To drive daily habits and customer retention, publishers turn to puzzles

In the quest to acquire more readers and increase customer retention, subscription publishers have long looked at how they can build products, package content and improve their communication with subscribers to drive more regular habits. Increasingly over the last year, puzzle apps have emerged as a compelling way to invite readers to return often to publishers’ websites.

This week the Guardian launched a paid Puzzle app as part of its subscription strategy. The publisher’s goal is to have 2 million paid supporters by 2022. This month The New York Times shared that its Crosswords and Cooking apps together have brought in nearly 1 million subscribers since the Crossword app launched in 2016. Last year The Wall Street Journal discovered that readers’ playing puzzles reduces the likelihood of subscriber churn.

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

The Guardian’s new app, which costs £3.49 a month ($4.52), will feature 15 new crosswords every week and fresh sudoku puzzles daily, as well as access to more than 15,000 puzzles from the publisher’s archive. The publisher is in the unusual situation of selling paid products that contain content that is available for free online, although packaged in a different way.

In October the Guardian launched an ad-free daily app. Richard Furness, managing director of the Guardian’s consumer revenues and publishing, explained that the publisher’s daily edition app attracts the highest level of interaction of all its products. His comments come from a report released Feb. 13, Habit Forming News Products, released by Twipe. (The tech company works with publishers to create digital editions.)

The report details how the Guardian mapped how many people use its web and app products and how they affect subscriber churn, according to Furness. The products studied included the Guardian’s daily edition app, live app (for special events), live blogs (for news notifications) and newsletters. The research team found that in the first seven weeks that people subscribe to the Guardian the more that they use the daily edition app, the lower the chances of their closing their accounts. The majority of Guardian subscribers use less than three of these products, but the more products subscribers use, the lower the risk of churn, Furness said. Also, customer retention is higher for the subscribers who open the welcome emails, which are sent when they open their accounts.

Publishers typically use a combination of metrics, including the number of articles read over a given time frame, to project subscribers’ propensity to close their account. Twipe’s report defined “core readers” as those who have read a particular publication 10 times in the last month; using its own and wider industry analysis, Twipe found that core readers are 50% less likely to close their accounts than others.

New subscribers at three unnamed publishers who had at least three sessions in their first week were 50% less likely to close their accounts, according to the report. The researchers estimated that a customer needs to perform an activity for 66 days before this becomes a habit and noted that people who read the publication at least three times a week will become a habitual reader of the publication.

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Typically, a lot of publishers have focused on customers’ reading of email newsletters and downloading an app as key indicators for possible subscriber retention. From 2018 to 2019 The Wall Street Journal tried to gain a better understanding of how different reader habits affected subscriber churn; the publisher examined the ways different products and subscriber actions affected customer retention during the first 100 days that readers held a subscription. The Journal found dozens of reader actions — including doing puzzles, sharing an article and posting comments — seemed to reduce the churn rate.

Since the Journal found that only small portion of its readers played its puzzles, it boosted their marketing. After that, more subscribers played Journal puzzles and a key metric, the number of “active days ” (or the days that readers accessed the publication) rose.

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