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HomeTechGrab Them. Then Stump Them.

Grab Them. Then Stump Them.



Mike Isaac

What’s a five-letter word for an activity that media and technology companies are increasingly relying on to gain subscribers and keep them coming back?

G

A

M

E

S

Apple released a series of word-focused puzzles in its subscription news service last fall. LinkedIn, which is owned by Microsoft, debuted a set of word games this spring. News sites including Morning Brew, The Washington Post, Vox Media and The Boston Globe have added new puzzles beyond the crossword and hired staff to work on games. The publication you are reading has also invested in a collection of brainteasers.

It isn’t all fun and games, exactly. For media companies, games are a way to attract new customers as their sites face declining traffic from Google, X and Meta, which have backed away from emphasizing news. For tech companies with editorial offerings, the puzzles are a way to entice new subscribers while engaging existing users who may not return to the apps daily.

“A publication is more than the stories it produces. It’s an experience to look forward to, a pleasure,” said John Temple, a former journalist and co-founder of Amuse Labs, which sells a software platform that helps publishers create puzzles. “They want to recreate that same satisfying experience for people that they might have had over years of doing a crossword in the newspaper.”

Adding games and puzzles has become central to many publishers’ strategies over the past few years, with momentum spiking in recent months as Apple and LinkedIn jumped in. As these news and tech companies vie for consumer attention against competitors like Netflix, Spotify and other forms of digital entertainment, others are likely to follow.

Many of the games are not Call of Duty-like shoot-em-ups or the next Angry Birds. They are often word or logic puzzles, which can help people feel a sense of accomplishment for exercising their intellectual muscles. For companies with editorial products, word games also aren’t drastically different from their core businesses.

There are early signs that the games are working. At The New York Times, new subscriptions for non-news products — which include subscriptions for Games, Cooking, Wirecutter and The Athletic — surpassed new subscriptions for the core news offering in the first quarter. (The Times doesn’t provide numbers for games subscriptions alone.) Apple and LinkedIn said, without giving specifics, that early results were promising.

Publishers have a long history of adding games to their news offerings. For more than a century, newspapers included word games and brain teasers. The New York World published the first crossword on its “Fun” page on Dec. 21, 1913.

An exception was The Times, which promoted itself as “strictly a newspaper for intelligent, thoughtful people.” That shifted after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II. Times editors said that because of the heavy news environment, readers might want a diversion from relentlessly bleak headlines. In February 1942, The Times introduced its first crossword puzzle, which became a hallmark of the paper.

Publishers and tech platforms today have found the news cycle just as challenging, with wars in Israel-Gaza and Ukraine, as well as the looming U.S. presidential election and the culture wars that surround it. News and tech executives have sought to provide at least some refuge, however brief, from what can seem like an endless stream of bad news.

“News and current events are often characterized by things that are intractable,” said Ross Trudeau, the puzzles editor at Apple News. “Puzzles are a way of saying some of these problems do have solutions — even elegant ones.”

(Mr. Trudeau comes from a lineage of media bona fides. His parents are Garry Trudeau, best known for creating the “Doonesbury” comic strip, and Jane Pauley, the television news anchor and journalist.)

The Times has had breakout games beyond its crossword puzzle. They include homespun creations like Spelling Bee, where users create as many words as possible with a handful of letters, and Connections, where people group a series of words that have a similar link. In 2022, The Times bought Wordle, a word guessing game that was a surprise hit, from its creator, who was a Reddit engineer. The game went viral when people shared their Wordle scores on social media.

Others have noticed. Last fall, Apple debuted a daily set of crossword puzzles for subscribers to Apple News+, its paid subscription service that curates articles from partner publishers. (The Times left the program in 2020.) Last month, Apple introduced a spelling game, Quartiles, where users spell words based on a jumbled series of fragmented word tiles.

“The more value we add to Apple News+, the more subscribers we bring in, which benefits our publishing partners,” said Lauren Kern, the editor in chief of Apple News. Apple has also integrated Apple News+ puzzles into Games Center, its gaming social network, which lets users compete with friends for top scores.

LinkedIn followed with three puzzle games, which are featured prominently on its website and mobile apps. Dan Roth, executive editor at LinkedIn, said the goal was to keep the content in line with the company’s “professional network” brand, while also giving people a reason to regularly return and engage in conversations, both publicly and privately on the site.

“One of the main goals of LinkedIn is to bring people to the site, take the knowledge that’s in their heads and share it with their network,” Mr. Roth said in an interview. “You sometimes have to prime the pump to get people to start sharing, and adding games is a clear way to do that.”

The companies said their approach to making games started with humans. Apple trumpeted its diverse team of puzzle makers and contributors to appeal to a broader audience, and said it tried to avoid crossword jargon in puzzle clues.

LinkedIn hired Paolo Pasco, a longtime crossword constructor and recent Harvard graduate, as its first games editor. The Times has highlighted its games team by showing the often low-tech process of handwriting and crafting the most popular puzzles on the site.

All of these companies are in the business of building new habits for consumers. That’s especially true for new casual customers, whom they may bring into their apps with games but hope to keep around long enough to introduce them to other products, such as podcasts, sports — and even hard news.

“When we see subscribers engage with both games and news in any given week, we’re seeing some of the best long-term subscriber retention from that pattern,” said Jonathan Knight, head of games at The Times. “So we’re doing lots of things to encourage that behavior.”

People need to feel good about visiting the apps, many of the companies said, even if it’s in the fleeting but satisfying moment of completing a crossword puzzle at a personal best time.

“It’s time well spent, and you’re deciding how it fits into your life,” Mr. Knight said. “You do one puzzle a day. Put it down and come down to the next one when you want. It’s a real sense of achievement, and people can feel good about that.”





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