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Wordle woes for NYT as streaking wars hot up

By Brad Rees, CEO, Mediacells

Buzzfeed recently published a quiz on Valentine’s Day where you can find out what kind of a Wordle player you are and what this says about you. (link at the end of the article)

I tested myself with some office pals and we distributed ourselves across the four Wordle player types, but a bit like a tabloid horoscope, each archetype was basically the same; you are competitive, you put reasoning behind each guess; you like to make sure you win every time in the shortest amount of tries – isn’t that every Wordle player in the world!]

The metabuzz around Wordle must resonate pleasingly with the New York Times asset acquisition team as a deal well done but there’s weevil in the grain. 

Since last week, when the NYT migrated Josh Wardle’s artisan-coded word puzzle from the original server, there have been waves of negative sentiment against the move with one player @dukesilver_28 lamenting to his 222 followers “NYT managed to ruin the one good thing in our lives”.

Duke’s follower count is significant when you unpack the unexploded user-bomb the NYT could potentially be hosting. 

What if the NYT news suits have got it wrong and pitched the might of an established, global broadsheet against a whining Wordle horde and lost? 

The Wordle-NYT readerships are different. This simultaneously presents an acquisition and a retention problem. How does it attract new player-readers and at the same time keep most of the 3 million existing Dukes

In the last 36 hours, Wordle fan rants on social media have fuelled NYT’s rival news outlets to write countless gloating features which perhaps indicate that the NYT has underestimated the power and value of the social element of the game and the active voice of original player-readers. 

If an eighth of outraged players tweeted negatively about the new and ‘ruined’ Wordle experience, this would rival the 368,000 Twitter mentions of celebrities who appeared in ads during the Super Bowl on Sunday, with Mary J. Blige and LeBron James leading the pack (Brandwatch). 

Wordle seems to have got a lot more difficult and weirder since it officially migrated on February 11 from Josh’s server to the NYT air-cooled tech stack. From my social cohort of a few hundred Wordle fans, I can report a drop in the sharing of scores, bragging, teasing, smug cryptic clue-giving to the great unsolved. 

The NYT told the Guardian this week that ‘nothing has changed about the gameplay.’ On a petty, personal note, I can announce that although my streaks migrated over to the NYT, my settings e.g. Hard Mode did not. 

This is the first new tumultuous week for the NYT Wordle and like all good social media storms or global news crises, after a few days the tempest will blow over. 

New customer base discomfort is not unique to this acquisition. When Quaker Oats acquired Snapple in the nineties the bigger brand thought it could leverage existing Snapple distribution relationships. 

After purchasing the niche beverage brand for an eyewatering $1.7 billion the new management team discovered that half of Snapple sales came from smaller channels like convenience stores, petrol stations and independent distributors. 

When it came to advertising, brand cultures were distinctly different and the disconnect in consumer values led to spectacularly unsuccessful marketing campaigns. Snapple’s previously popular campaign messages were diluted with inappropriate marketing signals and after just 27 months, Quaker Oats sold Snapple to a holding company for $300 million, making a gross loss of $1.3 billion.

Other epic acquisition fails include Napster, acquired by Bertelsmann, who applied a rights-sensitive filtering system to the music file-sharing service and saw the files shared per person metric drop from 220 in February 2001, to just 21 in May of the same year. 

Similar audience disengagement could now befall Wordle, with words like wench, lynch and slave not recognised as Wordle five-letter attempts despite the fact they are in the universal lexicon.

More recently in December 2021, B2B publisher Metropolis bought magazine titles Viz, Fortean Times and Cyclist with a combined readership of 72,000, with Viz accounting for 60% of the addressable audience. 

It seems a strange fit for a business-to-business publisher to acquire the nation’s most irreverent, notorious adult comic strip but according to Metropolis CEO Robert Marr, the attraction was more its “passionate, engaged readership from a well-defined niche” than its subject matter. 

“The marketeers we’ve brought in are quite young. So, we’ll have that social insight that will help reach out to new readers.” 

Given Viz’s residing obsessions with half-forgotten kitsch celebrities from the 1960s to the 1980s, such as Shakin’ Stevens, it will be interesting to see how the humour will cut through with Gen-Z audiences or whether legacy Shaky fans will feel ostracised and become enticed to a Stevens shrine on the dark web.

Publishing is a bloodbath in 2022 with 40+ established magazine permanent closures in the UK since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020 and many others on notice. The New York Times is attempting to acquire new audiences while nourishing existing ones. The few million it spent to acquire Josh Wardle’s diamond in the rough (good Wordle word there) will become background elevator music compared to the anticipated return on investment (ROI) of its $550 million cash purchase price of longform sports journalist outfit The Athletic. Watch this space.

(Here’s the Wordle quiz, I’m a ‘Strategist’ apparently…)

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