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How can publishers use games and puzzles to increase subscribers?

11 October 2023
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Publishers are always looking for innovative ways to keep readers interested and grow their subscriber base in a world where technology constantly changes how we consume information. A proven strategy showing no signs of losing effectiveness is to include games and puzzles as part of the newspaper’s offering. It gives readers a mental break from the often negative news and effectively builds habits. From classic crossword puzzles to modern digital games, combining entertainment with information has been a successful way to keep readers loyal.

This article explores the benefits of this relationship and how publishers use it to increase engagement and revenue. Through case studies and real-world examples, you will better understand how this strategy is crucial for newspapers to succeed in a competitive market.

A Brief History of Puzzles and Games in Newspapers

How Puzzles Foster Habit Formation and Engage Readers

The reason behind the continued success of puzzles in newspapers is their ability to engage readers differently than everyday news and to create habits where readers look forward to completing a crossword as a break from reading news.

To understand the psychological motivations behind how puzzles engage readers, Twipe’s 6 Readers Cravings Model reveals the innate desires and cravings that shape reading habits. Games and puzzles, in particular, effectively address several key cravings:

  • Humour and Entertainment: By nature, puzzles cater to the readers’ need for amusement and diversion. As a form of interactive content, puzzles not only entertain but also challenge readers, offering a dynamic blend of cognitive stimulation and satisfaction. 
  •  Positive, Feel Good News: Completing a puzzle or game provides a sense of achievement, fostering positive emotions. By integrating puzzles into their platforms, publishers can tap into readers’ desires for feel-good content that counterbalances the often-heavy news of the day.
  •  Practical Tips or “To Do” Items: Puzzles can be seen as actionable tasks, drawing parallels with readers’ cravings for “To Do” stories. The satisfaction from finishing a puzzle mirrors the satisfaction of completing actionable tips or tasks in news articles.

Learn more about habit forming products by reading our report.

The New York Times has taken the readers cravings model and has shaped it to the organisation’s needs with success. The goal of satisfying user cravings through puzzles and games is to cultivate a regular gaming habit among subscribers, paralleling the traditional routine of daily newspaper reading. The New York Times focuses on offering high-quality, human-crafted puzzles that captivate the audience. Engaging with news and games weekly is believed to enhance long-term subscriber retention. Illustrating the success of this approach, reputable publishers like The New York Times and The Guardian have integrated games into their offerings, opening new ways of monetising users.

The impact of this strategy is tangible. For instance, the Daily Mail experienced significant engagement, with half of their direct subscribers playing puzzles daily. Similarly, publishers like WSJ and The Telegraph have utilised puzzles to mitigate churn and amplify subscriber engagement, underlining their importance in habit formation. The Guardian and Le Monde have employed puzzles as a springboard to initiate paying relationships with subscribers while also leveraging games and puzzles as tools for data collection to understand user behaviour and preferences.

The integration of puzzles is not an afterthought in a newspaper’s digital strategy but an integral part of a strategy to foster habit formation, enhance subscriber retention, and, ultimately, drive business growth.

Examples of publishers using games to drive subscriptions and engagement

There have been several examples of publishers utilising games to increase reader and subscriber retention. Even though newspapers have included puzzles in their offering for over a century, they are no stranger to innovation.

Newspapers have been adding interactive games to their e-papers. As a standout example, Ouest-France’s l’Édition du Soir included themed quizzes, “spot the difference” games, and general knowledge tests to appeal to younger, active readers and their children. Austrian women’s magazine “Miss” took it a step further and made reading news a game by awarding “diamonds” to users for reading articles, sharing them, and subscribing to the magazine. These diamonds could be traded for various items, encouraging habit formation and an opportunity for companies to advertise in high-value, high-price ad-space.

Another prime example of gamification is the Artifact app: users are incentivized to read articles and maintain streaks, which have been proven to effectively encourage user engagement and retention.

Wordle, a game published in 2021, was the most recent craze, bringing tens of millions of new users to the New York Times’ platform after they acquired it in January 2022. While the number of players has since levelled off, it has been doing so slowly, while the games section for the New York Times has been growing in popularity. This shows how a newspaper’s games section can benefit from innovation.

Quizzes as an interactive tool to build habits

Quizzes are a strategy long leveraged by publishers. They encourage engagement with content by adding a competitive edge to the news. One of the pioneers of this approach is French regional publisher Ouest-France. The publisher launched their L’Édition du soir digital edition focused on providing lighter-hearted content, including quizzes on the day’s news to engage subscribers and build news consumption habits. Quizzes on the day’s news and spot the differences offer a lighter-hearted look at the day’s news.

Finite digital editions have recently picked up the habit formation power of quizzes. The FT Edit, which has recently expanded to the USA, has introduced a quiz of the week based on their set of articles shared with readers. This is a clever move designed to boost engagement with content and encourage users to use the archive feature of the past editions of the FT Edit. Answers were provided at the point of answer to encourage immediate engagement with quiz content.

On a similar note, Norwegian newspaper NRK tried a new commenting system that required readers to complete a short quiz based on the article’s content before leaving a comment. Interestingly, readers engaged with the quiz as a game, indicating a desire for interactive elements.

Economist Espresso features a quiz question of the day in their app. Rather than featuring their quiz as a weekly engagement tool, the publisher adds a quiz question to the end of each day’s edition. Each Friday, readers are challenged with emailing their five correct answers and the theme linking them to the Espresso team. This different quiz format fosters direct engagement between Espresso users and The Economist team.

Following the recent trend of implementing AI in the newsroom, TIME has used Artificial Intelligence to turn its vast archives into engaging quizzes. This project combines tradition with modernity and serves as a pilot for AI-driven initiatives to increase engagement with readers. TIME has a long history of news quizzes, which were once only found in the magazine, but are now available digitally thanks to AI. OpenAI’s ChatGPT has been used to navigate TIME’s archives and turn decades of journalism into quizzes.

The main hurdle is ensuring the accuracy of quizzes. For this reason, human editors were still asked to confirm the accuracy of the quizzes generated by artificial intelligence. The result is a promising blueprint for future quiz generation, highlighting the potential of AI to rekindle traditional practices and create a more informed society.

TIME is not the only organisation that has been experimenting with AI: Twipe has also been testing AI-generated quizzes as a test for the Twipe Apps.

Making the digital transition easier for players: offline puzzles in Twipe apps

In the transition to digital, replicating the habit-forming power of puzzles was key to keeping habitual behaviour amongst readers. The problem was that, at first, puzzles tended to be limited to online digital activities or were available as printouts where subscribers could print the puzzle page from their ePaper. However, recent developments have enabled offline compatibility. Inside the latest generation of Twipe apps, readers can now play their puzzles offline as part of their edition download.

British publishers The Telegraph and the Daily Mail have already leveraged offline puzzles. At The Telegraph, puzzles are vital for their core news subscribers. Telegraph puzzlers are amongst the publisher’s most habitual subscribers. In their transition to their new app, ensuring a flawless puzzle experience was available was therefore central to the transition. As publishers push their subscribers to digital products, the availability of offline puzzles is a big step in the right direction.

Becoming a partner in life with fantasy sports

A great example of gamification that newspapers have long used is fantasy sports leagues and, most popularly in Europe, fantasy football. While paper versions used to exist long before this time, the game garnered broader appeal in the mid-1980s when Italian journalist Riccardo Albini conceptualised “Fantacalcio”. Inspired by the fantasy sports culture in America, Albini’s version became more official around 1990 when he published an official rulebook, and public interest was piqued when Albini partnered with La Gazzetta dello Sport in 1994. The target of 10,000 signups for this initiative exceeded all expectations, with over 70,000 people signing up for the first edition.

Nowadays, over 6 million players take part in Italian fantasy football leagues (more than the number of actual football players in Italy!)

In the UK, Andrew Wainstein introduced the country’s first mass-market fantasy football game through the Daily Telegraph. Players received scores and standing through the postal service, a testament to the game’s captivating essence that drove enthusiasts to engage despite the logistical hurdles​.

Conclusion: puzzles help publishers retain subscribers

Newspapers and their readers have come a long way from the days of traditional crossword puzzles. Today, digital games with AI technology are driving the evolution of this relationship. Integrating games and puzzles into newspapers is more than just a decoration; it’s a strategic move that creates engaging content, establishes daily habits, and contributes to making the publisher a partner in the life of the subscriber. This approach is helping the newspaper industry thrive in the digital age by combining traditional and modern elements.

Publishers such as The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and the New York Times have shown how incorporating games into their content can significantly increase subscriber retention, generate more revenue, and provide a unique value proposition in a crowded market. By blurring the lines between news and interactive entertainment, newspapers demonstrate resilience and adaptability in a rapidly changing environment. They also take a forward-thinking approach to maintaining a loyal subscriber base in the digital era.

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