Ten years from now when I’m either saving whales in Antarctica or taking man’s first curious steps on the surface of Mars, I think it is inevitable that it will be the Wild West pre UIGEA days that will spring first to mind when I ponder my days in the e-gaming industry.
All of us who were part of it back then know that’s a ride we will never experience again (and maybe that’s for the better, because you did burn fuel like an Apollo rocket).
I got my break in the online poker industry in mid 2004 when someone who I believe had very little time and very few alternatives hired me on a hunch as a Copywriter for PokerRoom.com. I hope he’s never regretted that decision even though it took me less than six months to ship a less than optimally spelled “Judg(e)ment Day” add to a Canadian TV guide with a nifty circulation of six million…
Before I left PokerRoom.com in the wake of the UIGEA, which probably hit us worse than any other site except Partypoker, I’d done the rounds and dipped my toes in all sorts of interesting pools. We all did.
The reason I decided to write this post was not just to reminiscence about old times though. It is also because I believe that in all the things we did right and all the things we did wrong with PokerRoom, there is one lesson about Social Media I think more e-gaming providers need to learn – although many are learning fast and using tools in smart ways that tenfolds the potential.
An interesting discussion on the topic is currently taking place over at Bill Rini’s place.
I’d love to be able to brag by saying that the reason PokerRoom at one point was the third biggest poker site in the world behind Partypoker and Pokerstars was because of operational excellence, amazingly user-friendly and stabile software and kick-ass marketing. Obviously we got it dead right once in a while but it wasn’t these aspects that primarily drove our success. It was down to SEO dominance, being the sole provider of non-download software… and community.
You’re not dead old friend, but this coma of yours is really depressing.
The SEO lesson has been learned. I remember being told back then that every major competitor had managed to get themselves banned from Google. So we basically reigned supreme there. For a while. Imagine that today!
Secondly, people totally underestimated the value of providing software that didn’t require players to download anything. It gave us Mac user exclusivity and to an extent also work-computer exclusivity which together was well worth the disadvantage of serving players a feature-stripped game client. This lesson was also learned, so while we began struggling with an increasingly patched code base, others started offering intriguing alternatives.
But the third lesson wasn’t fully picked up. And that lesson is very relevant in a business environment where social media is becoming such a natural component of any company’s marketing mix. Social media as such didn’t exist back then. There was no Facebook or Twitter. But public one-on-one and one-on-many conversations certainly took place anyway through forums, chats and single/group messaging. So even though there were limited channels available, the challenges and opportunities of engaging, proactively and reactively, in a personal manner with customers were roughly the same.
One of the fanciest titles you see on LinkedIn these days is Social Media Strategist. That title gives me the willies. Not because I don’t believe you need to have to have a tight strategy before you jump into the cestpool that interacting so closely with customers can become; but because when I look at the background of these Strategist people I get scared. Target-driven marketers and sales people, imho, are so not the right people for the job.
The reason I believe we were quite successful in this area with PokerRoom.com 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 “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…”
When people ask me what I believe is necessary in order to succeed with social media, I usually start with a few tips similar to these ones.
1. Ceremoniously burn all Corporate Communication Guidelines and Public Relations Manifests.
2. Start hating your own company a little.
3. Make sure you have strategy in place specifically for Social Media communication.
4. Make sure that strategy includes a clause that says “fuck this strategy – occasionally”.
5. You’re a human being. Act like one. Talk like one. React like one.
6. Keep in mind that social media doesn’t check out at five PM and doesn’t go home on weekends.
7 Remember that users have a life outside of using your product.
Now you might be in a mood, in a place and in a mindset that will allow you to communicate in a fashion that people can relate to and more importantly react to. At PokerRoom.com we had no problem telling players to go sit on something if we truly felt they were angle-shooting us unfairly, was dumping shit on us that was not for us to be dumped on or simply stopped reasoning with us when we really tried. And sometimes we did it because we lost our heads. In return we applied a lot of inward pressure on their behalf to get stuff fixed, went above and beyond trying to appease requests that emerged from the community, we admitted all sorts of flaws, mistakes and unprofessional conducts and lastly, we never weighed requests based on player’s game activity.
The end result, I believe, was a gaming environment where emotions ran wild and life was a part of the game as much as the game was a part of life. Players could freely tell us to go take a hike in more ways than there are shoes made for that purpose. But they also knew that the people on the other end of the business were not a gang of greedy gangsters in a basement. We were idiots and douchebags sometimes, but in general ordinary human beings just trying to do our jobs.
It was the players that set our agenda. We just came along for the ride.
I can recall one specific incident that has stuck with me.
In the PokerRoom.com forum (called Pokah!) a thread arose that had to do with some guy playing nine three off suit. I don’t remember the story, but it got out of hand like many threads did. The hand became known as the Sik – named so after the guy who started the thread.
Obviously we jumped at the opportunity and ran some good-laugh promotions around this local phenomenon. Basically it was all about winning hands with nine three off suit and showing it. I’m sure the promotions made us about 50 cents.
A couple of weeks later I myself was playing on Pokerstars (prohibited from playing on PokerRoom of course). I was multi-tabling and not really paying attention (I’ll learn that lesson after I walk on Mars or save a whale). Suddenly someone pulled off a gutsy bluff and after winning flipped nine three off suit. I didn’t think much of it. Five minutes later however, the guy (or girl) pulled the same stunt again. A massive bluff that stood followed by a flipped nine-three off suit. Now the other players began questioning what the hell he/she was doing. The (only) response:
“Double-sik you suckers”.
That got a lot of question marks from everyone else. It got a chuckle and a fond memory out of me.
It was just such a great example of the special connection I believe we managed to establish with some players by being frank, brute, honest and allowing them to set the agenda and doing our best to play along.
To this day I feel proud when many of the players who began their careers on PokerRoom.com crush the big games and take down bracelets. They probably all hated me and my colleague on occasion, but that’s ok. Lovehate is my second favorite kind of love. Almost any emotional bond with a customer is better than no emotional bond.
A good Social Media Strategy must always, as one of its primary goals, be aimed at starting conversations. You don’t need Twitter to hold speeches. Newsletters, web pages and advertising are your better options there.
Someone who’s a far bigger expert on the subject than me (I’m sure this is a ground rule) told me that Twitter success cannot be measured in Tweets made or even in number of followers. It’s only when you start racking up reTweets and replies that you’ve gained something you didn’t already have. Because then you’ve established conversations. You’ve stirred emotions. And triggered reactions.
To sum it all up:
Social Media activities aimed at e-gaming should not be about making a player put his money where his mouth is. It should be about making him put his mouth where his money is.
We understood this at PokerRoom.com without really knowing it.
I’m still waiting for someone to best us.*
The post focusing on all our fuckups will be twice as long.