How Chess.com created a partnership growth funnel

And are now using it to grow the game of chess as well.

What’s up! This is Sheldon from The Zero to One. Helping you build and scale your business with proven product and growth tactics from the world’s most successful startups.

Here’s what’s in store for you today:

  • Growth breakdown: How Chess.com uses partnerships to create super users.

  • Cool things I saw to take your business to the moon.

  • Top tools for your business.

Chess.com: Partnerships for beginners to the GOAT.

🏆 The one thing:

If you’re short on time, here’s the one thing to take away:

Brand partnerships can be a powerful way to create habits around your product and push users down your sales funnel.

Practically, you can use partnerships to meet users who are in different stages of the sales funnel where they already consume content and hang out.

Practically, have a tiered partnerships approach, with stage-specific brands and influencers to reach your whole sales funnel.

Doing this can naturally push users from never having heard of you to evangelists of your product.

📚 The tactic:

A brief explanation of the tactic.

Chess is nothing new. It’s been around for over 1,400 years.

But it has never been as popular as it is today. With over 600M global players and over 140M of them registered on Chess.com - a 350% increase since January 2020.

Chess.com has consistently been an early adopter of new medias.

But importantly, they were early to the rise of the Creator.

Chess.com was one of the first companies to truly leverage influencer partnerships. This, as we will get into, expanded over the years: from chess streamers to the greatest chess player of all time, Magnus Carlsen, and even The Queen’s Gambit series.

The genius of this tactic though lies in the tiered approach Chess.com took to win first-time chess players, chess fanatics, and everyone in between.

Stacking partnerships at three different stages of how aware user were of chess. This created a partnership funnel that has skyrocketed growth, increased stickiness, and reduced churn.

The arrows represent which type of users enter at which stage.

Chess apps rely on network effects: You want to always have someone to play against. You want to play against people at your level and the best players in the world. And wherever that place is, that’s where you’ll play.

So Chess.com made sure they were that place. By first winning over chess regulars. Then targeting those already looking to get into chess. And finally, attracting new players to the game.

Create a tiered partnerships funnel to win users at each stage of their awareness of you.

🎯 The execution:

3 actionable insights from the tactic.

🎬 1. Become the product for those who know

When Chess.com entered streaming and video content, they found a completely undervalued asset: Chess streamers.

I was watching an episode of My First Million, where Shaan Puri, ex-Director of Product at Twitch, said that while he was at Twitch, new brands were making millions using Twitch influencers as their only marketing channel. And sometimes they weren’t even paid - just given free products.

And this was ~7 years after Chess.com first started partnering with Twitch and YouTube creators.

You see, the type of person who watches a Chess streamer is most likely a regular chess player. They knew this. So they started making partnerships with different streamers and YouTubers. Quickly winning the market and establishing themselves as the go-to platform for regular chess players all the way to the greatest chess player of all time, Magnus Carlsen.

These partnerships came in different shapes as well, sometime it was just for the streamer to play live on Chess.com, and other times they put the streamer in the game as a bot (a computer player) that users could play against.

Chess.com became the go-to place for regular chess players to play. They had the best players in the world, and you could play against them (or at least their bots). Strengthening their network effect.

🫂 2. Welcome beginners with open arms

As the Queen’s Gambit chess boom arrived, more people naturally started watching chess streams and videos - a place Chess.com had already conquered.

They could have easily sat back and waited for these new players to be exposed to Chess.com through these streamers. But they went a step further:

They went to welcome them before the door and show them the way in.

Partnering with the show to introduce Beth Harmon (the main character) bots into the game at different ages.

Be honest with me now, 10-year-old Beth beat you hey? Because same.

This partnership blew the game up. With Chess.com reporting almost 200k new signups at the peak of it.

But Chess.com was not done growing, and in 2022 broke the Queen’s Gambit daily signup record by more than 100k users, because they had continued to be at the forefront of new chess players.

One of the best examples of this is the Mogul Chessboxing Championship. Yes, chess + boxing. And importantly a bunch of influencers competing.

The event was hosted by Ludwig, one of the biggest streamers in the world and featured 16 influencers. It was a massive success! Reaching over 500k live viewers at its peak.

And this wasn’t even the first influencer event they hosted, having done 4 influencer championships, Pog Champs, between 2020 and 2023. With superstar influencers throughout the tournament, including Mr Beast.

Chess.com capitalized on the influence of non-chess-related influencers as well as the hype of Queen’s Gambit, making Chess.com as easy as possible to find for players already looking to start playing the game.

This is where the partnerships funnel really kicks in. Because now, the partnership direction flipped. New players were starting on Chess.com and were being introduced to chess influencers through the platform (remember those bots from earlier). Plus, now there were more players searching for chess lessons on YouTube. And guess who came up?

The Chess.com partners.

This reinforced Chess.com as the platform to be for these new users. Keeping users on the platform for longer.

🌍️ 3. Capture a whole new world

As Chess.com has grown, they have realized that they are not bound by the size of the game. They can grow it.

Going beyond the chess world into mainstream media and other popular games and apps to introduce more people to chess itself.

Some of their longest-standing partnerships have been with athletes.

Chess.com has 7 athletes who you can play against their bot, including Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Pulisic, Luka Doncic’s Ai (Luk.Ai), and NBA Finals MVP Jaylen Brown.

Introducing the sports world to chess, with the allure of playing against your favorite player.

All of these give Chess.com a sense of mainstream superstardom, and bring in users who have never played chess before, nor did they want to before their favorite celebrity posted about their bot. Chess.com has begun to grow the game itself and not just its share of it.

Recently, Chess.com has also started to partner with super apps, Duolingo (~100M MAUs) and Clash of Clans (~75M MAUs). Each massive in its own right.

Doing this, Chess.com is trying to redirect the user behavior of daily app usage to Chess.com. Much easier to do than to create new habits.

This step completes the partnerships funnel as these new users start to funnel down into the middle bucket of partnerships, Queen’s Gambit and non-chess streamers, before finally becoming a super fan, watching the chess streamers from the Chess.com app.

Chess.com is growing its business and the game of chess through partnerships.

By layering, step-by-step, partnerships appealing to different users.

Starting from the easiest-to-reach, regular chess players, to those wanting to start playing chess, and finally, introducing new players to the game.

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