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Gaming Guru

Arnold M. Knightly
 

Zen Gaming taking new approach to poker

13 April 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When former marketing executive Mark Brown heard about a social networking Web site proposal that would feature poker and be able to target ads to specific partners, he thought it sounded like a good -- and potentially profitable -- idea.

He liked the idea so much that he formed a holding company, Zen Gaming, and bought an up-and-coming online poker site, the National League of Poker site at nlop.com, last year.

"With the growth of the Internet, the business model was compelling for me," said Brown, who also is the company's chief executive. "We were able to purchase this and begin developing partnerships."

Zen Gaming's business model is two-pronged.

First is a table game model of proprietary games that can be played in poker rooms in Nevada. The company has a pair of patented and proprietary poker games, which are variations of Texas hold 'em, that can be found in poker rooms at Treasure Island, Hard Rock Hotel and O'Sheas.

The second prong, and Brown's primary focus now, is called "advergaming," a free online poker platform and software that will be used to sell online advertising.

"Advergaming is a new approach to online advertising," Zen Gaming President Vincent Zaldivar said. "It utilizes gaming as the means to generate additional online traffic, which increases impressions, the length of our user sessions and, most importantly, increases revenues."

Partners will be able to sell ad space in the poker room, such as on the poker tables, in the background, or across the bottom of the users' screens.

Zen Gaming will partner with businesses to develop site-specific content that will link to nlop.com's online poker site.

Stephens Media Group, owner of the Review-Journal, is one of Zen Gaming's first partners.

Using the company's software, the Review-Journal launched a poker site last month, becoming the first newspaper in the country to offer online poker, Brown said.

Al Gibes, executive director of Stephens Media Interactive, said Stephens Media will use the poker room to develop a database of customers.

"We'll be able to grow this customer," Gibes said. "Their track record is people spend a lot of time playing this application. So we'll have the opportunity to get our content in front of them during breaks in the game, or if they're waiting for a new game to start."

Nearly 275 players registered through the newspaper's Web site in early April.

Brown said players stay in the online poker rooms for just more than an hour, on average. Zen Gaming's partners can use that time to try to capture the players' attention while they wait to play their hands or join new games.

For instance, Gibes said, Stephens Media is considering placing a news ticker in the poker room. Players will be able to link to news stories from the ticker. He added that poker players using the site also could choose to participate in surveys or contests that will earn them more playing points when they're not playing poker.

Zen Gaming has reached out to other media and gaming companies to build online partnerships that will link to the National League of Poker Web site.

Some of Zen Gaming's other partners include Treasure Island, Hard Rock Hotel and tavern owner Golden Gaming. It also has partnership deals with Lotus Broadcasting, a radio company that owns the local affiliates for ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio, and pair of local rock and Spanish-language stations. Brown said his company is close to announcing national partnerships, one with a national media company and the other with an international sports league.

Christopher Abraham, vice president of marketing for Golden Gaming, said his company is using the poker room to market to its customers. The company hosts poker tournaments on the site and gives away three $25 gift certificates each week.

Nearly 250 players have registered through Golden Gaming's tavern group Web site since the room launched in February.

"It's just another way we can offer (customers) entertainment tied in with our brand," Abraham said.

Brown, who sold his marketing agency Brown & Partners to R&R in late 2004, said the advergaming platform lets casinos capture revenue from customers even after they leave the casino.

"They can go home, play online poker, because we're monetizing with advertising, we'll share that with our partners," Brown said. "So for the first time ever, TI can make money off their customer while they're sitting at home."

Brown said competing free online poker Web sites, such as PurePlay and SpadeClub, don't use the advergaming model.

Competing Web sites either make money by selling VIP packages or they use no-cash poker games to try to lure players to their out-of-country, money-to-play poker sites.

"That's not our model at all," Brown said. "At our site you cannot bet a dime. (The free) poker is not any fun because it's all-in, all the time. There's no value to it."

Zen Gaming's National League of Poker Web site has two levels. Players can register on a basic player site that is free, or they can register on a VIP site that charges $19.99 per month and allows players to compete for larger prizes.

The VIP membership also offers players a chance to win a seat at the National League of Poker Player's Championship.

Zen Gaming doesn't have to wait for its partners to begin selling ads and sponsorships before it can start generating revenue.

"We can go in and sell a sponsorship for someone to go in and sponsor a poker room," Brown said. "We have also had interest in private-labeling our proprietary games."

Zen Gaming has more than 80 proprietary games as part of its intellectual-property vault, Brown said. The company is exploring relationships with a number of major casino-game developers to bring these games to market.

With the help of Las Vegas connections, Brown expects Zen Gaming, which employs 16 people, mostly in Boston where nlop.com was founded, to grow rapidly through new partnerships.

"There's no doubt in my mind, in the next year we'll be the dominate player in the free online poker space," Brown said.