Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Aug. 18, 2015, 9:17 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

How The Skimm’s passionate readership helped its newsletter grow to 1.5 million subscribers

A Q&A with Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, cofounders of The Skimm: “I think 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.”

To hear Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin tell it, when they launched their email newsletter The Skimm three years ago, they had no plan for creating an engaged community around it.

“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.

Justin Ellis: There’s this perception that email is an old technology, or that email newsletters went away. What do you think about?

Danielle Weisberg: When we first started three years ago, we definitely got a lot of pushback. There was a lot of criticism. A lot of the original investors we pitched to would say things like ‘Email is dead’ and ‘Why don’t you create an app instead?’ But they would say it to us over email, which kind of illustrated our point — we don’t believe email is dead.

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.

Ellis: With so many different emails competing for people’s attention, how do you make The Skimm stand out?

Carly Zakin: People have continually responded to The Skimm’s voice. It’s written as if it’s from a friend.

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.

Ellis: How did you discover the voice of the email?

Weisberg: The voice was probably the easiest part of everything we’ve done. We really wanted to create a product that sounded like your friend telling you what you need to know to start your day. So we thought about the questions our friends had. Our friends are people who are smart, who know everything going on in their industry, who went to good schools, but are short on time. They may not be totally up-to-date on things that are outside their jobs or outside of their interests.

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.

Ellis: How important is it to have an idea of an average reader or your target audience member when you’re creating a product from scratch?

Zakin: We don’t know any other way. Focus has been our mantra. We knew we couldn’t be everything to everyone, and we weren’t trying to be. There’s such a huge demographic to go after, even in the focus that we have. I think that has made us better writers, better founders, and better businesswomen.

Ellis: You both came from NBC News. How did that experience shape what you wanted to do at The Skimm?

Zakin: We both feel as if we were trained by the best in the business. We were so lucky to have truly incredible mentors, from our first internships at NBC all the way through our full-time professional careers there. I think the number-one thing that has been instilled in us, and the number-one thing that we care about at our company, is to have journalistic integrity, and [make sure] that our fact-checking process is truly in-depth. We look at ourselves first and foremost as a journalistic property. All the respect and integrity that goes along with that, we learned at NBC.

Ellis: Walk me through the production process for the daily email.

Weisberg: Someone’s always up until the newsletter goes out at 6 a.m. Eastern. It’s always being updated in shifts. We have a pitch meeting; we continued that tradition from NBC News. We get together and come up with a list of stories, and then we narrow it down.

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.

Ellis: How big is your staff now, and which areas have you been hiring for?

Weisberg: The staff right now is 15 full-time employees, including myself and Carly. We are hiring right now for someone to help us to continue to monetize. That’s definitely something that’s on our mind.

Ellis: Is that the priority right now, finding ways to monetize? Or is it growing your audience?

Weisberg: Growing our audience has been and remains our main priority. It’s important to us that we continue to grow an upwardly engaged user base, and continue to grow while maintaining around the same open rate that we’ve had, which is really strong.

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.

Ellis:How do you think about ads or sponsorships in the email? You’ve gone a long way to make it a personal and intimate experience. How do you add sponsorships to that without changing the relationship between you and the reader?

Zakin: The way we look at working with sponsors is to try to align ourselves with brands and products that we like on behalf of our audience, that we know will speak to our audience, and integrate them in a way that feels truly seamless.

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.

Ellis: How does the newsletter grow? Is it the Skimm’bassadors program, word of mouth, social media?

Weisberg: Organic and word of mouth are certainly a big part of our user growth. The Skimm’bassador program is now over 6,000 brand reps. They help us with grassroots marketing; they’re kind of the biggest mouth of our organic word of mouth growth.

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.

Ellis: Where did the idea for the Skimm’bassadors come from?

Zakin: It happened truly organically. 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. Thankfully, the community came to us.

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.

Ellis: How do you reward them for that? It sounds as if they see it as a two-way relationship.

Weisberg: Two different ways. We reward our Skimm’bassadors by incentivizing them with different levels of Skimm swag. So if you get X amount of people signed up you get a Skimm tote, then you get a Skimm bag.

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.

Ellis: What comes next for you?

Zakin: Obviously, we think about other platforms. We never set out to create an email business. We don’t think we have an email newsletter business; we have email as a marketing tool. We think email is the best marketing tool there is. Our company’s assets are its voice and incredible community.

We hope those two things will live on every platform one day. But right now, we’re just really focused on growing that list.

Ellis: In other interviews you two have said The Skimm is similar to morning TV shows. Are there lessons to take from those shows in terms of what people are looking for that time of the day?

Weisberg: There are a lot of things to take away from what morning TV does well and what it hasn’t done so well. What morning television really nailed, for a long time, was the routines of the audience it was going after — whether it was moms waking up in the morning and turning on the television as they were getting ready, or professionals eating breakfast and wanting to get caught up on what they need to know for the day.

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.

Ellis: Does either of you think there is a difference between what people who work in media consider to be news, and what other folks consider to be news?

Zakin: If you work in media or politics, this is something that you live and breathe. Your job is to always stay up-to-date on the news cycle. If you’re in another industry, your job is to be informed about what’s going on in your actual career, or your actual industry, and then it’s what interests you.

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?

Ellis: Going from being journalists to running your own company is not always an easy transition. What were some of the big challenges or unexpected things you had to deal with along the way?

Weisberg: Oh my gosh, that’s a loaded question. There are a lot of answers.

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.

POSTED     Aug. 18, 2015, 9:17 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Aggregation & Discovery
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”