Monday, June 20, 2011

Continuity of Message

Throughout the past few years, businesses in our industry have started to realise that poker has become a truly global game. Even before Black Friday, the USA no longer represented the overwhelming majority of players as it once did, and companies couldn’t rely on the US market alone if they wanted to be successful.

Poker companies began to acknowledge the importance of carefully tailoring their product to each market, and as a result, we saw classic poker books from authors like David Sklansky, Dan Harrington and Doyle Brunson being translated into Spanish, German, and French. Online poker sites introduced foreign-language websites, support teams and game software. Magazines and discussion forums sprung up for every market, live poker tours started to flourish in places we never thought possible, and celebrities and pros from many new countries were signed up to represent the game.

Localisation of your product is hugely important, and it’s easy to see why – simply look at a company which doesn’t bother to localise it’s product to your country, and see how you feel. Look at the TV advertising from a company such as IBM or Chevrolet for example, who reuse the same advertising and branding concepts in Europe as they do in the USA. When was the last time you bought any product from IBM? Would you even consider buying a car from Chevrolet?

The simple fact is that people don’t tend to like products that are too ‘foreign’ unless they evoke a particular image of quality or luxury (such as French perfume or Italian fashion). Companies in many types of industry regularly forget this however, and the results are often disastrous. Take the infamous case of the Coca Cola Company, who attempted to launch their bottled water brand ‘Dasani’ in the UK a few years ago. Dasani is water taken from the mains, and then put through a very advanced purification process before being bottled and sold. Water purified in this way is huge business in the USA, and you can’t walk any Las Vegas poker room without seeing bottles of it on the tray of every cocktail waitress. But Coca Cola didn’t tailor their product to the European market in any way, and the press ran with the story that Dasani was simply ‘bottled tap water’, killing any hope that the product would be successful.

It seems that online poker companies have realised that, while poker is a fundamentally American game, you can tailor the product to individual markets like Britain, Russia or Australia and make it even more successful in those regions. But it’s important that the local message you send to those regions persists from the first moment that the customer interacts with your product until the last, and this is something that many operators are getting wrong.

One example that never ceases to irritate me is the ‘English only’ rule. This rule states that players must only chat at the tables in the English language. It stems from live poker games, where there are concerns that if two players are speaking in a language that nobody else understands, they could be colluding with each other by sharing their hole cards or cheating in some other way. The rule famously appears in the movie Rounders, where Ed Norton’s character chastises two Russians for speaking ‘Sputnik’ at the table – a term which nicely illustrates why I don’t like the rule.

Players who speak a so-called ‘foreign’ language at the tables are typically issued with a written warning for doing so, which might coincide with a temporary chat ban. Such players, who probably haven’t taken the time to read all of a site’s rules, are often completely perplexed by this course of action, and rightly so. Take a German player as an example. This player came to your German .de site after seeing a German advert on German TV. They downloaded the German software, reviewed their game using German hand histories, and may even have dealt with your German support team. But they’re not allowed to chat in German? Why not?

This type of action alienates players in markets where poker is growing the most (markets where English is not the first language) in order to satisfy paranoia in markets where online poker is dead or declining. The English-only rule doesn’t do anything to prevent serious collusion – when was the last time you caught a professional collusion ring who were sharing hole cards in the chat? It only helps to dispel the appearance of collusion – but what is more important, appearance or the facts?

Another example that I think deserves serious thought is the issue of game currency. Since the birth of online poker, we’ve been using the US Dollar for our cash games and tournaments. This made a lot of sense in 1998 when the only country that really mattered in online poker was the USA. It even made sense in 2006. But does it make sense in mid-2011, now that Black Friday has rewritten the rules for online poker operators, and no major site is accepting US players?

Once again, the theoretical German player has interacted with your company from Day 1 as if it were a local company, just as likely to be based in Berlin as in Gibraltar or Dublin. When that German player comes to deposit, chances are they can use their Euro credit card to do so, and they might even be able to keep their account balance in Euro too. But when they go to play in the games, all of a sudden they are required to change their money into US Dollars?

The German player has probably never been to the USA, has probably never held a dollar bill before, and has probably never looked at the conversion rates from US Dollars to Euro. Yet you’re forcing this player to make this leap – and for no good reason, since players from countries that actually use the US Dollar aren’t allowed to play anyway!

Of course, the currency issue isn’t that simple. Every good Poker Room Manager knows that the more games you spread, the more you run the risk of fragmenting the player base and actually decreasing game stability, along with the number of hands dealt and revenue generated. But isn’t it worth at least trying different approaches to this issue, instead of adopting the ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ attitude?

The continuity of your message to players in regional markets is damaged when you tell them that they can’t do what is natural to them – like speaking their own language or playing in their own currency. Each time you put a player in such an unnatural position, there is a chance that they might leave to play elsewhere, or not to play at all. These rules and policies are in place simply because of the history of the marketplace, and because nobody has thought to rethink them.

It will be a shrewd poker operator that is the first to get these things right, and provide a continuous message to players regardless of which part of planet Earth those players are from, and what language they speak. Will it be your company?

This article was published in InsidePokerBusiness, Jul-Aug 2011.