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Aug 23, 2007
Case Study

How Hearst Grew Subscriptions 50% With Online Games That Complement Their Brand

SUMMARY: If you’re looking for fun ways to drive traffic to your site, try games that match your brand’s image. Hearst Magazines developed exclusive games for its magazines that engage different demographics of its online readers while staying true to each brand.

They found big hits with the likes of Makeup Mah Jongg, Shopdoku and Boy Toy. Some weeks, the gaming area accounts for 20% of site traffic, and consumers stay on the site much longer. Best of all, they've seen increases in online subscription sales by more than 50%.
For years, the marketers at Hearst Magazines watched as the Web evolved and interactive content -- such as quizzes, surveys and online videos -- proved their ability to attract consumers and keep them engaged.

Last year, when the company began migrating their magazine Web properties out of the iVillage network and onto dedicated URLs supported by a new, in-house content management system, they looked for ways to increase their interactive content. Christopher Johnson, Content Director, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, wondered if online games might be a good fit.

“Casual gamers are such a large audience, and it’s something that’s very accessible to people at home or at work looking for a fun time-killer,” he says. “Everything pointed to gaming as a way to amp up our entertainment content, increase time spent online and do it in a branded way.”

The key to creating online games that would drive traffic and increase visit length was to align those games with the magazines’ existing brands and audience demographics. Here’s how Johnson and Chuck Cordray, VP and GM, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, developed gaming centers and new custom games for several of their properties:

-> Step #1. Brainstorm game mix

To create the gaming centers, they assembled a team to decide the right mix of re-branded existing games and new titles that blended with each magazine’s content.

The team included:
o Members of the online development team who understood interactive features
o Magazine editors who knew their readership and popular content
o Online gaming experts with experience in development and knowledge about which formats worked in the free, casual gaming environment

The goal was to have enough titles to justify creating a gaming section on the sites and attract new and repeat visitors. But they also wanted to differentiate their game centers from other gaming destinations. This meant creating a suite of about 10 games per site, with some customized to reflect the magazine’s content and readership.

For example, classic games were rebranded:
- Cosmopolitan’s Mahjongg game was changed to “Makeup Mahjongg,” with game pieces illustrated as components of a makeup kit that users had to match.
- Seventeen’s Sudoku game was customized as “Shopdoku,” using images of apparel and accessories instead of numbers that users had to place in the game grid.

-> Step #2. Develop new games

For each site, the development team also brainstormed ideas for new, custom games that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Those games had to be relevant to the magazine’s brand and represent an activity that engaged the typical site visitor.

The process started with a rundown of the site’s demographics and users’ online behavior:

- Seventeen magazine’s audience is primarily females ages 13-19. They tended to access the site after school and wanted entertainment between homework, meals and other evening activities. Gaming experts on the development team knew that role-playing games appealed to this type of user.

- Cosmopolitan’s audience is primarily working women ages 20-30. Their online activity tended to occur during business hours and they were looking for distractions during breaks or at lunchtime as a way to have fun, vent frustration or kill time.

Based on these profiles, the team brainstormed custom game ideas that could be built on well-established gaming platforms, such as interactive role-playing games that awarded points to complete different tasks.

-> Step #3. Narrow list to game with the most appeal

From this brainstorm list, the team had about 10 different game ideas per site, with brief outlines of the concept and game play features and details on how they matched the site’s user demographic. Subsequent meetings narrowed the list to five and then two finalists, which were judged based on brand relevance and potential appeal.

From the two finalists, the team selected one game to develop for each site:

- For Seventeen, the team created “The Seventeen Editor’s Assistant,” a role-playing game in which users act out a simulated “first job” experience, performing tasks for a magazine editor, such as managing the editor’s calendar.

- For Cosmopolitan, the team created “Boy Toy,” an interactive game based on users’ interest in relationships, which allowed players to control a virtual boyfriend who had to perform tasks to keep his girlfriend happy.

-> Step #4. Incorporate game centers into site architecture

Next, the team added the games into the Web sites in ways that made it easy for users to find them, and return easily for repeat visits.

- Sections were added to navigation bars at the top of the homepage highlighting interactive features, labeled “Fun and Games” or “Fun Stuff.” Those buttons opened drop-down menus containing a link directly to the Games section.

- The games sections offered a menu of icons for each title, with the custom games offered as the top link.

-> Step #5. Promote games within the site

Besides navigation links and dedicated gaming sections, the team promoted its new games in above-the-fold advertisements on magazine home pages. Thanks to the company’s new content management system, game ads could be rotated into that spot at different times of day, to reflect times when the team expected a spike in gaming activity.

- Cosmopolitan’s Boy Toy was promoted on the homepage around lunchtime, to take advantage of visitors looking for a break during work.
- Seventeen’s Editor’s Assistant game was promoted in the evenings, to attract after-school users.

“We can schedule any promotion to appear at any time of day. It allows us to create a great user experience, and target different content and relevant times,” Johnson says.

-> Step #6. Promote games in email newsletters and print magazines

Along with prominent placement on the homepages, the team promoted the new games in other channels that reached magazine readers:

- Daily, weekly or monthly email newsletters from the magazines featured promotions and links to the online games.
- Promotions in the print magazines highlighted the host of new tools and functionality available on redesigned Web site. The promotions didn’t center on games alone, but were designed to drive more print readers to the Web sites to explore new options, including games.

-> Step #7. Create new ad space on game pages

The team targeted the games section as a new placement for advertisers. Advertising inventory included:
o Banner ads on the main page of the game section
o Interstitial ads that would appear in gaming windows for 10 seconds before the start of a game

Advertisers could purchase these ads as part of a package of placements across the sites.


Based on the results, Cordray is ready to do more custom games. “They’ve definitely exceeded our goals in terms of visits to the games and time spent overall.”

Visits to the games have been high -- some weeks accounting for 20% of traffic on the sites. The engagement time also has been very high. Users typically spend 10 to 30 minutes in game areas, with averaging a 23-minute visit length in its game area.

This engagement is also benefiting online advertisers. The interstitial ads in game windows get some of the highest clickthrough rates on the sites, although Cordray did not disclose specific numbers, saying individual rates depend on the creative and other variables.

What’s more, the increased traffic generated by interactive features like games has helped boost online subscription sales. Cordray has seen sites generating between 50% and 100% more print subscription sales per unique visitor.

The result has convinced him that a robust online experience that’s closely aligned with a magazine’s brand and audience doesn’t hurt the print properties. “Cannibalization is a myth -- it’s brand reinforcement.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Hearst’s custom games:

Arkadium - game developer who created Hearst’s custom and classic games:



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