When the media industry talks about innovation, said Jay Lauf, president and publisher, Quartz, discussions tend to focus on the capabilities of technology, like targeting, tracking and optimisation.
"But all too often we are neglecting the audiences, without whom we don't have businesses," he added, speaking at the Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin today (20 March).
"Focusing on those audiences and serving them beyond just the technological innovation can lead to success – that's with the golden rule, treating the audiences the way we would like to be treated ourselves."
Audiences on mobile, Lauf explained, have a much more intimate experience with the content they are viewing than those multitasking on desktops who are more likely to get distracted.
"There is an opportunity for us, and for advertisers, to engage this audience more deeply than ever," he said.
"But conversely, because of the intensity and the personal nature of these devices, there is a more dangerous opportunity to repel, annoy and push them away – and I think that's often what's happening in this ecosystem."
Lauf doesn't believe bad advertising is the issue, but rather the way in which these bad advertising experiences are presented to readers, "putting up a wall in front of the content they came for".
The publisher has seen its mobile audience grow from 40 per cent of the total at the time of its launch in September 2012 to 70 per cent at present, said Lauf, adding that Quartz has also doubled its revenue every year.
The organisation has taken several measures to ensure the quality of the user experience is at the core of its strategy.
Firstly, the publisher studies their existing and target audience annually with a Global Executives Study, which, this year, documents the media habits of 1,357 executives from around the world.
The team subsequently found out a range of information, from where the audience gets news to why they share content and how they feel about advertising.
"For example, one of the things we discovered is that global business professionals are drawn in and engaged by highly visual content, things like data visualisations, charts or photographs, so when we create our journalism or ad products, we provide content in these ways," he said.
But the publisher also believes the design of its site is as critical as the content it produces.
With this in mind, the team makes sure everything renders and loads well on mobile devices. Quartz also stays out of the user's way by not adding pre-roll or pop-up advertising that forces the reader to consume it, or confusing on-site clickbait advertising to other stories that are unrelated to the article.
"We create traffic in better, more valuable advertising that is additive to the experience, that is entertaining, that makes them smarter, that they will engage with more," he said.
"When audiences engage with advertisements, that increases the demand, so you're serving the audience better first, which serves the advertisers better, which then serves us better because we can charge a price that allows us to make a sustainable living."
Noting its audience's regular use of chat apps, Quartz also launched a smartphone app last year, which interacts with users "as a smart, witty friend, that texts you back and forth the news" – an experience designed not to pummel the user with advertising.
"Advertisers are invited to jump in at the end of the conversation with the same text interface as the editorial, and a user can choose to ignore it or not," Lauf said.
"This has been highly successful for us, we are able to charge premium prices for this – we are sold out for the third quarter this year already."
Quartz's email newsletter is also easy to read without the interruption of pop-up or large adverts, and now has 350,000 subscribers and an open rate higher than 40 per cent.
"The advertising is embedded as part of the experience," he said, noting that the newsletter is a product of its own, generating 7 figures in revenue every year.
"We didn't want more of the same email newsletters that were simply marketing vehicles to drive you back to the site they came from – scrolls of headlines you could have discovered going to the site yourself.
"We wanted it to be a product by itself. It makes you smarter and gives you a round-up of what happened when you were sleeping, and links out to other sources, including competitors."
Ensuring that adverts are engaging, valuable and not annoying to users has meant that Quartz's click-through rate on advertising has been consistently four-times that of the industry average, said Lauf, and its video completion rate on advertising is 42 per cent higher than average.
"We make big decisions with our gut and small decision with data," he said.
"We use our own human intuition to suss out what we think are going to be highly engaging, interesting, entertaining, smart user experiences across all of the different product lines that Quartz provides."
Free daily newsletter
- Ben Spencer, science editor, The Sunday Times, on the future of climate journalism
- RISJ trust report: redefine your public image or bad actors will do it for you
- How to build a music blog from scratch
- How charities can help you find real-life case studies
- Facebook ban on news in Australia: "It caught us completely off guard"