By Marcia Riefer Johnston published February 22, 2018

How to Grow Your Audience From Zero to Millions in Less Than 5 Years

grow-audience-from-zero-to-millions

You’ve just been hired. Your boss comes to you and says, “We want millions of people regularly viewing our content within the next five years. Go.”

You make it happen.

Riiiiight.

Well, Jay Lauf, co-president and publisher of Quartz, made this happen with his team. He told the story of how they did it in his Content Marketing World talk, Deconstructing Quartz (QZ.com): How One of the Most Popular Mobile Destinations Grows Audience, Extends Reach in Digital, and Creates a Superior Content Experience.

If your brand is trying to build an audience for your content, you can learn from the Quartz team’s experience. Think of your content team as a media company within your company.

What is Quartz?

A news company owned by Atlantic Media, Quartz launched in September 2012 with the website qz.com. The founding team members came from news organizations, including Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The New York Times. These folks create content people want.

Also contributing to Quartz’s audience-building success:

  • The company continually grows its content team – 150 journalists on five continents.
  • The content is all digital.
  • The content is designed first for tablets and phones.
  • After establishing a following on its website, Quartz added ways to distribute its stories: an email newsletter, an app, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube).
  • The content lends itself to aggregation by news platforms, such as Apple News, Flipboard, and Google Newsstand thanks to the versatility and insight of the reporting as well as the design of Quartz’s products.
  • The content includes several video series.

quartz-video-series

Rapid growth

While it’s impossible to pinpoint the number of people who regularly consume Quartz news via all these channels, Jay estimates the company accrued 100 million regular viewers in its first four and a half years.

To give you a sense of the magnitude of that reach, here are some metrics as of January 2018 – five and a half years after the company got its start:

  • 20 million visitors to qz.com
  • 700,000 subscribers to the Quartz newsletters
  • 800,000 downloads since February 2016 app launch
  • 5 million readers through news aggregation platforms
  • 3 million followers on social media
  • 155 million unique people watching Quartz videos on Facebook

More important than how many people they reach is whom they reach, Jay says. The audience is business decision-makers. “We’re at parity with all the bellwethers – The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Economist, Bloomberg, Fortune, Forbes – but with a younger audience: median age around 40 and majority female. We’re attracting the right kind of audience for what we’re trying to do both journalistically and as a business.”

To what does Jay attribute this kind of success? What did Quartz do that the rest of us might want to copy?

For starters, it tells stories that people “freaking love,” as expressed in comments like this tweet (raving about how the random motions of a lava lamp can be used to encrypt digital data and other things you never realized you wanted to know about lava lamps):

quartz-tweet

How many exclamation-point-packed tweets does your content get?

How many exclamation-point-packed tweets does your #content get? @MarciaRJohnston Click To Tweet

There’s so much to say about the quality of Quartz content that I’m working on another post on that topic alone – stay tuned!

Meanwhile, here are some other tips from Jay, which the rest of this post details:

  • Design with your audience in mind.
  • Find your sweet spots for content length.
  • Use third-party platforms to your advantage (but don’t depend on them).
  • Make big decisions with your gut, small decisions with data.

Design with your audience in mind

Since Quartz researchers found that executives throughout the world (its audience) consume news more on phones than on desktops, Quartz designs for mobile devices first and desktop second. “These are deeply intimate devices on which people are now consuming content, so there’s a great opportunity to engage them,” Jay says.

Design for #mobile devices first and desktop second, says @jlauf of @qz. Click To Tweet

quartz-mobile-content

Because Quartz launched in “the age of acceleration,” Jay says, quoting Thomas Friedman, it owes some of its success to being “unshackled” from a lot of the considerations traditional publishers have had. “A lot of publishers have to wrestle with how to port their print content into a digital environment, never mind trying to figure out how to take the desktop expression of what you’ve done and fit that into a mobile environment. We had the luxury of starting from scratch,” Jay says.

He goes on to say that mobile is “scary to a lot of people because (they) don’t know how to port what we’ve been doing on other platforms into this smaller, more intimate screen.” Still, he says, the opportunity – if we embrace it and think deeply with the human element – is tremendous.

Find your sweet spots for content length

For Quartz readers, content needs to be either long or short – a classic smile curve. On the y-axis is traffic or impact, such as the number of people who have read a piece, tweeted it, or otherwise indicated that they found it engaging. On the x-axis is the length of the piece.

quartz-content-length

Quartz publishes content on either side of that curve – “not in that middle trough” like the 500- to 800-word articles that news operations have cranked out as the common unit of production for over a century and that often die on the social web.

Go long or short - avoid medium length #content, says @jlauf of @qz. Click To Tweet

Average-length content typically does nothing distinctive. As Jay says, “It is not rewarded with the thing we’re all after with content marketing, which is word-of-mouth writ large, the attempt to share and engage with that content in a meaningful way.”

Quartz goes left or right on the curve. “That’s where the content sings,” Jay says.

  • On the left side of the curve (short length), Jay says, “you skip the throat-clearing and paragraphs of setup and all that nonsense.” You use images – for example, infographics – to convey a lot of information quickly. “Get in and get out. Make somebody smart quickly. They’ll reward you for that. They’ll share that.”
  • On the right side of the curve (long form), content is the most likely shared by the executive audience, Jay says. “Charts and data are number two, but, by a wide margin, our readers value – and share – long-form pieces that give them deep insight into something while also telling a narrative story. These people read 10,000-word New Yorker stories on their phones.”
Long form #content is most likely shared by the executive audience, says @jlauf of @qz. Click To Tweet

Naturally, in-depth pieces take time to develop. If a writer sends Quartz an 800-word piece, the editors may kick it back and say, ‘Why don’t you spend another couple of weeks – or months – on this piece and say something definitive?”

When’s the last time your company insisted that a writer spend another couple of months on a piece of content?

Of course, your audiences’ sweet spots for content length may not line up with the sweet spots for Quartz readers. Sow your research and see what you discover.

Use third-party platforms to your advantage (but don’t depend on them)

Quartz has learned to go where its audience is.

Zach Seward, one of the co-founders of Quartz, early on thought about Quartz as an API (application programming interface). “Quartz can go anywhere our readers are, in whatever form is appropriate,” he says.

In fact, news stories are blobs of content that can live on any platform – wherever the target readers can be found. “We’re not precious about trying to pull you back to qz.com,” Jay says. “We’ve embraced from the beginning that our users are going to be out there in the ecosystem and in the world, so we go out and try to be in those places.”

In the beginning, out of necessity, Quartz launched with a website, qz.com, and a daily newsletter. Today the product portfolio looks like this:

quartz-website

Today, Quartz has many elements in its network:

  • Atlas, a platform for building and sharing charts
  • Regional editions in India and Africa
  • Email newsletters
  • Quartz app
  • Amazon Echo (so people can use Quartz as a morning news briefing with Alexa)
  • Other platforms, such as Flipboard, Apple News, Pocket

While Jay understands that some marketers feel a need to keep people on their owned channels, these other channels can serve as on-ramps to the brand. “Millions of people are on those platforms, so I encourage you – in whatever capacity fits your business – to think beyond your owned channels. I know that’s hard sometimes when you’ve got people you’re answering to who are fixated on that. But try to get them comfortable with the fact that marketers need to go with where the readers are.”

Think beyond your owned channels - marketers need to go where the readers are, says @jlauf of @qz. Click To Tweet

For example, in 2016 Quartz published a series of videos to Facebook, doubling the number of Facebook followers and driving people to qz.com.

Jay’s takeaway: Use third-party platforms to your advantage, “but don’t overoptimize and become dependent on a single one.”

Make big decisions with your gut, small decisions with data

“Quartz” has become an adjective or a verb. People have said to Jay, “OK, I want to Quartzify this” or “That’s very Quartzy.” The Quartz tone, design approach, subject matter, and story angles are that distinctive.

How did it achieve this distinctiveness? “We make big decisions with our gut,” Jay says, “and little decisions with data.”

People on the content team use their intuition to create stories they think their audience will find engaging, interesting, and unique. “We’re writing for humans,” says Co-President and Editor-in-Chief Kevin Delaney. “If all you’re doing is optimizing for algorithms and robots, you lose the magic.”

If all you're doing is optimizing #content for algorithms & robots, you lose the magic. @delaney @qz. Click To Tweet

Intuition also inspired the company to launch the app last year that does something that other news apps weren’t doing: It makes news stories literally engaging. You must interact with the interface to get from one story to the next. The stories float up from the bottom of the screen in chat-style bubbles sprinkled with gifs, emojis, and quizzes.

Here’s a screenshot I took while writing this post:

intution-app

Which blue button would you click here: Next? Or the banana button?

Seriously. A banana button. In a news app. News = grimness. Bananas = things people slip on in cartoons.

“All of that was intuition,” Jay says. “We didn’t grind the science on that.”

But the Quartz team doesn’t go by gut alone. After it published the app, the team “got really interested in the data,” Jay says. “Were people downloading it? What were the interaction rates like? What were the open rates like? Were people spending time with it? All of that reinforced that, yeah, wow, we’ve created something special.”

Conclusion

What would your boss say if you grew your audience by millions of people in the next five years? You could do worse than mimic what worked for the news team at Quartz:

  • Design with your audience in mind.
  • Find your sweet spots for content length.
  • Use third-party platforms to your advantage.
  • Make big decisions with your gut, small decisions with data.

Has your team done some of these things? What has worked for you?

Here’s an excerpt from Jay’s talk:

Learn firsthand how companies are successfully growing their audiences at Content Marketing World Sept. 4-7 in Cleveland. Register today and use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

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  • http://www.vinishgarg.com/ Vinish Garg

    “Because Quartz launched in “the age of acceleration…” as you say, Marcia.
    Timing was so critical for Quartz as the same model may not work as effectively, today.

    Thanks for sharing this post!

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Good point, Vinish. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  • Seph

    Really good read but this seems like it’s more about product marketing than content marketing. In the case of Quartz, isn’t the content and product synonymous? I realize that all the normal content marketing guidelines apply — compelling content delivered how consumers want it — but there seems to be a slight disconnect. Sure, I get that content marketers should think like media companies but what we’re talking about here is an actual media company. There’s a difference.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Seph, You’ve touched on something I’d be interested to hear people’s takes on, too. Following a media-company model doesn’t always map exactly onto BEING a media company. “Acting like” a media company can look all kinds of ways. Who out there would like to take a crack at this point? Don’t be shy!