What is interesting about the emergence of traditional media competitors is that, in many instances, they team up with affiliates rather than compete against them. For example, Catena recently took over the deal with Advantage Local to work together on NJ.com. These partnerships are one of the few areas where Catena has not been a pioneer and its competitors have been quicker to embrace traditional, local newspaper partnerships.

Gouker conceded these partnerships have value, but he also questions if they are a sure-fire return on investment.

“Those deals have been kind of pricey for everyone. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, smaller sites can work. Sometimes, the larger sites that are more expensive to get, that audience could work or could not.”

Meanwhile, he cited Crossing Broad as an example of a smaller site with a dedicated audience that has converted into very successful affiliates.

“We’d be silly to think that just niche affiliate gambling sites are the only things that are going to win. Basically, if you have a good authoritative site, you have a chance to be a good gambling affiliate as well,” he added.

Establishing that authority is something that has changed over the years as well. Ranking for core search terms has always been integral to the business, but Catena initially built its reputation with quality news stories on sites like Legal Sports Report and Online Poker Report. Now, though, news is an even more important component of the game plan.

“News results were not part of the game in search at one point in time. Now, it’s a huge part of it,” Gouker said. “You have to be thinking about that in terms of whether you can capture that share of the audience as well. It’s gotten a lot harder and we can’t just rely on what we’ve done.”

The difficulties extend beyond SERPs, too. With every passing state launch, the low-hanging fruit of new sign ups dries up a little more. More mature markets across the world continue to need affiliates long after launch, but Gouker readily admitted the shrinking map of states without sports betting impacts the bottom line.

“Especially in sports betting, so much of that water is under the bridge. Launches are this critical mass of when people sign up for sportsbooks. If you’ve missed that, you’ve missed a lot of the cash grab so far. It’s not like this is a bad business to be in, but you’re trying to compete for a share of recurring revenue instead of establishing yourself number one right away, and taking that cash up front.”

That is not to say a new competitor couldn’t come into the sports betting affiliate space, run a standard SEO-based affiliate playbook, and succeed. Where that could work though is online casino.

Catena is already paying attention to the potential of online casino, particularly with its Play brand of sites. Gouker also understands that the market is more complex than tackling casino pages onto a successful sports betting site.

“If you’re not looking at the casino and that opportunity, then you might be behind. It’s a different audience. Even though there’s cross-sell, it’s a different type of site,” he said. “I don’t think you can always just bolt on casino to sports betting and say, ‘hey, that’s going to work.’”

Affiliates are increasingly finding situations where the conventional approach either isn’t as effective or won’t work. Period. Canada is a great example. The industry standard has been to highlight bonuses and deposit offers. Those are off the table in Ontario. Moreover, the top operators so far were grey operators before, so there wasn’t the same pool of potential players to convert at launch.

“If you’re an existing grey market operator, in Ontario, you have a pretty good advantage. If you’re an endemic Canadian brand, if you have an advantage, you don’t have to go acquire customers. You already had the customers, you just transferred your base.”

New operators are struggling in Ontario, both because they don’t have that pre-existing base of customers in the territory and because the marketing rules limit both affiliates and operators when it comes to presenting what they have to offer.

“If you are a new player, it [online gambling] doesn’t look terribly attractive to you if you don’t know what’s going on and an operator can’t talk about what bonuses they offer until you actually get on their site. So that’s a tough slog for all of us. Not just affiliates, but for operators, especially new operators,” Gouker noted.

Ontario isn’t the best affiliate model, but it could be a sign of things to come. Catena Media and others need to continuously adapt to new regulations, new markets, new competition, and new algorithms. The climb to the top may have been relatively simple, but defending the summit is a complex and difficult ongoing battle.