On this episode of 'Inbound & Down,' host Jon Sasala chats with Phoebe Bain of Morning Brew about the new wave of modern newsletters and growing a dedicated subscriber base.
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Read the episode transcript below.
Sage Levene: 0:00
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Brian Halligan: 0:22
This is Brian Halligan and you're listening to Inbound & Down from Morey Creative Studios.
Welcome to Inbound & Down: The Art and Science of Inbound Marketing with Jon Sasala, president of Morey Creative Studios. Hey, it's Sage here. Today we have a really exciting guest Phoebe Bain of Marketing Brew. Marketing Brew is the offshoot of the quickly successful and wildly popular newsletter Morning Brew. They, "make reading the news actually enjoyable," and they do. With quippy headlines and a format that is easily digestible, it's no surprise that they have over 2 million subscribers. Phoebe tells us about starting up the marketing offshoot—which is the most recent of all their newsletters—how she stays on top of the news and current trends and the company's methods for getting new subscribers. Phoebe is super fun, and you're going to love hearing from her. Alright, here she is with Jon.
Jon Sasala: 1:20
Okay. Phoebe Bain. Thank you so much for joining me here today. Again, as Sage introduced you. Phoebe is the marketing writer for Morning Brew. Morning Brew is something that I recently got turned on to—specifically Marketing Brew and when Sage put in front of me that we're going to be joining us, I was really excited, because what you guys are doing over there is exceptional. Before we get into exactly what Marketing Brew and Morning Brew is. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Phoebe Bain: 1:42
Yeah. Well, my name is Phoebe Bain, as you mentioned, and thank you so much for having me on, I'm really excited about this as well. But yeah, as you said I'm the marketing writer for Morning Brew. So essentially Marketing Brew is Morning Brew's marketing vertical and because we are a business newsletter company, that means that Marketing Brew is a newsletter that comes out three times a week and gives marketers the most important news of the week for the marketing industry. I am currently the only writer on the project so the lead writer. Previously, I was at Business Insider and Social Media Today. I actually have a social media editing background in addition to writing about the marketing industry.
And you joined Morning Brew there probably about six months ago. Is that right?
I think so. I mean time in quarantine is weird, but yeah, I joined in April.
Yeah. Which is really an interesting time for you to join in because you're getting into a company that first of all, is setting the world on fire, but at a time where you don't have a chance to spend much office time together, right? Like you've been for most of your career there with Morning Brew, you've been working remote.
Yeah, I've been remote from my interview process, my onboarding process, everything was done remotely.
So, do you feel like you've gotten a good idea of the culture over there and an idea of what it's like to be an employee there of Morning Brew or you're kind of figuring it out as they're figuring it out?
Honestly, Morning Brew has done an impeccable job with their remote onboarding. We're growing really fast. We have probably 10 additional people that have been hired since I've been hired. So, it's not like I'm the newest person, but I think that just because the people at Morning Brew are a., so kind—that's definitely a characteristic of everybody at the company—they're really nice people, but b., they're all really social. So, I think that they had more of a sense than most people for how they were going to make remote onboarding work. So, you know, I feel like I've talked to the majority of people that work at the company one-on-one via FaceTime or whatever. They just made sure that I got a really good feel of the company culture from early on.
And the new hires that you're bringing on, is it important that they're around the headquarters being in New York city or you're just saying, you know what, maybe this is the future of our company?
I think that there's a bit of a balance between the two, I think as you know, quarantine, social distancing, everything in New York, I think as that goes on, there will be a bit more of a push and pull between remote and being in the office. But I already know that Morning Brew is going to be a bit more remote-empathetic.
Can you tell me a bit about the history of the company, how it started out as Morning Brew and now it's parlaying into having these like specialized focused versions, like Marketing Brew?
Exactly. Yeah. So, the company has, I think it's about five years old and it started out with just these two guys, Alex and Austin. They were in school at Michigan, had some free time. And I think Alex was helping students at Michigan prep for their Wall Street investment banker-type interviews, and he would ask them where they got their business news and a lot of them were like, well, 'I get it from the Wall Street Journal, but you know, I don't really read it in my free time. Like it's a pain to read it.' So, they just started running this business newsletter to Michigan students, did a lot of guerilla marketing tactics in person—word of mouth stuff to spread the awareness of the newsletter.
Eventually it got big enough that they, Alex himself left his job on wall street and they decided to go full-time with Morning Brew. So, at first it was just a staff of four. It was Alex and Austin running the company, our editor, Neil, who's still with the company now, writing the newsletter, Tyler was handling the tech stuff and then Kinsey Grant, who's now our podcast host was a business editor as well. So, it's really just grown from there and I think that email marketing is great because you can see the metrics on a page, right?
We use Sailthru and it gives us, you know—you can see how many people are clicking on one article or different types of articles versus others. So, you can sort of see where the interest lies. And then obviously being people that analyze the business world already, there's a good opportunity for seeing what B2B content is growing and what we want to get invested in, in the future. So, Marketing Brew was sort of the next thing. It was decided that we were going to have a marketing vertical before I ever joined the company. I was there for about two months, figuring out the specifics of what this thing was going to be, doing you know, writer, training, not kind of thing before I ever launched a live newsletter.
I saw a Retail Brew—I'm not personally subscribed—and I saw an Emerging Tech Brew. Are those different feeds, different newsletters?
So essentially the core business newsletter is just Morning Brew, that's the daily. Marketing Brew is actually the most recent one that's launched. So Emerging Tech Brew launched, I think over a year ago—it might be like a year and a half ago, two years ago now. And then Retail Brew launched a little over a year ago as well. So, Marketing Brew is kind of the next iteration of the B2B newsletter verticals, but yeah, it is the baby of the family so far.
Got it. Yeah. And as you see these kinds of growing and finding success, even if they have a slightly smaller subscriber base, but it's very, very targeted, you can see the opportunities that just start to reveal themselves and say, 'We don't have to just go the marketing route and the retail route, but what about other niche interests?' You know, it can be like fantasy sports or gambling, or I want to say horse doctor, but that's not what they're called...veterinarians. Like veterinarians.
I grew up riding horses so it's funny that you say that.
Oh yeah? So, realizing the opportunity with these other niche markets, you could say, 'We have a sustainable business model that we say, we know how many people we need to support it, what we need to do to grow that subscriber base and the opportunities are kind of limitless.' Is that how you guys are looking at it as you look at your growth going forward?
I think so. And it's also—the cool thing about Morning Brew is that they very much hired me to do my job, right? It's not like I came into this position, then they're like,' Oh, we're going to throw a million different things that you as well.' No, I am the marketing writer and I've been charged with writing the marketing newsletter.
Obviously, it is a startup, so there is that startup mentality of, you know, me talking with more senior level people at the company and giving them ideas for specifically what I'm working on and insights, being that I'm the one on the ground doing it. But in terms of higher-level thinking, we do have a certain amount of structure. So, in terms of what's next, I've heard things, but I'm not the person planning those next steps.
That's great. So, they let you focus on what your true specialty is and when it comes to maybe certain things like around the business model, it's not on you to worry about those things. It's not on you to worry about payroll, it's not on you to worry about anything outside of your lane.
Yeah, I feel like that's what's let me succeed in this role the most and what's been really encouraging, just because I feel like a lot of startups, you're sort of are Jack of all trades. Yeah. It's nice because we're at the stage where I feel like I still know everything that's going on in the rest of the company, but again, my job is my job.
Now, are you tasked with, you know, I know you're tasked with curating the content, that's going to go out either three times a week or, you know, if you're contributing to the other properties. But what about things like conversion rate optimization or open rates and worrying about anything related to that. Are you bothered with that or you're really just content?
So, I'm clued in on that. And I'm asked to contribute towards editorial practices that encourage those things, but we have an amazing growth team at Morning Brew. Our growth manager for Marketing Brew is named Jenny, she's great. And we have cross-functional meetings with sales and growth and everybody, my editor, etc., head of content, every week. So we're all having these conversations once a week, but there are people that are stationed at each peg of the newsletter.
Right, so growing subscriber base, that's not one of your KPIs. There's somebody else who's tasked with that. But when you look at the success of your subscriber base as it growing, where would you say you found that—what's the channel that has brought the most success to you guys?
Oh, well Morning Brew in general is a totally different topic, but in terms of Marketing Brew, I think part of what makes this vertical unique for Morning Brew is that our Twitter presence is just organically insane. Like immediately after starting a Marketing Brew Twitter— I'm sure you know the marketing Twitter community, people caught wind of it. And marketers were following Morning Brew already to some extent, but people on marketing Twitter were just absolutely psyched.
So, we have a really great Twitter community around Marketing Brew, ad I feel like that is—I guess it's not word of mouth marketing, technically, it's social media marketing, but that's where Marketing Brew's word of mouth marketing comes from I think. Marketers are so connected on Twitter. So, of course that's the channel where we're going to be, you know, reaching people.
Yeah. And you guys seem to leverage a few different, really unique channels. I noticed that you have an Unsplash page, a lot of the original artwork that your team creates for the articles going out, you then repurpose that and say, 'put it on Unsplash and let the world have access to it,' which is really creative.
I feel like in terms of content marketing, there are rules about how you can best market your content and make it fit with your business and what channels you should use for content marketing. But the bottom line is that it has to be really great content, and I think that's the case with art designers. They create really great images, really specific images for things that are going on in the business landscape.
And it does have a very unique style to it. So, putting that as a priority and saying, 'we're going to also produce really great artwork,' it shows, you know, and it's something I think that should be celebrated.
One of the things that I realized your, I guess it's like a referral program within the emails is really creative as well. Can you talk about what you see with the ability for people to forward along, encourage subscribers and reward them in some way?
Yeah, absolutely. As a person that just got a big box of Morning Brew referral rewards in the mail the other day, the products that you get are really great. So essentially for anybody that doesn't know the background with our referral program is, if you refer, I think it's three people, we'll send you some sort of little gifts, like laptop stickers or a key chain or something. If you refer five people, you'll get a t-shirt. 10 people you'll get a sweatshirt, 20 people you'll get like a mug or whatever.
But, something cool that our growth team has been doing and that we did in the Marketing Brew newsletter, is that we've done larger giveaways. I think the daily newsletter has been doing laptop giveaways, but we gave away Air Pods in the newsletter the other day. Every referral that you did during this Air Pods giveaway for Marketing Brew with your unique referral link is one entry to enter the giveaway. So, it was cool. Readers had contest with their friends to see who can refer to the most people and Twitter was a really great channel.
You've got a great way to bring people in, but what's important though, is to keep them interested, to keep them from unsubscribing. I'm sure you're privy to these numbers. How would you say your open rates are and the engagement with the newsletter? Do you see those numbers?
Yeah, I do. Marketing Brew's, open rate, I don't know if it's because it's a new product or if it's because people like it, but the open rate has been pretty high. Essentially, something that we do to make sure it's the highest it can be is we A/B test our subject lines. So, I'm experimenting with a bunch of different things with those right now. Like, you know, if we put the name of the company that we are writing about in our subject line versus like a short song lyric, or like a pop culture reference, which one performs better. I've run like three tests for that so far and the company name has performed better every time.
But yeah, essentially, I think each of those A/B tests goes out to about 10% of the newsletter audience. Then there's an auto winner that Sailthru picks essentially. And then the higher performing subject line open rate is the one that goes out to the rest of the 90% of the audience. So that's been a useful way that we do that. But then also we can look through the clicks map on the emails that we send and see who's clicking on what story or what aspect of the newsletter the most. And to some extent we can create content going forward around where that level of interest is.
That's great. There are a few different things that you're doing, but it's always testing and it's looking at what subject lines, what length, what types of words you're using and essentially establishing what is the best practice or your general protocol for specifically Marketing Brew. And that might be information that's different from one newsletter to the other, you know, it's a different audience they might engage differently.
And then in addition, looking at the content, looking at, maybe having too many sponsors wasn't good, or this isn't working. You seem to have found a really good balance right now of what seems to be about three original pieces of content, some really great representation for advertisers. Do you do some testing with, 'let's see if we can go longer, let's see if we should go shorter?' Has that been some of the experimenting?
Yeah. And I think it's interesting being that Marketing Brew is the baby and the newest product. To some extent, you know, you can't reinvent the wheel with existing newsletter products, but when we were thinking about what this is going to be—we have a section for instance called 'What Else Is Brewing?' And they're probably about 15 to 25-word news bullets to be like, okay, we dove into these three big things happening in the industry in a long form way at the top of the newsletter, here's the top five things happening today that we didn't talk about.
So, I think that's something we experimented with a little bit internally with our beta audience was like, what performs better a longer 'What Else Is Brewing?'—we call them WEIBs—bullet point or shorter ones. So yeah, I think that to some extent Marketing Brew is a little bit of the guinea pig just because it's the newest product, but I feel like what we keep coming back to is what we've been doing with the core business newsletter is also going to work for these other newsletters. Obviously not in every case but in terms of engagement and things like word length and just keeping the branding consistent across properties.
And as much learning as you can do about how to optimize an email, there's also something that at the core, it needs to be incredible content. Do you ever feel like you're struggling to come up with those three pieces that are going to make it into Monday's edition? Or do you have a backlog of some evergreen content you can always point to in case there's not something new that grabs you out there?
Yeah. I think that at least for our Monday content—because we run Monday, Wednesday, Friday—I typically come up with a Monday story by the end of Friday that's a little bit more evergreen. But in terms of the rest of the week's newsletters, I don't know if it's because I'm specifically a marketing nerd and I'm interested in everything happening in the industry, but I haven't gotten to a point where I'm like, 'I don't have a thing today.' You know, obviously it's some really timely stuff like the Facebook boycotts or the TikTok ban, but it doesn't always have to be. There's always cool campaigns people are running and new updates on social media platforms and that kind of thing, so.
Okay, so you have a good collection of topics you can pick from, you have some ideas for stories. Can you tell me about what the process is like to build out an article? You know, how long does it take to produce a piece? What's your weekly schedule look like?
My weekly schedules wild, it's really fun. So essentially, I'll take you through the nitty gritty of each step of it. So, let's say today is—today's what Thursday?
I have no idea. Quarantine life is weird.
Yeah, it is Thursday. So, I have to produce a newsletter for Friday, right? So, I get up Thursday morning and I read everything and anything. There is no marketer in the world who is consuming as much marketing news as I am on a daily basis. I read all the new PR pitches that come into my inbox, I read every single marketing publication. Eventually I get to the point within the first couple hours of the day where I have a list of all the story topics that I have options to do and there's usually like 10 to 12 of those. And I order them in terms of importance to the general industry at large, and then if I have a take on them or how interesting they are to me, or how much I know about the topic, that goes into my ordering of them too.
Then I take the top three, I write out pitches for them and I pitched them to my editor in our #stories Slack channel. We talk through the pitches and then I start writing and you know, by the next day they've gone—the entire copy of the newsletter has gone through my editor a couple of times, it's gotten to a copy editor and by noon, we are ready to rock and roll.
Email is something for some reason that has such a personal feel to it, right? Like I feel very intimately connected to my inbox and keeping a healthy inbox is important to me. And I really do only let the best stuff stay in there, I'm happy to unsubscribe. Annually I go through and say, 'Today's my purge day,' where I go and make sure that I am only getting things that I want. The fact that you are communicating with people in such a personal environment, do you feel like maybe that's one of the reasons that your casual attitude or quirkiness really comes through and resonates with people?
On one hand, yes, but on the other hand, I think that the casual attitude and quirkiness is supposed to be in direct contrast to traditional business news sources. Maybe it works better because we're doing it through email and not a print publication or, you know, just a digital publication. I can see why that assumption would be made, but Morning Brew and Marketing Brew are supposed to be read at the beginning of your day when you're having your brew, coffee or, you know, when you're on the subway. That's how it's supposed to be read.
It's early in the morning, right? We send the daily brew at like 5:00, 6:00 AM every day. And so, it has to be casual and easy to understand and it's what we want the modern professional to take into their workday and that is easier to consume when it's casual and relatable language.
Being that primarily you are newsletter, people might be listening to this saying, 'I want to do that for myself.' What are some things you would warn them about if they say, 'I want to focus so much time on being a newsletter like Marketing Brew?'
It's a really good question, but yeah, essentially to have a really quality product, it takes a lot of time. I think creativity is really key with this kind of thing and I think having a lot of time for editing and research and testing. It's not going to be worth your time unless you have a lot of time to invest in it.
Well very cool. Before we wrap up, is there anything that we should have covered that you felt like we missed?
Couldn't say enough, good things about the podcast. You should listen, Business Casual, wherever you get your podcasts. It's great.
So, there's our first call to action. Obviously, the most important one that people need to take away is they should subscribe to Marketing Brew. Where can people find that?
Morningbrew.com/marketing, super easy. Morningbrew.com/marketing.
Okay, there you go. What about you online? Where would you recommend people find you if at all?
If you’re a marketer you're probably on Twitter. So, I am @notnotphoebe and N O T N O T P H O E B E at Twitter and on Instagram, but I'm a lot more active on Twitter than I am on Instagram and a lot more like marketing/business focused on there.
Okay, there you go! Well, Phoebe, it's been a pleasure spending time with you. I really, really love your company and what you guys are doing and I love the content that you're producing. You're very talented and I appreciate you spending this much time here with us.
Yeah, thank you so much, I really appreciate it. This was great!
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