Quartz had no homepage when it launched about two and a half years ago.

Readers navigating directly to qz.com instead just saw the article page for the top piece on the site.

We knew at the time that for the foreseeable future almost no one would type in our url to navigate directly to Quartz. And if virtually no one would come to our homepage, what was it if not a distraction from our efforts to quickly build a significant readership for our global business news site?

That decision allowed us to focus on the more critical job of writing content for the social web and minimizing the friction to its finding its readership around the world. It allowed our developers to focus on building other features, and it allowed editors to not spend any time on a homepage’s upkeep. It also provided clarity for the reporters, who couldn’t be distracted by the possibility that homepage placement played a role in an article’s success, and could rather have to focus on helping spread their work socially.

Perhaps ironically, it’s easier these days to create a new media brand when you forego some of the traditional tools of online brand building, such as an elegant and carefully tended homepage. What does matter is the clarity you have about the content itself, its voice and your investment in its quality. It also helps to have a strong sense of your target readership, and reinforce that among your journalists through frequent, recurring discussion. And design is important too, so the user experience of the core unit of content, such as the article page, is excellent. It was following this approach that Quartz managed to reach more than 10 million monthly visitors just over two years after its launch.

Quartz eventually got a homepage, as we experimented with using it to provide a reader service other than just an index of links published over the previous 24 hours. Our offering was instead a continuously updated briefing on the most important and interesting business news, written and edited by our journalists and building on our successful Daily Brief morning email newsletter.

This new homepage has the virtue of serving loyal readers, and communicating to newcomers the filter on the world that is our brand.

But, even so, I argue that publishers need to go a step beyond all that and ask themselves whether they could succeed if no one ever came to their websites, let alone their homepage.

It might seem impossible to respond “Yes.” However, what is clearer than ever is that publishers need to make their content available wherever the users are. Today, that involves distributing it directly via social networks, messaging apps such as Snapchat, and mobile aggregator apps like SmartNews.

In some cases, it means tailoring content to the users of each of those platforms, as with Snapchat Discovery. And in an increasing number of instances, it means allowing the platform to directly host the publisher’s content—rather than restricting the platform to just a headline, summary and hyperlink back.

Email newsletters are a simple example of how publishers can succeed without pulling readers back to their own websites. Some loyal users have told me they love Quartz and our Daily Brief morning email, but appear not to realize we even have a website. The newsletter lives outside our website, in subscribers’ email inboxes. Thanks to the revenue from ads in the newsletter, this has been a successful business strategy despite the bulk of user activity now taking place outside of qz.com.

The approach to publishing outside your home page is accruing broader relevance. Facebook’s algorithms appear to reward publishers with increased reach for anything else they might share after they upload videos directly to Facebook.

Quartz has shown that a new publisher can thrive without a website homepage. Could a new publisher thrive without a website at all?


In our experience, if you upload a video to your publication’s Facebook page, more Facebook users generally see the following posts. As of this writing, Facebook hast started to host full article content from major publishers to speed loading for its mobile users. YouTube has vastly more potential for delivering viewers to a publisher’s videos than most publishers’ own websites. And Snapchat’s Discover function was, in the beginning at least, reportedly delivering millions of views daily per publisher within its app.

In contrast, bringing readers back to your own website is hard, and is bound to become harder for many publishers as platforms such as Facebook presumably will distribute publisher content hosted directly on their platform much more broadly than content that’s just a link back to the publisher site. Metrics that factor into the platforms’ algorithms such as user engagement will be more positive when the platforms host the content, because it can load more quickly. This is especially important on mobile phones.

The same thing is happening in retail, where many independent retailers also sell directly in Amazon’s online store due to the number of consumers they can reach that way, as opposed to trying to redirect consumers to their own sites.

Yet, the strategy of directing readers back to their own website is not easily abandoned by most traditional media companies. After all, selling ads against inventory on their own websites and apps is what they do best. They rely on subscriptions for a significant portion of their revenue, or have initiatives underway to try to do so. The data they collect about users on their websites is useful, and they can try to hook them with signups for email newsletters and other services.

The rise of web search and subsequently the social web has made it possible for upstart publishers to attract readers to their own websites. This is certainly an important component of a successful strategy. But there’s also a risk of not being able to maximize your audience reach.

Where news organizations previously needed to be excellent at printing and distributing physical copies of newspapers and magazines, today they must be excellent at creating application program interfaces (APIs) and reducing any friction inhibiting the spread of their content across the web.

This is not to say that publishers shouldn’t be rigorous about enforcing their copyrights, making sure they have access to as much user data as possible, and working with partners that allow them to maximally monetize their content. There are some critical business components to this approach.

The first business element is that publishers need to be unrelenting in their efforts to make money from their content – wherever it lives. In some cases, this will mean selling advertising that appears on platforms other than the publisher’s own website. In other cases, it means accepting a revenue share for the advertising that a platform sells itself.

For now, competition between content access platforms means that some platforms will let publishers to keep 100% of ad revenue sold into hosted content versions.

The second critical business element is a publisher cost structure that supports the evolving economics of digital media. This is true whether the content lives exclusively on the publisher’s website or not. But it’s foundationally important for any publisher to succeed. Digital revenue can be significant, but it’s certainly not the same as in the heyday of print.

Media thinker Jeff Jarvis has argued persuasively that publishers need to demand that platforms provide extensive data about users accessing their content. This data can be used for advertising sales and targeting other services and features to the users, such as sophisticated content recommendations and personalization.

A final element that publishers need to be good at is the visual expression of their brand. When most visitors start on your homepage, the design of your site is the key element for doing this. But what happens when they first discover your content elsewhere on the internet? Are there simple, recurring visual elements that reinforce the consumer’s
attachment to the brand and can make it more likely for them to be loyal readers however they access the content?

Traditional publishers with subscription bases and large online followings can certainly pursue the strategy of trying to draw readers into their apps and websites. They will have to continue to increase their focus on the quality of individual articles, article pages, and headlines, as the website homepage becomes less of a point of entry and social distribution is how readers find their content.

However, the success of news brands is to a large degree determined by how much they can grow. The website homepage can be little more than a distraction from that. And increasingly, a brand´s willingness and ability to let their content live outside its website will be critical to its growth. Upstart media brands will have to figure out how to generate revenue in such a scenario. But user reach at least partly offsets factors such as revenue sharing with platforms.

Quartz has shown that a new publisher can thrive without a website homepage. Could a new publisher thrive without a website at all? That is one of the most pressing questions of our day.

Kevin J. Delaney is Editor-in-Chief and President of Quartz. He was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and is a Hearst Digital Media Professional-in-Residence at Columbia University.

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