"It goes back to when we were fundraising, and people asking us, 'Are you a media company? Are you a tech company?' If we're going to have to pick, we're going to be an audience company. We're going to coin our own word. So that's our buzzword."
That was Danielle Weisberg (pictured on the left), one of the two founders of the hugely popular theSkimm, speaking this week at Disrupt NY 2016 on a video posted on TechCrunch. A free email newsletter geared to women ages 22-34, theSkimm has quickly signed up 3.5 million daily subscribers. It tells the day's important news in small bites—with fun and witty lines mixed in—with the goal of "making it easier to be smarter."
There are good lessons in their success:
1. Know your purpose. "The missing link for us was to fit into [our audience's] daily routines," said Weisberg. "So we started the company with email, not to create an email news company, but because that's what we did first thing in the morning; the alarm goes off on your phone, you grab it and you check email from friends and family first."
2. Solve a problem. "We started very organic," said co-founder Carly Zakin. "We solved a problem that we thought our friends were having. They're super smart, have great jobs, but don't know what's going on [in the world]."
3. Get others to do your marketing. About 700 people—from their family and friends—signed up for the email newsletter the first day. "People then paid it forward," Weisberg said. A mentor told them to ask anyone who wrote in with praise to share it with friends. Thus, Skimm'bassadors were born. There are now more than 13,000 of them. They get gifts, tote bags and other perks for their help. This has brought in 19% of the growth.
4. Get your audience to feel invested. Weisberg said that their open rate averages 40% each day. "The question is, how do you grow and still make them love it each day? One, have a voice that resonates [with your audience], and two, when people read skimm, they feel part of a community. They feel invested in our growth."
5. Have ways to monetize. theSkimm's revenue came 100% from native advertising until recently when they created the skimmAhead app. "What does this audience do?" asked Zakin. "They check email. And we live on our calendars; I have no idea where I'm going unless the calendar tells me. skimmAhead let's us be smarter about the future. 'Here are all the events we think you should know about.'" skimmAhead costs $2.99 a month and is "doing very well."
6. Don't be shy about native advertising. "We let readers know it's clearly sponsored," Zakin said. "So you'll see [that content] in our book section, wine section, [general lifestyle items], but it never touches the actual news of the day. Be transparent with your audience. If you're open and honest, people understand you need to make money. If that's advertising, it's okay if it's done well."
7. Focus on your audience. While the newsletter remains the "anchor of the brand," Weisberg said, "it was never, 'let's create a newsletter company.' It was let's create this amazing engaged audience. And that's where they gather every morning and from there we can create different products that appeal to different parts of our audience."
8. Grow carefully. TheSkimm now employs 20 people. "The majority are on product and tech analytics which says a lot for how we feel about the future of the company," Zakin said. "We're lean and mean and scrappy."
9. Create your typical reader(s). theSkimm created a character, the Skimm girl, who has a very specific voice. "We created a whole brand book that we go through every time we bring on a new employee," said Weisberg. "We know where she grew up, what she likes to do on a Friday afternoon, what she orders at brunch. That helps our writers when they're writing the newsletter, but it also helps our engineers thinking what products she would want in the future."
10. Always think new products. "There are more products we want to create," said Weisberg. So far, they produce the daily newsletter, the app, Skimm the Vote, and Skimm Guides on, say, Syria, SnapChat or the Kardashians. "The guides came from our audience. It's hard to sum up [some of these topics] in a paragraph. We wanted to dedicate more time."
11. Don't recruit subject experts. Because they deal in many topics, they would rather their writers be "translators," said Zakin. "How do you translate what's going on in the world where people can understand it? Our goal and our mission is to make people smarter." While content for niche publishers is more singular, the idea of being able to explain something complicated or technical remains of high value.
12. Think about your reader. "For us," said Weisberg, "it really goes back to what does this audience want to be and how do we make them feel confident? They don't want to be an expert, but they want an opinion and to contribute to a conversation."
13. Set a definitive goal. They call looking at your phone "the new definition of me time. We want to own that," Weisberg said
14. Don't quit. "You have to really believe in what you're doing because no one else is going to believe in it as much as you do," Weisberg said. "If you don't really sell that vision, how can you have other people buy into it? We heard again and again: 'No, no, no, no, I won't sign up for it, no, why would you launch on email—email is dead, No, I won't fund you.'" (They've now received $6 million in funding.)
15. Know your audience. "The key is, who are your products for?" asked Zakin. "Who do you have in mind—whatever it is you're creating? That has been our True North."