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Can You Learn From Texas Hold ‘em as a Marketer?

By July 12, 2011No Comments

The Super Bowl of poker or World Series of Poker Main Event is going on right now in Las Vegas. Over 6,800 players are playing a version of Texas Hold’em poker over the next week with the winner taking home over $8.8 million dollars. I have always been a gambler and played in the WSOP. In fact, I used to market a casino in the middle of the Bible belt in Shreveport, Louisiana. This was well before the poker boom that began in 2003 when a mild-mannered accountant from Nashville, Chris Moneymaker, stunned the poker world by winning its supreme championship.

I find it odd because I was never a fan of poker. I was a blackjack man. So when a friend got me interested in watching the World Poker Tour that invented actually seeing the hold cards of each player on television and being able to watch each player’s strategy, I was hooked. Shortly after, Moneymaker took the 2003 Main Event title and the poker “craze” was fully launched. There is no other sport (okay…I get this is a stretch but poker is one of ESPN’s most highly rated shows) where the average guy can pay his $10,000 entry fee and play along side the best professionals in the game and have at least somewhat of a chance to win. None of you will be besting Rory McIlroy any time soon.

Is It A Game?

While I always played team sports, I was never a big fan of card or board games. So why was I so addicted to this particular game? It is because this particular game was the closest thing to marketing I had ever seen. I love marketing and I have been marketing brand names such as Remington, Sea-Doo, Volvo Penta and Invisible Fence Brand most of my life. Still confused? Here’s what I mean.

If you are a novice to Texas Hold’em poker, here is the game in a nutshell. Each player is dealt two cards, face down. These are known as the “hole cards.” A round of betting takes place, beginning with the player to the left of the two who posted the blinds. Players can call, raise, or fold when it’s their turn to bet. The dealer then flips the next three cards face up on the table. These cards are called the “flop.” These are community cards and then there is a round of betting. The next card turnover is called the “turn” followed by a second round of betting. Finally, a fifth card is turned over and exposed called the “river” and final round of betting. The player that makes the best five card poker hand using his/her hole cards and three from the community cards is the winner.
So How Is This Marketing?
Consider this. You are sitting at a table with many competitors. They are all trying to get all the chips on the table. You have a common goal. Second, most of the competitors are known to you and some are not. All the players have a different set of values, bankrolls and motivations. Some need the money, some are just social dwellers and others just love competition. The poker table is the marketplace with many competitors with various goals and capital to help them achieve their goal are right in front of you.
In The Beginning
In the beginning, you have to play the cards that are dealt you. Only once in 221 times you are going to have aces…or any pair for that matter. That means you have to make do with what you have been given which is most of the time not optimal. Sometimes you scrap the hand. Is this any different than product development or what to take to market? In poker, you are telling a story trying to make the other players either think or believe you have a good hand to get them to fold and leave the game. You also might intentionally show signs of a weak hand so you can bait some players in to get the most possible money. When you are marketing a product, you must tell the story of why a customer wants to engage with you and then get them to take the action you want.
When The Game Begins
Many people that play poker simply look at the cards in front of them and make their decision. More advanced players consider what the other players are holding.

Analysis during a hand is referred to as calculating “pot odds.” In actuality, it’s a little deeper. You should often consider implied odds, game speed, position, players’ mood and other factors when making your “estimated guess based on incomplete information.” Many describe the situation as the chance of something occurring, divided by the cost plus the potential return – multiplied by the unknown. While there is “poker” math, you can see there is much more to this than most see. Think of this if you are in a sales or sales/marketing position.

Let’s say you’re trying to recruit larger clients into your business. You may not have a great chance of landing a given prospect, and they may take a bit of legwork to get to a meeting, but the benefit of signing an A-list lead often makes the potential upside if you “do” hit, worth it.
Reading Your Opponents
As a marketer, you are trained to understand your markets and anticipate the changes that are made. During a poker hand you are watching the cards, your opponent’ actions and then acting on the information you have to either steal the pot, get out of the pot or maximize the pot. In marketing, you do all the necessary work to understand the market you are entering, what it will take to enter the market and what you can expect the yield to be if you do everything right. One of the key mistakes many good marketers make is not anticipating what the competition will do. At the poker table, if you raise thinking you will take the pot and then down the line someone re-raises you, are you comfortable in continuing because you didn’t expect that or grateful because you have lured in a sale and can maximize your investment? That is precisely the game marketers must play with their products and services every day.
High Stakes
Make no mistake. Marketers play in high stakes games every day. Regardless of technology or patents, marketing is the only way any businesses stays in business and products survive to their intended lifespans. With emerging media, traditional media, events, point-of-purchase displays and God knows what other marketing tactics available today, budgets are stretched to the maximum and each decision can be life or death to a product or company. The most famous phrase in poker is “all in.” This is when a player believes he can either scare someone out of hand by putting all their chips in the middle or induce a player to call and double up their stack. Master Lock used to routinely do this with their marketing. They would have one commercial a year and spend it all on one Super Bowl commercial which at the time cost around $1million dollars. Master Lock was doing a lot of other good things in its sales channels, point-of-purchase and distribution programs, but because of their brand equity and long history of dependability, it attracted enough attention to have its customers consider only one brand of lock when they were ready to buy. They have the lion’s share of the lock market and now have used that capital to expand into other similar markets. A gamble? Yes. Payoff? You bet.
Know When to Fold Them
Yes…Kenny Roger’s song is based on fact. I can think of a few times I’d rather have 27 offsuit rather than AJ in a Texas Hold’em game. When you hold any combination of AK, AQ, KK, QQ, AA, JJ or AJs, you are normally the favorite to win. Sometimes what looks like a great hand turns out to be 2nd best, and this game only pays winners! One mark of a great poker player is knowing exactly when to release a losing hand. It’s the same with prospecting. Don’t let wasted efforts or conversations with people you know won’t help you achieve your goal continue for long periods of time. There is just so much time in a day and just so much budget that can be spent.
Bluffing is one aspect of poker. It’s just as part of the game as a shuffle. There are other factors, but, generally speaking, you won’t win at poker if you call someone down every time you suspect you have them beat. When I first started playing this really bugged me, but as you get more comfortable in the game you realize that money you don’t lose spends just as good as money you earn.

When you’re following up with someone who understands your product or what you do and believes the benefits but just won’t commit, it’s often best to just release your hand and wait for the next one. Odds are, the time and money you saved is better invested in a better prospect. Plus, they may change their mind down the line.

Poker is a game that instantly tells you if you have won or not. Marketing is a puzzle that seems like a game and you never really know if you have won. My heart is in Vegas this week as I wish to play in the World Series of Poker again. The truth is, I have my own little poker game going every day and always struggling to make sure I make the right decisions to make my hand pay off. Shuffle Up and Deal.
Mark Thomas is the Managing Director of Marketing Communications for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry. He was honored by PR News as a finalist for Communicator of the Year.