Audience Development

Puzzles and games power relationships with readers

puzzles and games
Via Unsplash

The world went crazy for Wordle this year and the simple word game’s incredible viral success led the New York Times to acquire it for a rumoured  $1.5 million. With other newspapers and magazines eyeing online games as a strategy for bringing audiences closer, what makes puzzles so powerful?

  • With an estimated 3 million users, Wordle seems like a smart subscription investment for the New York Times. Estimating an LTV of $100, if they can figure out how to convert just 0.5% of Wordle users to subscribers they’ve recouped their investment.
  • Online games are also about keeping subscribers. The NYT’s General Manager of Games, Jonathan Knight, sees a correlation between daily engagement with the games and long term retention, with readers coming for news but staying for the entertainment that games and puzzles provide.
  • The NYT’s Knight sees games as a great diversion from the news, especially at times when the news cycle is particularly fraught. He said:

We have a lot of people who are coming to read the news, and then the games are the ‘dessert’ at the end of the meal.

Playing the game
  • Writing in DCN, Esther Kezia Thorpe has looked at the games strategy in play at the NYT, The Atlantic  and New York Magazine. She sees the adoption of puzzle and game content as an evolution in publishers’ efforts to foster ‘engagement and ‘habit-building’.
  • However, she says simple games are no longer enough. To take full advantage of their gaming investment, publishers need to find ways to establish meaningful relationships with their gaming audiences. Thorpe says:

Publishers need to find ways to bring regular puzzlers into a deeper relationship, whether that be through newsletters, social features, or additional layers to the games themselves.

Engagement strategies
  • All the publishers Thorpe spoke with sit at least some of their puzzles outside their paywalls. For The New York Magazine and its entertainment site, Vulture, readers can do as many weekly or daily crosswords as they want. They only hit the site’s paywall when they try to read an article.
  • The NYT keeps Wordle and their ‘The Mini’ crossword free to play for everyone, but if users want to compete with friends or join a leaderboard, they need to subscribe. Its Spelling Bee word game is also free to play but higher levels of the game that are only accessible to subscribers.
  • The Atlantic launched its free-to-play daily crossword puzzle in 2018, just prior to its digital subscription push. Three years later the crossword puzzle is still open to non-subscribers, with the publisher seeing it as a way to build an ‘Atlantic’ habit with potential subscribers. Executive Editor Adrienne LaFrance describes this as a ‘ritual’.
Beyond games

The Atlantic is hoping to take the reader relationship further with a free weekly email newsletter, The Good Word, that looks closely at the editor’s favourite word from the previous week’s solutions. This not only connects readers to the game, but also to the Atlantic’s content more broadly. LaFrance said:

There may be people who play the puzzle and aren’t deeply familiar with The Atlantic and start reading. In fact, we’ve seen that the puzzle is a real portal to the rest of our journalism.

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