Initially, the first response to hearing or reading the word “Wordle” is to think the writer made an error in spelling or missed the application of the space bar. The truth is “Wordle” is a new word game developed by software engineer Josh Wardle, who created the game for his partner, a fan of word games. Extreme online fans will remember Wardle as the creator of Place, a collaborative art project and social experiment that tested the internet envelope in 2017. In terms of branding, it is a wonderful coincidence that the game’s inventor can be connected to the product by changing just one letter in his name and the essence of the game can be identified by the use of the brand-word itself. It falls into a marketer’s “no brainer” category.
The game was available for free on the internet, and at the beginning of 2022 it managed to attract the interest of fewer than 100 players. But before the first quarter of the new year became the past, Wordle was attracting over two million players with little expectation that the phenomenon would plateau anytime soon. Like so many wonderful success stories, it didn’t take much for an experienced marketer to notice the excitement and determine there may be some money to be made. In the case of Wordle, and to the benefit of Josh Wardle, that marketer was The New York Times (NYT).
Millions of people for generations have experienced the daily commute or first cup of coffee by turning to the “Gray Old Lady” to attempt to complete the NYT’s daily Cross Word Puzzle. For players, successfully completing the puzzle denotes a certain intellectual superiority among word puzzle experts, especially if completed in pen and ink. The NYT paid a reported seven-figure price for Wordle and it is expected that eventually players will have to pay a subscription fee to participate in the art and science of finding the daily puzzle’s solution. It hasn’t been announced when Wordle will become part of the NYT’s Digital Subscription Service, but for now the game can be joined for free to current and new on-takers. So, who are these word identifiers?
“If you’re like me, you probably wake up every morning thinking about Wordle, and savoring those precious moments of discovery, surprise and accomplishment. The game has done what so few games have done: It has captured our collective imagination and brought us all a little closer together. We could not be more thrilled to become the new home and proud stewards of this magical game, and are honored to help bring Josh Wardle’s cherished creation to more solvers in the months ahead,” said Jonathan Knight, general manager for The New York Times Games. What fundamental elements of design went into securing Wordle’s success in the marketplace?
Wardle tapped into some basic concepts that lead new products to gain immediate acceptance in a marketplace: Filling a demonstrated need, simple design and shareability. Wordle is not entirely new. Like so many other “new” products or ideas, Wordle it is a composition of previous games, remodeled and revamped with simple, easily understood rules that challenge players but do not place success out of reach. A player can share the experience with family, friends and other players so it becomes a social interaction and the topic of discussion every day at the office watercooler or its technological equivalent. Perhaps the genius of the game’s marketability lies in the fact that each day brings a new word to be solved and a new contest to be enjoined. It solves a perpetual need over and over each day. “It is important to me that, as Wordle grows, it continues to provide a great experience to everyone,” Wardle said.
It’s unlikely that Wordle will continue to be available for free because monetization is an inevitable and necessary fundamental of marketing. For now, the NYT’s efforts to offer Wordle for free will surely create and inspire demand for the product, ultimately creating a marketplace full of player-consumers eager to pay the subscription price. Genius abounds.