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Sept. 13, 2018, 9:56 a.m.
Audience & Social

📧 Obsessing over one year of the Quartz Obsession email

“One of my fears when we started was that there wouldn’t be enough topics, but it’s safe to say that’s not a concern.”

If you’re a trivia buff, you probably don’t want to play against Jessanne Collins or Adam Pasick.

The editors are part of the team behind the weekday deep dive into one seemingly random topic (lettuce, sheds, the color purple, and the Mars rover, to name a few) by a Quartz reporter, also known as the Quartz Obsession email. Obsessions have become part of Quartz’s shtick, pushing reporters toward their area of fancy rather than the beat format of a traditional news outlet. So why not make a newsletter about it?

The one-year-old product is a diversion from the hard news that makes up most of Quartz’s email portfolio, a focus for the company since 2012. (Atlantic Media recently sold Quartz to Japanese business media company Uzabase.) It’s been drawing followers for its design and intrigue — it can be about newsy topics, but not all the time, and it’s also just really not news.

Through the sandbox of the Obsession email, the editors can test out audience engagement strategies like a subreddit for subscribers and in-email quizzes.

“There is a real magical cocktail of product, of edits, and of audience and storyline there,” Collins said. “We’re doing a different topic every day and surprising people.”

See these links for the nuts and bolts about the email’s optimization or its early content strategies . Now, here’s your chance to obsess over the Obsession — in the format of an Obsession issue.

By the digits

84 percent— the open rate of July 9’s obsession on CBD, a drug based on compounds found in marijuana; other high open rates include 80 percent for olive oil on July 26; 77 percent for Mr. Rogers when the documentary about his children’s show was hitting everyone in the nostalgia feels in June; 75 percent for the big red button back when President Trump and Kim Jong Un were playing nuclear chicken in January; and 69 percent for emotional labor in May, which Collins said unleashed emails from readers who saw it as an awakening for their own experiences.

10,000 — the number of users who have responded to the prompts at the end of the Obsession emails over its first year specifically, the Let’s Talk or Sound Off cards (see above).

4 p.m. — the time, in each local time zone, when the Obsession email is sent out to readers worldwide. It’s meant to help the afternoon blahs and counter some of the 24-hour news cycle, Collins said.

$15 a month or $150 a year — the price of the subscription for Quartz’s first paid email newsletter, about cryptocurrency; the Obsession email, like the other Quartz emails (for now), is free!

“Hundreds if not many dozens” — the amount of people who have been involved in the Quartz Obsession email process since its launch last September, according to Collins.

Backstory: Bit by the Obsession bug

Obsessions have been baked into Quartz’s framework since its founding in 2012. The original definition of a Quartz obsession, according to former senior editor Gideon Lichfield:

At Quartz, we’ll try to fit the framework to the audience. We want to reach a global, cosmopolitan crowd, people who see themselves as living “in the world.” They are keenly aware of how distant events influence one another; their lives and careers are subject to constant disruption from changes in technology and the global economy. So instead of fixed beats, we structure our newsroom around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena — the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in.

To translate it to newsletter form, “we knew that it was going to be a lot of work doing one of these every [week]day, but the reality has really driven that point home,” said Pasick, Quartz’s push news editor. But he also called it one of the “most rewarding” projects he’s ever worked on: “The fact that we’re able to take on these topics scratches a real journalism itch for me.”

Collins borrowed that analogy to describe the engagement side of the newsletter. The Obsession email, she said, complements the rest of Quartz’s email products by offering “a little bit of breathing space away from the news cycle.”

A good obsession, according to Collins, is something that “speaks to you as worthwhile” — and a good Obsession writer can pull out the hidden story behind a topic, like how garden sheds are part of a societal system in Australia to give men a space to build community. The team also outlined six qualifiers of a “good” obsession here, including “It’s not too broad or narrow. (Think: not ‘the economy’ but ‘the nostalgia economy’; not ‘beverages’ but ‘LaCroix,’ ‘cold brew,’ or ‘rosé.’)” and “It’s part of the news or the zeitgeist…or maybe it’s entirely evergreen, but it tells us something about how we live now.”

Timeline

17th century: In early psychological writings, obsessions were thought to be symptoms of “religious melancholy.”

1949: The British crime film “Obsession,” released in the U.S. as “The Hidden Room,” is described by The New York Times as “a first-rate study in suspense and abnormal psychology.”

1971: Ray Tomlinson sends the first email, a test message sent to himself.

2009: Mariah Carey asks “Why you so obsessed with me?” in her single “Obsessed,” reaching No. 7 in Billboard’s Hot 100.

2012: Quartz starts using the framework of obsessions at its launch.

2017: Quartz sends its first Obsession email.

Listen up

The feedback loop is strong in the Obsession email, unsurprising for an organization with a heavy culture of talking with bots all day. Readers can participate in topical quizzes (the right answer turns green if you tap on it, and the wrongs red), polls (questions like “What’s the best way to use a shed?” with options of “Tools, lawn equipment, everything else I will neither throw away nor use,” “Airbnb ‘rustic’ granny flat, baby,” and “Secret hideaway at the bottom of the garden”) with results included in the next day’s email, respond directly to the specific email’s writers and editors, and suggest new topics to obsess over.

New as of the first week of August: A subreddit for readers to nerd out about the topic in the email or another item piquing their interest, with the hope of inspiring others to research their own Obsessions. It hasn’t gained a lot of traction yet, but Collins said the team plans to build it out further in year two of the email, including with at least one live participatory event.

(This is the part of the email where there’s usually an advertisement.)

Quotable

“One of my fears when we started was that there wouldn’t be enough topics, but it’s safe to say that’s not a concern.” — Adam Pasick

Fun fact

Usually Obsession emails take days to research, draft, edit, and send through the rest of the pipeline, but the fastest-written Obsession so far was the one focusing on Aretha Franklin written by Pasick in one morning. “It was a true labor of love and got me crying at my computer,” he said.

Picking favorites

In addition to the high-open rate emails, Pasick and Collins shouted out the Obsessions on LaCroix and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” as particularly notable examples.

“[The Carey email] was the perfect level of specific but it went in so many directions,” Collins said. “You learned so many things you weren’t expecting to learn; you saw the power in this song that is everywhere. This email really convinced me that it mattered in a huge way.”

Take me down this rabbit hole

See the full Quartz Obsession email on Baby Shark here.

POSTED     Sept. 13, 2018, 9:56 a.m.
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