Credit: Photo by Simona Sergi on Unsplash

Online business 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 programme - or membership - included two emails: How To, which brings practical tips around being more effective at work, investing, or general life advice; and The Weekend Brief, which is a wider lens on the most important news story of the week.

Two brand news emails are now exclusively available to paying subscribers: The Forecast, which provides a short, sharp look forward at an emerging industry, technology, or trend; and The Company, spotlighting companies that are changing (or are about to change) the way their businesses work.

"We ignore everything that is the status quo, and we just look at what is changing, what is new and what you need to understand," says Katherine Bell, editor-in-chief of Quartz speaking on an episode of the podcast.

"When we were looking at this series of emails, we were trying to distil the most important things about Quartz down to their essence and get them to people when they needed them the most."

Internally, what makes them unique is their "Quartziness", a tone that can be light-hearted with serious subjects. But given that around half of the publication's readers are overseas, it has to think about how to appeal to an international audience. Its slogan is also to 'make business better', so its editorial mission is to provide practical value to its readers.

That amounts to looking "sideways and ahead" at all times, explaining a trend in business and topics that are connected across geographies.

The modular experience

The premium emails use an internal writing structure, known as "nugs". Consider this a way to break up dense information carefully into modules.

Quartz has long been thinking about its user experience through its Obsessions section (the significant beats in its newsroom like Beyond Silicon Valley or Because China), and its newer Essentials features (a superpowered "read more" section which serves up deeper context into a story).

Quartz Essentials feature on a Because China article

While Obsessions keeps readers in the loop with all the seismic topics, Essentials sends the reader down a rabbit hole of further reading. Both benefit from "nugs", which could take the form of a list, a chart, a mini essay, a bunch of links, or other types of micro-content. This content is preserved internally and served up when the reader needs it the most.

'Usually, when you read a news story, there's something interesting in there that's valuable in a week, month or a year even," says Bell. "But it just gets lost because as soon as the surrounding news gets old, it just disappears."

In this way, a story that a reporter writes is really the raw material and the nugs are simply extracted and reused in emails. In the end, this also works out as an efficient use of time because you are getting more information out of expert reporters who would normally hold onto siloed beats.

The email experience

Quartz was amongst the first news publishers to think about newsletters as a native experience. It tries not to simply push out links in the hope of driving clickthrough traffic.

What they have learned from reader surveys and feedback is that what is truly valued above all else is that the email is concise, with the option to go deeper. But the primary information is sufficient alone, and is based on a deep understanding and expertise.

For that reason, member-exclusive emails are normally written by one expert journalist. But because there is a newsletter team and a membership team also feeding into the process, plus other information dripping in from their international journalists, what readers receive is the best of Quartz.

"That’s what makes the Quartz membership so valuable," continues Bell. "You have all of these people flowing into a very distilled place. It has the advantages of a Substack email, but you’re not just getting one person’s point of view, you’re getting the points of view of people on four continents."

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

To that end, Bell looks at open-rate metrics first, and then 'loyalty over time' metrics. This tells her ultimately whether there is appetite and sustained interest in the product.

Her advice on crafting newsletters is to simplify and focus on what is important, think of the reader as an individual with needs to be met, and embrace your creative and whimsical streak.

"Life is hard, work is hard, if you're going to understand these really important, sometimes difficult and complex things, you might as well enjoy yourself while you’re doing it," she adds.

Lessons learned and next steps

Quartz used to do - and still does - what it calls field guides. This looks at "industries, companies, and phenomena that are changing the state of play in business."

If that sounds familiar, that is because it eventually morphed into what is now The Forecast newsletter. What Bell's team found was that attacking these big topics required planning so far in advance and a general approach to serve all readers, that it was difficult to do quickly and well. The email promoting these field guides proved so good that it made the main product redundant, and so while they will continue as a feature, Quartz is placing less priority on them.

Africa, as a region, provides a very specific set of issues to be solved and interests within a loyal readership. Quartz already has a newsletter dedicated for this region but will weigh up another membership that can cater to this coverage without all the bells and whistles associated with the main membership.

Audio continues to be a point of fascination. Bell says that much of what makes her team excel at newsletters - supporting curiosities and personal relationships - should make podcasts a natural fit. It has an Obsessions podcast due for release later this month.

That will be a 20-minute episode hosted by Kira Bindrim in conversation with a member of the Quartz newsroom on a topic they cannot stop thinking about and how it relates to the global economy.

Finally, before Bell joined the team, Quartz used to have a news app based on chat which provided a way for reader to ask a bot for news. That has been shelved since, but she says it is in the back of their minds how to bring it back to deliver short-form learning experiences. Audio and direct messaging could make that possible in the near future.

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