This newsletter leveraged its superfans to get to 500,000 subscribers

Simon Owens
Apr 4, 2018 · 9 min read
Hustle cofounder Sam Parr. Source: YouTube

Sam Parr and his cofounder John Havel first got the idea for the ambassador program that would help them grow their business-focused newsletter to over half a million subscribers back in 2014, a few years before the newsletter even launched.

Back then, Parr was fresh off selling a roommate matching website he co-founded, and he decided to follow that up by launching an entrepreneurship-focused conference called Hustlecon. It was while searching for ways to market the conference that he stumbled across a post on the Tim Ferriss blog about how Harry’s, the mail subscription razor company, had generated 100,000 email subscribers in a single week. The article details how Harry’s set up a page for automatically-generated referral links that would allow users to receive free products — say, free shaving cream — in exchange for referring new customers. “That was the inspiration,” Parr told me. “And so we decided to use the same concept on our conference.”

Here’s how it worked: when someone landed on the Hustlecon website, they were prompted to put in their email address. “After entering your email, it’d be like, ‘Thanks for joining the Hustlecon email list, here’s how you can buy a ticket. And if you want $10 off your ticket, share this with three friends, and if three friends join, you’ll get $10 off,” recalled Parr. The incentives didn’t stop there; if you referred 50 friends, you got 50 percent off your ticket. The ticket was free if you referred 100 friends. And for 1,000 referrals? You could come to the speakers’ dinner.

The strategy worked. People were so enthusiastic about getting discounted tickets that some even tried to cheat the system. “Some people would put it on Mechanical Turk and get someone to enter their email for like a dime,” said Parr. “At first we would do spot checks to catch them. But after a while we had to build in automated systems in order to catch people trying to game the system.” That first year, Hustlecon attracted 360 attendees. The second year brough 600 and generated enough revenue that Parr and his partner John Havel decided to launch a spinoff media company called The Hustle.

At first, The Hustle was just your standard news website with a bloggy voice. But with email being such a strong component of the website’s marketing, Parr and his colleagues started to wonder why they were bothering with trying to drive clicks to the website. Why not just place all the content in the email? So in early 2016, The Hustle relaunched as a once-a-day newsletter, what Parr often describes as “The Wall Street Journal meets The Daily Show.”

Given the success Parr had seen with how an ambassador program had generated increased interest in Hustlecon, it was a no-brainer to launch a similar marketing strategy for The Hustle. The team had a basic estimate for the value of a single subscriber — that is, how much money that subscriber would generate over time — so they just needed to come up with reward tiers that would match that value. “We had an intern who worked with us at the time, and I remember she made a list of all the potential things we could give away,” said Parr. “It was just all the cool stuff we liked, and we taught her how to use Excel, and she figured out how much we could spend on per tier, based on the revenue per subscriber that we earn.” The tiers have changed constantly over the years, but in those early days they included stickers, t-shirts, and hoodies with the Hustle logo on them.

The most basic tier, which requires that you refer four people to the newsletter, gets you access to a private Facebook group. I asked Parr why they chose Facebook over creating their own website message board where they could exert more control. “We thought about a forum, but the reality is that most people don’t log into forums and they’re already on Facebook,” he said. “So we didn’t want to try to create new behavior, but we wanted to adapt and fit within already existing behavior.” He had noticed for years that Facebook seemed to place emphasis on groups in the Newsfeed algorithm, something Mark Zuckerberg made more explicit last year when he announced that growing groups would be Facebook’s main priority in the foreseeable future.

So how does The Hustle promote its ambassador program? “It’s basically a huge drip sequence,” said Parr. A few weeks after a new user signs up for The Hustle, that person is sent an official invitation to join the program. Clicking on it brings you to a personalized landing page that tells you how long you’ve been a member, how many editions you’ve opened, and, most important, how many friends you’ve referred thus far.

Scroll down a little, and the page offers up an email template with sample wording that you can use when pitching your personalized referral link. Scroll a little more, and you have the reward tiers:

Throughout the entire process, you’re on a continuous drip email campaign. “If you get stuck between one and three [referrals], then you get more emails reminding you of that,” said Parr. “Then if you get more than four people to join, you get invited to the Facebook group, which is another automated email, and then between these stages of referring five people and 25 people, you get a whole new sequence, and once you’ve overcome 25 people, you get a whole new sequence.”

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The ambassador program didn’t produce explosive growth at first. “Communities take forever to build up,” said Parr. ‘It was a slow burn.” Participation accelerated, however, when the next Hustlecon came around. “It started picking up because some of the ambassadors were coming and would meet up with each other. Throw parties with each other. A pre and post party for the event.” There was something about meeting face to face that made the ambassador program’s value proposition much clearer, and after the conference, growth started to pick up. It’s now fairly common for ambassadors who meet in the Facebook group to take their relationships offline. “A couple people who we’ve hired started out as ambassadors that I met through the Facebook group. And they have friends who they met through Hustle ambassadors. There’s even been a couple boyfriend girlfriend relationships created.”

Parr gave me access to the ambassador Facebook group, and with its nearly 3,200 members it’s extremely active. Members post several fresh threads a day, and it’s not uncommon for a single post to attract dozens of comments. Because many are entrepreneurs and business-minded folks, a lot of the comments seek to crowdsource information on B2B services or the problems one encounters when running a business.

Parr and his colleagues at The Hustle are a constant fixture in the Facebook group. Sometimes he’ll weigh in on discussion threads, and often he’ll publish his own posts, usually on whatever happens to interest him at that given moment. “It’s not exactly part of my to-do list [to check in at the Facebook group],” said Parr. “It’s just part of my natural tendency.” For many of his posts, he’ll muse about business philosophies (he once tried to calculate how many years the average human being has to tackle big career projects) or write about a company or product he admires.

Because the ambassador program represents The Hustle’s most devoted users, Parr and his colleagues will use the Facebook group to float new ideas for the newsletter and gather feedback. During the 2017 California wildfires, for instance, The Hustle’s staff wondered if it was insensitive to be running ads in the issues that reported on the fires when people were losing their lives, so Parr put the question to the Facebook group. He’s also used the group to measure enthusiasm for potential speakers at upcoming Hustlecons. “We would ask how many people had heard of this guy or that guy,” said Parr. “Or hey, I want to ask this person to speak at Hustlecon, does anyone have an intro?”

I wanted to get a better idea of what motivates a Hustle subscriber to become an ambassador, so I interviewed Braden Parker, who joined the ambassador program about eight months ago. Parker is from Vancouver, Canada and is the cofounder of a direct-to-consumer shoe brand. He learned about The Hustle from a friend of his who actually already was an ambassador, so there was only about a two week gap between when Parkour signed up for the newsletter and when he reached the minimum threshold of referrals to join the Facebook group. Once he was in the ambassador program, he didn’t continue referring new users. “For me it was less about getting a free t-shirt or a hat,” he told me. “It was more about the connections, of who you’d be meeting.”

At first, Parker merely lurked in the group, trying to get a feel for it. But after a few weeks he felt confident enough to begin diving into discussion topics and soliciting feedback for his own business. In fact, he’s used the group as a sounding board for when he’s on the lookout for a new service or wants feedback on a new company initiative. “We went through this marketing exercise of trying to create a female muse, which is creating a hyper specific example of your target market,” he said. “You literally create a fake person. What’s their name? Where did they go to school? My cofounder and I are both male, and we wanted female input. We posted to the group, ‘Hey we’re creating this female muse, we’d love to talk with a few women entrepreneurs and get your thoughts on what’s an inspirational female muse would be.’”

Not only did several women respond, but eight of them agreed to do follow-up phone calls so they could give more in-depth feedback. And Parker’s experience wasn’t an anomaly; browsing through the group, I came across several examples in which someone asks a question about, say, sales or marketing, and a half dozen ambassadors flood into the thread to offer up thoughtful responses.

The Hustle now has north of 500,000 subscribers, and while the ambassador program isn’t the newsletter’s biggest source of referrals, it’s still one of its most important. There are around 4,000 ambassadors, and each ambassador generates an average 18 referrals. Some back of the envelope math indicates that the ambassador program has resulted in somewhere around 70,000 new subscribers. The top three ambassadors recommended 9,400 subscribers between them. Nearly a dozen produced enough referrals that The Hustle flew them to its offices so they could meet the staff in person.

But just because they’ve seen success with the program thus far doesn’t mean they won’t continue changing things up and experimenting with it. “We are testing the idea of lowering the threshold to become an ambassador,” said Parr. “So like, three versus zero [referrals]. What does it mean to become an ambassador is something we’ll question over the next quarter.”

And with nearly ever media company pivoting to paid subscriptions, I asked Parr whether he thought The Hustle’s most devoted fans would pay up, or if he would even pursue that path. “I think it’s sounds like broken record, but I think media companies will have multiple streams of revenue,” he replied. “For us that means advertising, that means events, that means affiliate, and that means subscriptions. We will have [subscriptions] eventually. It’s not on the roadmap right now. I think that email can be built up to be a very large revenue stream — in the tens of millions of dollars. And we’re not in the tens of millions yet. We’re trying to focus on growing that out for now.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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