Crossword Industry – the case for a unified marketing effort

Another detour from the promised post in the series. As I started to write about solutions for branding and differentiation, I realized that I hadn’t made a clear case for the industry participants, who now live in their own silos, to co-operate on such efforts. Without such co-operation and an unified front, the marketing required to rejuvenate the industry would be difficult to execute logistically.

For example, I had mentioned in an earlier post that one of the simplest things the industry can do is to establish a standardized difficulty rating metrics and guidelines. The industry would voluntarily follow them for the benefit of new audiences even though the dedicated fans might not need them. Most people who read it would have considered it “not my problem”. There is no “our” entity at the moment to make it “our problem”.

The first step would necessarily have to be the creation of a market-facing (formal or informal) entity for the promotion of the industry as a whole, perhaps by using volunteers from the industry. But first, more rationale for such an entity and the need for co-operation.

As a followup to my previous post, you can look at the motivation for change within the industry either as increasing the commercial value of the products as a whole or as promoting an art form depending on your philosophical bent and which silo you live in.

The industry really needs to reconcile these two because they are not mutually exclusive. And further, there is no coordinated and mutually beneficial effort from all industry participants that attracts and promotes new audiences for the art form. Each of the participants act within their own silos and that isn’t always good for the industry. Let us look at some of the consequences.

Most authors would be happy with getting the recognition for their work with a wide audience which implies as cheap and free a distribution as possible. One way to do this is to just put them out on the web for free under a creative commons license for anyone to come and enjoy. Hardly anyone does this. Why not? Most authors are not averse to being paid for their efforts, they do not get the recognition they want without the branding of the publications that select their work, and they would like their work made available on any device that the end-user may have. All of these need to be justified commercially for them to exist. If the authors care only about how much they get paid and not how their work is marketed or the size of a paying audience, they will be undermining their own goals.

Most publishers would be happy with a thriving industry where there are a large number of creative authors, the publisher brand is well-recognized and the product has a pricing power and the market is healthy and growing. But this is not the situation we have. There is very little, if any, dollars spent on marketing of crosswords. Most publishers wouldn’t consider a revenue share with the authors. Most publishers would like a wide variety of technology available for distribution and yet do not care to pay much for it.

Most software/technology vendors in the industry would be happy with an abundant supply of crossword content that the market wants, have pricing power over that content that they can share in and have people desire and value the technological innovation they create on various platforms to buy their products. That is not the situation we have. Too many products “steal” content or otherwise cut out the content producers and publishers from the value chain so they can sell the product with free content. They frequently disregard copyrights and intellectual property rights of other vendors and copy each other more than they innovate. If they believe that what may be good for the end-user (free and abundant content) is also necessarily good for the content producer and the publishers they depend on, they are only hurting themselves.

The root cause of this situation is not that most people don’t know any better, but rather it is a reflection of the reality that there is very little money to go around for the various participants in the industry. The only solution to get out of this self-destructive mess is by growing the industry in the amount of dollars available. From that perspective, the two motivations mentioned at the beginning are neither in conflict nor mutually exclusive. They are tied together at the hip. We should get used to that. Otherwise, we sink into mediocrity despite the best of intentions.

By living in their own silos, the industry participants are doing very little to grow that market by co-operating. There is a reason why the milk industry co-operates to put out Mootopia ads or why the Idaho Potato industry collaborates to make potatoes look sexy when their consumption dips. We, on the other hand, are just letting the art form slowly get into the endangered list with a dwindling audience.

Now, some might justifiably object here and give the “half-glass full” point of view. Consider the resilience of the crosswords over the past decades and how crosswords have evolved for the better in quality and how authors get paid much more now than they used to be. They might also point out that there are some very good brands for crosswords that market themselves. We have even adopted technology with beneficial effects to make crosswords widely available to people and much more easily than before. So where is the problem?

The problem isn’t that it is only half full but rather that it is getting more empty and that the half full situation is supported by weak/unsustainable business models in a niche market.

In my last post, I alluded to the problems that the printed media industry, the main patron of crosswords, is facing because of technology evolution. But here is something even more serious I suspect many may have not realized about the landscape for crosswords.

Printed newspapers had limited real estate and once crosswords became a staple in such publications, they had an enviable incumbent position. While many new printable games have been conceived over time, getting real estate in the printed media was extremely difficult, if not impossible. This was partly because of the inertia, and partly because of the risk-aversive nature of most publishers who are typically reluctant to try out new things. In addition, the printed media limited the type of games that could be conceived. So, in effect, crosswords had a captive audience and didn’t have to compete hard for eyeballs or audience share. This contributed significantly to the resilience of crosswords in the past.

These days, the world is different and increasingly so. Online media has very little, if any, real estate limitations. Publishers can add any number of games, puzzles, contests or other diversions that compete with crosswords for time and mind-share of the audience. They can introduce and prune these things very quickly with very little impact from failures. Even if many of those alternates don’t necessarily have staying power, there will always be some that are the current fads and draw potential new audiences away from crosswords. And the few that do make it vie with crosswords for time and money. Each of the next “Sudoku”s that will emerge from this ease of exposure will take some people away from crosswords.

If you look at Yahoo Games, Facebook or Apple app collection as an extreme media publication with a variety of products for diversions, crosswords are drowned out by the huge number of alternatives available.

The bottom line is that crosswords have to increasingly compete with other diversions for its audience and can no longer depend on the captive audience – the regular newspaper subscriber. While, crosswords may have a dedicated and fanatical base, especially people that grew up in that “captive audience” era, the same cannot be said about acquiring and retaining new audiences. Is it any surprise that the half-full glass is going in the wrong direction?

You don’t have to follow the Twitter streams to know that crosswords also have an image problem

“I am doing a crossword today. I have finally become my grandfather.”

“Sitting at home doing crosswords on a Fri night, can life get any more pathetic?”

“If you ever see me doing a crossword like my Mom every day, shoot me.”

“I am not nerdy enough to do crosswords”

Granted that these are anecdotal samples and there have always been such people but the new media channels give them much more visibility and can increasingly reinforce the negative image if not countered positively. They deter new audiences in the absence of a positive image.

Now, I am not suggesting that the crossword industry rush out and do the equivalent of the Mootopia ads, but the crossword industry does need to do something to promote its products to gain new audiences and to retain them.

Most would identify using clues with more relevance to the current and future generations as the way to to capture the audience – a “better product” which would then sell itself. Many editors have started to do this by using a few authors that were born after the baby-boomer generation. This is necessary, of course, but not even close to being sufficient. We need a more pro-active program than just a “better product”.

The crossword industry lacks an organization whose sole purpose is to attract and retain new audiences. The goal is to increase consumption of and demand for the product which, in turn, increases the amount of dollars available to the industry as a whole, part of which can be used to further promote the product, etc. This organization is NOT for supporting one business model or another within the industry but rather for increasing the market overall by attracting and encouraging audiences. Such an organization can also help in setting the image, the standards, the ethical and legal expectations of the industry for its participants, which solves many of the problems plaguing the industry today. Creating serious marketing initiatives that help grow the industry can only come via such an entity.

With the low amount of dollars available, any such entity will have to start out as a volunteer organization with zero/minimal budget actions at the beginning. But there are a large number of things it can do, the easiest of which is a clearinghouse to co-ordinate many different grass-roots activities as well as create a landing pad for people who are beginners and/or interested in crosswords to become aware of all the resources available.

Think about which site you would recommend for beginners or people interested in learning more about crosswords go to. Right now we have a number of individual sites where the target audience is, in reality, one of the silos or one of the echo chambers. We have a lot of sites for self-indulgence but not for promotion. Of the few that even come close, it is typically maintained by one entity, the site is either out of date or not very usable for anyone but industry insiders or the entity is not very responsive to industry needs/evolution that represents all of the industry, not just a few silos.

Very few of the sites have features to let visitors find crosswords for their skill levels or tastes but rather have a long list of undifferentiated links where the user is as likely to land on a Sat L A Times puzzle as on a easy beginner puzzle. Most non-commercial sites (and even some commercial sites) that make crosswords available aren’t web-interactive to grab people immediately.

(Side note: Frankly, even asking newcomers to download Across Lite, which is not a problem for the devoted, is a barrier that discourages starting out people until they get more interested, a chicken-and-egg problem. This is one of the reasons we opened up the free Across Publish service. Soon, we hope to see many sites start to use this on their sites where previously they would have just placed the Across Lite files. The difference is huge in encouraging usage).

The trade group entity would create the definitive destination site for crosswords (with volunteer help) that would organize and keep the site maintained to point to the rich resources available for all of the audiences – from beginners to the devoted. It would take no position on business models. It would not endorse one product over another but point to the available resources where visitors can make their own decisions.

While such a site might promote crossword solving with samples, it would not try to undermine publishers by becoming an aggregator for crosswords from multiple sources, so people don’t have to go anywhere for their crossword content. The goal is to serve the industry by growing the audience and creating a demand for their products, not try to satisfy that demand with abundant free crosswords as many current sites try to do. Otherwise, it would be counter-productive to the main goals.

Once such a site is available, the entity could start to promote local events with something as simple as a calendar to start with. I was surprised to see that it is very difficult to find what crossword events are going on at various locations. Most search results only show past events. Having such a feature on the definitive landing pad for crosswords would provide a lot of visibility to such local events that popularize crosswords.

The entity could also start to promote additional events to complement the typical crossword events which are wholly skewed towards speed-solving by the dedicated.

Using tournament type of events to encourage crossword solving is as effective as using speed-reading contests to promote reading habits!

The fact that most crossword events are speed-solving tournaments is a consequence of the self-indulgent echo chambers most of us live in.

Why don’t we organize instead

  • Crossword days at the local libraries or book stores where local constructors will come and talk about solving techniques and less frequently constructing techniques.
  • Free good quality crossword sheets distributed from time to time at various locations. For example,
    • Place a pile in a Library or a book store once a month.
    • Handout crossword sheets as an organized event at a local airport as travelers come in.
    • Ask permission to place a pile at local coffee stores.
    • Leave a few printouts in a subway once in a while.

The possibilities are endless. None of these require huge organization or a lot of money and can be done entirely by volunteers at different cities. The entity would just be a clearing house for ideas and any logistics support if necessary.

These are suggestions that could be accomplished by grass roots movements alone and I hope some of the people active in local events consider these on their own. However, without a trade group entity supporting and encouraging such activities, it would not scale and it would not be sustainable.

Of course, the biggest problem is who would take the initiative to even seed this in the industry for concrete action. Given the high-enough traffic to this blog since it started, insufficient exposure to these ideas will not be an excuse! We are doing our part in ways we can. I challenge the industry to pitch in even if it is as simple starting a dialog amongst themselves to move in this direction as a simple first step. Is it too much to ask?

I will continue in the next post with more substantial marketing techniques that can help the industry if we are able to have even a rudimentary organization to collectively promote the industry as suggested here.

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2 Responses to Crossword Industry – the case for a unified marketing effort

  1. T Campbell says:

    In my younger days, I expended a lot of energy trying to make a difference for the comics business. A few ideas failed miserably and a few led to interesting places, but the fatal flaw in all my plans was people.

    People go their own ways for their own reasons. Just as a few examples: some people might scorn newspaper markets because of the dark times facing that industry… others may scorn everything else because they’ve formed an emotional attachment to that venue, driven by the same aesthetic perfectionism that drives them to create. Some will keep their eyes firmly on the bottom line and refuse to do anything for free, even if others insist that a little free sampling is good for business. Others will see their work as a hobby and refuse to “taint” it with commerce at all. And many people will have their own business plan and suspect you of either naivete or manipulation when you come to them with one that you think is better. Their independence and pride are at stake and trust does not come instantly.

    I ran into all these types, and whenever my game plan depended upon a unified effort from the field, they tore it apart within hours. There were some other flaws in my ideas, but if there hadn’t been, I don’t think it would have mattered.

    Do not fall into this trap. Focus on how a small group of people (your willing listeners) can adjust their business to become more profitable: once they do, others will follow naturally. It still won’t be everybody, but it should be enough.

  2. Guda says:

    T Campbell, thanks for the excellent advice. You have nailed the challenges, realities and limitations of attempting to effect change perfectly. You are absolutely correct on the action plan.

    A public blog addressing the wider audience has its uses as I am sure you will agree. Challenges (which have mostly been private so far) to expose any flaws in my reasoning or approach is valuable so I can take that into account in the action plan happening behind the scenes. There is value in chronicling the interconnected nature of the business. There is value in just making some people think about certain things they might not have thought about otherwise. Putting the spotlight on some of the more problematic behaviors can often moderate such behavior if not completely prevent it. But in the end, I think all of the above can potentially facilitate the future actions of the “small group” by providing a context.

    As to whether this is worth the effort is something I suspect opinions will vary widely on.

    Thanks again for the valuable comments which are spot on.