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Decoding NYT's Wordle acquisition & the reasons it will remain free

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Introduction

What started out as a fun word game for a developer and his wife to play during the pandemic, has now become an internet phenomenon with over 2 million daily active players.

Even though the peak of the Wordle craze is perhaps past us, it is still almost impossible to go on Twitter without being greeted by a grid of grey, yellow and green squares. Such is the craze behind the game, that a whole culture of Wordle variants have sprouted based on an array of subjects, from math, cricket or even chess instead of words.

So why did the New York Times acquire Wordle? And is all the panic around it soon being monetized necessary?


Why did NYT acquire Wordle?

Synergies

What does Wordle bring to the NYT ecosystem? And what does the NYT ecosystem already have that slots in with Wordle?

63% of The New York Times readers are under the age of 50, and 29% are in the 18–29 bracket. This closely mirrors Wordle's audience, primarily those who are millenials or Gen Y, and active on social media. ¹ ²

NYT is also no stranger to puzzle games, with offerings like its famous Crossword, Spelling Bee and more. New York Times online games were played more than 500 million times in 2021.

Over a million players subscribe to the $40/year package to play the NYT's games, that's upwards of $40 million dollars in revenue from puzzle games... for a company whose primary business is in reporting the news. ᴿᵉᶠ

It is no wonder the NYT announced last year it is looking to build on this and invest in more puzzles.

This sort of synergy is a perfect fit for NYT. They have a product which they know already appeals to these age groups, and Wordle is serving them up on a plate. However, the question still begs to be asked: Is Wordle an investment to bring in more revenue into the gaming subscription, or is there something else afoot?

The cost of marketing to 13 million unique users

Running paid ads online isn't cheap, and there's no guarantee that it works either.

With average CPC's (Cost Per Click) on advertising networks close to $1 today, and final conversion rates likely to be in the decimal percentages, it is astronomically expensive to get impressions of the kind that Wordle generates, and get a return on investment.

At a million or so dollars, the NYT has probably got the deal of its life with a web property giving it clicks for a dime-a-dozen.

These users could be funneled directly into the NYT's news website, or introduce users to the remaining portfolio of games in NYT's arsenal.

The latter is already happening. In a recent UI update to the Wordle game, NYT has added a hamburger menu listing out it's 7 other offerings.

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While NYT has already established that there is a massive market for puzzle games, Wordle is hand delivering leads who have been nurtured and conditioned to play a daily word puzzle.

If Wordle is the bait, will they bite onto the fish that is NYT's gaming collection? I'm looking forward to see the NYT's upcoming quarterly earning reports to see if their gaming subscriptions have added a chunk of users beyond the expected growth trend.


Why Wordle will remain free for a while yet

Now that the context setting is done, I think there are a few key reasons why the NYT would hardly be thinking about monetizing Wordle.

Users would simply stop playing and go play a Wordle clone instead

One of Wordle's most divisive features, the ability to play only once a day, resulted in many clones being built which solved for this limitation. There was no IP secured around the game format itself, and the clones have flourished unchecked, much to the NYT's despair I'm sure. In the weeks leading up to the transition, a few curious folks even discovered that you could simply save the Wordle page offline and it would still play fine.

Making the game paid will just divert precious traffic from the Wordle site to one of its many clones. Traffic that could eventually be monetized into NYT subscribers (gaming or news), or into something entirely different.

There is money to be made beyond digital subscriptions (aka user tracking)

NYTs second largest source of digital revenue, worth around 40% of that of their subscriptions business or about $300M, is digital advertising.

Over 160 million unique users visit the NYT's website every month, and possess over $1.4 trillion in buying power. It's no doubt that advertisers are happy to flock to the NYT to place their ads. ¹

What does a good advertising platform provide A large quantum of users, the ability to target said users precisely based on a number of parameters, and the ability to deliver ads at the right location and time.

The NYT probably does a number of these well already. However, the more data the NYT can collect and attribute to their users, the more precise the targeting gets for those running ads on their platform, or the more data they can sell out to other ad providers.

It's no surprise then that the NYT got to work and started adding ad trackers to Wordle. This includes trackers from the NYT itself, and a number are for external ad trackers like Google and Oracle.

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Ad trackers enable advertising networks like the NYT and Google to follow you across the internet, and understand your behaviour. This information then allows advertisers to bid and show you contextual ads based on things you might have been looking for.

Imagine Wordle is a piece of bread people come to eat daily, and they now leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind which advertisers can track. This gives both the NYT and third party trackers insight into what the average Wordle player does on a daily basis, and can benefit from.

It is concerning to think to what level the NYT might slice and dice user data along with Wordle data, now they have these ad trackers in full force. It might not be far fetched to hear news that the NYT serves ads based not just on a user's web history, but also based on an indicator constructed with Wordle performance data.

What would be more valuable? Monetizing Wordle and losing a massive chunk of daily users, or an endless stream of data from the same users which itself can be monetized directly?

The same logic discussed earlier about the high costs of marketing via paid ads now work in the NYT's favour. A quick example: at an average of $5 per 1000 impressions, the NYT could make back their investment in Wordle on displaying ads alone in just a matter of months, should they choose to show them. It's clear why ad tracking + Wordle is such a power move for the NYT!


Summary

I think the New York Times acquired Wordle for three key reasons:

  • Access to a very similar set of users with vested interest in products it already has in its suite of games
  • Access to a massive user base, which otherwise would cost a fortune to market to
  • The ability to monetize free users via advertising (both via ad tracking and their own display network)

Monetizing Wordle directly wouldn't make sense for the NYT either, because:

  • Users would simply stop playing and move to other free clones. A direct blow to the product.
  • The NYT has far more to gain by keeping people within their universe, rather than selling Wordle itself. They can profit far more off ads and user data.
  • This may change in a few months when the game sees a significant fall-off in users, but while user numbers are high and healthy, the NYT should ideally want to keep it free and follow them across the depths of the internet.

And now we wait. I'm excited to see how the NYT's portfolio of puzzle games grows, and if Wordle continues to stay free in the coming months or years.

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