Edited excerpts from Engagement beats scale: Inside Morning Brew’s approach to subscriber growth by Jenny Rothenberg:
Onboarding: The primary goal of our welcome email is to ensure our emails get delivered to the right place — they can’t open our emails if they don’t see them in their inbox. Since this is so important, our welcome email is super straightforward, focused on this singular goal as opposed to overwhelming them with content or trying to get too cute.
Subject lines: Our data has shown that getting an early subscriber over the hump from 0 opens → that first open is crucial. If a user doesn’t open at all in their first few weeks, it’s unlikely they ever will. So we test our subject lines four ways every morning. Each of the four subject lines is sent to 3% segments of our audience at 5am. The winning subject line by measure of opens gets sent to the remaining 88% at 6am. We’ve seen open rate test results vary by as much as 10% depending on the subject line.
Email list cleanliness: Subscribers who aren’t engaging with our content aren’t doing anything for us except potentially harming our deliverability. Our newsletters ending up in spam is quite literally the subject of my nightmares, so to prevent this we have a strict churning process in place. A reader will enter our churn flow if they (i) signed up 18 days ago and have not opened or clicked at all, or (ii) have not opened or clicked in 90 days, regardless of their signup date. When either of these criteria is met, we send them an automated email asking if they’re still interested in receiving our emails. Here, we remind them what they are all about and give them access to recent content. If they don’t re-engage within a few days, we remove them from our list and send them a notification email that we have done so, with one last opportunity to opt back in.
Referral program: Our referral program has been core to our growth. Each user has their own unique link to share with others . Anytime someone signs up with a reader’s unique link, they get the credit. As readers hit the referral milestones (outlined below), they earn rewards. Here’s a complete overview of the program. Our data has consistently shown that subscribers who come in from the program are among our most engaged group of users. When a friend goes out of their way to recommend you check out a new product, you’re likely to give it an honest try.
Paid acquisition: We were fortunate to have such a strong monetization strategy early on that even as a bootstrapped company, we were able to start spending on paid acquisition. When allocating our budget and optimizing our spend, it all comes back to the north star: Quality > Quantity. Opens > List Size. For our hundreds of active sources, we are monitoring not just the cost to acquire a new user (CAC) but the high-quality percentage of each. We define a high-quality subscriber as one that opens six or more of their first 12 newsletters. Two weeks is obviously short in the broader picture of a user’s lifetime with us, but our data has shown that a subscriber’s actions in this timeframe are generally indicative of their longer-term behavior. If the source is paid, we evaluate everything based on its high-quality acquisition cost (HQ CAC). So for example, if a source has an acquisition cost of $5 per subscriber and 50% of those subscribers are high-quality, the HQ CAC is $10. While it’s not baked into the HQ metric, we also take into account a reader’s likeliness to refer based on the source they came from and optimize for that. For example, one of our top ad sets in Facebook Ads has been a lookalike audience built off of existing readers who have referred before. If you’re looking for an engaged newsletter subscriber, don’t go too far away from the platform: email. People who like newsletters…like newsletters. We’ve sponsored ($) and cross-promoted (bartered) with newsletters focused on topics ranging from travel to wellness to personal finance to sports. We’ve had varying success with programmatic ad campaigns within email. Email-based is the only type of programmatic that’s worked for us in any capacity.
(i) Morning Brew is a free newsletter, monetized with ads. But email newsletters can also be a strong customer acquisition tool for subscription products. See How paid content site De Correspondent acquires users.
(ii) The article doesn’t explain how Morning Brew’s team values a quality user, which determines how much it is willing to pay in customer acquisition cost (CAC). On valuing a customer for paid acquisition, see Lifetime value can mislead you into excessive spending on marketing, and also characteristic number 6 in The 10 characteristics of a great consumer subscription business.