Building Newsletter Audiences at Morning Brew

An Interview with Zoë Gibson


Zoë Gibson is the Audience Development Manager at Morning Brew, a suite of newsletters with over three million subscribers. She stopped by Foster to share some tips, tricks, and tactics for newsletter writers to grow their audiences.

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How does Morning Brew think about growth?

Morning Brew started off with a single product: one daily business newsletter sent in the morning. The audience has since grown to over three million.

I was brought on to focus on our B2B industry products Marketing Brew, Retail Brew, and Emerging Tech Brew. For those products, we not only care about raw subscriber growth—we care who the subscribers are.

With the Marketing Brew newsletter, we want the people we’re targeting to be in marketing. The growth challenge there is finding both quality and scale.

Many of the growth tactics the B2C side of the business employs are scalable channels like YouTube influencers, Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, and paid acquisition.

But for the industry products, it’s challenging because we need more granular targeting. I have to look to places where the audiences hang out, which tend to be smaller and make scalability much more difficult.

What is one of the top growth tactics you’ve used?

One thing we say internally is “People who read newsletters, read newsletters.” We call this tactic cross-promo.

What we mean is that if we want to find readers for Morning Brew or any of our other franchises, we should try to find them in other newsletters. That way we’re self-selecting for people who already read newsletters.

This tactic tends to be a lower-cost channel and it’s very effective in driving quality subscribers.

How do you figure out the right newsletters to cross-promo with?

Find other newsletters that you think your target audience is reading. Oftentimes, a good place to start is looking at what newsletters you’re reading. It’s likely there’s some topical overlap there. Reach out and see if they’re open to an arrangement where you promote each other in your respective newsletters.

Look at newsletters that have high engagement and ask these questions: What is their list size? How many people are actually opening their newsletter?

We consider cross-promos based on unique opens. If a newsletter has 100,000 subscribers and 50% of them open it, we count that as 50,000. If our unique opens are 100,000, we would do a two-to-one swap with that newsletter where they link to ours twice and we link to theirs once.

What tips or tricks do you have for growing organically on a shoestring budget?

Morning Brew has a strong referral program. We call it one of our “peer effects” tactics. We are revisiting how the program can better serve the industry-specific products I work on. The idea is to get people to bring in their colleagues, their direct reports, their managers, their teams, and other people in their industry. 

At Retail Brew, we do community reader profiles every Wednesday. There's a section called Coworking where we interview a reader with a great image of them included. Personally, even before I started working here, it was one of my favorite sections because it's so human bringing in someone from the audience.

How do you optimize engagement for folks who are already subscribers?

One of the main reasons I’m excited about working at Morning Brew is that our North Star is engagement. As I mentioned earlier, we sell our newsletter sponsorships based on opens, which is not the market standard.

Most media companies sell advertising based on list size. So they're incentivized to keep the overall list size high even if those people are not opening. 

Deliverability of emails is important because it’s directly related to engagement. If you’re not showing up in people’s inboxes, they’re less likely to engage with you.

There are a couple of things you can do to improve it: churning your list and responding to your readers.

Churning your list is simply removing people who aren’t opening your emails. If you’re sending to lots of subscribers who aren’t opening, the [internet] service providers are more likely to send your emails to spam or the promotions tab, rather than the main inbox.

Responding to your readers is great because [internet] service providers reward you if you have a two-way connection with your readers. It signals to them that those readers want to receive your emails. 

I’ve seen people sending confirmation emails and saying, "Welcome to my list. Respond to this email with the most recent movie you watched” or something silly like that. This does two things for the creator: it helps with deliverability and it helps build relationships with readers.

If the newsletter is not the signature product but a promotional tool itself, how do you think about growing it? 

If the natural frequency of your signature product or business is infrequent, you should layer on additional products that have a higher natural frequency to keep people engaged. A newsletter is a smart option for that.

Zillow was initially for helping people buy houses, but then they realized you don't buy a house very often, so they added on Zestimate and they added on Rental. Those products have a much higher frequency and keep you engaged.

To grow your newsletter, talk to your audience and get a sense of what their needs are and if they're being served. Use your newsletter to generate more engagement with your audience. This will help you learn what you need to do to grow your main business.

How do you approach defining audiences and niches?

We think of audiences and niches in terms of breadth and depth. We call it niching the niche.

Breadth means introducing additional industry franchises. For example, if we see there’s a large healthcare segment to our audience, we can add a product for them.

Depth means looking at sub-verticalization. Within the Marketing Brew franchise, for example, there are many people interested in SEO, email marketing, or social media marketing. We can introduce products for them that are more niche than our niche products.

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You can follow Zoë on Twitter here, or subscribe to Morning Brew’s newsletters here.

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