Do we have your attention yet? These are just some of the strategies that Herb Jenkins of FourCubed and Poker Affiliate Solutions has implemented to increase his company’s new depositor base to 6,000 each month.
In this interview, iGaming marketing guru Herb Jenkins reveals how he’s leveraged diversified marketing channels in order to keep the revenues coming in. He also stresses the importance of looking ahead at the big picture, including picking up domains and making data-driven decisions.
You can hear all of this, and more, in this informative, 35-minute interview.
Herb Jenkins has been playing poker for as long as he can remember. His passion led him to become an affiliate in 2003, and he’s since gone on to build RakeTracker, the first rakeback website, as part of the FourCubed team. Soon after he helped launch YourPokerCash, a free bankroll website and PokerAffiliateSolutions (PAS), the first poker affiliate network. PAS provides value to other affiliates by providing them systems, websites, stats, payments, promotions and marketing services they need to be successful.
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Warren: I’m Warren Jolly with CasinoAffiliates.com, and I want to welcome you to today’s interview with Herb Jenkins, the CMO at FourCubed and Poker Affiliate Solutions, a diverse poker affiliate marketing and web development company. Herb became an affiliate in 2003 following a life-long passion for poker and getting involved with the Two Plus Two community, which most of you know about. Now, Herb runs all marketing for PAS. In our interview today, we’re going to learn more about the tremendous poker business Herb built with the founder of PAS, Chris Carlson.
Herb, thanks for joining us. Please take a quick moment and tell our audience about the history of FourCubed and the different areas your company is involved in today.
Herb: Sure thing. Thanks for having me, and I appreciate being here. FourCubed got its start in 2004, and really, we started as poker players. So it was basically something that we already had an interest in promoting. From a players’ side, it transitioned into an affiliate business and has diversified since beyond that.
But our start in what we now call social media. We really didn’t call it that at the time; it was more getting involved in the forums and the community, and from there, we started building relationships with players. So that was how we really kind of got our start in the business. It was from getting that feedback that we decided to build our first website, which was RakeTracker.com. RakeTracker was the first Rakeback website, and it really was built for players like us. We built it as something that we wanted and something that we believed in. It took off really quick and got us going in the affiliate business at a pretty good clip.
So that happened in 2004, and the next year, we launched a site called YourPokerCash. With YourPokerCash, we really wanted to take a different focus and focus on a different player market. The rakeback industry is a relatively small part of the industry and focuses on a very specific type of player. We wanted to really look at a more recreational player and meeting their needs, still taking it as something that we wanted to be a part of, that we would take if we were players. So, as YourPokerCash developed the bankroll model, basically a free starter bankroll if you sign up at a room through us. That was kind of our segue into that more recreational player market.
So, we got our start with two B2C sites. We still own and operate them today, and they’re still very successful. In looking to expand and diversify, it kind of led us in 2007 to create Poker Affiliate Solutions, which is now our flagship site.
Poker Affiliate Solutions is an affiliate network. In seeing the industry develop, in seeing competitors pop up, in seeing general affiliate interest, people wanted to be rakeback affiliates, specifically. The barrier to entry there was really pretty high. You had to build a lot of systems, a lot of payment processes. It was a pretty big undertaking at the time for your general affiliate. So we saw a need, and we had the system and the capabilities to handle it, so basically, we made the rakeback engine more scalable, and that’s kind of how we developed Poker Affiliate Solutions.
PAS has been around since 2007. We grew it for a few years, starting with rakeback and then expanding it CPA, Revshare and bankrolls. So we really tried to encompass the spectrum of offers for poker affiliates. In 2010, we acquired a web design and development company called page10, and this was really more to diversify, but also to increase our skill set in what we already did. By acquiring a team that really applied these skills to other industries and then applied them to poker, we found that greatly increased our skill set in the poker industry as well.
So that’s kind of the history of the company and the main brands that we’ve developed over time. In terms of today, we’re still actively involved in the B2C websites, RakeTracker and YourPokerCash, and we just have a strong B2B focus now as well with both PAS and page10.
Warren: Great. Okay, so PAS is your flagship property as you mentioned. How does is differ from any other typical poker affiliate network? I mean, there’s guys out there like Poker Affiliate World and others. What is so special and unique about PAS?
Herb: When looking at any affiliate network, you kind of have to break it down into its components. You typically have three levels: your advertisers, your publishers and your end users, whether they be members or players, or whatever you want to call them. An affiliate network can offer products, services and offers to each one of those entities. What really sets PAS apart is that most affiliate networks focus on the publisher offers. What can the affiliate sign up for at the affiliate network and get right away to start promoting? That’s how you monetize, so that’s going to be a big focus for any affiliate network.
What really distinguishes us is that we focus on publisher services, marketing services specifically, web design and development services for publishers. We really expand much more beyond the offer itself because we recognize that in terms of need, affiliates do need some assistance or usually want some assistance in being able to market to their players better. So we’ve kind of carved ourselves out as a real strong service provider. Also, with the white label network that we have for rakeback websites, we have a pretty strong focus on the members as well. It’s an interesting dynamic for an affiliate network where the publishers that we work with are relying on us to service their members. We really feel like that relationship, being a relationship-based company, is incredibly important to us and it’s kind of why we’ve embraced it. We could just say, “Well, here are the offers. Go promote and do what you will with them.” We’ve really decided to take a more hands-on approach with kind of nurturing publishers and players to be more successful overall, and it’s been a really strong model for us so far.
Warren: Okay. Do you do anything special for your advertisers as well? Do you help them control fraud? Is there anything that you do that a standard network doesn’t offer?
Herb: Yeah, definitely. In the fraud prevention, it’s really heavy on the CPA side and the bankroll side. That’s a very strong component there for us. But, you know, in terms of what we’re looking at in 2012, it’s really building out that advertiser focus more. We have great relationships with our advertisers. One of my favorite things about the industry are the relationships we’ve built with the affiliate managers themselves and beyond, but we’re really looking to take those relationships to the next level and start offering them services directly, marketing services in various capacities, and also to build out another section in the PAS engine to cater to them. They want to see how their different offers are performing in the network. We have the data, and we’re really going to service them like we already service our publishers. This is really a pretty aggressive growth strategy for us. It’s not like anything that’s currently in the poker club industry, but we have the capability and the desire, so it’s going to happen.
Warren: Okay. So how many depositors do you generate per month for poker rooms and for your advertisers, and what percentage of those depositors are US-based versus non-US?
Herb: Across all of our different brands and products, I’d say these days, we’re looking at maybe 5,500 to 6,000 new depositors per month, so it’s a pretty healthy number. To be honest with you, in terms of US and non-US, these days, we’re looking at about 95% non-US, so really heavily weighted, there. In some product lines, we haven’t had any US player base to speak of for some time. But back in 2007, it was probably about the reverse of that, maybe 90/10 US or 80/20, really heavily weighted US and that was part of what drove the decision to create the affiliate network in general. We wanted to diversify globally, not just with products, but also within different markets and to be working closely with different types of affiliates from all over the world. We really identified the affiliate network as a great way to do that and have embraced it ever since.
Warren: Great. Okay. From that 5,500 to 6,000 depositors a month, what percentage comes from the affiliate network versus your own internal sites like RakeTracker and others?
Herb: These days, it’s about 40% from the affiliate network in terms of the new traffic, so a pretty even balance there. The brands we have been around for six or seven years now, so they have an established reputation and that engine is running pretty well. The affiliate network is growing at a faster clip than the retail brands, but that’s mostly just because the exposure you get from the affiliate network is much different from what you’d experience on any given website.
Warren: Okay. But you’re still driving 3,000-plus depositors a month from your own internal traffic generation mechanisms. That’s definitely a lot, being in the poker space. How do you drive that volume? I know you have multiple properties, but what are the methods that you guys deploy? What are the things you’re doing to generate that level of traffic and conversions?
Herb: Well, you know, it’s nearly impossible to generate that sort of volume on just rakeback. The exposure to rakeback could not really drive that much unless there was just some sort of perfect storm. So, it really requires a combination of all those different offer types, mixing in CPA and Revshare and bankroll offers to really maximize and convert the traffic that you have coming to the site. So when I talk about RakeTracker being a rakeback site, YourPokerCash being a bankroll site, they’re not just that. For about the last year, we’ve really geo-targeted our traffic, and once we had the ability to dynamically display our offers to different members in different countries, then it was really about how we could best convert members from each country. That’s kind of how we’ve been able to get that number up to where it is right now. Whereas, say, on YourPokerCash, if we don’t have any bankroll offers that appeal to Russian players, then what other offers can we promote to them to have them sign up for something that’s still valuable? So it’s that geo-targeting and maximizing our conversions that are allowing us to stay at that kind of number.
Warren: I see. And is the traffic predominantly SEO, or is it a blend among different sources?
Herb: SEO is definitely a component. We have pretty healthy affiliate programs on both of those retail properties as well, so it’s like little mini-PAS engines, so to speak, for each one. It’s stronger on the bankroll side. We have a really strong affiliate program there, but it’s a variety of different ones. We try to leverage a pretty diversified marketing channel approach for each of the brands so that if one starts diminishing, we have another right there to take its place. That’s kind of the way view most everything. Whether it’s offers or the services we offer, we really try to diversify beyond just one or two so that we can withstand the volatility that you experience in this market.
Warren: Okay. A topic that we get asked about a lot in terms of conversions is email marketing. Have you guys found any success converting customers using email?
Herb: On the email marketing side, it’s really more about reactivating the existing player database or using it as an engagement channel. There’s anything from new product mailers to your standard newsletters to industry events happening in real time, that’s primarily how we’ve leveraged email marketing. It’s less so than hitting a million email addresses that we purchased from somewhere. So it’s really more on a retention/engagement channel for us, and we do rely on it very heavily in that regard. To be honest with you, we’ve mixed it in on the acquisition side a few times before, but we’ve found our efforts to be better placed in other marketing channels for ROI.
Warren: Got it. Okay. On the affiliate network, why did you decide to make PAS an affiliate network and not just operate as a master affiliate where you refer affiliates to poker rooms and earned an ongoing lifetime commission of their business? What made you decide to build the network straightaway?
Herb: Well, we were kind of labeled as a super-affiliate back at that time, and it was a conscious decision to go the affiliate network route. Really, what it boiled down to is that we enjoyed building and nurturing relationships with other affiliates. I mean, we are affiliates; we like seeing their brands grow and helping them grow and helping them monetize about as much as we like developing our own. If we were to be just that super-affiliate just referring that business, it was just less of a relationship and less engagement, and that appealed less to us. But we also do recognize that being able to manage that an affiliate base like we do, it does give us more opportunities with the advertisers as well. So it was that plus the real desire to diversify globally, and the affiliate network being a really good fit in that regard, that really drove that decision.
Warren: Okay. So you have a staff of affiliate managers or people that work directly with the affiliates?
Herb: Yeah, that’s right. That’s something that, initially, we just kind of did; it was just part of the every day. But eventually, we developed dedicated positions, and we’ve actually hired quite a bit within the industry, people that were affiliate managers at operators and bringing them over to the dark side, so to speak. We’ve got some great affiliate managers in-house and that’s been a good crew overall for us because the learning curve to be a really good affiliate manager in poker is pretty steep. Having somebody who already has the industry experience is a huge plus for us.
Warren: Got it. Makes sense. So you acquired a web development company. What are your plans for that besides, I’m assuming you’ll still service outside customers, but if someone’s watching this interview and thinking, “Gosh, I really need a good web development firm,” should they contact you guys? What’s the plan with that piece of the business?
Herb: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely encourage them to contact us and just engage in a dialogue to see what the opportunities are because, really, we had two primary purposes in the acquisition. I mean, it was to diversify revenues outside of gaming, and that was pretty straightforward. In that regard, we typically deal with mid- to large-sized companies here in the Twin Cities, in Minneapolis, where we’re located. But the other bit, and this was basically the determining factor for us was, “Can this upgrade our skill set towards poker, towards gaming, and can we increase our marketing services that we offer to the industry through this acquisition?” That was a definite yes, and so, in bringing that staff in house, it was an immediate upgrade and it has allowed us to start offering marketing services to our publishers. We’ve expanded more of our free services, but we also offer fee-based services really where, if you have this specific marketing campaign, whether it be email marketing, SEO, even just web design or development, content, pretty much any marketing service. We now have basically much stronger capability with several years in the traditional space.
One of the great benefits there is we have those resources that can deliver, and deliver strongly, but we also have the domain-specific knowledge on the poker side. That’s what made it really great from the poker side. We can talk to gaming companies and really understand the needs of their business almost from the first conversation. There’s really not too much of a learning curve there. Then we can take our knowledge and apply it with our capability, and really turn something around that’s pretty special.
Warren: Okay. On that note, your company has seen tremendous growth. I know FourCubed was an Inc 500 or 5000 company, as were we, so congratulations. What were the decisions that you had to make as a business to achieve that kind of growth, and what were the mistakes that you felt the company was successfully able to avoid?
Herb: In terms of the decisions that we made, there are a pretty large number that I can draw from. About three years ago, we spent a lot of time really developing the core structure of the company, developing out the vision and the mission, developing out all the mechanisms, organizational charts, marketing plans, annual plans, business plans, and all that sort of thing, to really insure the long-term health of the company. We took it from something that was basically a really cool, fun start-up to something that had legs long-term. We keep the things that are really special about this place, but also made it something that could sustain itself beyond any certain trends in the market. So that, from an internal perspective, was a huge development for us.
In terms of more market-specific decisions that we’ve made, I think that being willing and able to diversify. It’s easy to say, “Let’s diversify into this market or that one.” But to see it through, to be dedicated to it long-term, that’s been one of the cornerstones of our success. But also, it’s the transparency and close relationships with the advertisers that have been really strong for us over time. Really, we’ve approached every relationship as a long-term partnership. In doing that, it creates a certain dialogue. It creates a certain trust level. In some cases, you sacrifice some short-term dollars for some long-term gains, and that has served us very well over time, too.
In terms of mistakes, I’d say that the biggest mistake I see in a lot of cases is the, “Sky is falling, latest bad news means it’s the end of the world” sort of mentality that you see pretty commonly throughout the forums. Taking a very calm and collected approach to the changes in the industry, and then being able to basically break it down and say, “What are our opportunities here?” Then, being able to capitalize on those opportunities. Getting too caught up in the moment in gaming can basically send you over a cliff, but if you develop a level head with it and stay focused with your strategy and being able to implement the plan you’ve put in place, that’s basically what has served us well.
Warren: Okay. Speaking of opportunities, where are the opportunities today in online poker, just taking into consideration what’s happened in the US market on Black Friday and what could potentially happen? Also, what are you instructing your affiliates to do regarding those potential opportunities in the future, not knowing when regulation could come?
Herb: One of the biggest opportunities I do think is regulation, and really regulated markets in general, not just in the US. There are already a handful of regulated markets and there will continue to be more. That is going to be the way things trend, so preparing yourself for that and being able to ride in that space versus the current space is something that we’re working pretty closely with our publishers on right now, and even what we’re developing ourselves. Developing relationships in a regulated market is different. There are different considerations and different companies of size and professionalism. There’s just a lot of different aspects there. But speaking just a little more granularly, I do think there are a lot of opportunities for domain pick-ups. Anytime there is any instability like there is right now, and I’d say that with some of the biggest players in the industry taking the huge hits that they have, it’s basically a down market for poker right now. If you look at it long-term in the big picture, so picking up domains, picking up business is a great thing for affiliates to focus on. It does take resources and capital, but that’s something that I would say is definitely an opportunity.
In terms of preparing yourself for regulation, one of the biggest things you can do is really focus on the ecommerce model and best practices. That’s something that doesn’t really get discussed very much, at least, in the industry, doesn’t get brought up to us. We usually are starting the conversations where we say, “What you know is the poker industry, and that domain knowledge is very valuable because there’s a lot to know here. But are you implementing the best practices to make sure that you’re achieving success?” Things like web analytics and data, being able to resource and implement those tools and then use them ongoing to measure and gauge your successes, and then to be able to take the appropriate actions to optimize the results. Those sorts of things usually don’t happen for most of our publishers organically. They’ll take it to a certain point, but you really have to hammer home the importance of it and it being a part of your everyday life, of having a data-driven decision-making process, to really thrive in regulated markets long-term. I do think that is incredibly important.
Warren: Just to elaborate a bit on the data-driven decision-making. What tools and resources do you employ on your end to just make the best decisions on data? Obviously, there are the basic tools like Google Analytics and such, but is there anything special and unique that your business utilizes to make sure, whether it’s advertisers that you promote or marketing your doing, that it’s more dependent on actual data and results?
Herb: When we look at data, we basically look at it in two ways. I’m kind of oversimplifying here a little bit, but we’re looking at broad trends and general, widespread information, either about the industry, through white papers, or even for the Internet as a whole. We’re keeping track through Forrester or eMarketer – there are quite a few reputable resources out there that you can use to kind of get your finger on the pulse of how, from the big picture, things are trending, and that’s very important.
But really, I think what you’re speaking to here is that the tools and data that you need on a per marketing channel basis. Your marketing channels are how you’re going to get your traffic to the site, and then once you get them on the site, how are you going to maximize your conversions? So really, email marketing, SEO, social media, your website itself – it’s very important to identify the channels and say, for starters, “Am I getting data for each of these? Does my email client provide me with the necessary analytics that I need? If not, maybe I should be looking elsewhere.” Just taking an inventory is a good place to start.
In terms of specific tools, we generally steer people towards the three available tools, like analytics and webmaster tools. That covers the majority of what people need. Now, on the page side, a lot of times, we’re working with bigger companies with more specific needs, more advanced needs and more build-outs and some pay packages, but for the majority of the poker play, Google Analytics is going to be more than enough for what you need. In terms of the specific tools that each person might need, we engage in a dialogue, we get where people are trying to go, and then we make custom suggestions around that. We have basically five to ten tools that we use at any given time, whether it be keyword analysis or back linking, and the list goes on. We don’t just say, “Hey, go use these tools.” It’s really, like, “Let’s talk about what you’re trying to accomplish, and then, based on feedback, we’ll steer you in this direction.” We try to keep it pretty dynamic.
Warren: Okay. So tell us what you love most about this industry, and secondly, what you hate.
Herb: Well, I do love poker. I’ve played it my entire life, and I love the game, so that’s definitely one of them. But for me, one of the biggest things is the relationships. Being able to really work together to create a strategic partnership and create success together is so much more rewarding than chasing the short-term dollar. That’s really the enjoyment for me.
On the hate side, I’d say, pretty unanimously, I hate poker bots. With some of the scandals recently, it’s really frustrating to deal with because it gives a black eye to the industry when the majority of people are operating above-board. That can be really frustrating. And sometimes, it’s just hard not to get frustrated with the volatility that the gaming industry has. You look at who the biggest player has been over time, and that’s changed a handful of times just in the last few years. Being able to adjust to that, granted, has created a tremendous opportunity for us and has gotten us to where we are today, and I’m not discrediting that, but I’m telling you, it’s hard to swing sometimes.
Warren: Yeah, absolutely. We all know that. So what do think are the three most common mistakes that affiliates make, specifically poker affiliates, when working in this industry?
Herb: Typically, when we start to engage affiliates, they have a general idea of what they’re trying to accomplish, but there’s no defined vision or strategy behind it. It seems kind of insignificant, and the first conversation with most of them is, “Well, I know what I want to do. Why do I need to put it on paper?” It’s really imperative that they start there, so that’s one of the biggest mistakes is not having that. The reason why it’s so important is because, given how often things change in the industry, it’s really easy to get off course. If you define it upfront and in all of your efforts, you go towards achieving the vision and strategy that you outline, then you’re going to have a much greater chance of success. It also allows for a conscious decision to change your strategy. If you take that conscious step, it really makes your decision much more grounded versus variations of “the sky is falling” or ‘sell everything I got” and move on to another issue sort of thing. So that’s the first one.
One of the things that we see quite often, too, is that quite a few affiliates don’t come into a project with a budget. It’s, like, “I want to build a website, and I want to offer rakeback to players here locally.”
“What’s your budget for that?”
“Well, I don’t have one. It costs what it costs.”
It’s really important to assess that upfront and kind of break it down into its core components – how much on web development, how much in initial marketing, how much in ongoing expense – so that basically you can stay on point and things don’t balloon out of control. It’s very easy for that to happen, and when it does, if you don’t have a defined budget, you have no way of knowing how well you are developing any given project. So it’s pretty basic, but you’d be surprised at how often we run into that sort of “I don’t really need one” sort of approach.
I guess the last one really would be a lack of the data-driven decision making ongoing. Most people have analytics, but they’re not really actively using it, and you don’t really hear too much about emerging affiliates actively assessing them and changing your cause action or A/B testing or multi-variant testing. That sort of thing is just not too prevalent in the poker affiliate industry. Granted, it does take a while to get that foundation there, but once you do, it makes it so easy to make decisions and make them quickly. So we really stress that. We really stress focus on defining your KPIs for each of your marketing channels and for your website and then measuring against them. If things are working great, then do more of it, but if they’re not, you’ve got to be willing to try something else.
Warren: On that note, what’s your advice to an affiliate looking to enter the online poker market today?
Herb: In addition to working with PAS, advice number one, guaranteed. If you’re an affiliate in another space and you’re looking to get into the gaming industry or the poker industry, you’ve got to have some sort of crash course on the basics of this industry. There are so many unique aspects to it that you don’t see in other industries, even down to the commission models. Not necessarily the models themselves, but the percentages that are available to affiliates in the gaming industry are typically much higher, even lifetime commission models. That allows for a lot of opportunities that affiliates in other industries are not used to. One of the biggest things I’d recommend is to really talk to and work with somebody who has experience in poker or in gaming that you can get that understanding from, because it actually does affect the strategy quite a bit as an affiliate. So that’s definitely something that I would say would be the first piece of advice is to understand that you’re walking into something that’s pretty domain-specific, and if you can get that understanding initially, you’re going to be much better off in the long run. That is 1B. 1A is come to PAS. We’ll take care of you.
Warren: All right. Well, Herb, it’s been really great to have you as our guest today. I appreciate all of the insight. You guys have definitely built a great business in the poker vertical, and I think our guests have gotten a great value.
If anyone is interested in contacting Herb or PAS at the end of this interview, please send an email to interviews@CasinoAffiliatePrograms.com. Or just go to PokerAffiliateSolutions.com and get in touch with them directly.
Thanks for watching, and stay tuned for future interviews with iGaming industry leaders.
Herb: Thanks, Warren.
Warren: Thank you.