Upscale Quartz skips banners, goes mobile first

This is rather interesting. David Bradley, chief of Atlantic Media (which publishes The Atlantic), has launched a new elite business publication that is already challenging The Economist. In September Quartz, available only online at qz.com, booted up with 20 writers; in October it surpassed 850,000 unique visitors, already matching 10% of the global traffic over at The Economist.

Behind the visitor growth are two amazing feats — Quartz accepts no standard display banner advertising, and it is not designed like typical web sites. Quartz is one of the emerging digital publications built first for tablets and smartphones, using a tile aesthetic that is more intuitive for pudgy fingers than mouse clicks. Quartz, as a digital-only beast, is of course keenly interested in marketing dollars, but ads are eschewed in favor of so-called sponsored content — paid advertorials that, while clearly marked as such, run in the same format as the news articles. For example, in the most recent edition of Quartz, Boeing is featured with this advertorial:

A better view on efficiency

Imagine cutting your vehicle’s fuel consumption by 20% and upgrading its interior to an unprecedented degree. If you’re Boeing, you don’t have to imagine. Their new 787 Dreamliner has done just that, exceeding the expectations of both engineers and passengers alike…

As with all advertorial copy, the story reads with whiffs of ecstatic silliness and awkward prose (advertorial writers tend to sound as if they are walking backward, and are always surprised that the product they are writing about has “exceeded expectations” of some sort). But at the same time, the sponsored content is compelling, breaks out of the clutter, and is clearly labeled as such so in no way tricks the savvier reader who just wants to consume pure editorial.

With Quartz, Bradley is betting big that standard banner formats aren’t the best way to monetize digital in mobile, especially on the small iPhones and Droid tablets loved by upscale business travelers. When space is small, advertisers have to be more clever about how they fit in. David Carr at NYT reports the strategy may work: Atlantic Media, after years of fighting the deadly decline of print, has refocused on digital content to double revenues from $20 million to $40 million in the past four years and now is back in the black.

And Quartz has one more secret weapon: Unlike The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, it has no paywall or subscription fees — presumably because it can float on the hefty premiums from its advertorial. Open systems flourish, and in a world of social media where users like to share content freely, open systems also tend to get lots of monthly unique visitors.

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