One silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the surge in online poker play. As millions were under lockdown around the world, poker sites pretty much universally saw a massive uptick in the number of players battling it out at the virtual felt. With lockdowns now easing, however, and the world getting back to a new normal, one wonders how long that resurgence can last in the online poker realm. To a large degree, of course, good player retention is up to the online poker operators.
In this edition of our ongoing Ask the Poker Experts series, we approached four veteran poker pundits to get their views on this issue and to share their recommendations for keeping online poker traffic humming along in the wake of the lifting worldwide lockdowns.
I’d like to thank (in alphabetical order) Barry Carter, Chad Holloway, Nick Jones, and Alex Scott, who kindly agreed to take part in this panel and share their advice. I’m certain that Cardplayer Lifestyle readers will find their answers intriguing and instructive.
QUESTION: How should online poker companies retain the new audience they’ve captured during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown?
I’m not sure what I would suggest for their regular tournaments, cash games and promotions, but one thing I am 100% confident on is that online poker rooms need to do more for private online home games. The lockdown has shown that there is a thirst for private poker games between friends online. It was the biggest searched-for query in poker (“where to play online with friends”), almost every operator launched a home game offering, and PokerStars had 300,000 new home game registrations in a month during the lockdown.
Of course that is part necessity; if the lockdown had not happened these games would have taken place on kitchen tables around the world as normal. I do think the audience has always been there, however, for private games among friends. We have seen this in the rise of unregulated private poker apps which are rife with risks.
So I would suggest the poker operators improve their home game platforms and perhaps do some promotions for people who start home games with them. I’d also say the spoils will go to the first operator who can put a webcam feature on each player’s avatar so everyone can make fun of each other in real time. There is a lot of attention on huge guaranteed tournaments right now but an operator who makes the game fun for a bunch of friends will probably get more long-term customers.
Barry Carter is the editor of PokerStrategy.com and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1&2, Poker Satellite Strategy and the upcoming PKO Poker Strategy.
I pay particular attention to online poker in the United States, especially in the regulated markets of New Jersey, Nevada, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. All four of those states need to keep the ball rolling with increased marketing and promotions that appeal to players. For companies like PokerStars, partypoker, and WSOP.com, it’s an opportunity to show the rest of the country what they could have if and when online gaming expands.
To that end, I would love to see those companies compile and share data from when the country was largely shut down (Quarter 2 of 2020). Assuming the numbers impress, they might inspire others – such as casinos in other states, politicians, etc. – to give online poker another look. After all, while most casinos across the country were shut down making zero revenue, those with online operations still had some income. That’s a powerful fact that could help ignite more operator interest in the United States.
The last half of 2020 and likely majority of 2021 should offer a unique window for both players and companies to push for expanded online poker in the United States. I just hope everyone is ready and willing to lobby their casinos and politicians.
Finally, online poker companies should learn from any mistakes brought to the forefront as a result of increased traffic including software glitches, lagging (or non-existent) customer service times, etc. There’s a map out of there on what not to do and a path to improvement. Hopefully, those in charge were paying attention and will implement changes.
Chad Holloway is a longtime poker industry journalist as well as a WSOP bracelet winner (2013 Employees Event). In 2019, he won the inaugural Poker Industry Championship tournament. Chad currently serves as Head of Live Reporting North America for PokerNews while also writing articles and serving as co-host of the popular PokerNews Podcast.
My view on this is that, hopefully, that work is already done. As always, the job when a new customer is acquired is making sure that that new players feel they get value for their entertainment money so they become repeat customers. That is no different during the pandemic. I can only identify one unique property from a subset of new players over last two months; one specific use-case that operators have needed to meet: offering private tables so players can host their home games online. Operators that met that new demand will have benefited.
But beyond that, I think the task of retaining customers is the same as before, just on a bigger scale. Providing entertainment that is valued by the player. In poker, that broadly means a fun game, a good chance of winning, a strategic hill to climb, and a competitive environment. It can also mean clear demonstrations of value for being a loyal player.
That can come with specific systems — promotions to keep them interested, regular big weekly tournaments, a variety of games to try, a VIP program to retain loyalty — but probably more important is the overall environment and experience a player has when they first engage with the brand. That starts from the first minute, when a player signs up, downloads the software and makes their first deposit, through to their initial exploration of the games and software. Is it a welcoming environment? Is it simple to understand? Is the signup and verification process low friction and unobtrusive? Does a player feel like they have a winning chance? Do they feel the games are legitimate? Do they feel like they are playing against real players?
There has been a surge in huge tournament series, massive Sunday tournaments and big promotions the last couple of months, and that helps get into headlines and direct some of the latent online poker interest to one particular site. But that is when the real job starts — can you turn that interested person into a lifelong online poker fan who is loyal to your brand?
Nick Jones is the Editor in Chief at Poker Industry PRO, the industry’s premium news and data platform. He has been writing, analyzing, consulting and tweeting about the online poker industry for almost a decade. You can follow him on Twitter at @pokerprojones.
I think this is a very difficult question with no easy answer. We’ve seen tremendous growth in poker because people all around the world have been forced to stay at home, and with so much time on their hands many of them were attracted to online poker either as newcomers or returning players. We also saw existing players play a little more than usual, and all of this combined to create significantly increased liquidity. But in my opinion none of this is going to last…
We’re quickly plunging into a global recession, the likes of which we have never seen in our lifetimes. Companies will collapse and many people will lose their jobs, if they haven’t already. Gambling typically weathers a recession better than most of life’s luxuries, but the pool of new money coming into the system is going to shrink; no doubt about it.
Furthermore, as lockdowns start to ease, people will crave a return to socialising with their friends and family, making up for lost time together. Since online poker traffic is driven largely by casual players (this is why traffic dips during summer, when people tend to socialise more), we are going to see a precipitous decline as lockdown eases, of a much greater magnitude than the usual seasonal trend.
All of this comes on top of the usual fatigue, which is a natural part of the player lifecycle. People grow tired of poker, go do something else for a while, and some of them come back to try again later. But many don’t.
The challenges are stark, but by no means impossible to overcome. If I were an online poker operator, I would be focusing first and foremost on two things:
- First, the lifeblood of the poker ecosystem – deposits.
We know that players’ disposable income will be more limited than usual, and they will be less inclined to spend it on online poker than usual. Even more than before, we’ll be competing against other lifestyle and entertainment activities for discretionary spend. So we must give players more reasons than ever to deposit with us. Generous deposit bonuses might be one way to do this, or other promotions linked to deposits, such as the opportunity to win a one-of-a-kind experience. Many of us have been starved of outdoor, social experiences, so if deposits are rewarded with the opportunity to take part in something really special, that might be very attractive.
- Secondly, we must give players a reason to log on and play today – even if it’s only for a few minutes.
Typically, we reserve these types of promotions for the summer, when we offer small rewards just for logging in and playing a hand or two, or playing one jackpot SNG, whatever it might be. The focus is on games that are fast and can be played on mobile, so casual players can fit them in among their social commitments. More than ever, promotions like this will be needed as lockdown eases and people return to socialising with a bang.
Ultimately there is no magic formula. To an extent, we must accept the inevitable and be prepared for the decline when it comes. Beyond that, poker operators will need to get creative and give players exceptionally compelling reasons to spend their time playing online poker, when they could be enjoying life in myriad other ways.
Alex Scott has been working in the poker business for nearly 15 years, starting out with the World Poker Tour, then working his way up through PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and most recently as Managing Director of the poker division at Microgaming.
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