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    The Migratory Patterns of Online Poker Players

    Posted by Kim Lund June 17, 2013

    What makes online poker players loyal to one room or switch to another? An in-depth look at some of the main motivators.

    Online gamblers, traditionally, are viewed as a very light-footed bunch. They, supposedly, eagerly move from site to site, never allowing a brand to catch them, and willing to forsake the benefits of long-term loyalty for the quick-win harvesting of sign-up offers and the best odds. In the pursuit of optimal win conditions, online poker players are especially willing to endure sub-par customer service, flailing technical platforms and user unfriendly software.

    They will have no other god than the dollar. Or so the story often goes.

    With competition for Ultimate Gaming lurking around the corner in Nevada and the battle for the North American poker market about to kick off for real, this might be a good time to delve deeper into the migratory patterns of online poker players and discuss if the simplistic view offered above holds water. Doing so involves two steps. One; identify the potential causes behind online poker players’ supposedly restless souls as well as the reasons he or she might hesitate to play elsewhere. Two; compare sites and actual market scenarios using these opposing decision factors and try to identify the likely flows.

    This article will only concern itself with the former. The latter requires more reader patience than I deserve. And frankly it is something I’m supposed to charge for.

    Hopefully the picture I draw, albeit simplified, provides a useful backdrop for anyone looking to understand the ebb and flow of players in a non-monopolistic online poker market.

    WHAT ABOUT DATA?

    My past and present work with certain companies limits my ability to accompany what I say with specific data. But there is some older data that is now in the public domain that I can refer to.

    The data in question is from Poker Players Research. PPR is an often cited (but also questioned) source of online poker data in Europe. The study from which the following questions and answers are from can be found on their site and is based on data from the pre-Black Friday market.

    Here are some of interesting tidbits:

    Q: How Many Different Sites Do You Play On Regularly?

    A: Average 2.1 for US and 2.0 for Europe minus UK. Roughly 30% of players play on three or more.

    Q: Do you gamble on anything else on the internet for Real Money?

    A: 49.2% of all non US online money players.

    Q: Percentage of players that joined their main site in the last 6 months

    A: For most mature (at the time) markets roughly 20-30%

    Can we draw any conclusions at all from such limited info? Well, a couple of things.

    It tells us that one must weigh in a player’s use of other online gambling products when estimating a player’s likelihood of moving their poker activities elsewhere. Secondly, and more importantly, it says that players tend to stay fairly loyal to their main site – 70 to 80% are still playing on their main site more than six months after joining that site. Definitely an indication of more drag in the market than I believe people generally think. Players aren’t moving about THAT much. Thirdly, it highlights the need to separate between different forms of player migration. Let’s call these linear, parallel and circular.

    Linear migration means that a player leaves one site and moves his action over to another. Parallel migration means that a player starts playing on another site – but either continues to play on the initial site or is likely to return to that site. The 30% of players that actively play on three sites or more (and who likely represent a much bigger percentage of the action) are a sign of circular migration, where it becomes routine for a player to cycle through a couple of sites.
    Understanding which kind of migration is in play and when is vital in order to learn how to stem churn and increase site stickiness.

    A TUG OF WAR

    Just like with any purchasing decision, an online poker player’s decision to try another product is a result of complex tug of war between opposing justifications, benefits and opportunities. As mentioned, I’ve simplified things a bit, but I hope the following labeling of such pros and cons can help inspire some profitable solutions.

    I feel it is a mistake to underestimate the complex matrix of emotional, rational, subjective and actual experiences that constantly alters customers’ preferences and choice.

    In the get-me-out-of-here corner we find:

    Rigging

    Poker can be a brutal game. The mechanics of it take no prisoners. As a result, players tend to feel cheated by it. The idea that online poker is rigged is not a thought reserved for tin foil hat wearers and conspiracy theorists.

    This feeling of injustice drives players to seek more just pastures to play on. And, in some cases, they find it.

    Even minor differences in the characteristic play that tends to evolve on a site can have a substantial impact on a player’s experience. On some sites people may re-buy on average 3 times in a re-buy tournament. On another maybe 1.5 times. It makes a difference.

    The constant battle against streaks of bad luck creates a migratory flow. It’s a natural consequence of the brutal nature of the game.

    Bonus hunting

    As long as sites continue to drench the market with monetary value offers, certain players will feel a strong pull to capitalize on those offers.

    Banning

    Whether it be for collusion reasons, fraud, concerns over a player’s eligibility to play, bad behavior or self-exclusion, as long as sites don’t cooperate globally, players banned from one place will “just” migrate to the next.

    Server crashes

    Losing people’s money in cyberspace is a great way to motivate them into considering switching to a competitor. That said, because poker is a money game, its players are likely less concerned about missing and frozen money than customers of other online products. Simply by daring to play for money, they have displayed less concern over money than the average citizen. Its value somehow has been degraded. Someone told me once he regarded a server hiccup resulting in lost funds just like a bad beat – a temporary displacement of bankroll funds. You take it in stride.

    Special events

    Special offers and events tend to generate impressive spikes in site traffic. Be it a world record attempt, a milestone hand celebration or some other above-the-fold promotion and players come for the spectacle.

    Busto

    Going broke does not really factor into this discussion because going broke means a cessation of play, not a migration of play. But in order to rule this effect out, it is of course important to interpret data so the cases of “I’ll try my luck elsewhere” are separated from the cases of “I’m out of luck (and money) everywhere.”

    Player maturation

    Poker is game with a lot of depth. As new players begin to explore that depth – trying new games, reading up on strategy, multi-tabling – they may need to find another supplier to meet their increasing demands. This is part a liquidity argument – not all sites can run the same spread of games, of course – but also an immersion argument. Once you start taking a game seriously, you want the supplier to show the same level of dedication to the game. You want to skate with the cool kids.

    Now, some of the reasons why players might reject the idea of exploring other sites or at least hesitate doing so:

    Transaction drag & bankroll limitations

    Moving money in and out of internet poker sites isn’t always easy, to put it mildly. This together with the fact that playing properly requires players to commit a substantial bankroll creates a high threshold – especially for parallel migration.

    Supplementary game

    For many players in Europe, poker is just a sideshow to their sportsbook. As long as they stay loyal to their sportsbook, they stay loyal to that sportsbook’s associated poker room.

    High entry barrier

    The fact that joining a site, especially in regulated markets, can be quite an arduous task that may even involve physical paperwork is an obvious migration stemmer. Grabbing a customer first in such a market can be absolutely crucial.

    Technical limitations

    To think that in 2013 it is still possible to create a tight bond with customers simply by servicing a computer system or a handheld device that others do not.

    GUI preferences

    In the early days of online poker, it was commonly accepted that graphics didn’t really matter. As awareness of the importance of casual/recreational players grew, so did awareness of the fact that bells and whistles do in fact matter. But traditional online poker isn’t a particularly graphic and design intensive game, so it’s more a matter of living up to a minimum standard (a hygiene factor) than upping everyone else (a differentiator). However that changes slightly if one looks to the entire client user experience. And while different software on the market tend to stick to a very tested mold, variations can still have an effect on players’ site choice.

    Players used to processing information in the game one way can find it awkward to shift to another software where the information is handled differently. It may not be a case of better or worse, but as long as there is a difference in how it is done – because online poker is a game of rapid decision making and intense information processing – any change in how the player has to act in order to operate the game may discourage him from leaving the software he’s gotten used to. He’ll perceive the other solutions as flat out wrong.

    Social glue

    Sites that sport a community or otherwise facilitate the sprouting of social bonds between players are much better insulated from desires to migrate. I have first-hand experience of this and used to call it the black hole effect. We’d see players make rational (and justified) decisions to leave, promising never to come back. Yet a couple of weeks later, the social play layer they now lacked reeled them back “home”.

    Winning

    Easy to overlook. You win, you stay.

    Loyalty rewards

    I probably rank this impact on a player’s site choice lower than most. The main reason for that is that (important!) current online poker loyalty programs tend to be so top-heavy and rake based that the only category of players that truly connect with it are customers that are not that bottom-line valuable due to their win rates. Some programs however – like Pokerstars Supernova – have still managed to rise to a higher state of value where the monetary benefits of qualifying is supplemented by the emotional value of having reached that goal and being part of that club. Such emotional bonds with a brand are tough to break.

    Local flavor

    Despite the sharp growth in online retailing, the idea of having to deposit money online still ranks at the top of peoples’ list of concerns regarding online gambling. Having a truly localized, recognized and trusted product has helped several otherwise subpar sites withstand heavy competition.

    UNRAVELING THE FLOWS

    By identifying the different variables that factor into the algorithm of preference that constantly recalculates inside the minds of players – and by looking at each of these variables and judging their potential impact on linear, parallel and circular migration per player type – one can more easily construct a solid strategy for how to insulate against competing products and for how to siphon their action.

    It is vital to understand that some of the flow is inevitable. That some of it is a direct consequence of player ecosystem decisions entirely in the hands of the site and that online poker players, in the end, aren’t that much different from other consumers. Price is not all that matters. Nothing is all that matters. Poker players are complex and demanding customers. The dollar may rule and rational decision making may be a vital skill in order to master the game. But neither reigns supreme in terms of deciding where players play.

    QuadJacks – June 17, 2013

    About Kim Lund

    Kim Lund is a gaming industry consultant with close to ten years experience in the online poker industry. He's a fierce advocate of the need to make poker more accessible, challenge-driven and fun to play for the masses. You can read more from Kim at infiniteedgegaming.com and follow him on Twitter: @infiniteedgekim.

    View all post by Kim Lund

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