I have been reading Quartz daily emails for a couple of months now. That is amazing. I can’t remember the last email newsletter that kept me that engaged (I read the whole email daily) for that long (2 months+). Normally I would unsubscribe or set up a filter by now. But I haven’t unsubscribed from Quartz yet. And I rarely delete their emails without reading.
So what is Quartz doing right?
If you can delight people with an easy-to-use service that provides value, this will make them want to use your service again. If, upon return, that person enjoys a similarly valuable experience without experiencing much pain, it follows that that person will still want to use your service again. Follow that pattern enough times, and that person will habitually use your product until you screw it up.
Let’s pick apart the nuances of what works in the Quartz UX. Remember, this is an email newsletter. The Quartz UX is limited by email clients (Gmail, Outlook, etc.). But despite constraints, Quartz makes a number of smart user experience decisions.
I receive the Quartz email in the middle of the night (shown here at 3:02am) each day . This is smart but risky timing. Consider the context.
Assume people read their email more or less first thing in the morning. On one hand, some people are in the mode of clearing out their inboxes to start the day fresh. The Quartz email, which is non-critical, would be the first to get deleted in this mode. That is the risk of sending the email overnight. It’s easy to give up on that half-hearted resolution “I’m going to be a more informed world citizen” when you’re half-asleep in the morning and stressed out by the rest of your inbox. That is the risk.
On the other hand, the morning can be a time for catching up on missed information, and Quartz helps you do just this. And in fact, no other time of day is better for this content because 1) there are opportunities to engage vs. in the busy middle of the day 2) the content becomes less valuable over time.
Mornings have a number of moments that one can read the news - in bed half-asleep, sitting at the dining table drinking coffee, during the morning commute, or any number of moments. The email as a medium is especially good for commuters because if its content is downloaded beforehand, people can read even when they lose Internet connectivity (e.g. in an underground subway). But conceivably, afternoons and evenings also have downtime (e.g. lunch breaks or evening commutes), too, right?
However, information suffers from decay theory, which suggests that some information (like the news) is less valuable with the more time that passes. So the morning time is uniquely a good time for sending a newsletter with world news given optimal relevance. Moreover, even if you did assume that people wait until the middle of the day to check their email, then it’s likely the Quartz email has gotten buried. People will only get engaged with Quartz if a person 1) somehow still sees the email 2) is so bored / available in the middle of a work day. Those are bad odds.
At this time of day (first thing in the morning), the email would also probably be showing adjacent to a bunch of spammy offers and other unwanted things dropped into your inbox overnight. While many of us do have coworkers sending emails through the night, it’s more common for marketing emails to be the source of morning clutter. For me, a number of other automated emails happen to show up overnight. So relative to the other emails, this Quartz email stands out as high quality and worth opening. Note that this anchoring is something Quartz may not be able to control, but that doesn’t mean they can’t predict and exploit it.
Which email do you think I’ll read out of all of these?
Email subject line anchoring isn’t all that different from price anchoring, which helps people sell expensive items that simply seem relatively inexpensive when placed next to an even more expensive item (i.e. an $8 beer seems cheap relative to the $14 mixed drinks at the bar). On the other hand, if the Quartz email showed up around 11am or 2pm, I’m likely getting emails from my boss, close friends, and other highly relevant and/or important people. In that anchoring scenario, the Quartz email would seem trivial and either not get read or get deleted.
Quartz squeezes in major news about Iran, the UN, and what I guess might be China. I’m compelled to check it out.
Every day the subject line is different enough to entice me, but similar enough for me to identify it with a quick glance. Also, it manages to do all of this within the display character limit.
The full subject line
People who build products sometimes get caught up in our own feature sets, rather than the benefits delivered to end users. This leads to subject lines like “<My Company> Releases New Syncing Features!”. Or we simply are not thoughtful during this product development moment and construct subject lines such as “<My Company> Report for 01/01/2015 18:30 GMT” when the easy, lazy thing to do is just rely on simple and systematic subject lines.
If you already have a strong relationship with users or have a user base who really wants zero personality from your product (sadly, some enterprise buyers prefer this), then fine, this style of a subject line may still manage to command decent open and click-through rates. For me, this is the case for Google Calendar daily agenda emails.
However, Quartz is a relatively new service (lacks the existing engagement Google Calendar has). Knowing today’s news frankly is less critical than knowing your daily agenda. Missing a meeting with your boss is more immediately painful than missing news about the latest war overseas. All of this despite how important that war is to world peace, and your meeting is just about you. So, punchy and meaningful subject lines are essential to keeping open rates, and subsequently click-through and engagement rates, high.
Even with a generic grouping into ‘Quartz Readers’, I am glad that at least Quartz took the time to say “Good morning.” Even though I hear and say “Good morning” countless times to peers and coworkers throughout my day, it’s nice to read it first thing in the morning from what could otherwise easily be a robotic feeling newsletter. Feeling like someone is on the other side of the message makes me almost feel like someone real is curating my news for me.
Good morning to you, too, Quartz!
Quartz could just end the email. But Quartz takes time to say goodbye to me and wish me bon voyage for the day.
Quartz closing strong with a nice, personal touch at the end of the email
In closing the email, Quartz wishes me a productive day. You know what? “Productive” is a key way in which I measure my day. So now I feel like Quartz gets me.
While not everyone prioritizes “Productivity”, mostly everyone will react positively to this wish (accomplishments = good) and it is far more original than “Have a great day!” And originality begets a memorable experience.
And this closing is different everyday. Notice the tidbit about “Chinese Winnebagos”. It relates to this story here earlier in the newsletter.
When I really dive into my subconscious, I think I get a little chuckle out of this little closing every day. So I feel motivated to make it to the end of the newsletter.
Quartz has a problem. There are dozens of valuable stories to share every day. One single list of article after article is hard to parse and hard to scan when necessary.
Remember what Yahoo looked way back when?
Instead, Quartz breaks out articles with logical and consistent categories. The categories have personality (vs. “Category 1”, “Category 2”, “Category 3”) without losing clear meaning.
Notice how easy it is to take how Quartz labels the article groups and make sense of them.
“Chunking” is a classic psychological concept that aids memory. But is also extends to processing an email newsletter’s contents. Indeed, “Input chunks reflect the limitation of working memory during the encoding of new information.”
As we mentioned, Quartz is limited by the presentation of information in an email client. The newsletter avoids images with stories, perhaps because it would often not show up with those that have images turned off, the mobile rendering would be challenging, and scanning would be harder.
So with just text, and basically bolding and hyperlinking, at its disposal, how does Quartz manage to focus readers on the most important content?
Consistent, bold lead-ins for each story. This lets me scan easily and is an obvious tactic. As obvious as it is, a lot of blog posts have no structural consistency to what is bolded and what is not - it’s a subjective reflection of what the creator deems interesting.
Strategic hyperlinking. Notice in the first story how one scan and catch “discuss the resolution”, “will meet his Iranian counterpart”, and “hailed a ‘new era’ on nuclear talks.” While perhaps a little superficial, scanning gets us pretty far and we’re guided by what Quartz chose to bold and hyperlink.
It may be common practice by now, but the simple practice of accurately linking to parts of statements that need more evidence or support makes me trust Quartz. If I want to read more about the specific resolution John Kerry and the Iranian counterpart were going to discuss, I can dig into it. But Quartz by no means forces me to consume that content if I’m not interested. As a result, I don’t feel like Quartz is trying to persuade me of anything, but rather present facts and let me pursue further information if I’d like to do so.
Do you know email newsletters that are well-designed? How do they achieve a delightful UX?
 I did not find a setting that lets one determine when they receive the email. While some users may complain about a lack of control, not having this setting reduces engineering and UX complexity for Quartz. Notably, the timing for weekend emails is 4:02am, so Quartz must be trying to be, at least for subscribers to its Americas Edition, hitting people around 6am ET during the week and 7am ET during the weekend.
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