Update, 4/08: I’m afraid NetWinner’s days may be numbered; I no longer recommend this program. Please see these updates: April 29, April 27, April 17, April 11.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the NetWinner program lately, on the forums and by email, and because it’s one of the programs I review here on CompareRewards, I decided to look into this. I submitted a support request on the site on Sunday and asked for someone at NetWinner to provide their side of the story. I was immediately emailed by Matt Coapman, one of the site’s founders and their VP of Business Development, who set up a phone call to discuss my concerns.
On Monday I spoke with Mr. Coapman at length about the complaints I’ve been hearing about NetWinner and about the site’s future. I found him to be very polite, informative, and quite patient with my many questions (some of which were pretty pointed). I was impressed with his openness, and his enthusiasm about the site is pretty contagious.
When typing up my notes about the conversation (which I won’t call an “interview,” because I’m not quoting him exactly), I had some follow-up questions which NetWinner’s Director of Communications Steve Goldberg was gracious enough to address by email yesterday. Big thanks go out to Matt Coapman and Steve Goldberg for taking the time out of their busy schedules to talk with me about their program.
Click “Continue Reading…” for the summary of my conversations with NetWinner!
Mr. Coapman says that NetWinner redemptions are current through October 1 (at least, those with redemption requests prior to that date have been submitted in batch to be paid by Ecount). NetWinner’s terms of service says to allow 90 days for payment. The Ecount GCs were put in place for a couple of reasons. For one, they address a problem some people were having with snail-mailed gift cards going missing (presumably being stolen). The initial Ecount redemption involves a physical card being mailed to the member’s home, Mr. Goldberg explained, but subsequent Ecount redemptions will be in the form of a credit to the card’s account. Another reason for the switch to Ecount is that NW has grown in size and that they were able to contract out with Ecount to handle their redemptions, streamlining the process and freeing up NetWinner’s staff from having to deal with redemptions.
The current redemption delay is “birthing pains” related to setting up the new system with Ecount. Redemptions are sent in batches of 5 to 6,000 a day, and the members’ addresses have to be “qualified” or verified as being valid US mailing addresses before the physical Ecount card is sent out. Because a member’s future Ecount redemptions are done electronically as a credit to their account, presumably the member would be paid faster. “We are always looking to improve the turnaround times and any questions regarding receipt of the cards or redemption credits should be made to NetWinner,” as opposed to Ecount, Mr. Goldberg said.
As an aside, Mr. Coapman said that NW is one of the largest Ecount accounts of this type (prize fulfillment); it’s mostly used as an employee incentive reward.
The other redemption available to members is the raffle entries. Mr. Coapman said that many people don’t have the “10 to 12 hours” of playing time it takes to reach 25,000 points and cash out. For them, NW is offering the opportunity to cash out for drawing entries for bigger prizes. This is just an additional option to the Ecount gift cards, really aimed toward more casual players and not the die-hard use-every-play-daily members.
I told him that I was hearing people were leery of using Ecount, because of privacy concerns, because they just don’t shop online, they don’t understand how it works, etc. He said that members didn’t need to worry about the privacy thing as far as their info with NW was concerned — the only thing Ecount gets from NW is the member’s name and address, which are required for them to issue the Ecount card. He said he realized that some people liked having a physical GC because, for instance, they gave them as gifts. I pointed out that there are some merchants that sell gift cards online and offer free shipping — they could use their Ecount credit to buy physical GCs and have them mailed free. I asked if there was an initiative in place to educate members about this sort of things and he said that was what the forum was for.
Is bringing back the physical, mailed GCs a possibility, maybe even for a higher cost in points? No, said Mr. Coapman. The switch to Ecount was really necessary to keep up with redemptions on the kind of scale NetWinner’s doing business, reducing the resources required to mail out gift cards and investigate reports of missing cards.
About the Forum:
There are multiple moderators who report to Mike, the head mod. Mike sends a daily summary of complaints and general themes of discussions in the forum to the two (just two!) support people. I’m unclear about what happens from there. I would assume the support people would take any ongoing concerns to the program’s administration, but I can’t confirm that that’s the procedure.
Mr. Goldberg had some interesting things to say about the forum moderators. Quoting from his email, “While they do interact with our players, they do not speak on behalf of the company in any official capacity. Think of them as our team captains, representing more the players than the company.” Their responsibility, he said, was to provide the company with feedback from the members.
Mr. Coapman said that he felt that they (NetWinner administration) could do a better job than they are now with internally communicating information to their moderators to pass on to members.
Forum moderators have the ability to freeze posts, he said, and one (I think that’s Mike) has the ability to award bonus points to members, but they do NOT have the ability to lock member accounts. He said there were only two people who could do that: him, and the lady in fulfillment. I asked him this specifically, does complaining about NW in the forum get your account locked? He laughed and said, “No, we’re not like the Gestapo or anything!” He reiterated that the mods don’t have the power to do that. He said members were welcome to talk about NW anywhere on the ‘net. NW wants to keep the forum family-friendly, and that foul langage wasn’t permitted. But as long as the discussion stays civil, concerns and complaints are permitted on the forum.
Mr. Coapman also said, and I thought this was interesting, that the forum was NOT the best place to bring up complaints. He said that the best way to get complaints addressed is in an email to the support folks. He said that the two support people handled between 300 and 500 emails a day, and that because of time constraints, sometimes they had to prioritize and that a “the game didn’t pay me the 10 points I won” type emails didn’t get as high a priority as “I didn’t get paid” kind of mails.
Fraud is a problem, but they’re working on it, Mr. Coapman said. Mr. Goldberg said that NetWinner is “committed to aggressively tracking and eliminating any attempts at fraud in order to protect the integrity of the site and the experience for the vast majority of players who participate fairly. These are the individuals who deserve to play and win and we will continue to do everything in our power to defend their ability to do so.”
Some things NW does to combat fraud include examining IP addresses and home addresses. They are currently testing a change that will require members to verify their account before playing the game. Mr. Coapman said it should be live in the next two weeks He hopes that this will help weed out some cheaters (specifically, people creating fake referrals), and it will also help address complaints about the prior system that didn’t credit legitimate referrers until their referrals confirmed their email address. Why didn’t they require new members to verify email before playing all along? He said it was to keep a new member’s “barrier to entry small” — meaning to make it easy for new people to play the game immediately and see how addictive it is. But they realize this has created problems so they are in the process of changing it.
Mr. Coapman said that the two support people I mentioned above responsible not only for handling support requests, but they’re also responsible for finding cheaters. Some people sign up 300 different referrals, and you can see from the “degrees of separation” (looking at who referred who) that the accounts are all related to one another. These guys, who want to get paid for their fake accounts, are some of the vocal complainers (not all, they realize!). So, sometimes just being a belligerent complainer with a lot of referrals sends up a red flag that the member’s account should be checked for fraud. So when you hear, “I complained about not getting paid to the support people and got my account frozen,” it’s more than likely because when Support investigated, they found something fishy and they asked the lady in charge of Fulfillment to freeze the account.
Another form of cheating they’ve had to deal with includes people who have written scripts, or bots, to do the clicking for them. People also were opening multiple windows to play Banko on different websites at one time. These things violate NW’s Terms of Service (TOS). They found out because, well, Banko’s a 5 minute-long game, and people were winning every 20 seconds. How else could they do that if they weren’t playing in multiple windows? This is bad for NetWinner because it causes a dramatic drop in their ads’ click-through rates (hurting their relationship, and earnings, with advertisers).
One thing some players may not be aware of is that ad blockers (for instance, a modified “hosts” file that keeps ads from displaying on your screen) are against the program’s Terms of Service. Mr. Goldberg said that, “The advertisements and other video content are an important part of the NetWinner experience and are integral to keeping it free to play.”
A last form of fraud NetWinner’s had to contend with involved its affiliate program. Until recently, NW offered a $1.50 incentive for webmasters to bring in new NW members. They found out, unfortunately, that some webmasters were abusing the system, bringing in fake members in order to get the buck-fifty. As a result, they had to shut down their affiliate program and concentrate instead on the AdverGame Network.
About the AdverGame Network – Playing NetWinner’s Games on Other Websites:
The AdverGame Network allows other websites to offer Banko and MoneyWheel. When the program first went live, NW members could play 100 times a day on each website. There are around 75 websites that feature the off-site Banko, and there were some diehard NetWinner members who racked up 5000 to 7500 plays a day maxing out their plays on all AdverGame partner sites. That was a problem, Mr. Coapland said. One issue was the cheating, as mentioned above — people playing multiple games at once in different windows. They don’t view or click through the ads that way, which is how NW generates revenue to be able to send out rewards. Another issue is that NetWinner just doesn’t have the inventory of ads to keep up with that many plays per day. As a result, off-site plays are now tied to an individual member’s NW account, and once again, members are limited to 100 TOTAL plays per day.
Why would a website want to offer NetWinner’s games? Because they get a cut of the ad revenue for visitors playing on their website. Why would NetWinner want to give up part of their ad revenue? In order to bring in new members. So this is a profitable deal for both the webmaster and NetWinner. And while current NetWinner members CAN use part of their total daily plays by playing on another website, they need to be aware that this creates less profit for NW because they’re sharing it with the partner website.
Does NetWinner Stack the Odds?
I had read some interesting posts that suggested that NetWinner games were not as random as their TOS would lead you to believe. I asked Mr. Coapman about something I’d read about how the Flash source code had been analyzed and found to be NOT truly random, and that the odds could be changed at will by administrators. He said that he had heard the conspiracy theories and this just wasn’t true. He said hey, I’m one of the founders, I would know. He said the only thing they change is the multipliers; for instance at Christmas when they had a lot of ads/revenue, they added multipliers. Otherwise, it really was random, he assured me.
What about the problems I’d read that people had had with Banko — people wanted to stop when they won at a lower level, rather than continuing on and getting more numbers, but the popup didn’t come up to allow them to accept the lower-level prize. He said it was probably a glitch when the game was first introduced, that WAS why they had called it “Beta,” and that he thought all that had been ironed out now.
Do the Changes Mean NetWinner is Declining?
Mr. Coapman said that the changes to the program were to bring NetWinner a broader audience and to help weed out rampant fraud. He said the program was growing, which necessitated the switch to Ecount to streamline reward fulfillment. And he summed it all up by saying we’re not going anywhere, we’re doing everything we’ve said we would, we’re still not charging for membership, we’re tweaking things and making changes to broaden the model, and we’re here to stay — NetWinner plans to be around for a long time.
Mr. Goldberg said in his email that, “There is one overriding sentiment that we at NetWinner would like to make clear. Whenever we meet, whenever any decision is being made regarding any subject from the game play to rewards and redemption to partnerships, the one thing that is always mentioned is, ‘How will this improve the overall experience for the broadest cross-section of our players?’ Every one who comes to our site(s) is important to us. The mission here at NetWinner is to create and continually improve the fun and engagement of our games and every other facet of our consumer relationship. As such, things will change (e.g., the introduction of prize drawings) but always with the objective of making it a better experience for the majority of our players.”
My Take On It:
I found both Mr. Coapman and Mr. Goldberg to be VERY open about where NetWinner was and where they wanted to be. Mr. Coapman said that he was aware of the complaints that people were making about the program, and I felt that he was honest and thorough in the way he addressed them. He spent a lot of time talking to me and didn’t try to dodge the issues or cut me short. Mr. Goldberg responded thoughtfully to my follow-up email, taking the time to check out CompareRewards.com first in order to get a feel for the kind of audience who would be reading this. I got the impression that, despite some concern to the contrary, NetWinner does care about their members and their perception of their program.
I understand that long-time members may be unhappy about game limits and the removal of mailed GCs, but Mr. Coapman gave sound business justification for these changes. Sometimes there are growing pains as a program goes from being a smaller company to being a big one and they’ll have to tweak things. An extreme example: if a program only had two members, you’d get GREAT personal attention and you’d probably get your reward the day you cashed out… but what advertiser would want to do business with a company that only had two members? Being bigger makes them more attractive to advertisers, but it does limit the company’s ability to give you fast support answers and fast delivery of rewards. NetWinner is taking some steps to improve this, by adding Ecount which, in theory, can be delivered faster. But I feel they could do more, by adding more support staff to help answer member questions and problems. Members need to feel valued, and automated replies (or no replies at all) don’t convey that at all.
Some member assistance is available via the forum, but the moderators there can not be assumed to voice the opinions of NetWinner. I do feel that one big opportunity for improvement would be better communication between the program’s administration and its forum moderators. I hope that they work on this. Administration needs to realize that, to the average member, the forum mods ARE NetWinner. They represent NW in their words and actions just by virtue of their position as a moderator…and, based on widespread complaints I’m hearing, perhaps the mods themselves could use a little moderation.
It sounds like Ecount and game limits are necessary sacrifices for the program to continue to grow and be able to attract advertisers to pay for rewards. Perhaps as the program expands, game limits will increase and physical GCs will return…but this will only happen with the continued support of NetWinner’s existing membership base.
Current NetWinner members who want to help support NW should be aware that ad revenue is shared with partner websites if they play off-site. They can maximize NetWinner’s revenue by only playing on the main NW website.
When Mr. Coapman asked if I wanted to offer NetWinner’s games on CompareRewards, I said no. There are too many negative vibes right now about the program, and that I was concerned the bad juju would taint my site’s reputation by association. When they get these issues addressed and regain the confidence of their members, it is something I’d consider.
If you’re a NetWinner member and you’d like to comment, I’d be happy to hear your response to this. Please don’t shoot the messenger — I’m just relaying the information I was given, and I don’t use NW enough to have the personal experience with which to fully grade the quality of their responses. You diehard NW players do, and I’d love to hear from you.
I appreciate your reading this and hope it helps answer some concerns that you may have had. If you’re not a member and would like to join NetWinner, please click here [referral link removed as of 4/08 -- I no longer recommend this program. Please click here and here for an update.]