February 11, 2014

As much as mobile is poised to keep growing in 2014, old desktop habits die hard — especially during business hours. That leaves Quartz, Atlantic Media’s 18-month-old business site, with a fascinating hand after going all-in on mobile.

Despite its birth to founders intent on nurturing its appeal to smartphone and tablet users, Quartz finds that almost 60 percent of its visitors still read it on the plain old desktop computer.

A year ago, around 30 percent of its unique visitors arrived at fast-growing Quartz on mobile devices; its latest three-month average stood at 41 percent. So while mobile is gaining ground, I was surprised to learn that mobile-first and mobile-native Quartz has been and remains a big deal on desktop. It doesn’t take a futurist to predict that desktops will soon cede their majority standing, but if you treat smartphones and tablets as their own categories, Quartz will likely see its desktop plurality endure for a bit longer.

Nothing’s broken about Quartz on a desktop browser, but as with some other responsive designs I’ve highlighted, it only takes one glimpse to realize it was built primarily for smaller devices.

“We designed for tablet first and adapted the design to mobile (smartphones),” said Kevin Delaney, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Quartz, by phone. “That’s partly why the site on desktop doesn’t feel like a conventional news site. The genesis of it was in tablet and mobile.”

Of the 41 percent of unique visitors coming from either tablets or smartphones, three-fourths consist of smartphone users. That means, in its effort to be as future-oriented as possible, Quartz optimized its site first for a tablet platform that still accounts for only about 1 in 10 of its 5 million monthly unique visitors.

Quartz on an iPad

Quartz wouldn’t give me specific numbers about total visits or engaged time on site, and said the site’s infinite scroll rendered page view metrics less useful. A spokeswoman did say that the percentage of total visits coming via mobile was in line with the percentage of unique visitors coming via mobile, so it doesn’t sound like desktop users are any less engaged than their mobile counterparts are.

It speaks to the quality of Quartz’s content that its tertiary target audience in terms of platform became its primary audience in practice, but there’s also some irony there. A neat thing about Quartz is that it constantly tweaks its code to adjust to how readers are using the site, and Delaney said Quartz would be rolling out some navigation changes this year that would have the biggest impact for users on large screens.

“We’re not writing off desktop,” he said. “It remains a real priority for us.”

Social strategy and the 9-to-5 workday

Meanwhile, Quartz has also optimized its content for social shareability. Indeed, more than 50 percent of its traffic arrives via social referrals, Delaney told me, adding that mobile and social strategies often go hand-in-hand.

Yet despite all the recent headlines about Facebook and Twitter’s dominance on mobile, social is still a great way to reach people at their computer desks, too.

While 77 percent of Facebook’s active users in December accessed the site via mobile devices at some point, 76 percent of active users still accessed it via desktop at some point. Growth in mobile users outpaces the decrease in desktop users because, of course, users don’t have to pick one or another. Mobile visits don’t always cannibalize desktop visits, as anyone who finds himself absentmindedly browsing Twitter in the checkout line even after spending the day with Twitter on the web knows.

(Among the headlines after Twitter’s first earning report was that 76 percent of its monthly active users come from mobile, but without knowing the percentage of desktop MAUs it’s impossible to determine how much of the rise in mobile use is coming at the expense of desktop use — and therefore how much Twitter should be considered a mobile medium rather than a platform-agnostic one. Probably they want us to think they’re the former.)

Mirroring the overall industry trend, Quartz’s desktop traffic is highest during the 9-to-5 workday, when its large audience of business professionals is likely to be stuck on computers. A further irony of Quartz’s mobile-first strategy is that business news tends to break during the day — not on nights and weekends, when tablet use soars and Quartz is least active on social media.

Give Quartz credit for playing the long game and for achieving such spectacular growth, whatever the platform. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to fault Quartz for failing to surpass the arbitrary 50 percent mobile traffic threshold that the ESPNs and BuzzFeeds of the world are noted for crossing.

Yet there’s something sobering about the fact that providing readers with a fantastic mobile-first interface doesn’t necessarily mean mobile is where the bulk of your audience will be just yet. Quartz is awesome on tablets and less awesome on desktop, yet more people read it on desktop. If even Quartz’s audience — which includes readers from around the globe, many of whom access the web mostly via smartphones — hasn’t gone all-in for mobile yet, it’s no surprise that other news organizations have refrained from making similar long-term gambles.

There’s a reason 2014 is being called the third or fourth annual “year of mobile.” As Quartz shows, the mobile revolution isn’t as sudden as it’s often portrayed, and audiences still have some adjusting to do. Quartz will meet them on the other side.

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
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