Some of our readers are in the poker industry or just interested in it. This article on gaining player liquidity (marketing) is one of a group of articles that can be found on here that sheds some light on how to launch a poker room. This is not trying to be an authoritative article, it is just touching on a few points. Our staff have brick & mortar and online gaming industry experience, we like to pick their brains from time to time.
First, consider this Poker Brand Graveyard (brands that have shuttered their doors):
Absolute Poker, Action poker, AWHPoker, BetOnSports Poker, Big Bet, Bugsy’s Club, Carbon Poker, Card Spike, Chico Poker network, Doyles Room, Empire, Everleaf, Feltstars, GoalPoker, Infinity Poker, JetSet Poker, KSpoker, Lock Poker, Luck3, Optimus Poker, Overbet, Partouche Poker, Pay No Rake, Pitbull Poker, Planet Poker, Poker Nordica, Poker Room, PokerSpot, PokerView, Purple Lounge, Rosso Poker, SpadeClub, SWC, True Poker, Ultimate Bet, Unique Poker, Victoria Poker, Victor Poker, Wingows, WorldPokerExchange.
“Player liquidity is key to any poker room’s success,” of course, it is! When we hear someone say this or see it in an article, it is usually the advice from someone with limited experience in the gaming industry (we at Latereg call them ‘donkeys’). Imagine an article in ‘Green Grocer Weekly’ stating “if the grocer had more customers, they would sell more vegetables.” Customer liquidity is key to every business, whether you are selling an online gaming experience or a punnet of mushrooms. Staff at Latereg are often called in as consultants by investors once the donkeys have failed. Usually, we are too late, the brand has already drowned, and the investors have lost their money. It is not enough having experience playing poker or loving the game with a passion for succeeding with the launch and operation of an online poker room. It is not enough having a unique idea or functionality to make a difference in the online poker sector. It takes industry experience, knowledge, and patience. “Not money?” you ask, well not necessarily, no. You can find another article here that explains the options for launching your online poker room relatively inexpensively.
Below, we explore the basics of marketing an online poker room. We have replaced the word ‘liquidity’ with the word ‘players’ and asked the question; “how do you get players to the poker room?”. This article is empirical and not definitive, and it is just here to give an idea of what is involved when marketing a start-up poker room. Let’s consider this list:
- Website & Content
- Brand Awareness, Logo, Time & Money
- Crucial Staff
- Social Media
- Online Advertising, Media purchasing
- Affiliate Marketing
- Email Marketing
- Event Sponsorship
- Poker Ambassadors
- Social Gaming
Website & Content
The website is a Portal
Most poker start-ups make a mistake in thinking that the website is just an online host to offer the poker download. This idea is due to the donkeys’ experience with brands such as; PokerStars or Party Poker. These market leaders do not have much by way of poker content on their sites, because they do not need it. These two brands have more than 70% of the market sewn up, and their brand marketing is largely offline, they advertise on TV and sponsor/organize the largest land-based poker tournaments in the World.
Your brand is not yet known; you need to think about how you drive players to your website and how you optimize the site so that it ranks in search engines. However, if you are a White Label poker brand (explained here), the website that is provided to you by your platform provider may only be customized with basic branding (changing header banners, etc.). In this instance, you are not going to win any awards with your Search Engine Optimization skills (SEO), and therefore the website is, in fact, a host for the download, not great, but you can do something about it.
“Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture”. Allen Ginsberg
Content is King
If you could design the front end of your website, then you have options; your website could include a WordPress blog integration where you can invite bloggers to write poker content for your website, or you can employ a poker writer. Ideally, your website would include current poker news, something which keeps the player re-engaging with your brand and will drive SEO. Last year I was working with a ‘donkey’ who thought he knew how to build the poker website, I mentioned that I though a poker news section was good content for driving SEO, he disagreed. I asked him “what’s the biggest online poker news website?”, “PokerNews” he replied. What he did not know was that until last year PokerNews.com was thought to be an independent poker news website (not us! We broke that news long before), then, owners IBUS Media was forced to admit that The Stars Group (PokerStars) was their majority shareholder. My point, which the donkey didn’t quite get, was the fact that if the biggest online poker operator with net poker revenues of over $800 million thinks owning a poker news site was a good idea, then maybe we could consider poker content?
Your website should be available in multiple languages; it will usually change to local language automatically through geolocation. If there is no local language (translation) then the site content will show the default English language. Consider the facts that your promotional affiliate banners should be in the standard sizes (at least 24), there will be around 14 website branding banners and an average website would have content in 8-16 languages, that would require your developer creating over 600 banners, then there will be the text content translations. You can employ translators, but unless they are familiar with gaming terms and nuance, it will not work. You should use a gaming translation agency, but it will not be cheap. Your Management team will suggest prioritizing the translations according to your target markets and expected revenues from those markets.
Brand, Logo, Time & Money
So, if you are limited to basic branding and cannot get much content on the website to drive SEO, don’t panic, you can build other websites or work with other website owners to provide back-links to your site. Writers for publishers such as Huffington Post and Forbes will not link to an online casino. They will, however, link to an authoritative website if that website provides value and is related to an article’s topic. The trick is to build a portfolio of high-authority websites that link to your real-money site while passing relevancy. Link the websites with your social media as described below and you will gain some brand recognition. Most people do not realize this; online casinos and poker brands may have 20 or 30 websites each, mostly simple one or two-page sites on topics such as; poker tournament news, online casino free spins, bonus hunter tips, and even problem gambling. Creating multiple websites allow you to create back-links and drive your real money gaming website player sign-ups and SEO.
You need to introduce your brand, grow it and sustain brand awareness, and it will not be a quick process. The donkeys think that they can promote massive deposit bonuses, give freerolls and free cash, then inform the players via block email to affiliates. They then spend a fortune in paid ads online, put out a press release of the launch, sit back and count player registrations. The ‘build it, and they will come’ approach fails every time.
Affiliates make money by sending players to good poker operators, and if you are a new brand, they may be wary of you. Ask yourself “why would an affiliate choose to represent my brand?”. You will need to contact the affiliates, build some trust, inform them about you and your company, your software, your brand. If the affiliate trusts your brand, they will then look at what your Unique Selling Point is. Your USP is either going to be operational, functional or promotional. Do your homework, network with the affiliates, treat them with respect and your brand will earn trust, but do not put all your hopes in affiliate marketing.
Use Social Media to grow your brand awareness, engage in online conversations on facebook and twitter, post links to your website. Be sneaky, study how successful brands use social media. For example, some brands use infographics, or fun facts, competitions, quizzes, contests. Posts on Linkedin and Facebook can get you followers and sign-ups. Your brand may be a unique, ground-breaking and innovative product but if nobody can find out about it, it will not remain unique for long. Somebody will copy your ideas and be successful in marketing and executing them if you are not. Consider these brands that ripped off someone else’s idea:
A logo is an associator for your brand. However, if players do not know about your brand, how can they associate your logo with it? The usual logo choice is a playing card suit symbol (club, diamond, heart or spade). The choice of such a design is because; a) all players recognize that they are playing card symbols b) PokerStars have one!
In the digital age, a logo could be a symbol, a couple of strokes of a paintbrush, a typeface, the company name, a symbol of a product of the company, a squiggle or even a sound! Logos also follow the trend, so if the logo of a FAANG changes (an acronym for the market’s five most popular and best-performing tech stocks, namely; Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google), so too does thousands of logos throughout the World. “What is the latest trend?” you ask. Take a look below at the logos of major companies that have recently changed, do you spot a theme?
Logos are like clothes; they follow trends (as I did when I tripped over my ‘bell bottoms’ and broke my arm in the ’70s. If you do not know what ‘bell bottoms’ are, don’t worry, they will never come back in fashion). Market research company Comscore estimates that 50% of all searches will be spoken searches by 2020. Consider how you will be searching online for a poker company in a couple of years: Will it be “Alexa, take me to the company that has the squiggly brush strokes that look like the clubs symbol on a playing card” or “Alexa open Plain Jane Poker.”
Time & Money
Most online poker start-ups fail because the well runs dry. They run out of cash before they have had time to position the brand. A donkey will expect they can launch a website with a pretty logo, a press release, a deposit bonus, and 20 affiliate banner posts. Then the donkey and his team of foals expect hundreds if not thousands of players to register, deposit and play. That will not happen.
Unless your start-up has $millions to spend in marketing, advertising and promotion expect the worse for player registrations and anything other will be a bonus. Plan, plan and plan some more. Set goals, but more importantly set budgets. Look at budgeting for the minimum operating costs without revenues (a worst-case scenario, if you like). For example; how much would you need to open the online poker room and operate it for one year, secure those funds, set out your budget and adhere to it. Remember, it is easy to add to the budget once revenues start coming in, but if you max-out your finances with a budget based on a few months and are unsuccessful in attaining projected revenues, there are only two roads you can then take; raise more money or close the operation.
If you open your poker site with one or two staff, you are either a donkey and have no idea what you are doing, or those staff members are magicians. The brand needs a lot of care to get it to the point where the online poker community knows it. If your operation is bootstrapped and you only have a few key experienced staff, they will need time; they will have to be ‘Jack & Jill-of-all-trades’ to drive players to the brand.
Your setup (Managed, White Label, Turnkey, standalone, part of a network) will dictate the level of required staffing. PokerStars (The Stars Group) employs 1,600 people and until recently had retired US Army General and former Democratic Party presidential nominee Wesley Clark as a member of the board of directors. We are not saying that you should look to the Armed Services to complete your rota, just that the size of your operation is relevant to the number of staff that you will require. It is usual for start-up gaming companies to employ a gaming industry management company with an experienced team ready to take to the helm.
Let’s consider you as a White Label operator (explained here). Most operational positions are staffed by the WL provider, leaving you to concentrate on marketing and driving player registrations to the brand. Your investors have entrusted their hard-earned cash to the company and therefore you, but you cannot do everything alone. In the start-up-phase, you will need to negotiate with the gaming platform provider, and there is a lot to negotiate. Below are just a few areas of the operation to consider, this will help you to decide whether you employ staff directly or engage a management company.
You will need to agree on the set-up costs, the terms of the contract and the delivery schedule of the gaming platform. The platform will require content and third-party products, and there will be costs to consider. Most likely your WL contract will be revenue-share-based, and you will require gaming industry knowledge to understand the processes and the calculations involved. Employing an experienced Operations Manager is crucial. The Ops Manager will have experience in every aspect of an online gaming operation; the platform, 3rd party games providers, security & fraud, marketing, licensing, affiliate marketing, etc.
For branding and marketing, you will require a developer or graphic designer, if out-sourcing then he or she may not have industry experience, so you will need to shadow their every move. Your social media will be important (see below) and you will require someone with knowledge in this area.
Customer relations is an integral part of an online gaming operation, and you will need a staff member to integrate CRM software (Customer Relations Management) so that you can engage with your players, the Customer Relations Manager will create the back-end operations for this department. CRM will be a full-time position from Start-up.
Affiliates will be very important to you, and a full-time Affiliate Manager will be required early on in the growth of the operation. A Country Manager is employed to target specific countries, localize content and grow brand awareness in that region. As your brand grows, you will require a bigger Country Manager department (more staff, etc.). The above are just a few positions that are key to the day to day operation of an online poker brand, and as your business grows, your rota may read like this (an employee list for a poker operator, you can find the same for yourself with a company search on Linkedin).
CEO, CFO, Director of Operations. Product Manager, Director of New Markets, Marketing Manager, Digital Marketing Director, Head of Loyalty and Bonuses, Paid Search Manager, Director of Live Events, Affiliate Manager, Country Manager, Support Services Manager, Customer Retentions Manager, Head of Security and Fraud, Head of Advertising, Poker Operations Manager, Casino Operations Manager, Sportsbook Operations Manager, SEO Manager, Content Manager, Branding & Engagement Manager, VIP Manager, Business Development Manager, Payments Manager, Head of Design, IT Manager, Copywriter, Responsible Gaming Manager, Legal and Licensing Head, HR, Social Media Manager, Market Researcher, Live Stream and distribution, Ring Games Manager, Tournament Director
Mm, a lot of people and a lot of cash needed to cover payroll! If you are still reading this article, you will most probably (when you start your poker company) contract with a Management Company who will organize your start-up and have the experience and people required to manage the day-to-day operations. A good management team will free you up so that you can concentrate on marketing.
Please, do not make the common mistake: If you are lifelong poker player or have designed some USP that you think will revolutionise the game, do not assume that you understand how to set up and operate an online poker room. Two of the staff members at Latereg have 55 combined years’ experience in the gaming industry (live and online poker included), they learn new things every day. The online gaming industry is still relatively young. Legislation is changing throughout the countries of World, there are constantly new advertising and data protection laws to understand. Even the biggest companies get things wrong, so if you are not experienced in online gaming, how do you expect to keep up? Here is an example of a simple yet costly mistake:
The Dutch government passed laws recently that forbids gaming operators from targeting Dutch Nationals unless they are licensed. William Hills didn’t realise that their site could still be found in the Dutch language and they still had iDEAL available on the site (a payment processor only available to those that bank in the Netherlands). The Dutch courts took this to mean that William Hills were still actively targeting Dutch Nationals and imposed a €300,000 fine. Last year, such fines from legislative bodies around the World amounted in fines of more than €14 million to online operators.
Do not be that donkey that gets it wrong, employ experienced management.
The importance of Social Media marketing in the online poker sector is growing. You can build marketing campaigns around social media relatively inexpensively, and it engages players. Without a doubt, the most effective campaigns on facebook and twitter for online poker brands involve poker news articles, game strategy, competitions and quizzes, fun stuff! A deposit bonus banner is no longer enough to draw players attention.
Facebook – 1.6 billion users
Twitter – 300 million users
Instagram – 1 billion users
Remember that Twitter is a short attention media, in other words, you tweet a tweet, and an hour later it is buried under a myriad of tweets. Remember, online players are most active in the evening, so think about scheduling your tweets and facebook posts, use software to auto-post when you are not in the office, simply posting social media 9 to 5 is not good practice. Also, ensure that your staff is cross-selling (casino, slots, sportsbook) and not just concentrating on poker.
Use Twitter, Facebook and other social media apps to drive views to your site content or to a poker blog or news item that your brand is featured or advertised in. Use a graphic, picture or statement that will grab a poker players’ attention. If you write articles, try not to come across as authoritative but knowledgeable, think like a poker player when designing your social media campaigns.
As your business grows, the need for strong social media marketing will grow, you will require a full-time Social Media Manager.
Online Advertising & Media Purchasing
It is very easy to spend money on adverts and media placements, but if you are on a tight budget, you should think carefully as to where your money could be better spent. Part of your marketing will be affiliate marketing (see below), this is a difficult area unless you have experience, affiliates will not simply come flooding to you, just like players, they need to be able to find you. For example; an advertisement on a poker news site will get you some player registrations. For the same amount of money, you could advertise in a B2B industry specific magazine that will be read by most serious affiliates. Affiliates will now know you are open for business, and they will bring you many registrations between them, you will pay for this, of course.
If you are running a promotion, then it makes sense to plan your advertising around such promotions. You can afford to think ‘out-of-the-box,’ and you will probably need to, you will not have the luxury of PokerStars advertising budget. I like to tell the following story, which is a prime example of making the best of what you have: In the early days of brick and mortar casinos in Poland back in the early ’90s, there were two casinos just 200 yards apart. One was a multi-national casino operator, the other a stand-alone local casino. One was running a promotion for players to win a brand new red Porsche that was showcased on a revolving plinth outside the casino entrance. The other had a white van on bricks with the doors open showing it full of electronic goods (TV’s, video recorders, etc.). Guess, which was the busiest? The General Manager of the local casino understood that in 1992, driving a new Porsche around Warsaw would probably get you unwelcome attention from the Mafia. However, a new white van would be a great addition to any business and Western electronic goods were highly valued. The moral of the story is; do your homework, sometimes simple can be best.
We will not touch on PPC (Pay Per Click), Bet365 spent £2 million on PPC in June 2017 alone, you will not compete, your money should be spent elsewhere. The industry considers a ‘lifetime player value’ (the amount of money a player will provide to the brand over a period) and measures this against the CPA (Cost Per Acquisition). Unless you have a great Customer Relations Manager and player management process, you may find that running PPC and Google Adwords will provide negative value (it costs more to gain a player than they provide your brand revenue during their lifetime).
Donkey Management will also consider ‘partnerships’ with other operators or individuals to ‘buy’ player information and emails, etc. This practice will land you in the deep brown-stuff.
The donkey will say “I hate affiliates, I hate paying them”, but, your affiliates will be important to you in the early months and years while you are branding your product. The affiliates have had bad press, and some deserved, I must say. But, affiliate marketing is just one more cog in your ‘marketing machine’ it can have great synergy with your other efforts. Most of the time the ROI for affiliate lead registrations is higher than most other marketing efforts.
The best affiliates are skillful SEO professionals; they know what it takes to get ranked by the search engines, which is how they get players to notice them. They invest a lot of time and money finding new and innovative ways to attract players. Affiliates require payment, and if your brand is not offering competitive revenue-share, they will not feature your brand predominantly.
Remember, you are only paying on results. If an affiliate marketer requires payment at the end of the month, it will be because your brand has benefitted from the revenue received from players that the affiliate introduced to your brand.
Define your marketing strategy, plan for the year ahead and look at how the affiliates can assist you. If you are running a promotion, make sure that you have promotional banners available for the affiliates to promote your brand. Your banners should be in all the sizes that may be required, if an affiliate cannot easily find a banner size that suits them, they will not promote you. Engage regularly with the affiliates, newsletters and campaign emails are a good way to keep in touch. Keep your promotional activities fresh. Your Marketing Manager will need to engage affiliates at the industry expos in London, Amsterdam, and Barcelona.
Your brand will need specialized affiliate software integrated with the gaming platform, there are many programs available, some better than others and you will need to research and find a program that suits your needs. This software allows you to communicate with your affiliates, keeping them up to date with promotions, This is where the affiliates will source advertising banners and HTML code for links that they will use to promote your brand. At the end of every month, the software shows details for revenue earned from players that each affiliate has introduced to your brand. The software calculates the fees and revenue share that each affiliate is due. Your Affiliate Manager will generate the reports and invoices for the finance department to make payments or pay into the Affiliate’s player account.
Consider this, your brand has a sportsbook, and you are trying to increase your poker revenue. Some players will play on the sportsbook but not the poker; you need to market the poker product to them. Likewise, poker players may not use your sportsbook, so it makes sense to promote to them also. The smaller brand largely ignores cross-selling. We know of one CEO of a poker brand that did not want casino table games such as blackjack and banker poker, he thought them competition! “eeee-awwww!”.
The best time to engage sports bettors is when there are key sporting moments, such as; World Cup, Premier League football matches in the evening. These players will be online 1 hour before and during the game, probably half-time or making in-game bets. Use social media to attract attention to your brand by highlighting the sporting events. Industry figures show that sports bettors are more likely to play poker after a live game on TV.
Consider your poker players during sporting events, for example; a message in the chat room letting players know that you are offering odds on the event on your brand’s sportsbook. Or, for example; let poker players know that there is a new slot machine in the casino and promotion is running offering free spins.
Email marketing is an area that requires very specialist knowledge, or you may find your brand being taken to court or fined by a licensing authority, Many a ‘donkey’ has cost online gaming companies $millions in fines. You must also be aware of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). If a business is found to violate the GDPR, it may face fines ranging from 2% – 4% of their revenue and up to 20 million euros for the most serious infractions. So, if you have a donkey in your company, keep him or her away from marketing at all costs.
Your Management Team or your Customer Relations Manager will be experienced in email marketing, and it is important that you leave this area to them to sign off, but by all means, get involved. You will require a good CRM software package integrated into your platform. CRM software allows you to build reports on your players and create marketing campaigns to get the best possible engagement from your registered players. ‘Churn’ is an industry term that is used to describe a player that came to your site, registered and deposited and then stopped playing, no longer providing you revenue. A good CRM Manager will reduce the rate of churn and maximise player liquidity and therefore your revenues from every player.
Standard donkey move here is to write a press release that states you are the next best thing and sends it to every email he can find on google. You need to think who the press release is aimed at and where they are most likely to see it. An experienced gaming professional will know the most effective sites for informing players. A professional will prioritize those sites, for he or she knows that those sites want to have new and fresh news, for readership and SEO (a scoop). Blanket posting should happen after the majors have received the press release. Better still would be an advertorial as a press release on a major site and an interview with someone like Mathew Pitt or Barry Carter, two very distinguished poker writers.
You cannot compete with the big boys if one of then is running a $5 million tournament schedule, then your $1,000 freeroll will not make for great news, so do not put it in your press release. Concentrate on your USP, if you do not have one, find one. Look for a niche to advertise, for example; a series of tournaments that players can enter to win holidays, tournament packages, etc.
Try and strike up a conversation with an Editor or writer who you are hoping will take your press release. Industry events like ICE (International Casino Exhibition) in London are great events to network with influencers and people who can get your brand noticed, so planning a press release around such an event makes good sense.
Do your homework. A donkey would state in his press release how his or her brand is better than a competitor or it has functionality that is better or more beneficial to poker players. The donkey then wonders why the press release was used to mop up a spillage instead of leading the front page of the news site that day. But, if he or she did their homework, they would have realized that the competitor they slagged in the press release was, in fact, the main sponsor of the poker news website. So if you have functionality or a product that you believe is better than a competitor, let the players decide the merits. Schedule your press releases. Do not send for release Thursday to Sunday as this is the busiest period for tournaments news. Do not send around major events such as the WSOP (World Series of Poker).
As a new brand, you will most likely not be in a financial position to sponsor a major sporting or poker tournament event. However, you will be able to offer satellite tournaments and step tournaments as part of your poker schedule. Offering packages that include flights, hotel accommodation, live tournament entry and maybe spending money are always popular with poker players.
But if you still want to sponsor an event, think about local events, make a business plan for each event, set goals; financial and player acquisition targets. For example; one of our team was working with a poker brand and organized for it to sponsor a bar poker league. The promotion was a low-cost endeavor yet it provided some player sign-ups to the brand. It worked so well that the brand sponsored quarterly events for over three years and was able to make a profit on every event. Consider every event as a standalone player acquisition tool, count the number of players that signed up to your brand as a result of the event, multiply that by your PLV (Player Lifetime Value amount), minus the event costs (include staff salaries) and that is your ROI (Return on Investment) for that event. If it works, do it again.
I doubt that Negreanu or Ivey will be wearing your logo at the WSOP. Poker brands have moved away from paying professional players to act as brand ambassadors and have moved to have sports stars and even comedians and actors represent their brands. However, poker players do love free branded merchandise so it may well be to your advantage to have a line of merchandise with your brand predominantly placed. Give merchandise away to players at tournament venues or as freebies or prizes in quizzes; this is a great tool to use in a social media marketing campaign.
If you have the opportunity to open a social poker brand, especially on mobile, that you can link to your real-money poker brand then do so. It is very easy to launch a mobile poker brand on Google Play and Apple Store. Mobile poker software can be licensed very inexpensively, and the operating costs are low. This is an introduction to online poker for the casual social player and if your brand is linked to the app then the player may well move to that real-money product when they are comfortable with the game and the rules.
This article was sponsored by RealDealGaming Ltd (visit www.realdealgaming.co.uk)