How Do Poker Media Websites Make Money?

How a poker media website gets paid, just like any blog or news site, has a direct impact on the content they produce. If you are looking to get into poker writing, you need to know how your potential employers are paying the bills and create your content to fit that model.

I know a lot of great writers, much better ones than I could hope to be, who were unable to make a go of poker writing because they didn't understand this simple fact. Often the thing they don’t understand is how what they write could upset a potential advertiser; which is unfortunately the biggest tightrope walk we face in this industry.

I learned the hard way how important understanding the advertiser is in poker. When the Absolute Poker scandal first materialised I proudly was one of the first people to get the story onto a news site, reporting on it when I was a staff writer for PokerNews. Because I hadn't been paying attention to the site I worked for, I didn't notice that Absolute Poker were, at the time, one of our biggest affiliate partners. The management team were not happy with me, they pulled the article, and I almost got fired.

Luckily for me the story got huge pretty quickly anyway, PokerNews dropped Absolute Poker from their affiliate partners soon after and republished my original article quite quickly. I think all that was enough for me to keep my job, but an important lesson was learned. 

Now a lot of people might say that I was right and the management team at PokerNews (It was a completely different management team to the one in place at the moment btw) was wrong. But in hindsight I would side with PokerNews on this one - don't bite the hand that feeds. People who cry about journalistic integrity are the exact people I mentioned before do not make it very far in this industry. I too strive to to write honest unbiased work, but I also appreciate that without advertisers, none of these sites, and jobs, would exist. 

That doesn't mean that everything you read is bullshit on these sites, far from it. There has been a significant move towards transparency in the poker media, particularly after Black Friday. But you need to understand how these sites make money if you want to work for them. Likewise if you are just a reader of these sites, I hope the following will help you understand why certain things are reported on and others are omitted from front pages:

Pay per click/pay per impression - Websites which are paid by the number of page views they receive are a staple part of the online news industry. They tend to get paid a small amount by advertisers for every user that clicks a link, or for every thousand page views.

I mention this advertising model first, because this is precisely what 99% of poker sites DON'T rely on, but many people assume they do. As a result, this has a profound effect on the content.

Blogs that rely on page views are much more sensationalist and prolific. It is in their interest to be the first to break news, expose scandals, and produce a lot of new content every day. Even the biggest news blogs only get something like $4-$12 per 1000 page views. So as you can imagine, they need big controversial stories every day to get millions of hits in order to make it worth their while and employ staff.

This model is good in one sense, because scandals would not get swept under the carpet. It is very bad in another sense because it encourages sloppy work, that is rushed out quickly, not fact checked, and sometimes is straight up lies. If poker went this way, even more cheating scandals would be exposed, but we would also see some really slimy gutter reporting, personal attacks, and unsubstantiated rumours being presented as facts.

The poker market is simply not big enough to attract the type of page views needed to make good money, which is why most poker sites rely on the affiliate model.

Affiliates - The poker media is built on the poker affiliate model. All the big media sites you see today have got where they are from poker players signing up to online poker rooms via their affiliate links. They usually get either a one off fee for each new player who signs up, which is called a CPA (Cost Per Acquisition), or a regular percentage of the rake they pay to that poker room called MGR (Monthly Gross Revenue). CPAs are much rarer these days, although PokerStars exclusively still do it this way. Most of the big poker media websites have hybrids of both models.

The nature of the commission model may give a slight insight into what to expect from the content. In that those on primarily MGR models are more likely to have content that retains readers - so community based stuff, forums, interactive content etc, as well as regular strategy content and other stuff designed at keeping players at the table. With CPAs it is slightly more about attracting a reader and converting them; so possibly more of a standard news blog model could be expected. 

Because sign ups, instead of page views, are the fundamental criteria for making money, the nature of the news reporting changes. You don't need to be as attention grabbing or prolific, but you do need to be constantly directing readers back to your download pages. So although you don't have to worry about printing garbage to rely on hits to your website, you do run the risk of being too spammy with the content you do produce.

This causes two potential problems for a poker writer. First of all, no matter how good the content you write is, your employer might be looking at it in ROI terms, rather than how well written it is. Most poker content like tournament reports, strategy articles and interviews are in theory non profit exercises for the site. In the long term, this of course not true, it is the quality content which gets people on your site in the first place and coming back for more. But you will often find yourself in conflict with the affiliate part of the site over what content is important. Likewise, a lot of poker content, although presented as genuine news, is actually glorified ad copy for your partners. 

The other big problems for poker writers with the affiliate model is exactly what I described with my Absolute Poker story, and that's you have to walk a tightrope of producing good content while also keeping an affiliate partner happy. Writing a story that puts an online partner or one of their sponsored players in a bad light is a big no no. Another problem can come in the form of writing about a poker room which isn’t one of your affiliate partners, positive or not, because it can essentially give them free advertising. The same goes for linking to a direct business rival, ie. another affiliate site. 

These days the biggest sites are less biased as I might make it sound, I am simply outlining what some of the barriers can be. Today there is a much better culture of covering the important stories no matter what potential conflicts could arise, as well as giving proper citations to potential rivals, among the biggest sites.  

There are some other variations of the standard affiliate model worthy of a mention:

Super affiliate - Some poker media sites choose to advertise one poker room rather than a selection. This is usually because they have an enhanced deal with that room, and an agreement to provide some exclusive content. Usually the media site will have an exclusive bonus, freeroll, or other promotion that will encourage players to sign up, as well as an increased commission; both of which is enough to justify them not advertising other partners.

Super affiliate deals usually involve some heavy restrictions on what content the site can produce, and even involves the poker room having some editorial control over the content. As you can imagine, this leads to some heavy biases in the reporting. A PartyPoker super affiliate is obviously not going to be allowed to cover PokerStars news, and might even restrict coverage of the something like the EPT (as Party have the WPT) and vice versa.

In many cases, some big affiliates have a hybrid of a super affiliate deal, in that they can still advertise other rooms, but give priority and editorial exclusives to one major partner room.

Rakeback sites - Rakeback sites understandably operate on an MGR basis, since they give most of what they receive straight back to their players. The only reason I mention them at all is to point out that the nature of these sites means that their profit margins are very small, and as such, you rarely ever see a massive editorial presence on them.

Sub affiliates - Some poker affiliates are so big that they actually give smaller websites the opportunity to advertise their poker rooms for a split of the profits. Although this means smaller profits for the lesser site, it can work out better sometimes because it means they can offer some of the same exclusive promotions, bonuses, and freerolls that the bigger affiliate can boast. PokerStrategy actually have a superb sub affiliate programme btw.

Non poker room options - There are of course other potential ways to get affiliate revenue from poker other than by signing up to a room. Books and software like Hold'em Manager being probably the main two. I doubt anyone makes significant revenues from these because they would take a lot of volume to do so. Online poker room CPAs can be several hundred dollars each and, if you get lucky with the player, a single MGR could land you thousands a month.  So poker room affiliates are the bread and butter of the poker media and the other potential affiliate options are just supplements to their revenue.

Paid advertisements - It is still not uncommon for some advertisers to simply pay to have banners and other advertisements on the site for just an upfront fee. This will often happen when the advertiser has no affiliate plan in place, ie. things like live poker events, live casinos etc. You will also see certain aspects of the website get unique sponsors, for example some podcasts have seperate sponsors, as do some live tournament reporting ventures, forums etc.

Editorial placement - Now on to stuff that perhaps isn't as obvious. Since most of us have in-built mechanisms to mentally filter out adverts these days, media and advertisers get together creatively to make adverts more widely seen. Instead of posting a banner somewhere, they will actually place an article that appears to be genuine news on the site, which is in fact a sponsored post. In some instances these will be highlighted as such, being called "sponsored posts" or some such, but most of the time they are not, and essentially disguised as real news. 

Now, more often than not, you don't need a particularly sophisticated spam radar to recognise which ones are the "advertorial" pieces. Usually editorial placement is for a one off fee, or part of an enhanced media package/affiliate deal agreed with the website. 

Poker room blogs - A lot of the poker media we see today are actually blogs created and run by a poker room, so their revenue comes directly from getting the readers back onto their site. PokerStars and PartyPoker both come to mind as having pretty good content (Especially live tournament related content), and of course Sky Poker have a fully fledged TV channel to support their room. I would advise any fledgling poker writers to keep an eye out on poker room blogs, as they are fast becoming a great new place to find work.  

Training Sites - One of the more recognisable commercial ventures in poker is the training site. A lot of media sites are now producing paid subscription training content, and likewise, a lot of training sites are now producing their own editorial. 

B2B Services - Established poker media sites tend to have their fingers in a lot of pies, and as such, they now tend to offer a lot of Business to Business type services. It is becoming more common, for example, for them to outsource staff for things like editorial, live reporting, video production to other poker organisations.

It is also very common for them to have their own wing specalising in PR services, which can involve press releases, social media, consulting, and utilising their vast reader databases for email marketing. Most of the time, they can offer a bespoke PR package which can involve lots of the things I have mentioned in these blogs for one up front fee.



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