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Future of Media Media Quartz

Quartz explains how it doubled subscriber numbers in a year


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

September 1, 2020 | 6 min read

Quartz recently breached 21,000 paying members, almost doubling its subscriber base in less than a year. Katie Weber, president of Quartz, explains how the publisher has been growing its paid proposition at an accelerated rate during a pandemic.


Katie Weber, president of Quartz, on the publisher's subscription growth.

Katie Weber, president of publisher Quartz, has overseen a considerable increase in its base of paying subscribers. It recently reached 21,000 paying members, up from 11,000 in November 2019.

In March and April, subscription growth rate at Quartz was almost up by a quarter year-on-year by focusing first on its ‘Need to Know’ coronavirus email newsletter. Later content cornerstones reimagined the office, mental health’s turning point and the commuting revolution.

The membership product got fatter, offering access to its content, newsletters, ‘weekly field guides’ or deep dives, and access to digital events, workshops and presentations.

Membership wasn‘t always on the cards though. Founded in 2012, Quartz moved content behind a metred paywall in 2018. Times had changed. At first, those who read around 10 articles a month were pitched the $100 a year membership to access more, premium content behind the scenes. People can read for three based upon their assumed propensity to subscribe.

At the time, Quartz‘s membership pitch read: “In a world often filled with noise over news, we believe our mission is more important than ever. Today we are asking those of you who value this mission help us continue to invest in what you’ve come to love about Quartz.” Around that time, the publisher was snapped up by Japanese intelligence firm Uzabase for between $75m and $110m.

Over the last few years, Quartz has tailored itself towards the “progressive young professional executive.” She says more than a third are in the C-suite and they are “looking for guidance as they shape and build their businesses for the future”. More than half are outside the US.

“Our readers come to Quartz because they want something that’s global in perspective, useful in their work and aligned with their values.”

And that‘s reflected in a newsroom that has its quirks. It is built around ‘obsessions‘ rather than newsbeats, she says: “We’re focused on how and why the world is changing, and the challenges and opportunities that come with every major shift in technology, society, and the economy”.

But as far as growing a membership goes, the newsletters are “consistently the top referral” for subscribers.

“Our email subscribers are by far our most loyal readers and most likely to sign up for membership, and so we are focused on growing that subscriber base.”

But email alone isn’t enough. Virtual workshops focusing on themes like remote working have hit heights of 1,000 attendees. Weber suggests they are a new way to deepen the relationship and offer more to members. “These are a great entry point into building a relationship with Quartz and offer attendees actionable takeaways.“

Weber was unable to share specific growth targets but outlined that it will “focus on managing the growth of membership right alongside advertising”. Its ad product was built around large, bespoke ad units, that house high-end brands who expect high-end audiences.

It hasn‘t quite performed to the level the team would have liked due to a slump in that particular market. As a result, about 80 roles were made redundant at Quartz earlier this year and the business has had to reposition itself. Weber said: “We are doubling down on our core strengths – providing a global perspective, actionable ideas, and distinctive coverage within obsessions.

“Every month we are learning more every month about what’s working, and investing more in those things.”

But the competition for the consumer purse is fierce. Ignoring the fact that news subs are weighed against entertainment subs like Netflix, it looks like those topping the premium market with a scale to match like the The New York Times (NYT) and Wall Street Journal (WSJ) are simply swallowing a lot of the available spend.

For a smaller, quality title like Quartz, to make gains it has to “focus on really, deeply understanding the audience, what their needs are and where they might be underserved by other publications.

“We’re still learning a lot but keeping that reader and those needs in mind allows us to sharpen the editorial output and improve how we market membership.”

But the Quartz team doesn‘t have a huge memberships and retentions team to match the top players. Everyone in the organisation has to pitch in to optimise its customer journey.

“We’ve learned that the work of growing a subscription business is incredibly cross-functional, requiring alignment and collaboration between nearly every team at Quartz – from product, analytics and engineering to editorial and marketing. We’ve always believed in a strongly defined audience that is loyal to the brand, and that’s the lens through which we look at membership. This focus has served us well with advertisers as well.”

This year, some of its most read include ‘Gen Z consumers are making companies bend to their will‘, ‘B corporations are pushing to change the way the world works‘, and a downloadable presentation on ‘How to add purpose to your productivity routine‘. All are clearly centred around the minds and desires of today‘s young professionals.

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