As a born and raised Jersey Boy, I have been watching the developments in the online poker market there very closely. That’s why I took it a little more personally than most when I saw the figures from the recent New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement report showing that online poker revenues in my beloved native state fell below $2 million for the month. That is the lowest amount of revenue that the game has brought into state coffers since legalization became official over a year ago.
It’s painful to hear commentators in the iGaming world begin to question out loud whether or not the game has a future in the state. What makes it worse though, is knowing that the criticism is justified.
However, I’m convinced it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to smash the panic button just yet. I believe in the viability of the game long-term there. All this latest NJDGE report means to me is that something is wrong with how online poker is being marketed to the masses.
I already had that suspicion following some time I spent chatting about online poker with true amateur players at the $2/4 limit tables in Atlantic City this summer. Given the latest data, I think that sharing their insights can bring to light some of the ways in which marketing for online poker in the Garden State (as well as nationwide) can be improved moving forward.
I’ll say right up front that the current industry obsession with “liquidity” – or the concept of a player pool generally – was not even mentioned once by the people in my entirely unscientific sample size.
However, I think it’s worth mentioning what was.
Speaking with the Poker Playing Masses in Atlantic City
Atlantic City has a special place in my heart. I cut my teeth as a poker player in the card rooms along the boardwalk. I don’t live there right now, but whenever I visit my parents, I make sure to find time to make that drive down the Garden State Parkway.
I have traditions there like post-midnight McDonalds with my friends. It’s the place where I luckbox cracked AA twice with a short stack. It’s the place where I battled a tough field to earn my largest payday ever, a third place finish for over one-thousand dollars.
So, it was very natural for me to turn to the gentleman sitting to my right and ask, unsolicited, “Have you tried that new online poker thing?”
“No,” he answered, staring straight ahead.
“Really? I did,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could. “It was pretty cool. You should try it sometime.”
Then, he looked at me and spoke:
“Here’s the thing about that…”
Missing the Forest Through The Trees
Honestly, the first thing I expected to hear was either that online poker is rigged, or that player money isn’t safe online.
Instead, what I heard was the following:
I don’t trust myself to stop playing. Right now I have to get in my car and drive over here…if it was on the computer…”
I almost fell off my chair. This response absolutely flies in the face of all the conventional wisdom we hear coming out of the industry and media about why recreational poker players are so difficult to attract.
The problem is not that the online version of the game is not appealing; the problem is that the game is too appealing.
“Yeah, but you can auto-exclude yourself,” I answered, faster than I meant to. “You can even do it for a day, a week…”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “It just seems like if it’s always there, available…it seems better to not get started.”
This conversation was repeated more than once.
The Internet as Time Killer
It’s an issue hidden in plain sight.
People routinely self-exclude from other online distractions. I knew a girl in law school who had someone change all the passwords on her social media accounts during finals week; I myself have my “SelfControl” app running right now as I write this, which more or less temp-bans me from the Internet entirely.
The need to create barriers between us and distractions online – even non iGaming ones – is real.
So, why should iGaming be any different? It shouldn’t.
The reality is that all of the advertising we see for iGaming is about attracting people to play more. However, when is the last time an operator reached out to customers and said, “Don’t worry, we are also there to make sure that you stop playing when you want to.”
It is false to believe that only gambling addicts could need, want, or deserve, such assurances.
Creative Solutions to a Tough Problem
I want to be clear that I am not advocating marketing iGaming with a slogan akin to: “ABC Poker, Where Players Go to Temp-Ban Themselves From the Action!”
What I am tossing out into the marketplace of ideas is this:
Introspection is needed about how to educate consumers on the safeguards in place not just for their money, but for their time.
Liquidity, payment processing, and software are all important issues that need to be dealt with. However, until this issue is viewed with the same urgency and tackled head on as well, it will continue to be difficult to attract the new, recreational players to online poker.
I saw a lot of advertisements in the poker rooms in Atlantic City. However, not one communicated to me that when I was done playing online, I could irrevocably distance myself from the table – exactly the same way I do when I make the decision to drive home from the casino.
Before, I never would have given that much thought. Now, I’m wondering if having them up there might encourage a recreational player to give online poker a try the next time they have the urge to play.
After speaking with many such recreational players at the table, I am convinced that this is an issue keeping them away. The controls do of course exist – but that doesn’t matter if people aren’t educated on how to use them.
Given the recent results of the same old marketing approaches, maybe it’s time to change that.