Atlantic Media launched Quartz, its mobile-first business news website, in 2012 with the hopes of making regular readers out of an elite slice of global executives, and clients out of the prestige brands hoping to reach them.
It’s no surprise, then, that in the intervening years, the brand has crafted an advertising strategy that is not about reaching the masses, but rather leaving a real imprint on the minds of business decision makers.
To do this, the publication cultivates readership from on-the-run executives by providing them with must-see news briefings and short, data-heavy analytical posts. It then monetizes those relationships through display and sponsored content formats that take advantage of the site’s ballyhooed web design.
“[Brands] are coming to Quartz for impact and the ability to tell a larger story, rather than just racking up a ton of impressions,” Quartz Publisher Jay Lauf said.
Lauf, who started off as a journalist, came to Quartz by way of The Atlantic and before that rose through the ranks at WIRED magazine from advertising director to publisher.
According to ComScore statistics published in a recent Capital New York story, Quartz has 5.2 million monthly unique visitors, meaning that it has scaled nicely since its inception but has just a fraction of the readership held by rivals like Dow Jones/The Wall Street Journal, which has 34 million monthly uniques, and Bloomberg, which has 23.2 million.
While it does not yet offer the scale of other business publications, Quartz does seem to be making good on its goal of reaching upper-crust business folks when they are on the move.
According to a spokesperson, more than half of Quartz’s readers access the site via smartphones and tablets, a testament to the site’s mobile-optimized responsive design, which provides users with an identical reading experience across computers and mobile devices. Meanwhile, 60% of readers hold executive-level positions.
Here's what the mobile homepage might look like for them on a given morning. Note how the sponsored story by Lexus is right in the middle of the feed.
With no paywall and only about 10% of its revenue coming from events, Quartz's financial success hinges on its ability to sell brands on new types of advertising that reach the executive audience it has crafted through smart business news.
The site offers two sleek, highly visible ad products that show up in the middle of its news stream and are sold on a CPM basis as opposed to being part of a bundle: Engage, a large multimedia display placement, and Bulletin, a sponsored story created by Quartz’s in-house branded content team.
Because the site is set up with infinite scroll — a design feature through which a new article or ad begins to show up on-screen every time a visitor nears the bottom of a story — Bulletin and Engage are largely unavoidable to readers who are not using ad-blocking software.
In this instance, I was finishing a story about eating disorders when a large banner ad for Columbia Business School shows up. If I wanted to keep reading or just see what article pops up next, I'd have to scroll past Columbia's ad.
“Engage is a display ad, but it’s a big, oversized display ad, and you can build a lot of functionality into it, from video to interactive infographics,” Lauf said.
Bulletin, the content ad unit that looks like a sponsored news brief, is included in between 60% and 70% of the ad packages Quartz sells, according to Lauf. Like Engage, it is highly customizable, with the majority of stories containing some degree of interactivity.
For example, a recent story sponsored by Lexus includes an infographic of some of the most important technological inventions of the past 20 years, which visitors can click on for more information and manipulate to see how one invention led to another.
Rather than gauging the success of a piece of sponsored content based solely on how many times it was viewed, Quartz is deeply concerned with what people did after first coming into contact with it. As such, Lauf says he looks closely at how many people engage with a given story, whether that means they spent time playing with the interactive features of an infographic or that they watched a video all the way to completion.
He also looks at the rate at which people share sponsored content on social media, as well as whether the people sharing it have large social media followings.
“When you’re doing content marketing, the clickthrough is not a very useful measurement tool, and so brands are looking for other ways to be able to measure impact beyond clickthrough rates,” Lauf said.
The content is created entirely by Quartz’s marketing team, which has 15 people and is comprised of both marketing veterans and people with editorial-side design and engineering experience.
The stories are then distributed on Quartz’s website and its social channels. Depending on the campaign’s goals, Quartz might also pay for additional promotion via social media or a content amplification platform, although Lauf says in most cases this responsibility belongs to the advertiser.
What Quartz does do to boost sponsored content performance is A/B test headlines. In some cases, when brands have large enough budgets, the site has made two different versions of the content — one with a video and one with an infographic — and tested which one readers preferred.
Lauf says brands can gain additional reach by using their own social channels to promote sponsored content, a tactic he feels many brands have not embraced to its full potential.
He has, however, been happy to see more brands promoting content they create themselves.
“I think there’s a total shift to wanting to leverage all of the content that they produce themselves,” Lauf said. “Just even 4-5 years ago, a lot of companies were reticent to use it or unequipped to think about using it.”
Regardless of who creates the content, quality will always be a crucial ingredient for success.
“If your job is to entertain, quality can be fun. If you’re designed to inform and talk about heavier issues, quality maybe takes the form of great writing and expertise in terms of the thought that’s put into it,” Lauf explained. “But one thing that is true over, and over, and over again is that if you do something that is of high quality, it has a much greater chance of performing and spreading in the social meritocracy than crap.”