Seemingly overnight, the word game Wordle became an essential part of the daily routine of millions of people all over the world. Friends discuss and share their results across social channels and text groups, and the daily puzzle regularly trends on Twitter.
Wordle began as a love story. During the COVID-19 pandemic, software engineer Josh Wardle and his wife were living in Brooklyn. With the city shut down and boredom and loneliness setting in, Josh decided to design a surprise for his wife who enjoyed doing word games to pass the time.
Wordle was created and shared with his wife, and then with a few friends. Its growth was exponential. In October 2021, Wordle had 90 users. By January 2022, that number had grown to over 2 million.
So, what is behind Wordle’s meteoric growth?
A significant driver of Wordle’s appeal and success comes from its simplicity.
The rules and objectives of the game are clear and straightforward. Players guess a 5-letter word in 6 attempts. After each guess, grey indicates which letters are not in the word, yellow means the letter is in the word but in the wrong place, and green means the letter is in the correct space. It’s a moderately difficult game and the probability of guessing correctly is high, which is fulfilling for the user and makes them want to come back after playing and feel the joy of victory.
The design and rapid adoption of Wordle is a lesson in the power of simplicity — and why it should be a hallmark principle of business — regardless of stage, size or sector. Steve Jobs was a committed believer in the power of product simplicity and it was Apple that brought about the minimalist revolution that permanently simplified and elevated product design.
Simplicity is also the defining factor in the success (or failure) of mass communications efforts. The simpler the messaging, the easier it is to communicate. This is why so many companies invest so much to have a logo and slogan that can be remembered at a glance. We live in a time of information overload, attention spans are short, and mind share is limited — it’s the simple communications that are the most likely to break through and land. Examples include Nike’s iconic Swoosh logo with the slogan “Just Do It”, and McDonald’s iconic Golden Arches with the slogan “I’m lovin’ it”.
Simplicity is not easy to do and often requires difficult choices. For instance, Worlde made a lot of trade-offs when designing the product. Why are you limited to 5 letter words? Why is there no vertical order? These choices were made by the product designer in order to enable users to understand the tricks of the game in the shortest time.
The second reason for Wordle’s meteoric rise is the big push from social media. Across social media platforms, friends post their daily scores in the form of yellow, green and gray square emojis; it is also common to see people sharing their Wordle results in Slack and on their social profiles. This natural community engagement and user promotion accelerated its brand visibility and organic new user outreach.
This level of growth in such a short period of time is difficult to achieve from purely paid advertising, to achieve it requires the product to have the characteristics of genuine virality so that users are willing to introduce you and recommend you.
All businesses need to think about how they can create products or services that users will be motivated to recommend to their friends. Maybe it’s a discount, maybe it’s service that exceeds expectations, maybe it’s some kind of vanity… but give them a reason!
The third driver of Wordle’s success is that it delivers happiness. It gives couples and colleagues a shared topic and pastime, and brings people together. Wordle is also suitable for all ages, and both teachers and parents report using it as a classroom and connection tool.
According to reports, in early February, Wordle was acquired by The New York Times for an undisclosed seven-figure sum. Many wondered why an established media institution like The New York Times would be willing to pay so much for an online puzzle. Understanding this requires a deeper look at the brand platform and vision.
In an interview with strategy consulting firm McKinsey, Mark Thompson, the former CEO of The New York Times, mentioned the platform’s vision to transform from a “print-first” to a “subscription-first” company. This requires a steady expansion beyond its traditional reader base. To drive this initiative, they’ve been intentionally growing the lifestyle content including expanding the NYT Cooking offering, and creating multi-channel spin-offs for the Modern Love series and electronic publications like The Cut. Gaming has been one of the most popular sections of The New York Times, and it now reportedly has more than 1 million subscribers for both its gaming and cooking columns.
Against this backdrop, The New York Times’s acquisition of Wordle is fully in line with its long-term development goals of reaching 10 million subscriptions by 2025. Wordle’s simple rules of the game, free access, and the social engagement features nicely complement The New York Times’ core strategy.
Since the acquisition, many people have become worried about the game’s future, concerned that the once free game will become exclusive to The New York Times subscribers, while encouraging the development of Wordle copycats. There has also been speculation that as the world re-opens post-COVID, the appeal of Wordle will dim. These concerns have some basis. A recent report that, to the disappointment of fans, The New York Times shut down Wordle’s archive which may also signal a change.
Wordle brings millions of people to The New York Times every day, and the power of this traffic cannot be underestimated. This traffic cannot be under-monetized. In the future, Wordle on The New York Times may continue to be free, but with the addition of advertisements. It is also possible that Wordle would be merged into a series of games, allowing users to pay subscription fees, or divide Wordle into a hybrid of a paid and earned hierarchy. Numerous opportunities for profit are possible with this product.
The reason Wordle will continue to resonate and grow, even as the world re-opens, is that the team has already achieved the most difficult component of branding which is the cultivation of a new habit in the consumer. The greatest value that Wordle brings to The New York Times is that it has nurtured a daily habit in people’s lives that brings users happiness and makes them eager to share, all of which suggest a promising future ahead for both Wordle and The New York Times.