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Online poker struggles are no secret in the gaming industry. While much of the stunted growth can be blamed on segregated markets and restrictive legislation (cough, United States, cough), other problems include an overall decrease in interest since the Moneymaker-spurred poker boom and an increased interest in other online games like bingo, blackjack, and slots.

Customers want fun games with stimulating animation and the chance to win life-changing money with a spin of the reels. Many don’t want to focus on online poker, a game that requires some study and strategy in order to do well. And those players are not interested in building a lifelong hobby, rather something they can play today with possible immediate rewards and no commitments.

This explains why so many companies like PokerStars have branched out to online casino games and sports betting sites in order to diversify and attract a wider variety of customers. Online poker is no longer enough of a profitable endeavor for most companies to focus all of their energy and resources.

Enter Zynga

Amidst the poker boom, Zynga launched Zynga Poker, an Texas Hold’em app for free-play online poker as a social internet game. It was available on Facebook and other social media sites, as well as for mobile devices, and attracted millions of users soon after its 2007 launch. By 2011, there were more than 38 million people playing the game, a number that rose to approximately 350 million by 2014 with millions logging on daily. Today, the game is offered worldwide in nearly 20 different languages.

The company tried to offer real-money online poker in 2013 in the UK, and reviews were initially positive among players in the UK market where it was available. However, a lack of growth prompted Zynga to shut the site about two years later and focus on its social game. And refocus it did, with a new eye on improving Zynga Poker in the past year and seeing positive results.

Zynga makes money from the social poker app via game credits and extra features that users can purchase within the app. Playing the game costs nothing, but a few dollars garners extra chips and benefits. And with that, Zynga Poker helped push Zynga to $741 million in 2016 revenue, a 44% increase over the previous year. And the poker app comprised nearly 20% of the company’s overall revenue.

Appeal of Social over Real-Money Online Poker

At first glance, one might assume that real-money online poker might be more popular because of the ability for players to garner a financial profit. There is the chance to win money, with an even better chance as skills improve.

However, more people have proven that there is far greater interest in gaming for the sake of entertainment and competition, even if there is no money to be made. Spending a few dollars each month for extra chips is only as expensive as a coffee or two from the neighborhood barista, and it provides hours of enjoyment without any long-term commitment. And there is no risk of losing any significant sum of money or noteworthy amount of time investing in a game that may not pay off.

When a customer sits at a cash game table on a real-money online poker site, some time commitment is required in order to fade luck and any downswings in order to end up with a profit. And tournaments necessitate even more time unless one is playing a turbo, super-turbo, or hyper-turbo of the Spin & Go variety, all of which decrease the chance of skill prevailing over luck. But on a social poker site, one can come and go without guilt, play for hours for fake chips, and simply enjoy the very basics of poker without having to learn pot odds, watch other players’ betting patterns, or worry about a financial loss.

Of course, there are the players who want big poker competition with sizeable tournaments and a variety of cash game options, but those are not available in some parts of the world anymore. For most players in the United States, there are only offshore and unregulated sites offered, which come with a risk of losing one’s entire investment. Even in states like New Jersey where online poker is legal, the offerings are much fewer than what they were during the poker boom and often not enough to inspire much dedication to regular play.

Lessons to be Learned

Can real-money online poker companies learn from social apps like Zynga Poker? Quite possibly.

In one sense, they are entirely different products and seek out vastly different customers. On the other hand, however, there is some money to be made by offering free-play games that generate revenue by selling in-app extras and fun features. It is also beneficial to offer said games through social media outlets like Facebook, where advertising is easier and customers are often looking for ways to kill time.

Zynga Poker never marketed itself as a skill game, nor anything that required any commitment of time, while real-money online poker does focus on skill, which takes time, patience, study, and experience in order to make money. While that is attractive to some customers, many simply don’t want to devote that kind of time, not to mention the risk of losing money in the learning process.

Whether Zynga Poker will try its hand at real-money gaming again is anyone’s guess. But in the meantime, the company makes a pretty profit from its decade-old social poker app.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.