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How NYMag, NYT and Atlantic are leveling-up their game strategy

February 24, 2022 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

Last month’s Wordle acquisition by The New York Times hit headlines inside and outside the media world. It serves as a useful reminder of the value of simplicity in creating a successful game. However, it also reinforced the NYT’s ambition to be the destination for people spending time online.

The subscription behemoth isn’t the only publisher looking to level up in games. As the pressure to gain and retain subscribers grows, publishers are using puzzles not just to build habit, but to open a two-way relationship with readers – and their friends. 

A move to daily games

Jonathan Knight, The New York Times’ General Manager of Games, sees a correlation between daily engagement with the games and long term retention. “We see it as a great diversion from the news, when the news can often be quite rough,” 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.”

Sensing an opportunity with a new wave of daily puzzle enthusiasts, New York Magazine announced a new crossword in January – with a twist. The 10×10 puzzle, housed under the Vulture brand, is entirely focused on entertainment and pop-culture. 

“We explored a few different avenues. But eventually we realized that what made the most sense was to start with something we already had,”said Vulture Editor Neil Janowitz. The 10×10 format is a relatively digestible puzzle that can typically be solved in under six minutes. But it also sits comfortably alongside the flagship New York crossword.

As the biggest site in the magazine’s network, Vulture made the most sense to house the new puzzle. “There’s a clarity and simplicity to making it a pop culture puzzle that everybody can immediately understand,” Janowitz added.  “You can put 10 crosswords side by side, and you can clearly pick out the one that Vulture published, because it feels like us.”

The Atlantic launched its mini daily crossword puzzle in October 2018, ahead of the publisher’s wider digital subscription drive. This one gets a little bigger and more challenging as the week goes on. “In addition to all the journalism we provide, we were drawn to the idea of giving people a moment of whimsy,” explained Executive Editor Adrienne LaFrance.

A gateway to subscriptions

The New York Times has taken a layered approach to its puzzles in order to entice players. Their ‘The Mini’ crossword is free to play for everyone. But if a user wants to be a part of the leaderboard and compete with friends, that’s a subscriber benefit. “That’s a great example of how we’ve managed to build a huge audience with daily engagement on a game that has a couple of layers to it,” Knight explained. Similarly the Spelling Bee word game has higher ranks of the game that are only accessible to subscribers.

The hope is that newly-acquired Wordle will introduce even more people to the NYT’s stable of games. “We want more people spending more time with the New York Times, and [the Wordle acquisition] plays a key role in that,” Knight commented.

Knight is committed to keeping the popular word game free on the site. They have no plans worked out for any other layers to it yet. But looking at where the subscriber walls fall on other NYT games, it is not inconceivable  that leaderboards or additional levels could be added to Wordle as a subscriber-only perk.

The Atlantic’s crossword is also free to play. LaFrance sees this approach as habit-building. “If people are developing a regular relationship through the puzzle, meaning they’re coming back every day, these puzzles become a ritual,” she said. “It’s useful because people are going from the puzzle to reading. So it means developing a deeper relationship, not just with the puzzle, but with The Atlantic as a whole.”

Both the Vulture 10×10 and New York Magazine’s other puzzles sit outside the paywall. Readers can play as many as they want, and will only hit the metered paywall when they try to read an article. It’s an experiment for now, with the purpose of pulling new readers in by building habits.

Beyond puzzles: merch and newsletters

Puzzles may be an excellent way to keep people coming back to publisher sites on a regular basis. But the gap between a habitual puzzler and a reader still remains. For some publishers like the NYT, this isn’t a problem. Their separate games subscription means that they still monetize that audience, even if some of them never interact with the news product. 

“We think of the news as the sun in our solar system,” explained Knight. “But increasingly—with cooking, with games, with Wirecutter, with audio—there are these planets that rotate around that sun, and that is an essential part of our strategy.”

However, for other publishers who haven’t put a price on the puzzles, attention is turning to ways to bring regular gamers more fully into the fold.

The Atlantic is trying a different approach to bridge the gap between player and reader. Two months ago, the publisher launched The Good Word. Crossword Editor Caleb Madison does a weekly deep dive into a favorite word or phrase from that week’s crossword; what it means, where it comes from, and what led him to “enshrine this bit of language in the grid”.

“We love the idea of creating a closer and more direct connection between Caleb and the people who are fans of the puzzle,” LaFrance said. As well as being able to collect details, the newsletter serves as a useful tool to expose puzzlers to The Atlantic’s journalism. The bottom of each edition is carefully utilized to promote popular stories and events.  

For these reasons, The Good Word is one of the newsletters The Atlantic is keeping free. “It’s a useful entry point into The Atlantic,” LaFrance explained. “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.”

The NYT spotted a further monetization opportunity from its puzzles: merchandise. Fans can buy ‘Mini’ crossword baby onesies or Spelling Bee tote bags. The Spelling Bee merchandise, which was released late last year, immediately sold out, according to Knight. 

Humanizing the games

For all three publishers, centering the puzzle’s creators is a key part of their strategies. The Atlantic’s Madison fronts both the crossword and the associated newsletter. Both New York Magazine and the New York Times have bylines on their various crosswords.

“I think the idea that there’s a human behind the game is really important,” said Knight. “You really sense you’re trying to solve a puzzle that some other human has put out there for you to solve versus just playing against the machine.” 

New York Magazine has seen puzzle creators become “puzzle influencers” in the audiences they build. “There are a ton of constructors out there who have personalities. If you are a devoted puzzler, you have your favorite constructors,” Director of Editorial Operations Mariam Aldhahi explained. New York Crossword author Matt Gaffney has an established audience, and Stella Zawistowski and Malaika Handa who work on the Vulture 10×10 are now building a following.

“For us, it was about finding constructors that we think brought the right voice and tone to our puzzles,” said Aldhahi. “There is an audience around specific [puzzle creators], and people will go where their favorite constructors are.” 

The power of sharing

During the pandemic, The Atlantic introduced a social “Play Together” feature to its crossword. This allowed puzzlers to invite friends to help solve the crossword together each day. But it is more than just a nice bonding opportunity for friends in lockdown. Being exposed to The Atlantic’s work by collaborating on a puzzle is the ultimate in referral by stealth.

LaFrance noted that social play was something the team were keen on introducing, even without the pandemic. “In print, you have the puzzle on the kitchen counter and someone else wanders in and works at it for a bit… so I think people are familiar with this experience of collaboratively doing puzzles,” she said. 

Collaboration is a feature the Vulture 10×10 has also built into its gameplay. The team were inspired by the social nature of Wordle, and how many people share their results online. “I have a group chat with friends and we text each other our Wordles in the morning,” said Janowitz. “Clearly there is some amount of interest in comparing, and the bet being maybe collaborating and doing these things together.”

Time to level up

The race to reader revenue shows no signs of slowing. It is evident from each of these publishers that attention is now turning to more sophisticated ways of engagement and habit-building. 

But simple games are no longer enough. Offering games is not a strategy in itself. To fully maximize the gaming investment, 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.

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