Bluff Gambles on Online Future
When Congress banned the transfer of money from U.S. banks and institutions to online gambling sites last September, the move effectively threw a wrench in the multibillion-dollar online gambling industry. The legislation left many in the industry shocked and their business models shattered. Not Eric Morris though.
Morris had founded Bluff Media in June 2004 with his friend Eddy Kleid, out of his own basement. The duo launched Bluff magazine—the first poker magazine of its kind—and BluffMagazine.com a year later. Turns out Morris and Kleid chose the right time to sit down at the card table, as they rode the poker boom that swept the United States that year and turned their cellar-dwelling operation into a cash cow.
“After the first issue we had an 84-percent sell-through rate, which is absolutely unheard of,” says Morris from the magazine’s offices in Atlanta. “We only had about 30,000 copies on newsstands and 90,000 total in distribution. After that issue we put over 100,000 copies on newsstands.”
Bluff’s total distribution today stands at 200,000—down from 250,000—“because of the legislation … a lot of our advertisers had to pull out of the United States,” he says.
While Morris admits that the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act—signed into law by President George W. Bush on Sept. 30—became a reality sooner than he expected, his focus today is on positioning Bluff to overcome this setback. “The legislation has obviously affected us, but over the course of September 2004 to now we’ve become more than just a magazine. We’re a full multimedia company.”
What sets Morris apart from many other poker magazine publishers is Bluff’s rich, dynamic online presence, he says. The idea is for BluffMagazine.com to be every poker player’s online hub—for news, tips and analysis, and for finding the next tournament to play.
In addition to an editorial team offering poker fans several news updates each day, the site boasts video clips with tips from professional players, blogs written by some of the game’s most well-known celebrities, poker rules, discussion forums, player features, interviews and rankings. The site also offers archived episodes from Bluff Poker Radio, a radio show broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio every Monday and Wednesday. The radio show is even available free for download on iTunes.
“We had the foresight to say, ‘Hey, people will listen to poker on the radio’ … and people laughed and said, ‘There’s no way people would listen to poker.’ But they said the same thing about people watching poker, and now there’s poker on TV every night on any given station. ...”
Morris points out that not only does the radio show help promote the Bluff brand, but the company also shares the show’s revenue with Sirius.
The dynamic content offered at BluffMagazine.com is certainly nice for its audience—poker enthusiasts—but Morris says the anti-gaming legislation has made his pitch to advertisers a much more difficult one.
“Our philosophy has changed a lot over the last two years. With the unlawful gaming act, a lot of our advertisers have pulled out of the U.S. in terms of taking bets from U.S. players, or they don’t want to do any offline type of marketing,” he says. “So it’s more imperative and important than ever that we create an online presence that will allow us to still get [their] advertising dollars in.”
The Coolest Thing Ever
Bluff Media’s latest venture is the Coolest Thing Ever (no, really, it is). This past December, Morris and Kleid purchased ThePokerDB.com, a comprehensive tool allowing players to track online poker tournaments and other players. Now calling it the “Coolest Thing Ever,” Bluff is in the process of re-tooling the product, which already has great appeal among online players and has driven a massive amount of traffic to BluffMagazine.com, Morris says.
“We saw this as a unique opportunity to bring more traffic to our site, because ThePokerDB.com is a very well-respected site, but it never really marketed itself,” he says. “We see a lot of potential there. … We know this is going to make our site a lot more sticky.”
He points out that in the five days following the product’s launch, BluffMagazine.com saw its discussion forums’ membership nearly triple.
The product also provides Bluff with direct revenue. Although Morris says a price for the premium package is still in the works, he estimated the cost will work out to around $140 for one year of use. He declined to share revenue projections, but did mention at least one other premium product will be added to the site in the near future.
The site’s offerings require a staff of 10, a number Morris says continues to balloon. Like many publishers, he finds himself paying more attention to search engine optimization. “We do some search engine optimization in-house, but it’s probably an area that we’re going to take a look at more seriously during this next year.”
He adds that the site ranks highly on most search engines due to the sheer volume of continuously updated content.
So while some other publishers still struggle to develop profitable online business models, Morris’ cards are on the table.
“I didn’t really see this amount of success coming, but by the same token I didn’t see the unlawful gaming act coming either,” he says. “It’s definitely been a good year right now. I wouldn’t say we’re in any jeopardy of going out of business, we’re just not making as much money as we once were. And I think that will turn around.” Lucky for him, Bluff’s online business is booming, and Morris is gambling it will stay that way. PE