Lessons Learned from the Quartz Email Team

An interview with Eva ScazzeroJessanne Collins, and Adam Pasick of Quartz.

Including an awesome range of elements (animated GIFs, infographics, videos, and embedded surveys and quizzes), Quartz delivers some of the most engaging and interactive newsletters we’ve ever seen. Design-wise, they’re clean and consistent. Content-wise, they’re smart, relevant, and well-written. And the topics of their Obsession emails are random and nerdy enough to give you a killer edge at trivia night.

Gamifying their newsletter has yielded tremendous results: growing to 700,000 subscribers, they doubled the size of their subscriber base in 2017. ….

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If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a Slack bot for journalists

Quartz got some money from Knight last year to launch its own Bot Studio, building interactive tools/chat interfaces/general bot substrate for both itself and other newsrooms. (More here and here.) Today, Quartz announces the latest fruit of that effort — a Slack bot named Quackbot, built in collaboration with DocumentCloud:

Together we’re releasing Quackbot, which performs tasks useful to reporters, editors, and news producers right where so many of us work all day — inside Slack. In its first version, Quackbot can do a select few tricks that might prove handy in a modern newsroom…But we’re excited to collaborate with the rest of the journalism world to give Quackbot many more skills over time. Think of it as a fully hosted and friendly interface to open-source tools…

Journalist-programmers are an especially sharing lot. Sure, they’ll work night and day to scoop each other, but once the story’s published they’re happy to share how they did it — even sharing the tools they built. As a result, there are many dozens of useful tools available to programmers in newsrooms everywhere.

But there’s a catch: Not every newsroom has programmers. And even existing programmers might not have the time, skills, or resources to get a project’s code, put it on a server, and keep it working.

It’s in an early state, but a few of those launch features might still be useful to you:

1. It can take a screenshot of any webpage.

2. It will preserve any URL by telling the Internet Archive to save a copy of the page.

3. Given a topic, it can suggest some reliable sources of data.

4. If you provide Quackbot with a URL, it will identify any cringe-worthy clichés on that page.

Soon, Quackbot will also allow journalists to upload PDFs to DocumentCloud, extract text and charts from PDFs, monitor websites for changes, make quick charts, and more. We’re also inviting other journalists to bring their tools into Quackbot, making them readily available within Slack.

Once it achieves anatine maturity, “Quackbot will become a core feature of DocumentCloud, which will maintain the infrastructure and provide troubleshooting and support.”

The bot itself will be available for install this Thursday (such teases), and you can bug John Keefe about it at ONA.

Quartz made a chatbot for Hewlett Packard

Publishers increasingly offer agency services, and Quartz has gone beyond making ads to constructing a chatbot for Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Named Hugo, the chatbot was incorporated into the branded-content series “Machines with Brains,” focused on how humans, technology and artificial intelligence intersect. Those who clicked through to the bot on their phones could learn more about the stories’ topics covered in the series and how HPE creates technology related to the series.

As seen in the video below, users can select topics like “artificial intelligence,” “cloud computing” and “Internet of Things.” Over a period of six weeks, 117,155 messages were served (after users selected topics) and users spent an average of two minutes with the bot, according to the publisher. Now the bot’s distribution has been widened to include Facebook Messenger, where it will roll out in the next few weeks. Quartz will also run retargeting to encourage return users.

The bot has also evolved to mine relevant articles across the web, not just Quartz and HPE content. The topics have widened to include energy, health care and communications. Users can now also type specific questions, a function that wasn’t on the first version. The bot’s new features are already accessible via Quartz’s U.S. app and will be available in Europe at the start of November. Quartz worked with HPE agency DigitasLBi on the effort.

“There is a lot of wasted time and effort in the current [marketing funnel] structure,” said Sean Mahoney, vp group director at DigitasLBi. “The challenge we gave to Quartz was how do you target the right people, not in a shotgun-blast way but in a way that’s conversational and useful.”

Quartz Creative had 12 people working on the bot, including developers, designers, user-experience specialists and analytics staff. “The process of creating value used to be to create the shiniest objects possible. The new model is to create something that might generate real value,” said Brian Dell, director of Quartz Creative.

For Quartz, bots are another way to differentiate from run-of-the-mill ads, said Jay Lauf, publisher and president of Quartz.

“Advertisers benefit because people spend more time with their messaging,” he said, “and from that, advertisers can learn more about their audiences because they’re explicitly expressing what they’re interested in, so that helps marketers deliver smarter, more relevant experiences.”

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Quartz adds augmented reality models to its news reports

Quartz is known for its news app that delivers the day’s events in short conversational pieces, allowing readers to dive into more detail if they want or move on to the next story. It’s structured like a text conversation with a friend, parceling out each piece of information in message bubbles and aping the format of the chat bots that were all the rage this time last year. Now it’s incorporating another tech trend into its app — augmented reality.

Apple’s been hyping its iOS 11 AR capabilities since it unveiled its software developer kit ARKit at the Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this year. And now that iOS 11 has rolled out to all users with compatible devices, users are starting to see AR pop up in various places, such as Major League Baseball’s At Bat and Fifth Star Lab’s Sky Guide. Quartz has also taken the opportunity to incorporate some lightweight AR into its app, first with a 3D rendering of the Cassini probe that recently entered an early, permanent retirement on Saturn.

“We currently illustrate our news stories with not only images and videos, but also emoji and animated GIFs,” said John Keefe, Quartz’s product manager, in a phone call with VentureBeat. “We decided that it would also be cool to incorporate 3D news objects into it. Since Apple made it pretty easy for us, we got to it right away. We have a developer on staff who started playing with it.”

Keefe says the Quartz team has been working on the AR feature for a few weeks now, and the main issue they’ve encountered is actually finding the 3D models to begin with. They’ve found marketplaces where people create 3D models for others to buy or download, and they’ve experimented with using their own scanning device. Their Cassini model came from NASA, which Keefe says has a number of models available.

Finding the models is only the first step. Keefe says that they want the models to be as realistic as possible, so lighting is often a consideration. He says that ARKit does take care of some of the work, but they still have to make adjustments, such as how reflective certain surfaces are.

“You’ll look at something and be like, hey, that’s not supposed to be shiny, or it is supposed to be shiny,” said Keefe. “That’s usually what we’re trying to adjust. As more and more people are making these 3D models, however they make them, it’s going to get easier to incorporate them.”

Keefe says that they’re aiming to always have at least one AR story in the app, but of course, that depends on what’s happening in the news at any given time. The benefit for readers, he says, is that it gives them a new way of experiencing the news.

“One of the neat things about the Cassini model to me is I never really had a sense of how big Cassini was,” said Keefe. “You see pictures of it and animations that are usually with Saturn in the background, but you have no clue. Is this the size of a building, a car, a lunch box? It turns out that with AR you can put it in your living room and be like, OK, now I get a sense of the size of it.”

Right now, the interaction with the 3D models is limited to simply walking around them or resizing them, but Keefe says that the team is working on adding other features. They don’t expect users to spend a lot of time with the AR feature, since their whole model is to deliver bite-sized bits of information that can be quickly digested. That being said, Keefe said that they’ve received requests from users for an AR gallery so that they can revisit past models, and that’s something they’re looking into.

In the past, other news publications have tackled new tech, such as The New York Times‘ use of virtual reality and 360-degree experiences. Keefe says that they’re at an advantage with AR because it’s a lot less labor than creating VR experiences, which he likens to creating a documentary.

“With AR, we have the benefit of taking advantage of the world that’s actually around you,” said Keefe. “We don’t have to re-create your world, which saves us a lot of work. And then we can add to that. That’s the augmented reality part. The additive concept is just an easier lift to begin with. It allows us to get a bit more experimental and playful.”

How Quartz achieved a 90 percent renewal rate for branded content

Publishers’ branded-content campaigns have painfully low renewal rates. One way Quartz has managed to buck that trend is by giving technology insights and research to agencies and brands.

To formalize this approach, Quartz launched the Quartz Innovation Lab in January, where creative staffers spend a certain portion of their time working on projects like this about every six weeks.

The results have helped the creative services team, Quartz Creative, build deeper relationships with existing clients including HPE, sometimes leading to projects that didn’t involve any of Quartz’s media or its owned and operated properties. The Lab is part of an approach to help brands and agencies that’s led to a renewal rate of 90 percent for branded content, nearly three times higher than the industry average, per MediaRadar data. Since Quartz launched five years ago, it has executed over 540 campaigns for more than 150 brands, according to a company spokesperson.

“Content isn’t the thing that advertisers need every single time,” said Joy Robins, Quartz’s svp of global revenue and strategy. “When an agency is looking for something ownable, really specific to a larger theme or brand challenge, we start that.”

It also helps being open to clients’ suggestions. For example, Quartz overhauled the Quartz Index, a product that sprang out of a request for proposal from the financial services firm Blackrock, when Blackrock wanted to renew that product.

But broadly, Quartz is getting its high renewal rate by helping agencies and brands stay on top of technological advances. That can mean doing more than branded content, such as building a chatbot, called Hugo, for HPE.

Competition for branded-content budgets has never been more competitive. The number of publishers offering branded content swelled from 15 in 2013 to more than 600 last year, according to MediaRadar. That buyer’s market has helped keep renewal rates for branded-content programs down around 33 percent last year, according to MediaRadar.

Quartz focuses its research projects, which it calls sprints, on topics it expects clients will be interested in, or that already interests an agency it’s worked with before. Helping those agencies, which brands typically hire to help them think about emerging platforms, businesses or technologies, helps Quartz get to the table first, said Zazie Lucke, Quartz’s vp of marketing.

Over time, the expectation is that these research projects will lead Quartz to strike more retainer-like relationships with brands or agencies, as sophisticated publishers’ content studios are seeking to make revenue flow more consistent.

Robins said Quartz isn’t trying to become a full-service agency, though, because it sees its research and tools as a benefit to agencies.

Jeff Malmad, a managing director at Mindshare North America who worked with Quartz on a panel presentation at CES that came from an Innovation Lab, said that while he keeps numerous publishers close at hand when thinking about branded-content programs for his clients, few third parties deliver actionable information like Innovation Lab’s insights. Asked how many publishers or brands deliver insights that actually go directly into work for clients, Malmad said, “They’re few and far between.”

The post How Quartz achieved a 90 percent renewal rate for branded content appeared first on Digiday.

Facebook faces increased publisher resistance to Instant Articles

Facebook’s Instant Article push is in danger of fizzling.

Many publishers are deeply unhappy  with the monetization on these pages, with major partners like The New York Times throwing in the towel and many others cutting back the amount of content pushed to the IA platform. In response, Facebook is making concessions to publishers, including new subscription options, in a rare show of weakness for the platform juggernaut.

The Times is among an elite group of publishers that’s regularly tapped by Facebook to launch new products, and as such, it was one of the first batch of publishers to pilot Instant. But it stopped using Instant Articles after a test last fall that found that links back to the Times’ own site monetized better than Instant Articles, said Kinsey Wilson, evp of product and technology at the Times. People were also more likely to subscribe to the Times if they came directly to the site rather than through Facebook, he said. Thus, for the Times, IA simply isn’t worth it. Even a Facebook-dependent publisher like LittleThings, which depends on Facebook for 80 percent of its visitors, is only pushing 20 percent of its content to IA.

Enthusiasm has cooled elsewhere. It’s an about-face from two years ago, when publishers were champing at the bit to join the party. “It’s just a matter of time,” Hearst Digital president Troy Young said at the time. Cosmopolitan was the first Hearst brand to launch, in October that year. Now, Hearst is absent from the program, having determined the monetization isn’t paying off. Hearst declined to comment on the record.

Business news sites Forbes and Quartz are also absent from Instant Articles. Forbes experimented with it last year but found monetization lacking, chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin recently said. “It left a lot to be desired in terms of monetization,” he said. Condé Nast’s priority is to drive readers back to its own sites, which is why its brands use Instant Articles only sparingly.

Instant Articles has been controversial since Facebook launched the fast-loading mobile articles feature in 2015 to keep users on the social platform longer. In Instant, publishers’ articles, signified with a lightning bolt, would load super fast. But many publishers say it doesn’t monetize as well as old-fashioned links that take readers back to the publisher’s own site. It’s also hard to see if there’s an engagement benefit to the program.

Facebook has been trying to be more responsive to publishers’ concerns. It’s launching call-to-action units that let publishers serve messages in Instant Articles stories inviting people to sign up for a newsletter or “like” their Facebook pages, after testing these with about 100 publishers since the beginning of the year. It’s also testing trial subscription signups and mobile app install promos within Instant Articles with The Washington Post, Bild and The Telegraph.

But in the past year, the ad market has become harder, forcing many publishers to look harder at pushing the subscription lever. And that’s an area where Facebook still falls short. Beyond the free digital subscription trial, Facebook hasn’t said it’s committed to letting publishers test paid subscription signups, much less lay out a timeline for doing so. Facebook still doesn’t have a way for publishers to paywalls to Instant Articles. Some would like to be able to regularly test how well Instant Articles are performing compared to old-fashioned links, as the Times did. (The Washington Post is running what it says is the first such test right now with Facebook.)

There are also a lot of details to be worked out when it comes to subscription signups on Instant, such as who owns the customer relationship, what data the publisher gets and how the revenue is shared, Wilson added. “The devil’s in the details.” (A Facebook rep said that for now, with the free digital trials, the publisher owns the relationship once the user signs up.)

For other publishers that aren’t heavily dependent on subscriptions as the Times is, or have lucrative direct ad sales businesses, Facebook Instant may still makes sense, though. The Washington Post is still aggressively trying to grow its subscription signups, so it’s been publishing all its articles as Instant posts because the user experience is better.

And one of Facebook’s call to action testers, Slate, gave enthusiastic testimonials about the product, saying Instant drove 41 percent of new newsletter signups, which is significant for Slate. It’s going to use the same feature for other newsletters and its app. “For us, it gives us a chance to promote other things we produce to new audiences,” said Slate senior product manager Chris Schieffer.

Publishers are still keen to demonstrate goodwill with Facebook. The Times’ experience with Instant aside, Wilson stressed that the decision to pull out isn’t necessarily irreversible.

“We haven’t closed the door on it by any means,” he said. “We’re talking to them on variety of products and found them, particularly of late, to be attentive and responsible to the issues we continue to raise. Ultimately, it’s about being able to demonstrate we can match or better the performance of links back to our site.”

The post Facebook faces increased publisher resistance to Instant Articles appeared first on Digiday.

Why we’re starting the Quartz Bot Studio

The workshop in our new headquarters. (Photo by Mark Craemer)

The shift from desktop to mobile computing over the past decade has had dramatic effects on how people consume media. But that’s nothing compared to what comes next.

Now we are seeing forms of media that are truly made for people’s phones, not just adapted from the web or television or print. And not just on phones: Media have spread to an array of internet-connected devices for the home, car, and other personal spaces. These are taking the form of messaging applications, voice interfaces, smart gadgets, and other technologies that personalize your experience based on context. Rather than mobile-first, the buzzword of the era just passed, the next big media platforms are more aptly described as mobile-native.

Some of these platforms are already huge: messaging apps such as Slack, Skype, WeChat, Kik, and Facebook Messenger; and digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant. Others are still nascent but likely to rise in popularity over the next several years.

At the heart of this new era are two broad fields: bots and artificial intelligence. Bots are software you can talk to, either through text input or voice. They fit neatly into these new media platforms because, without a graphical interface to click or tap on, the only way to control them is often through conversation. And chatting with a bot — even in a stilted fashion— requires a level of smarts that has come to be known as AI. That includes more specific fields such as natural language processing (to understand human input), machine learning (to personalize based on user behavior), and information processing (to glean insights from large data sets).

Anyone intending to create media in this environment needs to understand all of these areas. That’s why we’re launching the Quartz Bot Studio, with the support of Knight Foundation. The studio will experiment with applications of bots, AI, and related technologies for journalism on new platforms. And we’ll share what we learn with everyone.

The studio builds on work we have been doing this year at Quartz. Our app, released for iOS in February and Android very soon, presents the news in a conversational interface, as though the user is texting with Quartz. We have also built bots to improve the experience of attending our events, display ambient information in our office, and automate many internal systems.

There is much more to do. With Knight’s support, we intend to build automated tools for journalists and applications for voice and messaging interfaces. We’ll experiment with how various forms of AI, increasingly available through services from major technology companies, can augment those experiences. And we’ll try to improve the tricky work of reporting and writing for these new kinds of interfaces.

To help others learn from these experiments, we’ll be public about what we’re working on and what we’re learning. We’ll open-source the code we produce with Knight’s support and find the best ways to publicize the studio’s work on the internet and in person. If you’re interested in collaborating with the Quartz Bot Studio, please reach out to us at bots@qz.com. Despite appearances, there will always be humans on the other side of that email address.

A version of this post also appears on the website of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. If you want to hear more announcements like this from Quartz, you can sign up for our product updates list here. (We’ll only send you the good stuff and won’t share you email address with third parties.)

Why we’re starting the Quartz Bot Studio was originally published in Quartz on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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