Quartz bets on newsletters to increase readers’ income

Credit: Photo by Simona Sergi on Unsplash

Online economic news publisher Quartz recently shook up its membership offering by creating four premium emails. Why? Because emails account for three quarters of its reader conversions.

Since 2018, its paid subscription program – or membership – has included two emails: How To, which provides practical tips for being more efficient at work, investing or general life advice; and The Weekend Brief, which is a broader focus on the most important news of the week.

Two brand news emails are now exclusively available to paid subscribers: The Forecast, which provides a brief, accurate overview of an emerging industry, technology or trend; and The Company, highlighting companies that are changing (or about to change) the way their business operates.

“We ignore anything that’s status quo, and just look at what’s changing, what’s new, and what you need to understand,” says Catherine Belleditor of Quartz speaking on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast.

“When we were reviewing this series of emails, we were trying to distill the most important things about Quartz down to their essence and getting them to people when they need them most.”

Internally, what makes them unique is their “Quartziness”, a tone that can be lighthearted with serious subjects. But given that around half of the publication’s readership is overseas, it needs to think about how to attract an international audience. Its slogan is also “to make business better”, so its editorial mission is to provide practical value to its readers.

It is like looking “aside and ahead” at all times, explaining a trend in business and topics that are linked across geographies.

The modular experience

Premium emails use an internal writing structure, called “nugs”. Think of this as a way to neatly divide dense information into modules.

Quartz has long thought about its user experience through its Obsessions section (the meaningful beats of its newsroom like Beyond Silicon Valley or Because China), and its new Essentials features (a superpowered “learn more” section that provides deeper context in a story).

While Obsessions keeps readers up to date on all seismic topics, Essentials sends the reader down a rabbit hole of further reading. Both benefit from “nugs”, which can be in the form of a list, a graph, a mini essay, a bunch of links, or other types of micro-content. This content is curated internally and delivered when the reader needs it most.

“Usually when you read a news story, there’s something interesting that has value in a week or a month or even a year,” says Bell. “But it gets lost because as soon as the surrounding news gets old, it disappears.”

In this way, a story that a journalist writes is really the raw material and the nuggets are simply extracted and reused in emails. Ultimately, it also works as an efficient use of time, as you get more information from expert reporters who would normally keep beats siled.

The messaging experience

Quartz was among the first news publishers to embrace newsletters as a native experience. It tries not to just push links in hopes of generating click-through traffic.

What they learned from surveys and reader feedback is that what is really appreciated above all else is that the email is concise, with the ability to go deeper. But primary information is enough on its own and is based on deep understanding and expertise.

For this reason, members-only emails are normally written by an expert journalist. But because there is a newsletter team and a membership team that also feed into the process, along with other information from their international journalists, what readers get is the best of Quartz.

“That’s what makes Quartz membership is so valuable,” continues Bell. “You have all these people flocking to a very distilled place. It has the benefits of a Substack email, but you’re not just getting one person’s perspective, you’re getting the perspective of people on four continents.”

The goal is to build a long term relationship with the reader and emails are the perfect tool.

To that end, Bell looks first at open rate metrics and then at “time fidelity” metrics. This ultimately tells him if there is an appetite and sustained interest in the product.

His advice on creating newsletters is to simplify and focus on what’s important, to see the reader as someone with needs to be met, and to embrace your creative and whimsical side.

“Life is hard, work is hard, if you want to understand these really important, sometimes difficult and complex things, you might as well have fun while you do it,” she adds.

Lessons learned and next steps

Quartz did – and still does – what he calls field guides. This examines “the industries, companies, and phenomena that are changing the state of affairs in business”.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it eventually morphed into what is now The Forecast newsletter. What the Bell team discovered was that tackling these big topics required so much planning in advance and a general approach to serving all readers, that it was difficult to do quickly and well. The email promoting these field guides turned out so good that it made the main product redundant, and so as long as they continue as a feature, Quartz give them less importance.

Africa as a region offers a very specific set of issues to solve and interests within a loyal readership. Quartz already has a newsletter dedicated to this region, but will rate another member who can respond to this coverage without all the bells and whistles associated with the main member.

Audio continues to be a point of fascination. Bell says a big part of what makes his team great at newsletters — supporting curiosities and personal connections — should make podcasts a natural fit. He has an Obsessions podcast due out later this month.

This will be a 20 minute episode hosted by Kira Bindrim in conversation with a member of the Quartz newsroom on a topic they keep thinking about and how it relates to the global economy.

Finally, before Bell joined the team, Quartz used to have a chat-based news app that allowed the reader to ask a bot for news. This has since been shelved, but she says they have in mind how to bring it back to provide abbreviated learning experiences. Audio and direct messaging could make this possible in the near future.

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Harry L. Blanchard