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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Inside Quartz’ obsessive approach to email newsletters

October 23, 2018 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst—Mobile Groove @peggyanne

With so many new and immersive ways to reach audiences on their mobile devices, it’s natural to wonder if email, now nearly 50 years old, has lost its luster. But before you make a call consider reams of research that show email rules as the most reliable way to reach consumers everywhere on the planet. Granted, email took a hit in the wake of the European Union’s May 25 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), legislation that raised opt-in standards for email campaigns. However, the cleanse that followed also produced audiences that are genuinely interested in receiving communications and content from companies that have their express consent. It raises the question: Can companies do more with email newsletters to drive deeper engagement with their content?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” That is if they move beyond offering collections of links to offering content that has a distinct voice, format and style all its own. This is the strategy championed by Quartz, a six-year-old mobile-first publisher widely credited with helping reinvent the email newsletter. The company, which was recently acquired from Atlantic Media by Uzabase, a Japanese business intelligence and media company, broke new ground in 2017 with the launch of Quartz Obsession. The edgy email deep dives into topics that have “seismic importance to the global economy and reports an open rate of 78%, much higher than the industry average of 22%.

Adam Pasick, senior editor, Quartz

Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove – catches up with Adam Pasick, a senior editor at Quartz who oversees Quartz’s push team, which includes email newsletters, apps, and bots. Pasick discusses how Quartz looks beyond the newsroom for content that inspires and engages audiences, and why it pays to publish newsletters with a sense of purpose and cohesiveness.


PAS: Katie Weber, VP of client partnerships for Quartz, is quoted as calling the inbox “the new homepage for executives. How do you choose and craft newsletter content that will consistently appeal to this high-value audience?

AP: I think we’ve certainly struck a chord with an audience that is more than the sum of the numbers. We have bespoke editorial and news coverage that we tailor for our products including the Quartz Daily Brief, Quartz Obsession, as well as the Quartz app for iOS and Android. Each has their own content and their own voice.

Sometimes we adapt articles from the main Quartz site, but most of the time we are writing the content from scratch. It’s the best way to treat each of those products as their own thing, with their own audience, their own appeal and their own writing staff to make the package complete. Quartz Obsession is a great example of this. We looked at just piping regular Quartz content into these products, but we found it to be an unfulfilling experience. It just fell flat.

PAS: I’m hearing that your audience is a demographic that values an element of serendipity and rejects content that feels stale. How do you keep your content fresh?

AP: We are constantly testing and rolling out new products, and the Quartz Obsession email is a great example. It’s had a hugely positive response out of the gate because it invites readers to go down a rabbit hole every day on one very kind of narrow topic. Then it opens your world by giving you a big-picture view of the topic in the context of the wider world.

PAS: You call it the daily “digression.” But is the starting point the daily news?

AP: The content is inspired by topics that are in the news. But we go a step further delivering more evergreen content that sheds light on the weird and wild tangents. In this way we fill a need that people have to be delighted and surprised with content that touches on the issues of the day but also takes some unexpected turns to inspire them to see and experience what is beyond the news.

Across all Quartz stories and products there’s kind of a common editorial DNA that should run through them. But we don’t only use Quartz stories as a starting point. We are agnostic in terms of where our stories start off. It can start with a Quartz story, we are also happy to use stories from other sources for the app and the emails. It’s not about driving traffic back to the Quartz mothership; it’s about finding the best stories for our audience no matter where they started off or where they may have originated.

PAS: You oversee several products, including apps and chatbots. What are the content offers and audience preferences across these platforms?

AP: Each of those products has its own advertising format, one that is appropriate and native to that platform. This ensures that we are not reliant on driving people back to Quartz.com. This is why we feature stories from other news outlet and then adapt it and tell it in our own way. Across all these formats it’s about channeling the news into a more casual conversational style, while keeping it very tight and concise. The tone that we are aiming for is one that is how you would write if you were describing the story to your friends.

The chatbot on Facebook Messenger presents content in a conversational format, so we use different tools to kind of mimic having a conversation with a real person. There are real people writing the responses, but it takes place in an automated algorithmic fashion. The starting point is often a push notification. Then the experience can go beyond what’s happening in the world to sharing ways you can enhance your world. For example, we’ve taken people through lifestyle ideas and inspiration like how to bake your own soda bread. We’ve experimented with different experiences and see audiences spend the most time on content around the news. But for chatbots, as well as apps, it’s also important to mix serious stories and with topics that are off-beat or lighthearted. You want to have a diverse story mix that doesn’t kind of beat people over the head with one kind of story. It should feel more eclectic.

Our app is available on the watch, so we know we touch reader’s lives in ways that are immediate. It’s about developing innovative ways to be valuable and offer value throughout the day and across platforms. So, you start the morning reaching for your smartphone and you scan the news on what happened while you were sleeping. The Daily Brief provides a kind of editorial intelligence service and it has a very loyal audience. With the app, that’s where readers dip in and out to learn something or be delighted with content and then get on with your day. Obsession comes in when your day is wrapping up, when you’re a little exhausted and you just need something to kind of take you out of your world and into an unexpected direction.

PAS: You provide me the news and experiences you think I want. Why don’t you ask me?

AP: We are assuming that if you found your way to us you that you also like the Quartz editorial. That’s why we purposely pick, curate, and write stories that fit in with our kind of Quartziness. And that’s our goal. It’s not about the capability to write something different for every individual person. It’s about having a purpose and approach to telling the story that resonates with our audience.

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