This week, The Idea caught up with Austin Rief, co-founder and COO of Morning Brew, a business newsletter targeted at millennials with more than 1 million subscribers. We talked the value of one-to-one relationships, the power of a good referral program, and whether the Brew will expand beyond newsletters.

Mollie Leavitt
Jul 22 · 11 min read

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got started with Morning Brew?

I went to the University of Michigan’s business school, and like most people in the business school, I was just gearing up for a career in finance, more specifically investment banking. Then, my sophomore year, I started reading this newsletter, which was really a pdf attachment that was sent out by another Michigan student. I didn’t know who he was, but I thought there was something interesting there, and it started to really grow at Michigan.

Then he sent out an email saying, “Hey, I’m looking to grow this thing a little bit more and looking to bring on someone to help me out, who’s interested?” I responded — I didn’t even know who the person was sending out. It happened to be my now co-founder, Alex Lieberman. We just took a look at what was going on and why, why it had been growing. And what it was, was it was just basic, the left side of the Wall Street Journal, so to speak, the most important stories in the business world, but written in a really conversational witty tone.

Some legacy publications create really great content, but it’s not the most engaging, and a lot of people don’t have time to read the full Journal. We wanted to give people the value of the journal in five minutes. We started writing at Michigan, and when I graduated, I went full time. Now, we have a six day a week newsletter, and then recently we’ve launched two other verticals.

I want to focus on your first development or when you first were developing the newsletter. I know you mentioned that Alex had just sent out a pdf at the beginning, but how did you decide on newsletters as the primary format? We’re in sort of “peak newsletter” right now — everyone has a newsletter — but it seems like Morning Brew started before that.

It’s funny how everyone loves newsletters, and when we started they were the least sexy thing. We talked to some really big people in media, some people you would know by name very, very well who raised hundreds of million dollars in funding and they all told the same thing: email is not sexy, create video content, create viral videos, run videos that will go crazy on Facebook and expand.

For many reasons, we decided not to do that. One, we didn’t have the time or money to create videos, and we decided to go for a quality over quantity approach, which just meant that we wanted to give you news, not we want to be the first, we don’t want to be the one that gives the most news; we’re going to give you the highest quality news.

We thought email is a great platform for that. Now, looking back, I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful, because email is such a great platform. As I think about the media industry as a whole and who is succeeding, I think the publishers who are succeeding are the ones that are creating need-based content, content you really need and come back to everyday.

I love one-to-one connections; I love the one-to-one connection that we create in the newsletter, I love the one-to-one connections where you can create through podcasts just from hearing someone’s voice. We kind of stumbled upon it because it was cheap, but there’s a reason we stuck to it, and we’re doubling down, because I think it’s an effective means of communication. You really own the relationship, there is no Facebook algorithm, there’s no Google SEO optimization. It’s simply having people opt in and giving them content they want. If they enjoy the content, they’ll keep reading it, if not they’ll opt out, so you have a relationship with the people who actually want to get your content.

On that note, are you guys considering developing non-newsletter content?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s in the product roadmap to create non-newsletter content. We think about that roadmap by thinking, what are other forms of communication that we can continue to create this intimate one-to-one experience. I don’t see us ever creating a ton of content on the website just for the sake of doing reporting and page views. I don’t think it’s a great user experience, and I don’t think that’s a great business model for a lot of publishers and especially ourselves.

What interests us are those one-to-one connections, like newsletters, podcasts, communities. So being able to connect people, whether it be physical or digital, those are all things that I find really compelling and things that now that we’ve really grown the team, we’re going to start testing and exploring. We’ve started running some small events and testing how things are going, and those are the types of things we’re going to focus on, and just go from there.

What do you see as your key success metrics?

We’re tracking opens. What we look for every day is how many people open the newsletter, and how many people are opening multiple times a week. What we really care about is retention of people. Whereas a lot of different publishers or email people quote subscribers, we certainly quote subscribers because that gets headlines, but internally, all we care about is opens. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 million subscribers opening at a really low percent, or a million opening at a really high percent. It’s all about how many opens, and what we really care about on a daily basis is just people opening and interacting with the newsletter.

Can you tell us about your target audience?

We like to use the framing of, it’s your friend telling you the news in a very conversational way, as if you’re at a bar after work with your feet up on the bar, having a conversation. It’s not your boss telling you the news in a suit in the office, it’s after work over a drink, having a conversation.

We like to write in a very conversational tone, and definitely the person who was behind telling you the news is the type of person who likes to go out and interact with their friends and be social, but is also insanely intellectually curious. Everyone who works at the Brew has to be intellectually curious, and that’s the voice we want to give off — the type of person who would give up a night going out to the bars to go watch a Ted Talk or watch a YouTube video and learn something new.

Whenever we think about would our persona say this phrase, or write in this tone, do this, we always go back to with that person sitting at the bar with their feet up, discussing the news, arguing over a fundraising round, would that person say this and would that person do this?

Can you tell me a bit about your growth strategy? I know you’re pretty focused on referrals, so how did you settle on that?

We grew a lot of different ways, but referrals are really important to us because it’s virtually free — we do give out swag for referring. It’s really important for us to get people talking about our product and getting that top-of-mind awareness that it’s okay to talk about our products and tell other people.

It’s a really great way for us to experiment with other paid acquisition methods and know that we still had this word of mouth thing growing really quickly and it helps with the community aspect. We encourage you to tell your friends, so you can be reading the same things as your friends and you can discuss it. It really gives them that community feel when, when 25% of our subscribers come from people telling other people.

Can you tell us about the different referral tiers?

The way the referral program works is that we incentivize you with Morning Brew swag. I think referral programs in general are common right now, but for me it’s important to make the incentive align with what we want. What do we want you to do by becoming a referrer? We want you to become more and more engaged with the product by doing so, and so we reward you with Morning Brew Swag.

When you get three referrals, we give you our exclusive Sunday edition of Morning Brew called Light Roast. The reason we do that is because the type of person who’s referring, the person who’s so passionate about the product, that they want more of it and they’re upset that they don’t get it on Sunday. As a result, they’re going to share it with three friends, so they can get it on Sunday. That’s the type of referral we want, people who are striving for that.

After five referrals, we send you Morning Brew stickers. Why do we do that? It’s simple. If you’re the type of person who’s going to share our newsletter five times or with five people, you’re probably the type of person that wants to represent our brand, and we want you representing our brand, so we send you stickers, and hopefully you put it on your laptop, your fridge, or whatever. Then we’re top of mind again for someone who has already passed out the product.

At ten referrals, you get access to the Morning Brew’s exclusive Facebook group, which has high single-digit thousands of people, and it’s a bunch of like-minded people who are all talking about companies, stocks, jobs, books they’re reading — really intellectually curious, hungry people who all interact. Then as you go up the chart, 25 referrals gets you T-shirts, so on and so forth, up to the Morning Brew mug. That’s the way we think about things, incentivizing people with the right incentives.

How many subscribers reach each tier?

The Light Roast has over 50,000, so over 50,000 people have gotten three referrals. The Facebook group is, about 7,500, so 7,500 people have gotten ten referrals at least, because not everyone has a Facebook.

How did you guys decide on the topics to spin off for the new verticals?

I’m a big proponent of the ‘verticalization’ of the world and content in general, and I think it’s really important to give people the opportunity to go deeper in areas that they either work in or are interested in. Whereas a lot of other companies who maybe started newsletters had been trying to become anything but a newsletter company, we are, at least for the short term, really embracing that.

We decided to double down in our core competency, of email, our tone, our design, our format, our knowledge of deliverability, our knowledge of email ad sales, and take everything we do really well for the core general business news, and translate that into a few other areas that we find really interesting that we think we can educate people.

Our emerging technology newsletter is educating people on emerging technologies, including AI, machine learning, Bitcoin, the blockchain, et cetera. Ryan Duffy does an excellent job of educating people on that and we’re going to just need to build that out and increase frequency and products for that vertical. Similarly, with our retail vertical, we want to be a resource for retail professionals to come to us just now for news, but eventually many other things. People in the retail industry can wake up in the morning, read their Morning Brews, and be able to walk into work and be really knowledgeable about the day and what happened the previous day in the business world. And then by 10:00 or 11:00, you get your retail newsletter and you feel like you’re learning more about your job. We’re looking to assist more people and enhance more people’s lives, and just help them become smarter in a more efficient and more fun way.

Do you have any other topics in the pipeline for new verticals?

Yeah, we definitely have verticals that we’re interested in. We are right now very focused on these two verticals and we think it’s really important to go deep rather than wide. We certainly have some down the road, but right now we’re thinking about how can we better cover these verticals and how can we provide more value to our readers. So nothing specific is in the pipeline, we have some ideas, but right now it’s all about more products and more frequency around these current verticals.

Do you ever see the business moving outside of just specifically business related news or is that the line that you guys wouldn’t cross?

I would say never say never. I mean certainly with the elections coming up, we’re certainly going to cover politics. We’re going to do it from a business lens, so we’re going to talk about these candidates — just from Democratic Party there’s so many of them. What are their policies and how would that affect the economy, the business world, trade, et cetera. That’s what we’re focused on now. That’s not to say we wouldn’t cover other things in the future, but right now just the business side of everything.

What is the most interesting thing in media that you’ve seen from organization other than your own?

A theme I’ve seen that really interests me, is companies launching products or services outside of ad-based products or services, that instead of thinking about themselves as a news company or even a media company, you think about the demographic and the audience you’re hitting, and what other products and services can I create to enhance their lives, or what does that psychographic of people, what does that grouping of people that I’m hitting? What do they need?

There are a range of media companies doing this. Take a look at Tasty launching the hardware they launched, or even someone, albeit they’re controversial, but FuckJerry launching a board game.

There are a large grouping of media companies who are really doing a good job of thinking of themselves as really well rounded media companies. I think in the future, media companies are going to certainly have to be beyond ad-based, even beyond subscription.

I think that the period of the subscription is really overblown, and I think in two or three years, other companies are gonna realize, “our content is not that differentiated, we cannot have subscriptions, what else can we sell?” And I think that’s the trend that I am looking at, is media companies who are looking at selling [ consumer goods].

Another one is Betches that just partnered with Bumble and created a dating app. Those are the trends I’m looking at, media companies who are out there, getting out of news, or diversifying, in addition to news, their content and creating other products or services. And so that’s what interests me most, is media companies creating non-media products or services, diversifying revenue and leveraging the insights they’ve gained in their audience to sell other things to them.

The Idea

A weekly newsletter on the business of media from @AtlanticMedia, home of @TheAtlantic, @NationalJournal and @GovExec. Subscribe here:

Mollie Leavitt

Written by

find me tweeting @mollie_leavitt | Strategy Research Analyst, Atlantic Media

The Idea

The Idea

A weekly newsletter on the business of media from @AtlanticMedia, home of @TheAtlantic, @NationalJournal and @GovExec. Subscribe here:

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade