How puzzles play an essential role in reader engagement

Over the past few months, we have seen puzzles and games grow in importance for many publishers. On our platform, Ouest-France’s L’Edition du Soir has seen a significant portion of its page views come from their puzzle and game section recently. Publishers are leaning into this, using puzzles as a strategic tool in habit formation, so join us as we dig further into this trend.

History repeats itself

The crossword puzzle might be synonymous with newspapers today, but that hasn’t always been the case. Dating back to just before World War I, Arthur Wynne, editor at The New York World, is credited with creating the crossword. It grew in popularity, with more and more newspapers creating their own. However throughout the 1920s and 1930s, The New York Times famously refused to publish a crossword, even running several editorials dismissing the crossword as a passing fad. Eventually they were the only major metropolitan newspaper in the US without a crossword puzzle. It was not until 1942 that they published a crossword. Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was finally convinced by an editor who pointed out that the crossword would provide their readers with something to occupy their time during the upcoming blackout days of World War II.

Similarily in the difficult times of the past few months of lockdown, puzzles and games have grown in popularity. With the advantage of internet this time, publishers have been creating new types of games catered specifically for their audiences at home. In the Netherlands, De Limburger (owned by Mediahuis) launched a “Stay Home Quiz” which invited users to follow the quiz live via a video link. Three quizzes were organized, with more than 2,000 users that followed along live.

The lockdown was also the reason why The Atlantic created a new feature for their crosswords that allowed ‘social play‘ so that users can play with their friends.

Games help build habits and overall engagement

This isn’t to say that puzzles and games are only now important; smart publishers have long known this. One such publisher is Ouest-France, which is well known for its digital-only edition with a heavy focus on interactive games. L’Edition du Soir was created specifically for readers in the evening, with new, lighter content and a strong game offering. Digital editor Edouard Reis Carona calls these games ‘essential’ due to the large number of page views they generate in each edition.

This is reinforced by research The Wall Street Journal conducted as well. In their “Project Habit”, the team mapped out all actions readers can take with the digital products against their impact on retention. They found that using puzzles increased retention significantly, but less than 1% of the audience had played a puzzle in the past. They revamped their onboarding process to encourage new subscribers to play a puzzle in their first week. They’ve also built out their puzzle offering, adding jigsaw puzzles featuring illustrations from articles.

With this new marketing push focused on puzzles, The Wall Street Journal was able to see engagement rates grow across the whole product suite. This is a key point to clarify; encouraging users to try out puzzles and games doesn’t just increase their engagement with those features but also their engagement with the news product as well. As former editor John Temple wrote for Nieman Lab:

It was always astonishing to me as a newspaper editor how much readers cared about their puzzles…an editor learns pretty quickly that it’s the features readers look forward to, the things they anticipate with pleasure, that keep many coming back for more.

John Temple, Former Editor at The Washington Post

Of course, newspapers can also use their crossword puzzles for true reader engagement: last year a crossword in The New York Times was used to propose (she said yes!).

Puzzles are part of your product experience

During our tour of the US earlier this year, we heard from one publisher that they had recently taken out their puzzles from their digital product because readers said they would rather just use a dedicated puzzle app. We were surprised to hear this, as in Europe we have seen for years the importance of puzzles for reader engagement. Was this another division between the news industries in Europe and the US? However from the discussion it became clear that the publisher knew their puzzle offering was subpar and did not always technically work, perhaps a better strategy would have been to improve the experience. We can’t expect readers to love products we don’t invest in.

One publisher we see with a strong puzzles experience in their existing digital product is our most recent co-development partner The Telegraph. The care and attention they paid to the crossword experience for their readers stand out, and of course the rest of the edition is great as well!

By investing in your puzzle experience, you can even build out your subscription funnel. The New York Times has been very successful with their standalone crossword subscription offer, with more 500k crossword subscribers. To convert subscribers for this product, they offer a miniature puzzle for free so that readers develop a habit and ultimately decide to upgrade to the full, paid-for puzzle.

Getting a paying relationship with a user allows us over time to expand and let them see all the things The New York Times can bring.

Eric von Coelln, Executive Director, Puzzles at The New York Times

Interestingly, more than 50% of the crossword subscribers do not have a subscription, digital or print, to the Times itself. That means The Times is able to reach a broader audience with its crossword subscription than it does normally.

The bottom line is that puzzles do play an important role in news products today and need to be carefully considered in product management strategies. As increasing frequency becomes ever more important for publishers, puzzles are able to address two very important aspects of the habit loop: variable reward and investment. We will be discussing the habit loop and how it applies to news products in a webinar on July 7th, make sure to register today.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
facebooktwitterlinkedin

Subscribe for weekly publishing insights