The New York Times Games Advertising Is More Than an Awareness Machine

With millions of daily users and news nowhere in sight, the publisher taps new advertising categories

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The New York Times has expanded its stable of puzzles to nine since acquiring hit game Wordle for a seven-figure sum two years ago. Since then, the publisher has also added homegrown hits like Connections, and slowly introduced advertising across the various gaming surfaces. (There are still no ads in the Games or flagship apps, although they are coming).

While Games is a powerful tool for awareness-based campaigns due to its popularity and daily habit-forming nature, it is proving successful at driving lower-funnel tactics.

“More than 10 million people give the Times their undivided attention every day while playing our games,” said global chief advertising officer Joy Robins. “That is a greater reach than many primetime television shows can offer, and it is a habitual, engaged, high-income audience.”

Revenue from Games advertising has yet to contribute materially to the Times’ overall business, but the new product has exploded in popularity: In 2023, users played its puzzles more than 8 billion times. Since 2023, the number of players now engaged with two or more games per week has tripled, according to the publisher.

Still, the Times is the first premium news publisher to productize such a popular games suite with advertising, which means proving its utility to an unfamiliar market, according to Ana Milicevic, principal and cofounder of digital advertising consultancy Sparrow Advisers.

“Many advertisers might not have a budget set aside for advertising against gaming properties,” Milicevic said. “But the audience it reaches is still a New York Times audience, and with a level of frequency that is hard to find elsewhere.”

Introducing first-party targeting

The Times began rolling out ad campaigns across its Games surfaces in September 2022, starting first with desktop ads on Wordle before methodically monetizing all browser versions across all games.

So far, the vast majority of advertising across Games has been share of voice campaigns, according to Robins, such as when luxury luggage maker Rimowa and DoorDash sponsored the launch of ads and new ad formats in Wordle, respectively. Some brands have used the Wordle of the Day to unlock specific discounts.

Brands can also choose to run ads exclusively in Games or add the channel to a larger buy. Preliminary results indicate that when a campaign includes a Games sponsorship, mid- and lower-funnel metrics lift is higher than average, according to the publisher.

Beginning this year, the Times enabled first-party targeting in Games, letting advertisers target their campaigns to reach any of the standard audience segments the publisher provides. Going forward, the Times hopes to achieve a balanced distribution of the two kinds of campaigns.

To buy ads in Games, advertisers can transact directly with the Times or through programmatic deals, which are subject to controls to ensure a standard user experience, said Robins. Advertisers that want to use the Times’ proprietary Flex display unit or its first-party targeting must negotiate directly.

And while Games advertising lacks any endemic sponsor, its massive daily audience makes it well-suited for awareness campaigns, according to Milicevic. 

“If you’re looking for awareness, where frequency is key, you can run a 30-day campaign and hit your frequency goals with a high-profile audience without using Facebook,” Milicevic said.

New advertising categories

The scaled daily reach of Games, when combined with its news-free environment, could also open the Times to new advertising categories, said Robins, particularly consumer brands. So far, it has worked with companies in the consumer technology, luxury, finance and travel categories.

In a campaign run across Games between December and January, a financial services firm saw a 12.6% increase in awareness and an 11.8% increase in consideration, said Robins. The advertiser also saw a 3.3% increase in preference, and a 1% rise in purchase intent.

The brief nature of the Times’ puzzles, which are designed to be completed in a matter of minutes, also means they elicit a heightened level of focus from players, according to Milicevic.

This quality of attention, in conjunction with the positive mindset of Games users, could even appeal to brands in the luxury or business-to-business spaces, according to Robins.

“We’ve explored several creative applications of advertising in Games, but there are so many more ways to create opportunities for earned moments,” Robins said. “This can be a tool for real mass awareness.”

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