While Old School Media Builds a Faster Horse, Quartz is Taking Moonshots

This is Part 2 of a three part series with Mia Mabanta, Director of Marketing and Revenue Products at Quartz. We chatted with Mia to learn more about the topics that she knows best — product marketing, and building a media company. You can listen to the entire conversation on the What I Know Best podcast, be sure to subscribe to learn from other experts across the Quibb network in coming weeks.

In her time at Quartz, there are two standout successes in Mia Mabanta’s work at the NYC-based media company — Gaining the time and insights of a notoriously difficult to nail down demographic, and being part of the launch of one of the most exciting new apps of 2016. What’s interesting about these two events is that they both represent extremely different angles to approaching user-centric product development, design, and marketing. The other obvious connection between these two events is Mia’s proven ability to identify white space, and create innovative new experiences for users that she knows and empathizes with to an astounding level.

User-Centric: Turtles All The Way Down

In early 2014, as Quartz’s Director of Marketing and Revenue Products, Mia wanted to learn more about the news and reading habits of the some of the busiest, most reputable business people in the world. How would she get the research and insights she desperately wanted, the type of research that she couldn’t find anywhere else other than directly from Quartz’s users? Sadly, part of the problem was also that survey software is still very poorly designed, and Mia knew that many of the processes heralded as industry-standard just wouldn’t cut it for her target survey respondent.

“For me, having had some more traditional survey research experience from my days at various think tanks around Washington, I thought everything I’ve seen in survey research in the year 2014… It really doesn’t feel that much different from how it used to be eight years ago. I was like just kind of envisioning that user journey of going from name whatever beautiful web app or responsibility designed website. Then clicking something, and landing on this web 1.0, late 90s survey screen. Wow, what a huge missed opportunity that is.”

Beyond that, the obvious incentives wouldn’t work, as these are people who often value nothing more in the entire world than their time. Mia’s ingenious idea was to create an amazing survey experience, on-par with what readers expected from the publication itself. Being user-centric in all aspects of her role in marketing — even the basic inputs that would themselves lead only to inputs for products, not the product themselves — allowed the company to collect information that wasn’t available elsewhere, that had a lasting impact on how they understand their readers.

“I suppose this is where good marketing comes in… being that bridge between the user and the product”

Being the solid, knowledgeable bridge allows Mia to work closely with product people, designers, and engineers across Quartz. They work on products collaboratively, with Mia’s input helping to ensure that the user needs are collected into products and new features from the very beginning.

“Hey, anyone want to chat with a news-bot…?”

Extremes can yield extreme results. While Mia has been sure to always think about the people reading Quartz’s content in everything she works on, sometimes companies can get extreme value when they get a bit more inventive. Sometimes they like to look beyond what the data tells them — and just a couple weeks ago, Quarts released their first news app, a clear example of how they apply that approach in product development.

“Where they’re spending much more of their time is in apps where they interact with other people, whether that’s social and then of course more recently so much messaging apps, right? It was basically taking that paradigm and seeing if it worked. We weren’t sure frankly.”

This thought process (and many, many iterations) led to the first mobile app from Quartz. It’s modelled after a messaging app (like Facebook’s messenger, or WeChat), and allows the user to interaction via a conversation UI to pull content about current news events. There are some standardized responses, to which the app responds by either diving deeper into a story, or moving on to the next.

This is such a different approach compared to the company’s CEO Survey, that fed information and user data into many products and features they build. One might even classify the new app to be a risky ‘moonshot’.

“…we didn’t know exactly how it would work. We didn’t know if it ought to be automated, or if we should have people writing it, or what else? Oh, if we should allow users to contribute to it, that sort of thing. It was really a gamble based on what we were observing about how people were spending their time in general, not just within our product category.”

The bet paid off. The app launched to overwhelmingly positive reviews, holding its place amongst tech blogs and the tech sections of major publications throughout the news day. Even Silicon Valley based product and design folks are excited about the design particularly, claiming Quartz is on the bleeding edge of the new ‘conversational UI’ paradigm. Acclaim and praise from Silicon Valley for a New York Media company like this is rare.

The process leading to this success? Mia attributes it to the inventive and design-thinking oriented approach across the product team, namely Quartz’s VP Product Zach Seward.

“Zack Seward likes to often kind of say aphorisms like this one. It’s one that’s caught on here, and we say it a lot, which is “We like to make big decisions with our gut and small decisions with data.” It’s kind of that whole design thinking thing where if you really want to be innovative in a big way, there’s going to be a big gamble.”… “I certainly don’t know of any research that was like, “Users would like a news app that is chat based interface.”

The capacity for Quartz to operate an innovative, product focused company is worthy of praise. Mia’s approach to thinking about users, across each and every touch point, is commendable. What’s more impressive is the ability and interest of her and her colleagues to look beyond that approach, and take big bets. Even how they started the company — being a mobile-first media company — was innovative and risky, when mobile hadn’t yet overtaken desktop. The delicate balance they’ve instilled across the company and their products is inspiring, other traditional Media industry companies should take note.

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