What’s Happening:

Morning Brew, a newsletter-first media company that offers young professionals engaging, entertaining business news, built its subscription base from 100,000 to 1.5 million in just 18 months. Tyler Denk, the company’s senior product lead, explained how they did it in an article at Medium.


Why it Matters:

Morning Brew delivers a daily email newsletter geared towards millennials that covers the latest news from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. The impressive and rapid growth of its subscriber list was the result of one of the most powerful referral program tools in email. Their story and strategy could help other digital publishers do the same.


Digging Deeper:

Morning Brew was launched in 2015, and in the first two years, the audience came from word-of-mouth and personal marketing of co-founders Alex Lieberman and Austin Rief. Denk came on in 2017, with an objective to simply build anything that would grow the Morning Brew audience. He tried web pages that allowed the newsletter content to be archived online and shared via social media. All of these activities resulted in about 100,000 subscribers by that point.

Then Denk turned his attention to how Morning Brew could maximize the value of those 100,000 subscribers, who were engaged and passionate. He came up with a simple goal: to create the most effective and “badass,” in his words, referral tool in the world. No small goal, to be sure.

To build this tool, called “Share the Brew,” Morning Brew did not use any third-party application but rather custom-built their own software to do so. Denk shared the strategies they applied in building this referral tool:

  • Start with the product

The team looked at two criteria: was the product valuable to the customer, and could they build growth mechanisms into it natively? When the product is good enough so that people are already referring it without an incentive, that’s when you know you’re ready to build a referral program. In the case of Morning Brew, referral triggers are strategically implemented into every newsletter and allow readers the opportunity to earn rewards from sharing.

  • The tech side

The Morning Brew tool was built using Ruby on Rails and integrated into the email service provider, giving each subscriber a unique referral code. It’s important to consider your main goals and the trade-offs you’re willing to make, as well as build safeguards and understand your program’s vulnerabilities.

  • The rewards

The next step is to decide exactly what rewards you will give your subscribers for making referrals. Morning Brew garnered extensive feedback from existing readers to develop their perks for rewards (you can see this in detail in Denk’s article).

  • Referral hub

Next, a company needs to create a central hub where users can learn about the available rewards, track what they’ve earned, and share easily. The main goal here is to educate, motivate, and assist the end-user to continue to share our product with others.

  • Landing pages

Morning Brew’s landing pages are minimalist and straightforward — a user either signs up or they don’t. They use Google Optimize to test every aspect of the landing page, which is especially important for optimizing incoming traffic from a referral program. 

  • Variety of ways to refer

The Morning Brew referral program utilizes many referral options including a newsletter share section, transactional emails, milestone emails, nudge emails and giveaways.

  • Understand

Morning Brew did a great job of closely monitoring its data and subscriber journey to know what worked best. The team found that people who are referred via email have a conversion rate of 75%, versus only 35% referred via other methods. They also found that SMS and WhatsApp are significantly more effective than Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.


The Bottom Line:

The Morning Brew custom referral tool didn’t account for all the growth from 100,000 to 1.5 million subscribers — the company started paid acquisition in 2018 — but it does account for about 30% of it, and has turned readers into evangelists. More than 225,000 people have referred at least one person to subscribe to Morning Brew. 

As Denk said, “It’s the ultimate 1 + 1 = 3 scenario that makes all of our acquisition channels X times more effective.”

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