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April 30, 2017

What Are They Thinking: Quartz Redesign Lays Out a New Home Page ‘Welcome Mat’

Companion article: What a Quartz Sale Might Look Like — and Why

 

 

Reports of the death of the home page seem, these days, to have been premature.

Take the example of serial innovator Quartz, the feisty business news site that launched in September, 2012 —and one now reportedly tempting to would-be buyers.

Out of the box, I noted Quartz as a news site that believed it could leave the past behind. At launch, it decided not to sell smaller digital display ads, and emphasized then-newish native and big “engagement units.” Further, it believed the home page was like a little toe, a vestige of another era.

This week, Quartz released a redesign for its 15 million global unique visitors. Front and center: A new home page.

 

First published at Politico Media

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“We want to turn more people into habitual readers,” Jay Lauf, Quartz’s co-president and business head, explained to me on Thursday. Lauf said the target audiences for the new home page emphasis are twofold. First, those who already like Quartz. For them, the new home page — emphasizing what the site does best — is a “reward.” Then, there are the legions brought in by social, search and Apple News, which Quartz is testing. For that new reader, it’s all about making the breadth of Quartz discovery easier.

Ninety percent of Quartz’s traffic lands on something other than the home page. However, Quartz’s most engaged readers — those that read its daily newsletter and make numerous repeat visits — use the home page most, said Zach Seward. Further, those most engaged readers consume many more pages than the average visitor.

Browsing, plain old browsing, still offers lots of value for those who do want destinations on the web where they can land and see what the news brands they trust offer every day. That’s a lesson worth recalling, even in an era of so much sideways traffic.

In fact, as we approach 2016, we’re now in a profound both–and stage of digital publishing. Sideways traffic, drawn by social and search links, and other-platform traffic (Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Snapchat Discover) all offer unprecedented new ways to reach new audiences, largely for free. Yet, destination sites aren’t going away. It is the mix of the two that’s been the question over the next several years. Home page focus may seem like a throwback, but it’s not. Quartz’s experience echoes in what we see on renewed home pages from the New York Times to the Guardian this year.

Seward is Quartz’s VP of product and executive editor. In his post, he calls the new design “a welcome mat,” that new home page that now looks fairly similar across smartphone, tablet and desktop.

“The revamped homepage reflects the breadth of our coverage and the many forms that Quartz now takes at three years old: news stories, features, videos, emails, charts, obsessions, events, podcasts, social media, messaging, and more.”

I like the new smartphone design. As a frequent Quartz reader, the old redesign, circa August, 2014, gave prominent space to Quartz editors’ briefing of the news, curating other publishers’ best content. That seemed confusing to me. I know what’s generally happening. What I wanted, front and center, is Quartz’s often contrarian take on money-driven news. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.

“What we found, and the data shows this pretty clearly, that doing [the briefing] didn’t really have an effect on the things you look to, like repeat usage specifically looking for the brief,” says Seward. “The most people coming to our homepage were doing so for our stories.” That’s a fundamental learning, and one that journalists should appreciate. Original reporting sells.

Quartz’s aim in the home page redo isn’t simply to be more reader-friendly. It’s more ad-friendly. Now topping the home pages: a “marquee” position. Advertisers pay more for a new space at the top of the page; Rolex occupied that position Thursday.

Perhaps most essential to the redesign: Ad placements. As a free site, Quartz depends on that business for the great majority of its revenue, with sponsored events growing as a second revenue source.

“We wanted to create opportunity for advertisers to have a greater impact on the home page,” says Jay Lauf.

So, at the top of the new home page, and tops of some article pages, the Marquee unit is a new sell. Further down the page, Quartz offers its larger “Engage” units and “Bulletins.” Those units seem to take up lots of space, even on my iPhone 6 Plus, and can be hard to scroll past; I suppose that’s the point.

More than 40% of Quartz’s audience is non-U.S., a percentage that’s hung steady even as it the site has grown much over the last couple of years. In fact, India, home to Quartz India, often ranks as the second largest audience, after the U.S.

Publishers can take an extra three key points from Quartz’s new look.

First, it’s worth considering the value of briefing, as briefings have been a popular play of the year in news media. Quartz’s daily briefing is now gone from the smartphone and tablet products (and available in sampling form on the desktop).

Yet, it lives strongly on. On what platform, then? E-mail. That oldest of “platforms” is the perfect place for the daily Qz.com briefing, delivered once a day, but around the clock in the mornings of North America, Asia and EMEA. Seward says Quartz can now count 170,000 briefing subscribers to the free product, with an average open rate of 40%. That creates the kind of core readership Quartz needs in the next stage of its business, and increasingly large definable audience for its top-drawer advertisers. Quartz loyalists like the email delivery.

Second, simply enough: Feature what makes you unique. The new design does that.

Third, begin to provide more judgment and hierarchy for readers, even on the tiny smartphone screen. Quartz has been a leader in chart creation (Atlas and more). The new home page provides a better display of visuals, and of importance. The New York Times still looks to me the leader in this arena, but Quartz’s new design offers a big advance.

Seward makes the point that the new home page is meant to deal with complexity of story and story form that has grown as the three-and-a-half-year-old site has matured. When the Atlantic Media-owned site finished its last redesign 16 months ago, its staff numbered only about half of today’s 150. That’s a lot more content. In addition, its India site had only just launched; it then added Quartz Africa this year.

Complexity grew. And redesign, in its intent at Quartz and elsewhere, becomes the never-ending quest to turn increasing complexity into simplicity for us, the easily overwhelmed readers.

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