The Value of Free

I was just reading Kim Lund’s excellent post Why was five years ahead of its time and I couldn’t help pick up on one of the points he made about social media (which was trying to do years ago). Kim says:

The reason I believe we were quite successful in this area with was, amongst other things, because the thought of monetizing our community wasn’t really on our minds until years later. We invested time, sweat and money into it because running a community was such integral part of the business that, well, it made sense to nurture it for the sake of it. It took a long while before we started asking “look, is all this actually worth anything?” This helped us avoid many pitfalls that Social Media initiatives often fall into. I tend to liken it to a conversation that starts like this:

“Look dude, I am not trying to sell you anything, but how about you have a look at this…”


Especially with many poker rooms seeing their numbers drop every quarter they’re so desperate it feels like walking down Sukhumvit Road and having to fend off the tailors who all think a guy in flip-flops, shorts, and a t-shirt is in the market for a nice wool suit.

I remember many conversations over the years where I would suggest something and people would look at me blankly and ask “But how do we make money off of that?” And the point is that you shouldn’t try to monetize everything you do. Sometimes you do it because it’s valuable to your customers and increases your brand awareness as well as goodwill towards your brand.

It’s funny because when the marketing guys are out there spending money they know how to spend without knowing if they’re getting any return. How many players signed up for bwin because they put their name on the Real Madrid jerseys? I mean, it only cost them $29.1 million so they surely have a way to track signups, right? Or how about all of these sponsorship deals they hand out to every player who wins any sort of tournament? Are they making positive ROI on those? I doubt it.

But when you say, “What if we created a branded tournament clock that people could use in their home games?” Everybody sits around trying to figure out how we’re going to make money off of it. Listen, you can whack this thing out for under $5,000 and probably get 100,000 installs. That’s 5 cents per install. And if those 100,000 people have one homegame every month with 10 players that’s 1 million people you’ve either exposed to your brand, reinforced your brand to, and promoted online poker to.

Here’s (what seems to me to be) a no-brainer: Ernest Hwang who wrote the Poker Tour Cam (now only .99) used to work for a certain online poker room. Why don’t they call him up and buy the app from him? Rebrand it and give it away free? Then you set up a little section on your site (or create a new site) and ask people to send in their best Poker Tour Cam pics (better yet, let people do it right from the app). Hell, if you want to monetize it offer people a freeroll on the site if they upload a pic.

Poker Tour Cam

That’s the kind of thing that goes viral. People love that kind of stuff. And it’s FREE!

And because it’s tied to the online poker site in name only you can go pimp that over on tech blogs and wherever else you can get some press. The potential reach is huge.

But how does that bring people in the door? The same way that paying millions of dollars to have your ad flashed on the advertising board around the pitch at a (European) football match or having a banner positioned behind the snooker players in a match. In other words, it’s difficult to measure exactly how many signups that translates into. The only difference is both of the ideas I mentioned shouldn’t cost more than a few thousand dollars.

Free is not a bad thing. Doing stuff for your customers that doesn’t generate any immediate revenue or can’t be measured in terms of new signups has a long-tail effect just like branding.

The online poker sites need to quit looking at customers as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and find ways to provide a more immersive experience.

Kim makes the point:

Remember that users have a life outside of using your product.

Again, exactly! This is the part where most online poker marketing falls flat on its face. Online poker rooms should be looking for more ways to establish contact with players when they’re not playing poker or generating revenue for the site. For instance, the Poker Tour Cam is great because while I may not be able to play poker on my iPhone I can still interact with your brand.

Just imagine an experience where your players are helping promote your company. You have this Poker Tour Cam app and one of your players downloads it. Maybe he’s just a little fish on your site. He’s deposited $50 and has been playing the micros. You’ve made $1 or $2 off him to date and chances are that you’re never going to make any big money off of him.

But he yapping away with his buddy and shows him this cool little app he downloaded. His buddy is a poker player so the two of them end up posing for some crazy pictures and his buddy asks him where he got it. “Oh, I got it from iTunes. It’s the Full Tilt Poker Tour Cam.” “Full Tilt?” the buddy asks. “Yeah, I play on there and they sent me a link to this thing. It’s cool.” your customer says. “Hmmm, I usually play on Stars. I’ve been thinking about opening an account on Full Tilt though,” respond his buddy.

Or maybe he’s showing it off to a friend and they ask him where he got it and he says “Oh, I got it from iTunes. It’s the Full Tilt Poker Tour Cam. I play poker on their site.” “Really? I’ve been thinking about playing online but I’m not sure. Are they any good?”

See where I’m going with this? By giving away something for free you’ve provided your customer with a reason to discuss your brand and to recommend it to others.

And you think nothing of spending $20,000 a year for t-shirts, squeeze balls, pens, and other crap to give out at the WSOP, trade shows, and affiliate conventions but this is something that only costs maybe $5,000 – $10,000 to develop and you can give out millions of copies and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.

And it doesn’t have to be a tournament clock or the Poker Tour Cam. I’m just throwing ideas out there and illustrating how even when the stuff if right there in front of their face many online poker rooms don’t see the potential. I could think of several dozen ideas. In fact, I took a lunch break while writing this and at least 10 ideas came to mind.

Free can work.

5 thoughts on “The Value of Free”

  1. @Michael competition should kill the bad poker rooms in long term…
    @Bill Already had the same idea, and still think it will work well 🙂
    For the french market it’s amazing to see how some competitors are noob.. EurosportPoker lost millions because of their shit SEO, and BarrierePoker which is partner of the Francaise des jeux state-owned company has the worst bugged software ever seen in the online poker history 🙂

  2. I totally agree that the Poker Rooms in general have a massive scope to be able to do this, and personally coming from the affiliates side I think it is a really exciting race to see who masters it first. but one thing to consider is actually the cost to the rooms. If a room offers 15 languages they need to have their brand present for all those languages on twitter/ Facebook/ forums etc.. as it is not fair to disreguard whole sections of your player database. If you are going to do sentiment monitoring you would have to get a multi lingual agency to do this the cost of inhouse would be massive – unless you train your existing customer service team and that require someone to spearhead social engagement throughout the whole organisation. It will happen (PKR would be ideal) but it takes some brave decisions to do this.

    That being said the focus is always on the cost to set up but actually it’s the unknown of letting users have some ownership of the brand which IMO traditional marketers are nervous of. No one wants to ask the question “what do you think of us???” and see (excuse the pun) where the chips fall.

  3. Another great idea so why don’t these companies do something about it???

    I have enough experience in business to be able to understand why most companies make the decisions they do. I may not always agree with them but I can normally understand why they take the decisions.

    If I am honest, I am not even very good and coming up with these ideas, which is probably why I am not a millionaire yet but I can not understand why poker sites are completly ignoring the advice from you and countless other bloggers who are obviously smart and know the industry.

  4. Thanks Michael. And why not do a university tour (or near university towns) doing workshops on playing poker? Take some of the D-list poker pros and put them to use.

  5. Another excellent post on a much discussed subject. I am really struggling to understand why I am reading so many blog posts by you and others on this subject and yet I can see so little happening in the poker rooms!!

    The executives at Stars and Tilt maybe able to sit back and relax as they have the volume (although I would never recommend it) but I can not understand why every other site is happy just to sit back and apparently do nothing when in reality a good creative idea can be relatively cheap and if successful can produce huge rewards.

    One interesting thing that I have learned recently is related to something you discussed in your post. When Bwin spent $30m sponsoring Real Madrid they were not bothered about attracting poker players and sports betters to their site. They were in fact advertising to a very small number of fund managers, investment bankers and pension fund trustees who buy and sell huge amounts of their shares.

    They also have the benefits of executive boxes where they can take these people to watch football (or more realistically drink champagne while showing off to their mistresses). It is the same reason that banks and major publicly listed companies spend huge amounts of money sponsoring golf, tennis or whatever other type of sporting event.

    So that explains why publicly listed companies sponsor major events but why are Stars or Tilt sponsoring another D-List poker player who may or may not (and more likely not) make the final table of a TV event?????

    I can’t help thinking that if they cut their rosters by 25% and used the money to approach various schools and universities saying that they would offer scholarships to anyone who can show some real creative thinking, they would end up with loads of silly ideas and one or two gems that would make them far more money that any sponsored pro at a TV event.

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