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Jack Symons: “I never really understood the value of affiliates other than making money out of, essentially, misery.”

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After making it through a gambling addiction, Gamban founder Jack Symons made it one of his life’s missions to help anyone experiencing gambling-related harm. In a revealing interview with Time2play, he talks about what affiliates can and should be doing (but don’t!), why operators need to champion change, and the tidal wave that will be the US market.

If willpower slips…

Time2play: Thank you very much for talking with us today, Jack, and helping us get more insights into how we as gambling affiliates can be more responsible.

Jack: No problem.

Time2play: We’ll dive straight in…. Looking at Gamban’s homepage, you highlight that “If willpower slips, Gamban doesn’t”.

The slogan of Gamban stating that if willpower slips, Gamban doesn't

The problem for us is… when users with addiction reach us, willpower has already slipped. Users ending up on our site have already searched for “where can I play,” and just want to figure that out as fast as possible. In that context, what would your recommendation be? How can we be as responsible as possible?

Jack: I think just creating awareness of the support tools and help available. Ideally within the jurisdiction that players are coming from… that’s a damn good starting point. So long as people know that there are support tools available, I think that IS going the extra mile as a gambling affiliate. I’d like to see that as the baseline across all gambling affiliates.

There needs to be a level of visibility that extends beyond just adding a tag line at the bottom that “gambling should be responsible” or “keep it fun”. We could do away with the meaningless platitudes, which is what most affiliates do.

Time2play: Is that really enough though? Obviously, Time2play is just starting out now. We don’t have a lot of traffic yet to measure on. But on the successful domains, some of us have worked on in the past, the vast vast majority of users have had a short attention span.

Users just went to our pages, didn’t read anything except maybe 10 seconds above the fold, went to the ranking list, and converted. So our chances of properly informing… they seem limited. You know what we mean?

Jack: I do. I think… I thought about this a lot. When players come to affiliate sites, they’re looking for a new operator to play with. Or they’re looking for AN operator to play with. You have limited time to inform. And you’re not going to be able to persuade anyone not to gamble at this time. That would also be counter to what you do. That is your model…

“This is what I think of affiliates: Where affiliates offer something extra — whether it be alternative dispute resolution, reviews, or comparisons, this justifies the affiliate’s existence in the ecosystem. I think there IS an opportunity to go the extra mile, innovate and show what’s possible within that.” – Jack Symons, Founder of Gamban

But I think what’s much more important than validating one affiliate’s approach is to put focus on the whole industry and the behavior across the board. I would be much more interested in higher affiliate standards for responsible gambling. If that makes sense?

Responsible co-operations and the single customer view

Time2play: We’re actually surprised there isn’t a lot of cooperation between gambling affiliates and responsible gambling organizations already. There’s a lot of talk about it of course, but it remains just that, talk or occasionally small initiatives like featuring some of the organizations on responsible gambling pages that no one reads anyhow. We’re not aware of anyone having any serious co-operations with organizations like Gamblers Anonymous for instance. Obviously, when we’re a bit further in our journey, we’d like to change that.

Jack: Interesting. Do you think affiliates are more skewed towards the beginning of the player journey? Or do you think there’s a role throughout the entire lifespan of players?

Time2play: It really depends on the keywords affiliates rank for. But it’s anyhow difficult to say with certainty because we have very limited information on the affiliate side. You know, once a player has converted to an operator, our information flow stops. Other than being aware of which kind of revenue the operator is making or not making with the player who has converted with us.

In terms of identifying who is a returning user… we can see our total number of returning users, but having more specific information than that… how do those specific users behave? Are those the ones converting again but with another operator? It’s very limited for us. Which makes it difficult for us to help also until we’ve created the community we hope to create long-term where people could sign-up to operators via us. We have a much higher chance then at helping users, because we also know if someone is playing too much and should be stopped.

Jack: There’s a lot of talk about the single customer view… that it could be beneficial for the industry. Do you see that as the future?

Time2play: Yes, but it’s going to be very difficult to actually get that done. There’s so much money involved with so many different stakeholders that all have different interests. It will be a long journey to get there.

Jack: I definitely think in theory that having one account for instance at Time2play where you have your play history, and you can see which operators you have accounts with… I think that’s an example of adding value. That’s an example of where affiliates justify their existence.

On another topic: As I understand it, please correct me if I’m wrong, affiliates can actually make more money than operators?

Time2play: There are some very profitable deals in place. Affiliates on a per deal basis usually don’t earn more than the operator. But there are very high revenue share deals with some operators, which makes it very profitable to be an affiliate if you have traffic. That, of course, also contributes to this… “let’s keep them playing” vibe in the industry. The more the gamblers gamble, the more the affiliates usually earn.

Jack: And there’s no risk for the affiliates in the deals, right?

Time2play: Depends on the deals also. Some deals include that if the operator loses, the affiliates co-lose so-to-speak. Some deals have it set in stone that the affiliate doesn’t share the risk. We do know of some affiliates who on some accounts actually end up owing the operators quite a bit of money.

Jack: That’s interesting. There’s a lot within the affiliate sector that is not visible to the outside.

Time2play: Definitely. But maybe to go back to the one customer view – how can that ever happen as long as there are many affiliates out there… let’s say we block someone at Time2play. That person can easily just go to another affiliate then and not be blocked. Until we have that unified ecosystem, it’s very hard.

Jack: Yes, but what do you think solutions can be then?

Time2play: Initiatives like yours. Like Gamban or similar programs where you’re universally blocked. If we’d for instance help with getting addicts to sign up for those kinds of programs, we’d be making the right steps.

Jack: Look, I recently got married.

Time2play: Oh, congrats.

Jack: Thank you… you look around at wedding planners and various suppliers. Not one of those organizations could persuade me to get married. That would be weird. If I decide that I’m going to get married, I then decide the routes I’m going to take. The venue, planner, and all that stuff.

The parallel here is that no organization is going to persuade me to stop gambling. I think some approaches could be compelling, certainly. But no one is really going to persuade me.

It’s about knowing the support available

Jack: I was listening to an audiobook recently. Derren Brown’s “Boot Camp for the Brain”. It’s really good. We’re told that, “Information alone is not enough to change – a fundamental principle behavioral science tells us.” Regardless of the wording, it’s likely to have little impact. But that’s what a lot of affiliates are relying on!

In reality, the decision to stop is a very personal one. It was for me. Even if a loved one tells you to stop, it often doesn’t work. It has to come from you.

When you make that decision, it’s about knowing the tools and the support available. And there’s where I think the affiliates can come in. Not with a responsible gambling page that no one sees… but finding ways to engrain that message.

Possibly outreach and partnership work with helplines and organizations can help as well. Linking things back together in terms of the support and the tool.

I mean, what we found in the UK with GAMSTOP is how layering the tools together really helps in terms of getting people into a place where they are then able to use the tools for support. If that makes sense?

GAMSTOP advice on how to self-exclude

Time2play: It does. But it also makes it hard to be a gambling affiliate and make a positive difference. If we accept that we can’t help anyone except make sure they know tools they can use in the future, that’s accepting defeat. For most people, once they realize they need help, it’s already too late.

Some of the research you’ve published on your website for instance states that suicide rates amongst self-identified gamblers are 3 times higher than for non-gamblers. And 23 percent of adults who are treated for gambling addiction also have admitted to committing crimes.

These are, generally speaking, obviously, people who need help. They have more personal problems than the general population. We would hate to accept there’s not more to do.

Jack: I spoke with Erik Bergman from Great.com recently – it’s another casino affiliate. They have a philanthropic aspect to them with donations of some of their profits and environmental contribution. I think donating profits to the right organizations could be something affiliates can do.

But that’s just money. Money helps, but what we’re looking for is long-lasting change. And if that’s what we look for, we have to recognize there are a lot of organizations that do a very specific job well.

If it’s a case of talking with someone in the UK, you’ve got the National Gambling Helpline. If it’s a case of self-excluding, you’ve got GAMSTOP. These products are great, but they need to be more visible.

“What I’ve learned in the past 5-6 years… we see a lot of tools that are getting out there and being advertised as a silver bullet. But nothing so far is a fool-proof solution. The best way to put yourself in a safe position is to layer tools to place friction between you and gambling. And then use that time that the friction gives to seek professional help.” – Jack Symons, Founder of Gamban

Time2play: How does that then translate to the gambling affiliate side?

When it’s time NOT to play

Jack: As affiliates, I think what you can use is that time-access-money approach. That is what fuels gambling addiction. Certainly with Time2play, if you get the community going. If you can remove one of those components, you’ve made it very difficult to sustain an unhealthy relationship with gambling.

You of course want to intercept that before people are out of money. But the time aspect is also very important.

You have a very good chance here with Time2play to for instance say: when is it time NOT to play. you could for instance limit the time when people can play using your accounts. If someone is at 2 am on their fifth deposit of the day… you can stop them. Which then gets us back to the one customer view.

Time2play: How do you think that would have worked for you personally with your addiction? Attacking the time aspect?

Jack: For my own gambling addiction, it wasn’t time or money that made the difference… it was dependency. It was how much I needed it. How much it meant to me. I could get joy from gambling, where I couldn’t get much elsewhere.

But I definitely think there’s a lot to play on in terms of time. And I think it’s something that no one has really gotten right so far. The closest anyone has gotten might be Cam Adair’s Game Quitters, where they match you up with potential hobbies to replace gambling. But… I think, if I wasn’t working on Gamban, I would possibly still be experiencing gambling problems.

Spotlight: The rotten gambling affiliates

Time2play: That’s actually something we wanted to ask you also: whether still working so closely with the gambling industry has been difficult? For someone who self-identifies as a gambling addict? It’s like an alcoholic working at a brewery.

Jack: It used to be very difficult. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will be billboards for gambling that I’ll see. I’ve become more resilient to external triggers.

Going through thousands of domains for the Gamban block list was certainly a quite triggering experience. But if anything, I get to look behind the curtain, and that helps. I get to see the extent of the problem and what some people experience if they don’t get the help they need. And what help can actually do to those that get it.

Time2play: Maybe to take it back to the affiliates then. Imagine someone like you comes to us, and you don’t know Gamban or other tools. You arrive on our best slots page. How can we make sure that you get the info you need before you convert?

Jack: What do you think?

Time2play: An obvious thing would be we can move down the conversion button to go far down the page. But then we risk that users think we’re not offering what they want. They then ship bad user metrics to Google, and Google replaces us with some scammy affiliate.

Another option could be that we do a popup when someone converts. Before they can start registering, they get a message about how gambling should be entertainment and if that doesn’t feel like it’s the case anymore, these are organizations that can help.

Jack: I think that’s probably going a bit too far for an affiliate.

I mean, what was going through my head just now was the idea of putting cash machines a bit further away from the betting shop. There’s an element of friction in terms of signing up of course, which is the operator’s domain. 

An area of attention might be to help get out rotten affiliates of the industry and just make sure someone like me wouldn’t fall for a scam.

I’ll give you an example: There are affiliates advertising on Google, who are targeting Gamban or GAMSTOP. Obviously in a bid to try to acquire players with unhealthy relationships with gambling to make money. Clearly, that’s wrong. There’s a special place in hell for them…

Time2play: Yea, there is.

Jack: But operators could support here. They could drop those affiliates and refuse to work with them!

I know for instance Entain has a tough stance on affiliates working in a rogue way. And when it’s working like this… this is the point I want to make:

If an operator is prepared to drop an operator for bad activity, I think affiliates should do the same the other way. If operators act without responsibility, affiliates should refuse to work with them.

For that specific case, maybe affiliates could also help and spend a part of their budget on drowning out those bad affiliates. Affiliates have skills in search engine marketing and could use them to monitor and enforce against rogue affiliates letting the industry down.

You can only be as responsible as your least responsible affiliate. So committing to trying to eradicate the rout is a really powerful thing. It’s not as sexy as saying “here’s 2 million euros towards xyz”, but it could help at-risk players directly.

Follow the bet365 lead

Time2play: It’s just very tricky. If we take Time2play, we have 1 spot on Google. Let’s say we have position 1 when someone searches, but 2-10 are bad eggs. We can do nothing. We have nothing to replace them with.

That’s why we hope to by being number 1 and being a good example, we can just hope to make all the others copy us. Cause that’s how the industry works: everyone looks to who is number 1 in the SERP and copies what they do. To increase their own chance at being no. 1.

But it’s also a thing of operators needing to do more. Many affiliates refuse to work with bet365, for instance, because it’s too much trouble. Bet365 really monitors and enforces regulations on their affiliate partners. And they close the partnership if the rules are not being kept. They even have people reading the affiliate reviews and writing to the affiliates if the information is wrong or not compliant.

If everyone acted like bet365, users would have a much safer and more accurate experience on the affiliate side. The operators have the money and the power. If they take that away from the affiliates, if the rules are not kept… the affiliates have no choice but to be better.

Jack: So what you’re saying is, if everyone acted like bet365, it would also just be a much more level playing field for affiliates. Because you compete on the same grounds with everyone being forced to be responsible.

Time2play: Yes. For sure. But as long as that’s not the case, you have affiliates spending resources on being responsible and trying to rank. And affiliates who spend everything just on trying to rank. Who do you think wins that competition?

Jack: So as an organization type, as a stakeholder group, you’re let down essentially by the organizations you’re supporting.

Time2play: Yes, in part.

Operators being let down by their own industry

Jack: This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this by the way. Even on the operator side. The most fascinating example of this I’ve experienced is that I saw a panel with 2 CEOs from the operator side. Massive operators with hundreds of millions of revenue.

In Finland, they had analyzed that actually, the advertisement spending they had on television caused public hate and a massive lack of return. But they continued to do advertisements! They recognized by not advertising, they’d open the opportunity to other gambling operators with much less safety. So they kept the advertisement up begrudgingly.

One of them was even voted most hated brand because of this, but they couldn’t do it differently if they wanted to protect placers. The solution is regulation. Regulators say, “You can only do this amount of advertisement,” for instance.

So, I think with what we see with other stakeholder groups in this space. Whether affiliates, operators, providers: Clearly, there needs to be a level of standard enforced. I mean, the fact that I can go on Google right now and find sites that are not available on Gamban, promoting effectively that addicts can play. It’s ridiculous. We need to decide on what the standard should be and work on how we can get that.

But the most dangerous affiliate activity at the moment pertains to the black market.

Time2play: In which sense?

Jack: Making brands available to players that shouldn’t see them. People don’t read the terms and conditions. You sign up to a site assuming that the terms and conditions don’t deviate from the norm. So when an affiliate tells that you can get higher bonuses in the black market, they effectively lead users down a risky route.

Rufus Casino is actually a good example of this. Their mascot… it’s a bulldog wearing a union jack jacket. How much more ‘British’ can you get?? They have no license but are available to UK players. Actually, I shouldn’t talk about them, cause I don’t want players to know about them.

Time2play: We can edit out the name.

Jack: No, please don’t. It’s useful to know that at this time, there are sites that are still trading in the UK despite having a license to do so.

That could be another way that affiliates help actually: If affiliates enforce that you cannot convert without having gambling protection software installed. That’s something Time2play could do when the community is up and running.

Time2play: Yes, definitely something we should try in the future.

Blacklisting as a wrong tool

Time2play: We are also thinking of becoming a resource for blacklisted casinos though. When people realize they can trust us, they will use us to search for terms they otherwise search for in Google.

There are markets where the unregulated brands just get a huge amount of the search, leaving users unsafe if they depend on the current affiliate offering which actually tries to make them play there. So we want to provide information on these brands also to ensure the users can get honest information and that they KNOW they are about to gamble at a place with no protection.

One way could be with big disclaimers if a user enters a review of an unregulated brand, clearly stating this is unregulated and potentially unsafe. We would not feature those brands though obviously on pages where users not already searching for unregulated brands could find them.

Jack: In general, though, I think you properly want to keep your arms distance from these unregulated organizations. I wouldn’t recommend putting them on a blacklist people can find at least. That’s essentially giving addicts easy access to platforms they can continue their addiction with. Once they’ve reached enough self-exclusion from the regulated platforms, they move to the black market to continue gambling.

Time2play: Ah, so actually we need to update some of our pages because on some we do mention brands by name that we don’t recommend.

Jack: Yes, please. And what you could do is hunt these illegal operators and affiliates promoting them. Submit them to the regulators. I would think regulators would highly appreciate that also, which might benefit you at the end of the day. It’s not as sexy as developing a new feature, but it’s very important.

The general problem on the affiliate side

Time2play: But then we have to ask: What are we supposed to do though as an honest affiliate when most affiliates are not behaving with the user in mind but rather profit?

Check the sites of almost anyone who ranks for high-value keywords. When you go into the details and actually read what they write in their reviews and top lists and what-not. It’s completely incoherent a lot of the time. In one review, one metric is rated positively to make a brand appear great. In another, that same metric is not important to make another brand appear greater than it is.

And regarding even some big affiliate brands: Just search for “bitcoin casinos” in the States for instance. You will find pages about this with conversion options even on some of the biggest brands in the industry. With no warnings for the users although it’s black market casinos.

Jack: I think the best starting point here is to name the affiliates and the sites. Put it out. Call them out. It’s tough, but you gotta take a stand. You’ll do a lot better for the sector. If what you’re saying is true, and even the biggest affiliates do this and don’t cut out unlicensed platforms. If you feed this back to the regulators…. as far as I’m concerned, you’re helping in as many ways as can be expected.

Time2play: Unfortunately, it’s a potential legal risk we cannot take just yet. We don’t want to end up fighting fights we don’t have resources for yet, getting distracted from actually providing users with honest alternatives.

The stance on gambling affiliates

Jack: If I can speak candidly about how I used to see affiliates. The first time I ever heard of what an affiliate was I think was in the film Runner Runner with Justin Timberlake. You know it?

Time2play: Yea, also with Ben Affleck, right?

Jack: Yes. I probably heard about affiliates before, but that was the first real touchpoint. And I guess there are affiliates out there that just have a big mailing list and make a lot of money off of it.

“But I never really understood what value an affiliate brought to the table other than making money out of, essentially, misery. Until now.” – Jack Symons, Founder of Gamban

Because you often make money out of the player’s loss. That’s been my understanding for a long time and there’s a part of me that looks down on those systems. Unless you provide some value back, you shouldn’t be taking value out. That seems like a worthwhile trade.

And I understand now where some of the areas of value are. Particularly in potential platforms like Time2play or Great.com or the dispute resolution services that some have. Which I have used before.

AskGamblers for instance helped me get some money back in the past when an operator refused to pay me out. It worked. So I do think there are things affiliates can do.

You asked me what I think needs to be done at the beginning. I hadn’t prepared an answer to this, I’ve just gone with the flow of this conversation now. But I think recognizing what can be done, what is achievable, is essential. Certainly, collaborating with regulators. I think they would welcome you with open arms. Collaboration with organizations such as Gamban is also an option.

Trying to find ways of ridding the nefarious and rogue in-it-for-the-money screw-social-well-being… I think these are the organizations that need to be stopped. We need an action plan for that. Is it for example possible to outbid on the keywords the bad eggs rank for?

Time2play: Well, PPC is possible, but it would require a lot of money, and users often ignore those ads anyhow. The only way for us would be to get more domains to link to us so that Google understands that we’re legit. And then optimizing for our users on the pages we create. We hope the bigger we get, the more powerful we get to take this stance.

Jack: Exactly. Your legitimacy will shine.

Time2play: Yes, and thank you for your help here. We didn’t consider how important dispute resolution might be for instance. We definitely need to visit our own product roadmap here. We’re still very much developing our foundations. That’s also why we want to do this interview series now. Get out there to a lot of people with deep knowledge of responsible gambling such as yourself and learn. And then incorporate everything we can into our product. We hope we’ll be in a lot better spot in 6 months to a year to be the shining light for responsible gambling.

The US market and the upcoming tidal wave

Jack: Speaking of responsible gambling, the US by the way is at a fascinating stage. I don’t even know how to approach it. We’ve been there for 5 years, and I still think we’re 5 years too early. It’s a land grab.

Time2play: Yes, it’s so scattered also in terms of regulation. It makes it very tricky.

Jack: It’s not even about the economics of it. The fantasy sports platforms are willing to spend fortunes on acquiring players for instance.

For us, ideally… it’s really weird to run Gamban. We don’t want a lot of users. That suggests that there is a big problem. We know there’s a problem. It’s a morbid metric to measure. But in the US, the downstream action of exclusion just isn’t happening!

I don’t know what timeline to expect. Some people talk about a 10-year span. Some 5. Some less.

All I know is: It will be a tidal wave when it happens. I do mean a tidal wave. Not a big wave. It will be a sea change. The way gambling is adopted, talked about, rolled out. It’s not a case of IF, it’s a case of WHEN.

And reluctantly, I hope Gamban is there to help. You know, we build it for scale. But it’s only 1 tool. So I really hope the US market gets its act together and develops a self-exclusion scheme that is robust across states.

Time2play: We do think it’s happening though. The American market is catching up fast. It started out being 10 years behind at least of the European market on the affiliate side for instance.

But they’re catching up to speed like crazy. Very soon they will have much better products because the competition is now so fierce. And we hope that will be a chance then also for you. Especially as more regulation kicks in.

Jack: Well, actually we shine anyhow when it’s unregulated. Our biggest source of traffic in the US is in California for instance, where it’s unregulated.

The regulated state of the market doesn’t matter too much in that sense. One of our highest traffic sources for instance is in Finland, where there’s a gambling monopoly. Any other product than the monopoly is per definition a black market product. And most users gamble in black market because the monopoly offering isn’t enough. I do think blocking software has its limitations, but I don’t see other solutions for how to handle black markets.

To anyone experiencing gambling-related harm

Time2play: Hopefully, we find solutions going ahead. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Anything last minute you want to touch upon? Anything you want to tell our readers?

Jack: Yes, I’d like to tell anyone reading this, anyone who is experiencing gambling-related harm: There is help out there!

I needed someone to tell me this when I was at my lowest. If you’ve lost money, okay you’ve lost money. Underline it. Learn from it. Move on. And get out of the spiral if you feel like you’re getting out of control. There are tools available. Inform yourself about those. Whenever you’re ready, they’ll be there for you to help. 

If you’re in the UK, TalkBanStop.com. Elsewhere? Gamban.com

Time2play’s responsible gambling interview series

Time2play’s vision is to become the beacon of safe gambling. In our role as an affiliate, we aim to contribute as much as we can to make this space the best it can be for users. 

As affiliates, we also know we have a lot to learn before we’re able to reach that goal. This interview is part of a series of interviews we’re conducting with key players in the industry. These individuals are leading the fight for safe, responsible gambling. It’s our responsibility to learn from them to ensure our site corresponds with the values they espouse. 

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