Quartz’s new app: ‘notifications drove our thought processes’

Simon will be one of several speakers at FIPP London (10-11 May), which includes four channels: FIPP Mobile and FIPP Tech (speaker channels), FIPP Innovation (deep-dive masterclasses) and Worldwide Media Marketplace (cross-border licensing, syndication and partnerships meetings platform).

Simon spoke to Jon Watkins ahead of the event.

You’ll be speaking at FIPP Mobile, which is particularly appropriate given your own research states we’re in the era of “mobile-first… everything else a distant second”. How does mobile drive your strategy?

Quartz started off mobile-first when we launched in September 2012. Rather than retrofitting a desktop version of our website to phones and tablets, we did the reverse. Today, publishers should be thinking and asking themselves “What if everyone who came to our site did so from a mobile device?” and, in fact, “What if they didn’t come directly to our site at all?” Most users are accessing qz.com from a phone or tablet, and are also coming in through various social channels.

Because of this, we invest so much into our mobile experience – from an article page, to the homepage, to email sign-up pages. We do our best to make whatever door our audience is joining us through accessible and ‘Quartz-y’. We define this as sleek design, a high-quality user experience and smart, global content. 

We do this not just with our editorial content and products, but with our advertising as well. And we’re being rewarded for this. Since mobile is also becoming an increasingly important focus for our advertising clients, they turn to us precisely because we’ve always taken this mobile-first approach and know how to create advertising that is just as beautiful and user-conscious as our editorial content. 

You recently launched an app – and it’s very conversational in its approach, almost like a messaging app. Talk me through your thinking and what you’re hoping to achieve…

When we launched qz.com in 2012 it was a strategic decision to launch as an HTML5 site, rather than an app. Primarily, it allowed faster growth as it presented fewer barriers to entry for our target audience. We always said that, if we could find a compelling gap in the market and a business case, we would be open to adding an app to Quartz’s platforms.

The challenge was, as our research indicated, that while the majority of those in our target audience have installed news apps, they are not being used to any meaningful degree. Those that do get used are social, utility and messaging apps. So, the thought experiment was ‘can you develop an app that took the best aspects of a messaging app – personal, conversational, instant – and apply that to delivering the news?’ Notifications, specifically, is what drove our thought process.

The app is the end result of that. In terms of what we’re trying to achieve – it goes back to another thing that’s been said for a while; we won’t tell users how, when and on what they will read our content. You’re dealing with the most sophisticated and spoilt-for-choice media consumers the industry has ever seen. So let’s produce high quality, differentiated editorial content that works across a range of mediums and allows users to experience what “Quartz” is to them. We often use the metaphor that Quartz is an API. To some, it’s the website, others it’s a morning newsletter, and for some it will now be the app.

Turning to the business as a whole, how is the Quartz brand doing – what sort of numbers are you seeing and how is innovation continuing to drive success?

We’re now three and a half years old and have matured beyond being the ‘shiny new entrant in the news market’ to a truly global brand. The site now attracts over 17 million users a month around the world, we’ve held 37 events on four continents, successfully launched in Africa and India, and developed a number of innovations, such as Chartbuilder – which is now being used by a number of different newsrooms – Atlas, our recently launched news app, a podcast and more playful experiments like our emoji flag keyboard app. Success comes from staying true to that initial premise of creating a high-quality experience while maintaining a culture of innovation and keeping a global outlook. We like to say that we make small decisions with data and big decisions with our gut.

Tell me about your approach to ads, and why you focus on a good user experience and making sure they are as beautiful as the content…

Digital ads are, generally, awful. People are blind to them – and in the most extreme cases block them. Mobile ads are often the worst of the bunch – interruptive, hard to read badly targeted ads that have been created as an afterthought to a bigger programme. And that is weird. Marketers are excited about mobile being a way to communicate messaging to an individual on their most personal device. That opportunity is very exciting and could potentially change the fortunes of publishers.

We were fortunate enough to be starting with a blank slate when we launched Quartz. And that affected not just how we wrote the content and designed the site, but also how we approached advertising. From the start, we made a decision not to carry IAB standard ads. Instead of traditional banners and boxes we created large bespoke display units that fall in between articles and our own sponsored content units, so they are a part of the larger user experience. The sponsored content units have all the same functionalities as our own editorial content, but are clearly labelled as being brought to you by an advertiser.

Having advertising that is as good or as beautiful as your own content has to be the very base expectation. If you want users to interact with an advertiser’s ad or content, instead of doing what they initially came to the site for (to experience your own content), it had better be exceptional. 

Users appreciate this mentality so much, that we often get tweets and love letters about our advertising.

What are you focused on in the immediate future?

We’ll continue innovating and iterating on our current products. A few particular areas we’re hoping to expand upon include our charting platform, Atlas, and continuing to grow our global audience. 

What mobile trends might we see in the future and what innovations really excite you right now?

In the short term we’ll see other publishers taking their mobile offerings more seriously as advertiser focus shifts further in that direction, and we’ll recognise ad blocking as being as much a privacy issue for this most personal of devices as it is a creative challenge. I’m eager to see the adoption rates for Samsung’s Gear and HTC’s Vive, and what new possibilities they open up. The potential for publishers working with messaging apps is also very exciting.

Meet and hear more from Simon at FIPP London from 10-11 May. Sign up here.

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