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“Compelling way to invite readers to return often to publishers’ websites”: Why puzzles are increasingly featuring in reader retention strategies

The New York Times added a record 468,000 new subscribers to its core news product in Q1 2020. An additional 119,000 subscribers also signed up for its crossword, cooking and audio products. 

“Long been a staple of newspapers”

While they constitute a small portion of overall subscriptions, puzzles like crosswords have a loyal following and facilitate high engagement. Which is why many news publishers are using them as a part of their subscription and retention strategies.

Puzzles, games and comics have long been a staple of newspapers and beloved by their most loyal readers, and I’m sure most editors can relate to how angry subscribers get when the results of the previous day’s crossword doesn’t appear in the paper.

Rob Tornoe, Digital Media Columnist, Editor and Publisher

They include The Daily Beast, which recently launched a crossword product that will draw on the outlet’s news coverage, from politics to pop culture, reports Media Post. The crosswords will be published fives time a week, Monday through Thursday, and on Sunday. They will become increasingly challenging as the week goes on. 

Unlike the Times, The Beast’s crosswords are free to access. “The more you read our site, the better you’ll do—so no downsides!” wrote Executive Editor Tracy Connor in an email announcing the new product.

Across the pond, The Guardian launched Guardian Puzzles earlier this year. It’s a dedicated app for crosswords and puzzles from The Guardian and The Observer. The app will feature 15 new crosswords every week and new sudoku puzzles daily, as well as access to over 15,000 puzzles from the Guardian archive. 

It has features that allow readers to play with friends, time their game, share their scores socially, and play offline. It is available for a monthly subscription £3.49 a month, or at an annual cost of £32.99. The app represents the next step in the Guardian’s strategy to attract 2M supporters by 2022, according to a statement by the publisher. 

The Atlantic, which amassed a record 36,000 new subscribers in March, followed by nearly 34,000 in April has extended its crossword puzzles by adding Sunday crosswords. It has also introduced a feature called social play which enables users to play together remotely.

“That’s obviously resonant in this moment where people are being kept apart because of the pandemic,” commented Adrienne LaFrance, Executive Editor of The Atlantic, in a recent interview with NiemanLab.

The Times’ Crossword product stimulates engagement by encouraging readers to play every day through various “streak” features. Readers can also share their successes on the publisher’s Wordplay Twitter account.

“More dramatic impact on reader retention than other actions”

“Increasingly over the last year, puzzle apps have emerged as a compelling way to invite readers to return often to publishers’ websites,” writes Digiday Reporter Lucinda Southern. 

“One reason why publishers leverage games and puzzles,” she explains, “is that they can draw on an archive of already produced content without spending money on producing high-cost pieces or news-focused content.”

Puzzles can be effective habit builders as they compel users to come back regularly. And according to multiple studies, it’s the frequency of visits—rather than time spent, or number of articles read—that is the best predictor of whether a subscriber is going to stay or not. 

Between 2018-19, The Wall Street Journal studied how different reader habits affected subscriber churn. It looked into how various products and subscriber actions affected customer retention during the first 100 days after a reader had signed up. 

The publisher found that “playing a puzzle had a more dramatic impact on reader retention than other actions the team had been promoting to new subscribers, such as downloading the Journal’s app or subscribing to an email newsletter,” according to Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire. 

“We journalists like to think it’s the quality of our news reports that drives loyalty to our work,” wrote John Temple, Chairman, AmuseLabs, in an earlier NiemanLab article. “And that’s true. To a point. But 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.”

While visitors to news sites might typically stay for just a couple of minutes, crossword players will stay for many times that, and that, even an old newspaper editor can tell you, is worth a lot.

John Temple, Chairman, AmuseLabs, a platform for creating online puzzles.

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