Knowing the customer: Bordeaux or Two-Buck Chuck?

I find the analogy in the title apt and illuminating for several reasons:

  1. There is the equivalent of a Two-Buck Chuck in the crossword industry that a large number of people happily consume and yet most people in the industry look down on the product.
  2. If you listen to some of the wine enthusiasts wax poetically on tasting a Bordeaux (or any fine wine for that matter), their flowery language is almost matched by the crossword enthusiasts dissecting every clue in “premium” crossword forums and blogs.
  3. The Two-Buck Chuck is likely consumed by more people than any single Bordeaux brand and most of these consumers would find the Bordeaux wines unapproachable even if they could afford them.

We will continue with the scenario from the last post in which the authors try to directly market their crosswords rather then sell all rights to an editor whose problem it is to market/distribute them.  Their peers, who do the latter, don’t need to worry all that much about what the market wants – just what the editor wants. The published archives in the channel they are targeting tells them most of what they need to know to target the audience. They can also visit the blogs or forums where their published crossword is discussed and dissected in a manner worthy of a Bordeaux and amidst the ego gratification get some feedback on what turns these people on in these echo chambers.

The entrepreneurial authors who set out to market on their own or as a group face a completely different world, one not so warm and comfortable as the publisher-based cocoon or the echo chambers of the fan-base. Most solvers haven’t heard of the authors before and don’t know why  crosswords from one should be preferred over another. They don’t talk in terms of “lively fills” and “word counts” or even “themed or theme-less” to be educated. It is like trying to explain the joys of “subtle hints of vanilla mixed with chamomile” to people who are content to just smell alcohol in their Two-Buck Chuck before they imbibe.

There are more problems. If the authors are targeting a printed publication, at least one problem of how to deliver is easy. But what of online sites? How do the sites take their content and make it available to their audience? PDFs? Interactive crosswords? Who is responsible for making it happen? The authors or the sites? The answer isn’t clear because the authors aren’t providing a total solution only the content. And online sites need a total solution and they are happy to sign up for a Two-Buck Chuck delivery if it provides that total solution.

The most effective way of getting some business in this situation we have seen is just networking as some authors have managed to do via friendships and professional relationships rather than crossword quality pitches. Luck and serendipity help. A few can pull this off, most cannot.

How about marketing directly to the consumers? After all, authors have seen and heard from hordes of their fan-base when published in the premium channels. Wouldn’t these same people want to buy more from them? Venturing into this, they will discover some uncomfortable truths. That fan base is a very tiny market and even they may not buy because of one or more of the following reasons (some silly, some serious):

  1. They are already saturated with the crosswords available from premium channels to buy more especially if they have to pay for it. At last count, we had 20+ premium crosswords per week being distributed free in Across (Lite) format alone for this audience. Parasitic apps who don’t care a whit about copyrights or site terms of service grab these crosswords and web page-scrape even more and deliver to the solvers. The solvers don’t even have to fire up their browsers and visit a web site where they may be bothered by the advertisements that justify the free crossword publication. How big is the market really where people have time to solve more than this and when so easily delivered? It is like trying to sell a bottle of wine in a store with an all-you-can-drink wine tasting event every day.
  2. The premium channel branding/cachet and the ability to get public validation is what keeps many of the fan base engaged and waxing poetically not necessarily the quality of the fill on its own. As a simple example of one motivating factor, none of them are likely to tweet “I finished a Joe Author puzzle in 8 minutes” while they might tweet “I finished the NYT Thu in 8 minutes” even if the latter is from Joe Author. Why? Because, for many, the former just doesn’t provide the validation and ego boosting that the channel branding does. Moreover, Joe Author just doesn’t have the branding calibration for others to understand whether that 8 minutes was a good achievement or a bad one. So what is the point of tweeting that accomplishment? And without it, there may be no motivation for some to spend time on them let alone buy them.
  3. Even when there is some demand, an author may not be supplying the crossword in the format the market wants. Someone who likes to solve their crossword on their iPhone/iPad is not likely to buy a PDF from the author’s web site to solve it. Someone who likes to solve it on paper is not likely to buy an iPhone app with those crosswords in it.

The few crosswords that can be sold here and there in this environment isn’t enough to make it worthwhile for most and definitely not commensurate with the effort put in.

The goal here is not to claim the futility of selling crosswords as a business. All of these issues can be managed and a market created with some pricing power because it is a fairly resilient pastime. What I wish to point out, however, is the rather sad state of affairs, from a commerce point of view, that the industry has allowed itself to get into by remaining static and falling behind the curve of technology and demographics changes. We certainly don’t want to make the mistakes that the music industry made in trying to adapt to new environments although we are in such a sorry shape compared to them to start with.

So what are the types of changes required we should be looking at? It can be classified into 4 categories:

  1. Catering to the whole market
  2. Creating brands and differentiation for the market
  3. Providing a total end-end solution
  4. Protecting and growing the market

1. Catering to the whole market

We did an informal market survey (in the US) several months ago using social media channels as well as traditional channels with mixed demographics. Extremely unscientific so don’t ask me for margin of error and so on. This just gives you rough relative numbers without being wholly wrong. Amongst the many findings:

About 70% the total potential market for crosswords (educated or in school, know English sufficiently, have seen at least one crossword even if they have never tried it, etc) don’t think they are good enough for solving crosswords or think that it is too nerdy/geeky a pastime. About 20% do published crosswords and see themselves as beginners/average. Less than 10% see themselves as accomplished solvers.

We had expected the number of people who do crosswords to be much smaller so there may be some skew in the survey sample here but the point really is that the market to target is not just that 30% (let alone the less than 10% that premium crosswords try to target) but that 70%. It is way too crowded with available content in that 10%.

We not only have a branding problem and differentiation problem but also perception, and education problems in reaching that whole market.

What is the top reason that makes people who solve keep coming back?

Overwhelmingly, either the completion of a crossword or the hope that they will complete one some day because they have been close a couple of times

What is the top reason that makes people who don’t solve any more give up on crosswords (besides lack of time)?

Not being able to solve it (i.e., not being able to make much headway)

Nothing to do with lively fills, great themes, word play or lack of any of these things.

Hopefully, many would not be surprised at all by these findings. Even before we can think of growing their palate to appreciate a high quality product, we need a way for them to find crosswords they can solve and in this endeavor it is a complete hit-or-miss affair at the moment.

In other words, if someone started with a complex Bordeaux that required an acquired taste to appreciate it (or even for it to be drinkable), they are likely to never try another wine again. What we provide for the potential market is the equivalent of a wine store with very similar looking bottles with labels which give no clue (!) about whether they might enjoy it or not given their experience and tastes. If the first few they try is palatable, they will keep drinking, otherwise they go back to beer.

In this environment, the Two-Buck Chuck is likely to get a lot more sustained audience than a premium crossword just for the simple reason that the solvers are likely to make some headway, never mind the quality of the clues or the lack of anything interesting. On the other hand, imagine someone stumbling on a Sat NYT puzzle and running scared never to come back to NYT crosswords again. They would never suspect the progression of difficulty through the week which, for some reason that has never been obvious to me, has been maintained as an insider’s secret for all practical purposes. Perhaps it is a vestige of the era when people who solved NYT crosswords all had full week subscriptions. Simple things like that can make all the difference.

One of the simplest things that the industry could have done, but has failed to do, is to come up with a common difficulty rating system guidelines and units. Content creators can voluntarily calibrate to those guidelines and publish the difficulty in some standard units (three diamonds, 5 chilies, whatever). At the moment, either there is no such indication or when available, the calibration is only within that brand. Easy in one brand might mean something completely different in another. There will be no perfect system because it is subjective, but we need a practical solution than a perfect one. Anything is better than no solution.

Technology can certainly help here as some kinds of analysis can automate some if not all of that determination. We will be making some announcements in the near future to automatically provide such ratings in addition to other kinds of analysis so crosswords can be found to match people’s abilities or interests or to be similar in quality/subject to crosswords they have already solved.

We are considering making this into an open-sourced project, so that individuals and companies will be able to build all kinds of puzzle databases with recommendation services and Pandora like services for crosswords that would make it much easier for people to find crosswords they would like, and more important, encourage purchase of crosswords they would likely enjoy. We expect that such a system alone will significantly increase the pricing power of crosswords over the current state of affairs.

There are limitations to such technology (despite marketing hype that some companies may make), so it is important that the content creation community start talking about standardizing these kinds of ratings (at least the degree of difficulty) which can work with or augment the automatic analysis to make the recommendations much more relevant.

In summary, for this category of change, a combination of the authors getting out of the echo chambers to understand what the market needs and describing and labeling their product better (and this doesn’t imply decreasing the quality of crosswords in any way) along with resources and tools for solvers to find the right crossword for them will be the most important evolutionary change for the crossword industry in the near future.

I will cover the next 3 categories for change in successive posts.

Next post: Crossword branding and differentiation – the reviews and ratings game

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