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Bringing high production values to digital content

Simon Davies, Executive Director EMEA at Quartz

Simon Davies, Executive Director EMEA at Quartz

RM: How do production values come into the execution of digital content? 

 SD: For print, production values are very tangible quite literally. Even when you’re looking at film you can tell when it is more sumptuous and has had more money spent on it. When you look at digital however, it’s far more about rich, relevant and respectable experiences for the user.

RM: What are the common content mistakes that brands should steer clear of? 

SD: The one-size-fits-all idea that if you produce a piece of content it can be pumped out through various channels whether that be print, social or digital without paying attention to the medium which you’re using, the place you’re using it and the experience the user will have at that time. That content when it was originally produced might have been outstanding, but if you don’t treat the user experience with respect when you put it in different areas then it can be a horrible thing.

There can be a number of reasons people don’t want to consider how to make it more relevant for the different channels. These could be 1) they don’t want to invest the time, 2) they don’t want to or they can’t invest any money,(money often gets overlooked in content production, it’s very expensive when done right) 3) they are personally attached to it and want everyone to see it, forgetting the environment it’s going to be placed in. It’s important to understand what the user is actually doing at the point in which they encounter your content.

RM: Who do you view as the paragons of excellence in the world of publishing? And in terms of brands who’s getting the ‘execution’ side of brand publishing right? 

SD: In terms of brands, GE are a shining example of how content strategy can be done right across different channels with sensitivity to the audience you’re publishing to, relevance of content, making sure it’s in the right place and making sure it’s of excellent quality every single time. As well as the work we’ve done with them, their work with The Economist and how they work with local publishers around the world to make sure that their message is relevant for specific reasons in countries is also notable. Their blogs and social media channels are very coherent, when they do branded content on publisher sites it’s always tailored, they produce videos of varying types everything from videos filmed on smart phones to videos with tremendous production values. Most importantly they’re really interesting to the audience wherever they are published.

Your users’ habits are changing rapidly so you need to adapt to change and throw away what was best practice 6 months ago

RM: What three elements should brands prioritise when it comes to the ‘production’ element of brand publishing? 


  • Relevance- It has to be of interest to the audience.
  • High Quality- Ensuring you’re sourcing the right imagery, investing in images, videos and charts. Investing in the right people to write; you need to ensure you’re hiring the best people to actually write the content.
  • The Right Place- Don’t put something that’s meant to be read in print on social media because there’s a total disconnect.

RM: Thinking more widely about high performance content, what are the key elements for success? 

SD: The ability to learn and change. It’s become a cliché to learn to fail fast and adapt and change. Your users’ habits are changing more rapidly than they have ever changed before in history so you need to be flexible about adapting to change and throwing away what was best practice 6 months ago because new devices or technology have come along and your users’ behaviour might have changed.

RM: How would you explain the secret to Quartz’s success when it comes to getting leaders to really enjoy and engage with your content? 

SD: The secret to Quartz’s success is a pretty simple one: investing in editorial content and talent. The initial challenge is getting leaders to find your content, engage with it and then to enjoy and share it.

Kevin Delaney, Quartz’s editor-in-chief, wanted to change how we wrote for leaders because how these leaders are finding their content and trusting different publishers has changed since 2007/8 with the advent of smartphones and social media. The way in which content was being produced hadn’t changed much since the 19th century when we were all printing with hot metal and paper.

The entire editorial process is different to any other newsroom you’ll find:

  • Our editors pitch the headline and they pitch data before they pitch a story.
  • More than half of our articles have visuals in them- visuals work better, we know that tweets with visuals in them are twice as likely to be shared or favourited.
  • We only write short articles or very long articles.
  • We have the Quartz curve which applies to many different things.

It’s a U shape, the further up the curve you get, the more likely content is to be successful. Everything on the left at the high end is a shorter article, under 500 words and they do very well online. They’re short, concise, respectful of time and can be consumed wherever you are.

What dies online is anything in the middle- 500 words to 1500 words which is the typical length of most articles online. It goes to die; it doesn’t get shared as often, people often don’t finish the article because it’s neither one thing nor the other. It’s about writing in the way that people read now, understanding what people consume now and it’s lead to us getting our readership globally to the same level as the FT or The Economist.

The Quartz Curve

The Quartz Curve

RM: Do you approach the production values of the short and long form journalism in different ways or are both still lead with data? Do both still have invested images?

SD: With a shorter article, an article that would have been 1000 words, if people want some background on it you can put a link to it to get some more information on it. You can also use charts and interactive infographics to explain otherwise complex information that would have been hard to write clearly and also very dull to read through and use visuals to portray them in a much clearer way.

RM: You come originally from a background in print media- can you advise on some good methods for ensuring high production values in print that transition well to a digital platform- or are they totally separate considerations? 

SD: The world is repurposing rather than reprinting. If you’re following the guidelines for producing something of high quality that’s relevant to your audience then being in the right place becomes the repurposing part of it.

If someone’s reading a newspaper they are likely to be reading it at a different time of day in a different place, in a different frame of mind to if they are reading an article on their smartphone or if they are checking their Facebook newsfeed. So be aware of that as you take that core piece of content that you want to share with them and make sure it’s relevant for the time and place of consumption.

RM: Your colleague Jamie Labate recently keynoted at Raconteur’s even on HPC, talking about ‘production values’. What do you, personally, value in a well-produced content project? Who inspires you? 

SD: The Week from the stay-true-to-the-mission as to why it exists and why it’s there to serve its users. It’s a tremendous example of that. It’s barely changed, it launched in 1995 and if you were to get a hold of Issue 1 it would be incredibly familiar to you. It’s a smart formula and stays true to that mission of respecting their readers’ time and they’ve not changed that. I still read that and am a fan of it.

Then there’s National Geographic, who are inspiring from a publishing point of view. There isn’t anything I know of that has higher production values in its magazine and its digital product. They’re one of the few publishers that understand the additional benefits you can give your readers with a digital version of a magazine.

The Atlantic is another very good example of producing a core piece of content in print that they then manage to distribute, alter and optimise for distribution in different ways. If you keep adding to the screen you’re not being very respectful, you’re making some pretty dodgy assumptions about your user, it’s like saying “oh they’ve got a tablet in front of them now, they must be sat down at the weekend with three hours to spare and they want to spend it with me, let’s throw everything we’ve got at them.” I’ve seen many people doing that. We’re dealing with an incredibly smart, educated and cynical media consumer now so you’d better have that in mind whenever you’re asking them to spend time with you because there are thousands of other things and other people they could be spending time with.