When the fuse of the poker boom was lit following Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 World Series of Poker victory, throngs of average, everyday people suddenly caught the poker bug, and the easiest way scratch their itch was to hop online.

Outside of kitchen table carnival games, online poker was the means in which most people were introduced to the game, and early on the games were populated with recreational players as far as the eye could see. The games were exciting and soft.

Unfortunately, the poker boom didn’t continue on in perpetuity, and the games got tougher to beat, and grew more tedious as the years went on and fewer and fewer recreational players arrived at the online poker tables armed with their initial deposit and a head full of poker dreams.

As the ecosystem evolved, and the attrition rates of new players became too onerous to overcome, problems began to emerge. Online poker was chock full of predators, but they were running out of prey.

PokerStars and several of their competitors have done an excellent job (despite the changes causing an uproar in certain pockets of the world) reshaping their ecosystems by reducing the population of predators by:

  • Adding games with higher luck component.
  • Reducing VIP rewards (although this was carried out in a highly controversial way).
  • Targeted rake increases in games with high attrition rates.

These changes have culled mass-multi-tabling grinders that have long stood in the way of recreational players’ advancement through the online poker ranks (more on this can be found here). That being said, This is only the first step.

They’re aware recreational players are headed towards the endangered species list, and they’ve put the necessary safeguards in place to help the existing recreational players survive. Now, PokerStars et al. must repopulate their habitats. In the wild this would involve breeding programs and the like, for an online poker site this requires two things:

  1. Reengaging with recreational players through marketing efforts.
  2. Making the experience fun.

It’s the latter aspect that I’ll discuss today.

Step 1: Simplicity

The first step to making any endeavor enjoyable is to make it easy to understand.

Online poker in 2016 is not exactly what I would call user-friendly.

Online poker lobbies have several sub headers for cash games, fast fold cash games, tournaments, Sit & Go tournaments, and lottery style tournaments. From there a prospective customer will need to use filters to find the appropriate stakes and structures they’re looking for (number of players at a table, different tournament types, etc.), all the while paying attention to color coding to see if a tournament is a satellite, a bounty, a 50/50, a rebuy, or some other type of tourney.

The entire process can be overwhelming.

I feel that in order for online poker sites to really improve user experience they need to pare down their offerings and simplify their lobbies.

Step 2: Bring on sponsored pros who give action

By pros who give action I don’t mean players who lose on purpose. Rather, people who play a loose, somewhat-aggressive, ABC style of poker. Players who play a lot of hands pre-flop but don’t 3-bet or 4-bet much. Players who won’t check-raise or run a sneaky bluff. Players who are willing to call down light, and pay people off when they make a hand.

The great thing about this sponsorship model is the player doesn’t need to be a “name” in the poker world. If they’re spewing chips every time they sit down the other players on the site will want to play at their tables, and they’ll be easy to find if they’re highlighted by the software.

Perhaps the site could add a ticker style alert, “Sponsored player, “IPlayLoose” is now sitting at Table 47…”

In the early days of online poker this was a common way to generate action, and it’s still employed in brick & mortar card rooms.

Step 3: Change the carrots

With brick & mortar casinos now controlling the space in the United States, How about giving players a bonus of 10x points on their player’s club card for each dollar they deposit online?

Or, how about adjusting satellite prize packages so they focus on the experience of the trip rather than the poker tournament the person is going to play? For example, instead of a $5,000 buy-in and $2,000 in expenses, I’d like to see sites offer a $2,500 buy-in and $5,000 in expenses and events.

Some of the possibilities include:

  • Send the person to dinner with a “name” poker pro and the head of marketing.
  • Have them play a freeroll “warm-up” match against a name player.

Basically, whether they leave with any money or not, they will leave with some cool stories and a good experience. This type of focus on the experience will insure the person enjoys their trip win or lose, and by shifting prizes away from tournament entries is should also serve to keep pros out of qualifiers

A site could also run a “Become a Sponsored Pro” for a day, a week, or perhaps a month type of contest.

This would be a cool annual contest the site could hold a couple months before the World Series of Poker and then work with the winner to put together a $20,000 tournament package, and perhaps even help them sell some of their action like a lot of the pros do. At the WSOP, the site’s PR team could setup media interviews, introduce them to people in the industry, and so on. Again, for me, making poker fun again is all about the experience.

Step 4: Create an ongoing ad campaign

Full Tilt Poker had a good thing going with the company’s “Play Where the Pros Play” ads, but I haven’t really seen anything like it since.

FTP’s ads were themed and followed a similar pattern; you knew one when you saw it, and you knew what it was for.

What I’d like to see is an online poker company try to create a Budweiser frogs/lizards, or the Dos Equis, Most Interesting Man in the World type campaign. Something people can link to the site, and something they can use to build brand awareness, instead of trying to just relay their latest promotion or feature to sell their site.

Basically, it’s the difference between a TV series you have to watch week after week (Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones) and a TV series where the episodes are all independent.

In 2016 you can do this without breaking the bank by trialing your ads online first. If you create a really great web ad it will go viral, and then you can use that to create a wider, more comprehensive marketing campaign that will hopefully reach a new, and wider audience.