Newsletter media brand Morning Brew has had quite the year, building a formidably engaged audience with snappy copy and incise insights, sprinkled with a couple of coffee emojis. We catch up with Alex Lieberman, its co-founder and chief executive, as he explains its growth and warns against thinking that email is the next big media ”pivot”.
Alex Lieberman and Austin Rief started Morning Brew from a dorm room at the University of Michigan in 2015 as a hobby – first as a means of engaging other students, then locals, and then a few years later around 2.5 million modern business leaders (MBL).
From the start, they knew to create an email that they themselves would read. Riddles drove intrigue. Quotes provoked thought. Bullet points kept people moving.
Five years later it boasts $20m in revenue – mostly from advertising on its daily email. There are 65 employees – including Lieberman’s mom as chief of staff holding the operation together.
Lieberman, at 25, and Rief, a year younger, have built a business that forces businesses that have been using email for 20 years to rethink the strengths of the platform.
Alongside the likes of Substack, Morning Brew is driving a new wave of newsletter media that threatens to be the next big so-called ‘pivot’ in the sphere. Lieberman‘s done very well out of the channel, but he is wary of advising anyone to go all-in on it.
“I don‘t think email ever deserved to not be the hot thing – media is an industry that is driven by herd mentality. When they hear about the shiny new thing, they flock towards it.”
There have been tough lessons after many have been “screwed over by the algorithms”. And this most recent fetishism of email is occurring as the pendulum swings back towards controlled audience relationships. Email hasn‘t changed. We have. As Lieberman puts it: “Everything about email is as sexy today as it always – all that’s changed is our perception of it. MBLs are is glued to email.”
Morning Brew readers are invited to respond to emails directly – it is “intimate” and inquisitive with its database of 2.5 million (which is ruthlessly trimmed). ”We are very focused on list health. We‘d be at around 5 million subscribers now if we didn‘t have the practices that we have.”
The daily email goes out six days a week. MBLs only get one day off, it appears. But it wasn‘t enough. An email maketh not a media company, but a few emails do. Once its formula was established, the pair whipped up the Emerging Tech Brew, the Retail Brew, The Marketing Brew and The Turnout newsletters.
There’s a simple piece of psychology at play underpinning the entire business. “We go a mile wide and an inch deep with a single newsletter to help readers avoid social embarrassment,“ says Lieberman. “We arm them with information – they won‘t be caught not knowing something. Human beings are generally risk-averse or loss averse, so we build the habit. We‘re saving them from embarrassment with people they respect.“
“Become smarter“ is the pitch. Whether it is the Retail Brew or Marketing Brew, these specialist verticals are tailored to “work their way” into people’s careers and make them smart at their jobs. And it respects their time.
Make the email the destination, a standalone product and not just a portal filled with links, is the advice. For too long, Lieberman says, email has been “relegated to a content marketing channel that drives people back to articles on a website”. Using it to send people elsewhere is a pretty “tough habit to build”. Especially if you want to build 1 million unique daily openers.
Lieberman claims to have 40% open rates on the dailies. It‘s high for two reasons. First, it‘s a good product – that‘s the hard part. Next, the team really trim that database. Non-engaged readers are stripped out.
15% of readers came in through word of mouth. Some simply liked it and shared it, while others were influenced by referral rewards. “You can create the world‘s best referral program, but if you‘re wrapping it around a bad product it‘s like wrapping shit in tin foil.“
Promotions create commotions and Lieberman shares some frankly unbelievable stories. A MacBook Pro giveaway bumped the dial up by 40,000 subscribers, while branded jogging bottoms drove 24,000 sign-ups – 8,000 people attracted at least three other subscribers in order to qualify for a pair of Brew sweatpants.
The Brew seeks a quality audience – people who want and will read most of its newsletter. So here‘s the main takeaway: 60% of its audience came from paid acquisition. It‘s a fact that cannot be overlooked. To find MBLs, you’ve got to spend a little to get a little in marketing. “A couple hundred thousand dollars a month” to be exact.
It took a good product and a big marketing budget to brew the Morning Brew.
Microbrew to macrobrew
“We’re transitioning from newsletter company to media brand,“ says Lieberman. “We want to be the go-to business media brand for the MBL.“
And so it has a few pivots of its own in mind. Now‘s the time to do it. It has the heft of Insider Inc, the home of Business Insider, behind it. This serious media business liked what it saw, clearly.
The Brew will continue to operate as a standalone product, but it has a springboard for expansion now. And the expansion may surprise you.
Morning Brew is embracing multimedia content now; shows and podcasts. Expect a website down the line too. It‘s going to make the leap from great emails to great podcasts – a huge step for the company you’d think. Lieberman doesn’t. From a kitted out home-studio, without breaking a sweat or pausing for a breath, he says: “Podcasts are more similar to email than you might think. It is a very intimate experience, just you and the host whose personality you build a relationship with over time.“
Furthermore, he says, podcasts have an owned audience that is subscribed and get notified when new episodes drop. So podcasts aren’t so different from emails. He adds that advertisers pay a premium for a host read with an engaged audience.
Email has been around for a while, but there are several factors driving publishers now to access that owned, close relationship with readers. As copycats look to pursue the Brew, however, this media company is looking to build a more conventional bedrock.