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“Increasing the value of membership until it’s a bargain”: Quartz’s secret sauce

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Quartz, the business news site founded in 2012 with an ad-supported model, introduced memberships last year. The move was followed by the addition of a metered paywall early this year.

“Being completely ad-dependent was never good for anybody,” the Chairman of Quartz, Jay Lauf, told Digiday after they introduced the membership. “It is true, that was the original premise [at Quartz]. A lot of competitive sets were behind paywalls and they were suppressing their traffic potential and the reach they could get.” 

So our wide opening was to get a large advertising base and build a foundation to start. But the idea of reaching business professionals was that along the line, you could create other products that could get closer to utility for this audience and that they may pay for. That’s what we’re at the beginning of exploring now.

Jay Lauf, Chairman of Quartz

“Membership benefits our entire business”

Quartz CEO Zach Seward adds, “Membership benefits our entire business. While of course it is a new source of revenue, it is also additive to our ad business. Our clients value loyalty, really like the unique elements of Quartz membership, and benefit from the same data that help us better serve members.” 

However, paywalls and membership is now an increasingly crowded space with more and more publishers focusing on generating reader revenues. When asked about how Quartz plans to stand out from the crowd, Seward told CJR’s Mathew Ingram, “Quartz helps people understand the global economy, with an emphasis on how businesses and industries are changing.

“Compared to some of our competitors, our journalism is more global (less US-centric), more creative (no 800-word straight news stories you can get anywhere), and more focused on the future.”

“Investment in the reader’s career”

Moreover, Quartz’s membership offering is pitched differently than most outlets’ — more as an investment in the reader’s career. It repackages its journalism into longer-lasting resources for members like field guides and slide decks

Seward told NiemanLab, “Every week we produce a really deep dive on a company or industry or business trend that we’ve identified as really for you to understand if you want to understand the global economy. We’ve done nearly 50 of them at this point. Those are very unlike news coverage, in that all 50 of the news guides we’ve produced remain valuable today. 

“As members you get access to all of it. In that sense it’s more similar to an subscription, where you’re getting access to this huge library of journalism, than it is to a daily news subscription.”

Access to member-exclusive content, which gets closer to an education on how to navigate the global economy, is a core proposition. 

Jay Lauf, Chairman of Quartz

Here’s what members get for $14.99 per month or $99.99 a year ($59.99 in the first year): 

  • Weekly guides on the forces changing the world and disrupting business.
  • Presentations on today’s most important topics which members can use however they’d like.
  • Premium video series with advice from innovators rewriting the global economy.
  • Direct access to Quartz’s journalists via weekly conference calls.
  • The ability to leave insights on articles alongside the expert community of Quartz Pros.
  • Invites to events with industry leaders and other Quartz members.

“The strategy was to serve a very specific audience”

Seward adds, “Our journalism is our product, so it’s important that we have something unique to offer. So we think about how to fit into their (members) lives in a useful and meaningful way on a daily basis. We’ve long been really good at the email version of that daily habit, and are putting even more of a focus there. And our new homepage and app are fashioned to serve loyal readers and members in a similar way. There will be more of that kind of thing to come.”

We were never trying to cash into the trend of the moment. We’ve developed a distinct quality of journalism. We’ve been really dogged about the advertising proposition and our user experience. The strategy was to serve a very specific audience. That focus is critical and it has helped us to avoid pivots. We’ve experimented but we’ve never made a full pivot.

Jay Lauf, Chairman of Quartz

Quartz has been experimenting with different products and marketing messages to grow members. Its video series on China has been particularly successful in driving members. The publisher has also bet on email from its earliest days. It offers a potpourri of things to members through its daily email newsletters, Quartz Daily Brief and Quartz Daily Obsession

“Read entirely in your inbox”

According to Seward, “If we just launched with a website, something would be missing and that was a daily touch point with readers. We knew our greatest overall growth was going to come from the website on the back of social media but we didn’t want to neglect email. 

“Most organizations’ emails were a list of links [to stories] published that day or week. Our main strategy was to create a great email that you can read entirely in your inbox but you don’t have to click the links. The KPI is open rates. We want you to open it, love it and then open it again the next day. We check the main active users, who open at least once a week, in a week across all our emails sent that week. Active matters.”

Quartz Obsession, which dives deep into a single topic and can be consumed in its entirety within the inbox has reported an open rate of 78%, which is much higher than the industry average of 22%.

“You need to carve out this niche”

The website and app offer a continually updated briefing of the day’s most interesting and important business news, selected and summarized by Quartz journalists around the world. Recently, the publisher rolled out a UK edition which will include stories that are more relevant or specific to the UK and European audiences. It already has India and Africa editions.

What Quartz is offering is more features rather than benefits. Having great content is not always enough. In addition, you need to carve out this niche. You need to ask, what value does the membership provide? Otherwise, it’s a content subscription in disguise. 

Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of Sterling Woods Group, a consultancy

Finding a hidden niche within an audience, like those really interested in the global impact of China’s growth, and building the membership around that would lead to more growth, explains Ristagno.

“Can’t be yet just another news subscription”

Seward told Business Insider that they saw the first six months of the membership program as “experimenting with a bunch of potential offers to get a better sense of what would work.” Based on what’s performed so far with members the publisher is: 

  • Refining its Field Guide topics to focus on topics that are “Quartzy” and not overcovered by other outlets.
  • Increased conference calls with reporters to three from one a week and doing more member-only videos.
  • Reworking its app to help drive membership.

Quartz currently has 10,438 paying members, and in the UK, it’s audience has nearly tripled to 1.6M unique monthly users since last year, according to Comscore. However, Business Insider reported that the membership program has not generated the desired traction, and the publisher is on track to lose money this year as it faces a subscription shortfall. 

Seward acknowledged the need to make sure Quartz makes its membership valuable to readers in various ways. “If we had all the data we had today, we would have gone straight to all those decisions. We’re cognizant it can’t be yet just another news subscription. There are a ton of subscription offerings in news already,” he added. 

There is so much to be proud of in our early results. Membership is a huge new initiative for us, requiring significant shifts by every part of the organization. We got membership off the ground very quickly and honed the offering just as fast based on what the data told us. The success of those adjustments—making membership more central to Quartz, adding the metered paywall, changing our field guides and shows—can be seen in our record growth of members over each of the past three months.

Zach Seward, CEO of Quartz

“It will pay off in the end”

Seward comments, “We are optimizing for and managing the business based on the total amount of recurring revenue, not the number of members. Some of our competitors will cite larger numbers of subscribers based on discounts. We are valuing Quartz membership more than that, with members paying a higher price, and it will pay off in the end.

“Building this new business is a long-term proposition, and we are just getting started. Over the next year, we’ll focus even more of our time and attention on this initiative: integrating member features into all of Quartz, improving our ability to convert loyal readers into members, and increasing the value of membership until it’s a bargain.”