The counter-intuitive wisdom of Wordle


Wordle has recently been celebrated for bringing tens of millions of new users to The New York Times.

What can brands and agencies learn from Wordle’s success? Are there lessons we can take to our apps, campaigns, and other brand experiences?

The answer might surprise you. Wordle achieved what many brands and agencies strive for — doing the opposite of what they might typically do. Here are four examples of Wordle’s unconventional wisdom, which will hopefully inspire us all to try something new.

#1. Resist the urge to dress things up.

We tend to dress things up in marketing. After all, if people don’t see your work, what’s the point?

That’s why we inject drama, pull on heartstrings, or tap into the latest culture or technology trends. We permeate every possible advertising space, becoming impossible to ignore.

Wordle, on the other hand, doesn’t dress things up with any storytelling, innovation, or promotion. The result is undeniably compelling. Wordle sounds like something you (or your grandma) could easily win while waiting for the elevator, but it disarms you.

The gameplay is more challenging than you think. Have you ever tried to hack someone’s password? That is how the game feels at times.

And yet, you won’t quit. “It’s just a Wordle,” you say. So, you push through, reaching that satisfying finish. And now you’re hooked.

This capitalizes on what psychologists call “the overconfidence effect,” where you might jump into something just because it seems so easy in your head.

The takeaway: don’t underestimate the power of the plain and simple.

#2. Resist the urge to make things too easy.  

Marketing often needs to appeal to everyone, resulting in games or challenges that can be a little bland because they are designed for everyone to win, like using bumpers at the bowling alley.

But Wordle proves that people enjoy a little difficulty. Players are only given six attempts to guess, and then it’s game over.

Too much difficulty can also be disheartening. We’re aiming for what psychologists call “flow“: that pleasurable immersion we feel with the right combination of meaning and challenge.

Wordle gets you into the “flow” by softening the challenge but not removing it.

Players can see which letters are guessed correctly, marked green with each attempted word. But players are also shown which letters are “half-correct.” They are marked yellow, meaning it’s the right letter but in the wrong place. This feeds a palpable momentum. You feel a sense of progress, and the goal no longer seems so far away. So, you race towards the finish line.

In behavioral science, this is called the “goal gradient effect,” which observes that people tend to accelerate their effort as they get closer to completing a goal. It’s the reason why that website has a progress bar that whispers, “just two more steps and these plane tickets are yours.”

The takeaway: people enjoy spicy challenges as long as there’s a soothing sense of progress along the way.

#3. Resist the urge to draw out “engagement.”

It’s natural for brands to measure the “dwell time” or “engagement” of their work, whether on an app or a microsite.

Does more time spent = more likely to buy? Not necessarily, especially if the experience has been drawn out beyond what’s optimal.

Wordle, in contrast, shows us how “less” can be “more.”

Instead of allowing you to binge all Wordle puzzles in one sitting, they limit gameplay to one puzzle per day. This produces the “scarcity effect,” where people often value something more if it’s in short or limited supply. Wordle bet that the daily scarcity would fuel a daily habit, which paid off.

What is perhaps the most impressive is that this element of scarcity ultimately fueled connection, word-of-mouth, and community, as everyone is playing the same puzzle each day.

The takeaway: releasing content at a predictable, gradual pace can create collective anticipation.

#4. Resist the urge to engineer virality.

One of the most coveted marketing achievements is to “go viral.”

We make extraordinary efforts to get people to share. We can frame anything into a moment of self-expression, achievement, or user-generated content. But sometimes, we demand too much, putting people out of the sharing mood.

Wordle handled sharing in an understated way: wordless rows of colored boxes, illustrating the progress made with each guess, culminating in a victorious row of green boxes that’s easy to tweet.

These posts didn’t come across as showing off. They seemed like they were just a souvenir of the experience, to commemorate how many tries it took to guess the right word. Not only did this mysterious post create an “in-crowd” and pique the interest of the uninitiated, but it also subtly spurred people to compare their progress against others.

The takeaway: keep in mind that people often post on social media simply for themselves, rather than for others.

What does all of this mean for brands?

Wordle’s achievements are admired and coveted by brands. With humble resources, it became the talk of the town, a cultural phenomenon that managed to carve out a brief ritual into people’s busy daily schedules.

Though Wordle managed to achieve great mainstream success, the game’s methods aren’t necessarily right for every single brand or campaign.

Knowing every business is different, our process at tms (formerly The Marketing Store) always begins with understanding your specific needs. From there, we determine which best-in-class behavioural science and gamifications concepts should be used to deliver the best possible brand experience.

This is how we have consistently delivered world-famous promotions and programs over the years, like McDonald’s MONOPOLY and T-Mobile Tuesdays.

If you’d like to explore how to leverage these principles and concepts to advance your goals, fill out our contact form below to get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!