“As first-time founders we thought of a lot of things, the one thing we didn’t think about was how to build a community,” Zakin said. She and Weisberg left their jobs at NBC News to form their own startup. “Thankfully the community came to us.”
The Skimm now counts 1.5 million subscribers to its daily email, which breezes through the day’s news in a conversational, direct tone. That success is thanks largely to the community that formed around the newsletter, Zakin told me. Loyal fans emailed the founders asking how they could help. The answer? Skimm’bassadors, the legions of readers who promote the email in their networks and encourage friends to sign up. According to Zakin, there are now 6,000 people in the program, up from just 200 last year.
Media companies have been rediscovering the power of email in recent months, building out newsletters to amplify their work and create new connections with readers in their inboxes. For The Skimm, though, the newsletter is the only product that matters. Specifically, Weisberg and Zakin wanted to reach an audience of younger women, people who are looking for news first thing in the morning. For that demographic, the first read isn’t the newspaper or Good Morning America.
“Email was always the direction we were going to go in,” Weisberg said. “It’s nice to see that it’s come back in favor. But we always really believed that was the way to reach this demo.”
They got that demo and much, more, as The Skimm now counts people like Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Oprah among its readers. Last December the company raised $6.25 million, which it’s been using to expand and plan for new products beyond email.
I recently spoke with Weisberg and Zakin about their expansion plans, how they’ve cultivated an engaged audience, and what they learned by delivering the news from morning TV. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
We believe email is how people really communicate with each other, especially when we looked at the morning routines of our target audience. The Skimm focuses on women ages 22–34 in big cities throughout the country. They are busy, they’re on the go. It’s a professional audience. And we looked at what they do first thing in the morning. Your alarm goes off, you grab your phone, and you read emails from friends and family first.
It really made sense to us to introduce a product that fit in with that routine. And email is very much in the routines of the demo that we’re going after. Email was always the direction we were going to go in. It’s nice to see that it’s come back in favor. But for us we always really believed that was the way to reach this demo.
We’ve been able to stand out and be in the top of people’s inbox, because people feel like The Skimm is a friend, and feel like that voice speaks to them. We’ve been fortunate that our audience has connected so well with that.
So first and foremost, we knew we were talking to a smart audience that was short on time. We thought about how we speak to our friends, and translated that into the email.
That’s also how we view the topics that we cover. The goal of The Skimm is that you can walk into any meeting, any interview, any social or professional event, no matter if you’re meeting with someone who works in finance or education or politics, and be able to converse with them, to be able to be well rounded.
The length of The Skimm changes every day, depending on the news cycle, but the thought behind our story selection is always the same: Would this actually come up at a family dinner, an interview, or during the course of an average reader’s day? That’s what we defer to if we get stuck on something.
In the past few months, we’ve been starting to focus on monetizing The Skimm through native ad campaigns. So we thought it was a good time to bring on someone full-time to really focus on that.
We’ve been really selective about the brands we work with. We’ve actually gotten thank-you notes from our users, not only for the brand we selected but also how we went about doing it. That’s really exciting for us, and I think it goes back to the fact that we feel like we know how to talk to this audience.
They’re just an amazing force, made up of primarily our target demo. They love the brand and want to help us get the word out. That’s been a big part of our growth.
From day one, we were overwhelmed by how many people wrote in saying they never write in to anything, but they just love the product and how could they help. It started by us saying “Thank you so much,” and then we started saying, “Thank you so much. Can you share The Skimm with five friends?”
People started writing back saying “I’m basically a brand rep,” and that evolved into “I’m a Skimm’bassador for you.” From there, the terminology came to be. We made the choice to invest in the program first. We sat down with our — at that point very small — team, and said, “We’ve got all these people who are calling themselves Skimm’bassadors. Let’s turn this into something.”
We’ve just grown exponentially. Last summer we had 200 Skimm’bassadors; today we have well over 6,000.
The other way we incentivize our Skimm’bassadors is by giving them access to our headquarters, to the two of us. We do calls with them about once a quarter, and it’s kinda just like an ask-me-anything. We’re in Facebook groups with them all day long; we’re in Linkedin groups. They have access to job postings for certain positions before they’re [posted publicly].
So it’s really about access for them, getting closer to a brand that they like — and access to one another; they’re connecting with each other, to like-minded individuals throughout the country. It’s been amazing to see.
We hope those two things will live on every platform one day. But right now, we’re just really focused on growing that list.
The audience that we’re going after — a lot of them don’t own TVs. They’re not yet watching video on their phones while they commute. The idea of fitting in with the morning routine and this audience is something we’ve definitely taken away from morning television. We’re just doing it by putting the news they need to know in the palm of their hand.
We looked at it as how to just be a well-rounded person. What do you need to know to be able to have a conversation with someone, no matter their background?
We still think of ourselves as journalists every day, number one. The second thing is that our tools in becoming businesswomen have just expanded. I think the hardest thing for us has been learning how to be managers. We never managed anyone before, and now we have a team of 15 including us. So that has been the steepest learning curve for us.
But I think everything has been new. I’d put fundraising up there as the second hardest, if not hardest, thing we’ve ever had to do with no background whatsoever. Not only had we never done it before, but we had to learn a lot of new terminology to get it done.
I think all of this is new to us. Every day is something new. A CEO friend recently said to us, “You should always feel uncomfortable.” I can safely say I think we always feel a little uncomfortable.