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HQ Trivia: Doomed From the Start, Or a Lesson for Others?

Welp, HQ Trivia is dead. You remember HQ Trivia, right? Had a dashing, meme-able host (until it didn’t)? A whole bunch of Millennials and Gen Z-ers were very into it, back in 2017-18? Once upon a time, the company was valued at $100 million.

And now, investors are pulling the plug.

There have been plenty of autopsies already to get to the bottom of this particular death-by-investor. It’s not even all that complicated: What happened here is what happens with a lot of gaming apps. But what’s the lesson to take from this fall from grace? Is it that this kind of app is always nonviable in the long run? Or that HQ hamstrung itself with its own format and platform strictures?

TV[R]EV’s Oriana Schwindt and John Cassillo have differing opinions.

Oriana: Yeah, this was inevitable. We see this time and again with apps that have a meteoric rise, only to realize their model isn’t sustainable once people move on to the next big, attention-grabbing app. I know gaming apps are a little different—no one is saying CandyCrush is a fad—but it is hard to keep people coming back to your app, day after day.

That sounds weird coming from someone who still enjoys the heck out of Jeopardy!, but a major difference is that Jeopardy! is simply a more chill experience. I may not have the chance to win a few bucks, but I also don’t have to deal with in-app purchases.

Look, HQ had a young audience. Young audiences are fickle, fickle folks. I’m in my 30s now, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but the idea of logging in to HQ Trivia day after day in the hope of winning maybe $3 was profoundly uninteresting even three years ago. Now? No way.

John: You do get to the heart of the issues above — getting people to keep coming back to a standalone app with no other function is incredibly problematic and difficult, no matter the prizing level. Doing so with time sensitivity also attached is simply not realistic for an on-demand media consumption environment.

However, I do think the idea of trivia as a larger media enterprise can work. The issue is that HQ saw itself more as an app. It was focused on the delivery, instead of how to be the best content producers possible.

Without time sensitivity and without being beholden to a single platform, there’s a future for an HQ-like media company to work for consumers. That solution is likely on-demand, definitely mobile and at the very least leverages TikTok and Instagram Stories to capture the same younger audience that HQ did. Rather than an emphasis on “live” play, such a company focuses on the thrill of winning wherever and whenever that may be.

Not everyone is going to drop what they’re doing to play a mobile trivia game.

Oriana: Those are certainly some interesting ideas, though I think that the exclusivity and live-ness were the primary drivers of HQ’s success and its undoing. I recall a ton of people in the newsroom I worked at rushing to get in the queue for HQ Trivia sessions, and there was a sort of convivial competition as the games started. But you don’t actually need that adrenaline rush day after day, particularly if it only nets you a few bucks at most.

There are a lot of trivia nerds out there. Our culture is currently dominated by fandom: Marvel nerds, Star Wars nerds, Trekkies — whatever your fandom is, someone is selling it to you in whatever format you want. The one thing nerds love more than their chosen franchise is showing off how much they know about it.

So yes, it seems like there’s a big geeky market out there just ripe for the picking, given that digital gaming spend hit an unbelievable $109 billion last year.

But I just don’t see a media company succeeding by making “Trivial Pursuit” the core of its brand. Trivia can be an add-on that studios use to promote films or TV series, but people do eventually tire of being know-it-alls. It’s simply not a sustainable content strategy on its own for digital media.

John: Perhaps you’re right. A media company can’t subsist on trivia alone, and perhaps it’s just, like, “TriviaQuest, Brought to You by Buzzfeed.” Or maybe such a media company works with partners to license IP for branded trivia — which can even be hosted through the brand partners’ respective social media feeds.

Another route it could go is on-air partnerships with TV networks and/or MVPDs. Want to keep people watching ads? A sponsored, interactive trivia segment with prizes could work for both streaming and linear audiences as a substitute for an ad break. Day-time TV also has plenty of space to fill with engaging content. And while trivia hasn’t been targeted at those audiences, typically, this presents an interesting opportunity to do so.

But maybe I’m just being idealistic about the appeal of trivia. I personally enjoy it, and am not surrounded by a ton of people that share the expertise I do on certain topics. That (and having  a kid under two years old) leads to having little use for in-person trivia events, but makes a digital trivia enterprise geared toward my specific interests much more appealing.

Oriana: Aha! Found the Former Bar Trivia Night Guy! But I do think you’re on to something with the daytime TV and interactive ad ideas (which we’re already seeing on platforms like Hulu). Integrating trivia into your media company can work, as long as it’s not something you rely on for significant, long-term revenue.

That said, if Stephen Colbert ever wants to have a Tolkien trivia-off with me, I’d be happy to mop the floor with him.