July 21, 2016
Cultivating a unique mind meld with its readership has allowed e-newsletter theSkimm to outpace its competitors
It takes a lot of confidence to launch a news outlet these days, but in 2012 New York roommates Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin felt up to the challenge. The pair ditched their jobs at NBC News to team up and create theSkimm, a curated daily newsletter that summarizes the day’s most significant events in a breezy, casual tone.
It doesn’t stop with current event recaps, however. TheSkimm also uses its platform to share recipes, offer birthday shout-outs, ask for feedback and display native sponsorship from brands it believes are highly relevant to its audience. Building their newsletter from scratch, Weisberg and Zakin knew theSkimm needed to be highly relevant to future readers if they were going to lure people away from other outlets.
“We knew when we launched theSkimm we were filling a real void in the market for news that fit the routines of our target demographic—smart, busy women on the go,” Zakin says. “The initial goal was simply to get as many people to sign up as possible. It was a true grassroots effort and spread by word of mouth in the early days.”
“From the beginning, we were adamant that we were not building a newsletter company,” Weisberg adds. “We have always thought much bigger than that. What we are creating is an audience company that makes it easier to be smarter. One of our first hires was a growth and analytics lead to help us make this a reality. If we were going to build a company around our audience, we needed to make sure we understood it inside and out.”
The first conscious decision Weisberg and Zakin made to build their audience was defining it.
“The target audience has always been our friends—female millennials. They are on their way to leading in paychecks and degrees, so why not focus on them?” Zakin says.
The understanding that readers would mirror their social circles is reflected heavily in how theSkimm is written. Using a conversational voice that deviates profoundly from the detached reporting in most news stories, theSkimm communicates in a style more akin to a corporate happy hour.
An example of how this tone is shaped can be seen in a summary of the global reaction to the U.K’s Brexit vote, which was typically reported in weighty political and economic terms.
“Late last week, after a really close vote, the U.K. said, ‘It’s not me, it’s you,’ to the EU No one took the news well. British Prime Minister David Cameron—who called the vote for the Brexit as a campaign promise but wanted to stay in the EU—said he’s putting in his three month’s notice and will leave office in October. And global markets dropped like it was bloody hot. The pound hit its lowest level since 1985 and $2 trillion disappeared from world markets. Breakups are messy.”
This distinct style of storytelling was quick to garner a devoted following, which theSkimm leveraged by creating a group for superfans. TheSkimm harnesses that brand passion of its most avid devotees, called Skimm’bassadors, by coaching them to promote the newsletter to others. In return, Skimm’bassadors are showered with Skimm swag they can use in their everyday lives—T-shirts, tote bags, umbrellas, etc.—and are connected to a professional network made up of like-minded enthusiasts. They also are given early access or exclusive offers to theSkimm’s partner brands.
“Our Skimm’bassador program took off in a way we never planned. That was a happy accident and fueled our company in a truly authentic way,” Weisberg says.
Even non-Skimm’bassadors can be called on for word-of-mouth sharing by clicking on “Skimm This” social media buttons embedded in every edition. “The buttons have definitely helped remind people to share something they loved in the newsletter that morning. We’ve had fun putting GIFs into the sign-up share-text that stands out in feeds,” Weisberg says.
Since its inception, theSkimm’s readership has swelled to 3.5 million active subscribers, and its social platforms reach an audience of nearly 1 million followers, more than 80% of whom are female. More than 13,000 people have signed up as Skimm’bassadors. TheSkimm boasts an open rate close to 40%, which Weisberg and Zakin describe as “industry-crushing.” They say their service is replacing morning television for their target demographic.
This assuredness has pushed the pair into the realm of app design. In April, theSkimm announced it was launching Skimm Ahead, a monthly subscription service that offers a curated calendar of upcoming events important to its audience, such as Beyoncé concert dates, Netflix release schedules or the State of the Union address.
Initial results have been positive. On launch day, Skimm Ahead was the top news app in the Apple App Store and the ninth-most popular app overall. The app is proving to be an extension of theSkimm’s initial success, which Trevor Wade, global marketing director for brand design and consulting firm Landor Associates, attributes to a deep understanding of its audience. “They know how busy [readers] are. They know their routines. They know whether they have a TV, and they know their pain points,” Wade says.
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Using this knowledge, Wade says theSkimm sets itself apart from competitors by adroit execution of three basic marketing tactics: a unique brand voice, word of mouth and building a user community.
“All brands have a voice, whether they’re aware of it or not, and the strongest brands create and use an intentional voice. TheSkimm has done exactly that,” she says. “We know [word of mouth] is one of the best ways to market a brand … because you have the trusted opinion and recommendation of somebody, and you’re much more likely to give something a try or come to it predisposed to like it when you hear it from a friend.”
In fact, Wade believes theSkimm has accrued so much relevance that it’s morphing into a lifestyle brand.
“They’re curating news and offering it up in a certain way, and they’re not out there trying to get the story first or the original coverage. They’re not playing that game,” Wade says. “If you skipped reading theSkimm, you would think that something was missing with your routine. You lack something.”