In the last few years there’s been a huge increase in the interest of running newsletters.
Now, this isn’t to say they ever dropped in usage.
eCom brands, SaaS companies, and even brick and mortar businesses have consistently relied on newsletters.
but the focus has shifted in recent years – and it’s largely thanks to brands like Morning Brew.
They’ve not only figured out how to attract millions of subscribers, but they’ve also managed to turn a completely free deliverable into 8-figures in revenue.
Here’s the exact approach they’ve used to turn a daily email into tens of millions of dollars.
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What is Morning Brew?
What is Morning Brew?
Morning Brew is, in effect, a modern newspaper. Every day they send an email to their subscribers detailing the world’s biggest financial news and developments.
When was Morning Brew founded?
Morning Brew was founded in March 2015 by Alex Lieberman and Austin Rief. It was started as a college side project but has since grown into an incredibly successful business.
What is Morning Brew’s revenue?
Morning Brew experienced the sought after hockey curve of revenue growth.
A quick caveat here.
The 2020 revenue numbers are a prediction from Q4 2020 by Morning Brew themselves. We’re including them because they were also quoted when explaining their new valuation from a round of funding.
Morning Brew funding
In an interesting Twitter thread, Morning Brew Co-Founder Austin Rief explained the advice they received from big-name investors was that they needed to raise money.
However, that money came with a catch. That they’d pivot to video.
Through luck, serendipity, or whatever you want to call it, the Morning Brew team weren’t in a position to raise money in 2015.
They decided to wait until 2017 to raise money, by which time, the industry had changed.
Companies like Mashable who had raised were feeling the pressure and unable to fulfil the demands of the VCs.
By 2017, Morning brew had the metrics and proof they needed to prove that their business model could work.
Which led to them raising $750,000 from strategic Angel Investors to grow the brand.
They’ve now raised $750k.
But there’s a lesson here.
And that’s not being forced or pressured into an action you’re not certain is a good direction for your company.
The brands who took the VC money were laying people off left and right.
While Morning Brew has grown a 9-figure revenue with only 33 employees.
Trust your own stats and do what’s right for your brand.
Morning Brew’s valuation
At the end of 2020, there was some big news for Morning Brew.
Insider Group, the parent of Business Insider, acquired a majority stake in Morning Brew.
The two co-founders are still running the business, but they’re now a part of the Insider Group family as a subsidiary.
This deal values Morning Brew at $75MM.
Morning Brew’s Positioning and Messaging
Positioning and Messaging
Morning Brew started off by focusing on a very simple, specific problem:
Traditional business publications like The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times struggle to connect with younger audiences (adults in their 20s and 30s).
That’s probably connected to the shift from print to digital media.
Over the last 25 years, top print media companies have failed to adjust to this shift.
Traditional publications – newspapers in particular – haven’t figured out how to create killer websites and content.
They’ve simply recreated a newspaper on a digital screen. Which provides an awful user experience making it hard to monetize.
In an attempt to turn a profit, each brand uses a collection of hacks to grow their audience and monetize their site.
But, these hacks don’t get to the heart of the problem of fixing that user experience. They’re band-aids for bullet wounds.
What’s weirder is how each media company is using the exact same hacks to monetize their site. Which means…
- The websites look like clones of one another.
- The content is similar in both style and quality.
- They’ve all built complex strategies for both audience and business growth (and they’re not great – probably because they’re modelled on a print distribution model).
These businesses have broken a cardinal rule of business building → Drop what’s not working.
But these established brands are holding on to an outdated model and method despite challenger brands like Morning Brew seeing incredible growth.
Why are they not adapting?
Likely because they’re stuck on something familiar and don’t want to change. They’re thinking of decades-old experience instead of what their users actually need.
It’s similar to Henry Ford’s creation of Ford.
He’s quoted as saying “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses”.
These brands asked what people wanted, and they said “a digital newspaper”.
So that’s what they created.
Morning Brew came along with the digital media equivalent of the first car.
They didn’t listen to what people said they wanted, but created something that was needed in modern society.
Something that appeals to the modern user’s habits, needs, and desires.
And it all began by addressing one single thing…
The Problem: Why younger readers don’t connect with traditional business news media.
It’s pretty simple when you think about how young people consume news vs how their parents and grandparents did.
Up until the 1980s, most Western societies relied on a couple of TV channels, a nightly news report, and a daily newspaper.
If you wanted to keep up with current events, you’d scan the newspaper in the morning and maybe watch the evening news.
But, that changed.
Change #1) The 24-hour news cycle.
In 1980, CNN and ESPN started offering 24/7 programming. Other niche channels like CNBC were doing the same by 1990.
That’s a massive change in the quantity of information and the diversity of options people had.
Change #2) The internet.
By the late-1990s, the internet made everything available. By 2003, anyone could start a WordPress blog and a lot of people started creating their own content.
Change #3) Social media.
In the 2000s and 2010s, social media blew up and how we consume information changed.
Instead of having the option to access any news at any time, social media meant users were getting constantly bombarded with it.
These 3 changes have shifted how the last few generations operate in terms of their news consumption.
Most of us don’t wait around for a nightly news report to tell us about major events. We get notified via email lists, Twitter, and other tools that send us the info.
Most of us don’t start the day by picking up a newspaper and reading articles over breakfast. We scan dozens of alerts on a series of sites, apps, and our inboxes.
The way we’ve consumed news has changed.
And yet – here’s the crux of the problem – many of the big news media companies (especially newspaper brands) haven’t adapted to these changes.
It’s sort of funny – they’ve gone so literal with the idea of a digital newspaper that they’ve tried to copy the look and feel of a physical newspaper…..but on a website!
The “print” format does not translate to a digital version on a laptop monitor or – even more so – on a mobile phone screen.
It creates a terrible user experience where it becomes a chore to read the news.
Here’s a quick summary of the problems that traditional business news media face:
#1) They rely on readers coming to them.
#2) Their sites are difficult to navigate and read.
#3) There’s no incentive for readers to share their content.
Morning Brew took that problem and fixed it by:
- Choosing the right platform (email > blog).
- Fixing the UX problems of “newspaper” sites.
- Creating great content with an engaging voice.
- Creating a cohesive brand across platforms.
- Using a great referral system.
Step 1: Choosing the right platform (Email > Website)
Emails are quicker and more convenient:
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and Financial Times (FT) are essentially banking on the hope that you decide to go visit their respective websites every day.
Again, they’ve just tried to replace “newspaper” with “website”.
On the other hand, Morning Brew focused on email from the get-go. Which offers readers a huge number of benefits you won’t find on sites like WSJ…
- Email is easier for readers. They don’t have to work to find great content, you’re sending it directly to their inbox saving them a tonne of time
- Email builds better relationships. You become the trusted friend who’s checking in on them every day and making sure they know all they need to.
- Email ties in better with new’s lifecycle. There’s an old saying in the UK. “Yesterday’s news is today’s chip paper”.It goes back to the time when a fish and chip shop would serve chips in yesterday’s newspaper because yesterday’s news has now been superseded by today’s update. With a daily email, you don’t have to sift through irrelevant, out of date updates to find something relevant.
Here’s the great thing with point #3 though.
Yes, email is better for emerging news. However, Morning Brew doesn’t have to throw away “old” news stories.
All emails are published as blog posts on their site. So you can sort through their “back catalogue” of editions if you’d like.
WSJ and FT, meanwhile, have to get the reader to come visit their sites.
It’s a big difference, and it largely comes down to convenience.
By going to their readers’ inboxes, Morning Brew makes the whole thing easy. Just open the email and BAM you’re engaging.
WSJ, FT, and others need you to specifically spend time visiting a website, browsing multiple pages, and reading long articles.
Email makes it easier to build a focused audience.
Being email-first means that Morning Brew creates a different relationship with new users.
A new user hits the home page and either signs up or goes away.
You can’t join the newsletter without signing up for it (though you can read past editions – you’ll just be reading old content).
The WSJ and FT don’t build their sites to encourage email sign ups.
In fact, there’s actually no easy opt-in anywhere on either website. They both technically do have a tiny little subscribe button on the top right hand corner of their sites.
…but good luck getting the average reader to skip over a busy home page, look around for an option to subscribe.
Step 2: Fixing the UX problems of traditional news sites.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the UX problems on traditional news media sites.
For the most part, they’ve built sites with messy home pages that try to look like newspaper front pages.
On top of that, they’ve slapped 3rd party ads in an attempt to monetize the site. The paper has no real control over the quality or content of the ads themselves, so the ads are almost always jarringly different from the article you’re reading. It’s disruptive and distracting.
And then, on top of THAT, they’ve added hard paywalls to get people to pay to sign up for access to more articles.
At a fundamental level, it’s an unpleasant reading experience.
Look at the WSJ home page. What stands out to you?
If you’re anything like me, it’s the massive ad screaming “How to Get a Tax Refund Advance”.
The ad itself is great! It’s easy to read, stands out with a unique color, and has some white space that contrasts nicely vs the crowded page below.
But the actual home page content is not easy to read. The design breaks a lot of the best practices for good, modern web content. For example:
- The layout feels crowded.
- The text is too small to scan the content easily.
- It’s not easy to see where one story begins and another one ends
This is a layout that’s taken directly from print newspaper format – not modern online reading experiences.
Remember “Magazine” templates WordPress back in the 2010s? They were built on a similar concept….but they feel really dated nowadays.
One of the big reasons this type of design has fallen away is that it doesn’t translate over to mobile devices.
Trying to look at a “newspaper” or magazine-style layout on a phone screen is just not going to work.
Morning Brew “fixed” this UX problem by sidestepping it completely.
Instead of trying to create a “better” newspaper-style website, Morning Brew built a website and emails that fit their users.
- Everything is mobile-optimized.
- The emails look as good or better than most brands’ on-site content.
- Everything is built in-house – including ad copy and visuals.
Let me just highlight that last point. It’s a beautifully simple fix that none of the big brands ever seem to have tried.
Instead of the newspaper route where the brand blocks off areas of the page to sell to
When a 3rd party company wants to advertise with Morning Brew, they have to submit a brief to the MB team, who will in turn handle all the creative.
The result is a seamless experience for the reader.
Sure, you still get ads – but they match the rest of the newsletter’s content both in terms of voice and visually.
It’s similar to how many big podcasters advertise to their listeners. The advertiser sends the podcaster a brief, some guidelines, a sample script….but it’s really up to the podcaster to deliver it in a way that makes sense to their readers.
This makes sense, right?
It’s an incredible difference when you compare it to other “news” sites, like this:
And if that wasn’t enough, they’ll often gate important articles behind a hard paywall.
You won’t be able to figure out what’s going on in the world unless you open up your wallet and sign up for a monthly fee,
For something like business news you could argue that a paywall is necessary.
However, these paywalls often extend to articles that should most definitely be free.
A quick search through Twitter will unearth hundreds of comments like this one.
Paywalls make very little sense and we’re positive they actively harm the revenue options of a brand.
They leave a sour taste in the mouth for many users.
I know plenty of people who refuse to quote, link to, or read from certain sources like The WSJ because they decide to gate their content.
It’s a big risk to take when your readers could easily head to something like BBC News to get the facts for free.
Morning Brew have fixed this UX problem by offering all of their content for free.
The only cost of admission is an email address which can easily be “refunded” at any time with 2-3 clicks.
Step 3: Create great content with an engaging voice.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the idea of readability.
Morning Brew nails the UX – cool. Got that.
They don’t stop there, though.
Morning Brew’s writers create great content.
- They choose the right topics.
- It’s the right length and depth for email.
- It’s funny and personal. See below 🙂
Sounds like the voice in my head before every Zoom call…
Great content is important for any business – that’s no surprise.
But it’s especially important for a brand that operates mostly on email.
Traditional news media companies usually bank on some name recognition with their star journalists.
For example, Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman probably draw a specific type of person to the New York Times to read their respective columns.
But that type of reader?
They’re probably not 25 years old.
If you want to capture that audience and connect with young people, it’s tough to imagine it happening via a stuffy column written by a 70 year old.
The great thing about the Morning Brew writers is that they still cover the same topics – they just do it in a way that’s quicker, more personal, and….younger.
And frankly, the NYT, WSJ, FT, and others are sorta screwed because of the limitations their format puts on their content.
Morning Brew can hit us with big, engaging images. The newspaper-types rarely do.
Morning Brew can hit us with funny, (often custom-made) GIFs. The newspaper-types rarely do – and when they try it, it’s usually something slapped together.
Honestly, when it comes to straight up quality of content. It’s not even fair. Morning Brew’s writers are double and triple threats who are experts at their platform.
The traditional journalist-types are still trying to write newspaper columns in a style that’s built for print.
Step 4: Morning Brew’s brand is cohesive across all platforms.
We took a little spin through Morning Brew’s history with Wayback Machine and noticed something pretty interesting about Morning Brew.
They’ve had, pretty much, the same positioning for a very long time.
Sure, the value prop has become more customer focused and benefit driven, but overall the positioning is the same.
Morning Brew is disrupting the way business news is delivered.
The future of business news is understanding key stories in 5 minutes, and Morning Brew will provide that for you.
Here’s how their actual value prop breaks down. Using our How, What, Why methodology.
- How does Morning Brew help? – You get smarter in 5 minutes.
- What does Morning Brew do? – They send a daily email.
- Why should you care & choose them over their competitors? – It’s fun and free.
It’s the perfect positioning for their target market and the problems they see in the industry.
A millenial who’s fed up with long-winded, boring articles is going to see this and think…
“Wait, I can get the same information in 5 minutes and enjoy it??
Sign. Me. Up!”
All of the issues we’ve outlined to this point are summed up and addressed in these two short sentences.
The homepage’s image of a cell phone with Morning Brew’s email open image is a perfect addition as it shows the style of humour you’re going to get within the newsletters as well.
What’s more interesting to us though, is how this key messaging is carried throughout other mediums.
These are the 3 copy variants Morning Brew are running right now.
The first thing you’ll notice is how they all continue to hit on the key messaging they’ve established on their home page.
Morning Brew’s copy highlights how their daily read is only a short time investment, being fun, and it being free.
Here’s samples of the copy from each example.
- Check out Morning Brew – it’s free.
- Stay informed and entertained, for free.
- “I never thought I’d enjoy reading the news before Morning Brew. It’s a game changer”.
If you take a deeper look into the ads you’ll see…
- Reliance of social proof in 2 ads
- 2 of the 3 use video creative (they’re actually just gifs, I assume auto-play makes them stand out as there’s a little motion to catch the eye)
- Strong focus in all 3 of it being free
How they’re communicating the info isn’t as important as the info they’re communicating here.
Sure, the social proof adds a nice trust element, but what’s more important is how the design and messaging all build into the home page’s messaging and design.
Which is super important for ad scent.
Basically, if someone clicks on your ad and it takes them to a landing page with…
- Different copy
- Different design
- Different messaging
…they’re gonna wonder WTF happened and bounce.
Morning Brew’s Facebook ads, whilst simple, are a perfect example of how to maintain brand image and messaging.
Here’s where they get really exciting though.
They’re taking a not so-subtle-shot at the more established players with a single line of copy.
When you head to something like the WSJ and jump through the various hoops to get to their subscription page, you’ll see the below.
I’ve highlighted the line in question here.
That same line is showing up in ads for the WSJ for me across the web.
Or rather, a modified line depending on geographical location.
But still it follows the format of “From Wall Street to X”.
If you take another look at Morning Brew’s ads you’ll see the same line being used.
Who came up with the line first is up for debate and honestly, not that important.
Most people won’t connect the two, but it’s genius in our opinion for two reasons.
- Even if people won’t consciously make the connection, there’s a part of their subconscious that will understand the Brew offers the same info as established players.
- They’ve not bothered to waste time reinventing the wheel.
Here’s the thing we’ve noticed when working with very successful brands.
Very little of what they do is 100% original.
As we mentioned earlier, they tend to offer the same benefits as established players, however, the results can be achieved…
- Cheaper / more profitably
When something is working well for a competitor, it’s often easier to clone what they’re doing and then add your unique spin on it.
Sure, it might not feel as honourable as devising it yourself, but it’s the way things have been done for generations.
It’s what we’re doing with these breakdowns.
Offering you the methods brands have spent hundreds of thousands to figure out as a shortcut to success.
Twitter & Instagram
Morning Brew’s social media accounts are more of the same – in a really good way!
They’re consistently funny + engaging outside of just their email content.
On both platforms, Morning Brew’s bio repeats the same line:
Twitter: …from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, daily
Instagram: …from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, daily
And when it comes to the content….it’s really strong and it matches each platform. On Twitter, Morning Brew is engaged with all the relevant stories but still keeps it light.
Commenting on a viral story (GameStop) with a viral meme (I’m not a cat) – ninja level social media game!
On Instagram, Morning Brew’s content is a wider mix of memes, visualized trends, and even some native video.
If you’re already on Morning Brew’s list, you’ll recognize the crossword screenshot (top-center) from an email.
By cross-publishing content and referring to other assets, Morning Brew does a great job creating a consistent, authentic voice.
And, it’s no wonder they’ve expanded to multiple email lists and a podcast in addition to all their social presence.
There are a lot of business news sources out there. There are even more email newsletters out there.
It’s a crowded space.
And yet, in the last few years Morning Brew has built over 2.5 million subscribers and a reputation as one of (if not THE) leading “daily read” newsletter for the business and tech-curious.
They’ve done it by taking a simple problem that their more established competitors haven’t been able to solve:
Problem: Younger readers don’t connect with traditional newspaper-gone-digital model that brands like The Wall Street Journal and Financial TImes use.
Solution: Create a better experience that matches modern users’ habits and expectations. That starts with a move to email, great UX, high quality content, a smart cross-platform presence, and a great referral program.
Morning Brew’s Revenue Model
We’re both of the opinion that the most valuable thing a business owns is their audience.
If you can grow an audience and are able to hold people’s attention, you have multiple revenue models available to you.
If we simplify audience focused revenue models you can say they fall into two primary “buckets”.
- Monetising the audience themselves (through product sales etc)
- Selling access to your audience to other brands
Morning Brew have used the second approach with their audience.
Here’s how selling access to your audience breaks down from the Morning Brew perspective.
The three primary methods of selling access to your audience
To sell access to your audience, you need:
- A relatively big audience
- An engaged audience.
Morning Brew has both. They’ve got millions of subscribers, and a reported ~42% open rate.
With that kind of engagement, they have 3 potential “audience access” revenue models to explore.
Revenue model #1 – Performance-based banner ads
Performance ads are the kind you see all over the web.
Often in the form of AdSense blocks or bottom of content referrals.
Here’s an example from The WSJ. The huge block at the top is similar to the ads you’ll find across the site that align with this model.
Publishers generally get a small $ amount for each click the ad gets.
The more clicks = the more payment.
Hence the idea that you’re paid on performance.
Pros of performance-based ads
- Easy to implement. You just need to select which kind of blocks display where.
- Easy to maintain. You just need to stay on top of them staying linked up to the relevant ad network.
Cons of performance-based ads
- Very little control over design. You can choose placements etc, but the design comes down to the advertiser and what they think will get more clicks.
- Ruins UX. To maximise revenue potential, sites often add too many blocks, which are distracting to the reader..
- Low payments. Because each click is only worth a small chunk of change, you need a tonne of traffic to make up for it.
- Revenue fluctuations. It’s hard to judge MRR here. As traffic, interest, seasonality, or general engagement changes so too does revenue.
Revenue model #2 – Commission based affiliate offers
Another popular model is to include affiliate offers on your site.
Listicles and roundup articles are often used to promote certain products, often the ones with the highest payouts. The link to “check them out” redirects the reader to a sales page via an affiliate link.
You could implement the same promotion strategy through email. You partner with a brand who has an offer and promote them directly to your audience.
If the reader buys, the publisher gets a percentage of the final fee.
The pros of affiliate referral models
- Passive revenue. Can generate passive revenue over time if your piece ranks well.
- Potentially large payouts. Some affiliate programs have hundreds of dollars payment per successful referral.
The cons of affiliate referral models
- Potentially small payouts. Most affiliate programs have small payments and long payment terms.
- Revenue fluctuations. It’s hard to judge MRR here. As traffic, interest, seasonality, or general engagement changes, so too does revenue.
- Hard to offer impartial valuable advice. It’s easy to fall into the trap of optimising not for the audience, but for the sale. Nobody wants to receive emails that try to sell affiliate products instead of focusing on value for the reader.
Revenue model #3 – Selling promo spots to advertisers
This is the model that Morning Brew uses.
It’s similar to something like TV advertising, a mention on the Jumbotron at a big game, or even a quick promo within a podcast episode.
This revenue model isn’t based on the number of clicks or how many people see the ad, but is sold on a flat fee.
The only way that you can get away with doing this is if you have stats that prove how many people will see the ad.
For example, the Superbowl gets around 100,000,000 viewers per year.
They sell ad slots to people at a flat fee because they can guarantee that ~100,000,000 people will see what the brand has to say.
Morning Brew’s ~2.5M email subs and ~42% open rates means they can charge people a flat fee.
Superbowl ads get a brand in front of a (predictably) huge audience.
The pros of a promotion spot model
- Easier to predict MRR. If you have a well-oiled sales machine, you can more accurately predict MRR.
- Allows for greater control of campaigns. You can choose the best ways to promote the brand to your audience.
- Allows for greater control of terms. You can negotiate directly with the advertiser to work out more favourable terms for you.
The cons of a promotion spot model
- Requires a sales team. To consistently bring in and close new advertising partners.
- Audience needed first. If you don’t have the audience, you won’t have anyone pay you for exposure.
- Results are required. You’re gonna want to keep advertisers coming back. And that’s gonna require you to get them results. So you’re effectively going to have to partner with them long term and work out the nuances to each individual advertiser’s campaigns.
We’d argue that the second and third options are both completely viable.
If you don’t yet have the audience to justify big bucks simply for a feature, we’d recommend exploring affiliate offers.
If you have a large, engaged audience, then there should be no reason why you can’t sell “ad space” on your content on a flat fee basis.
Affiliate offers for smaller brands.
Sponsorship promos for larger brands who have the stats to prove engagement.
We would recommend steering clear of option 1 – the banner ads – though.
The control there lies with the ad platform and the advertiser who’s creating the creative.
Which brings us to the next point.
Controlling your promotions
If you’ve grown a large, engaged audience like Morning Brew, you owe them everything.
Without the audience, Morning Brew doesn’t have a business.
Morning Brew has the best product out there because they’ve created the best overall experience for their subscribers.
One of the primary reasons so many people are moving away from established publishers like The WSJ is because the UX is awful.
The WSJ’s UX is obviously focused on squeezing every last penny from you.
Multiple ad box placements, paywalls, and more make it a trying experience to frequent their sites.
Morning Brew, however, have done everything they can to make the experience fit with what modern readers need and expect.
We’ve covered most of this in the positioning chapter.
However, it’s also evident with ads.
With Morning Brew, even the sponsored advertisements don’t take away from the overall reading experience.
You can see from the below that the ads are designed and written in the same style as the other content within the emails.
This is an example of Morning Brew’s original content…
…and this is what an ad looks like. Same format, same style, same tone.
This is a great way to approach it for a number of reasons.
- It doesn’t detract from the overall UX of the emails
- It’s not as obvious to the reader. As ads become more obvious, readers tend to ignore them. Much like with Banner Blindness. By formatting them in the same way as the content, they can increase the chance users will read them.
That second point is key. And it’s one of the reasons I think their ad program is so profitable and well-received.
By retaining control over the creative elements of their sponsorships, Morning Brew can ensure that they don’t detract from the customer experience.
This allows them to ensure greater results for advertisers which should get better results and allow them to incrementally increase advertising fees.
How to replicate this with your audience
Morning Brew are, obviously, far ahead of us all in generating the audience and running these ads.
However, we’ve been reconstructing an approach that should help you replicate their success with including ads in your content.
For this to work, you will need the below though…
- A reasonably sized audience (mid 4-figures +)
- Good engagement rates (if email, above the average 20% opens, if website, over 60 seconds ToS)
- Well defined style guides
- Potential sponsor partners, you could reach out to and ask (if not, try affiliate programs on networks like Impact / ShareaSale etc.)
If you have all of those, check appendix B to get access to…
- A brief to send potential sponsors to ensure they provide you with the right information
- A table of recommended stats to prove the value of advertising with you in this way
- A simple decision tree to help you find the best next step for sponsorship
Morning Brew’s Emails
Everyone is shocked when they learn Morning Brew went from 100,000 subscribers to 1.5 million in just 18 months.
Most marketers would kill for an engaged list of 100,000 email subs.
I dread to think what they’d do for 1.5M.
Morning Brew now apparently hover around the 2.5M subscriber mark. Which is simply incredible.
Here’s the thing with that growth… it really isn’t surprising.
Impressive, no doubt.
But not surprising.
Because Morning Brew have managed to create 2 very special elements that foster that growth.
Those 2 elements are…
- The deliverable itself (the emails they send)
- An incredible referral sequence
These two things work together to create a true marketing machine that has achieved the dream of perpetual growth.
Here’s how they both break down.
Morning Brew’s emails
Growth and marketing folks are often too focused on “hacking the system”.
We look at things like…
- Dropbox’s success with their invite system
- Hotmail’s inclusion of a promotional message for emails sent from Hotmail accounts
- Uber offering $20 in ride credit for each referred friend
People focus on these exponential growth machines because they’ve proven themselves for what are now household names.
However, in each case there was a step before the referral that was, arguably, more important.
Ensuring the product is something people would be proud to promote.
You’re not going to get very far when asking people to promote your offer if it’s not something worth promoting.
When people promote for you, they’re putting their reputation on the line.
You have to create something they’d be happy to risk their reputation on.
Morning Brew has, undoubtedly, done that.
Here’s how their emails are some of the best around.
Addressing the common problems with traditional media
As we covered in the positioning and messaging section, Morning Brew didn’t try to go toe-to-toe with the established media brands.
Instead, they found an angle through which they could outperform the established competition and doubled down.
Of course, the content they publish is of super-high quality. It easily rivals that of the established media brands.
However, it’s how they communicate that info that’s interesting.
Morning Brew tailor everything to match the expectations and needs of their target audience – young people.
To do that they…
- Take a mobile first approach
This is super important as a lot of younger consumers will first turn to their mobile device to engage with digital content.
This is especially true for email. Every year sees more users take a mobile first approach to their emails.
By creating an email newsletter that’s single column and general “no-frills”, it works perfectly for that audience.
- Replace dry and boring explanations with a little humour
The emails (generally) start on a light note with good use of humour.
Humour is super hard to pull off well. But the Morning Brew writers have managed to strike a balance between being humorous and remaining professional (at least for the millennial and younger audience).
It’s important to lead with humour for them. It’s one of their key differentiators and let’s the reader know, immediately, this isn’t going to be some dull drawn out explanation like you’d find in the FT.
- Rely on skimmable content
All of the content within the newsletters is not only fun, but also easy to skim.
Smart use of bullets, small bolded sub-heads, and short sentences mean you can quickly judge if the content is relevant to you.
If it is, you get the shot of info you need. If it ain’t, the next point is a short scroll away.
Generally, they follow a very similar format (which will help churn out content to the level they need).
Below, we’ve got a very basic outline of the email approach they use.
You’ll also find a mockup and a basic template you should be able to try in your business.
Morning Brew’s basic email template
The email is usually split into sections.
Each section is denoted below with a new box.
Not every email uses every single section, but this is the general format.
What’s interesting to note is that the layout works insanely well on a website and translates well to a blog post.
Which is handy, as each email is also published to the Morning Brew website.
This is a great way to reuse content (plus, it makes it easier to share older pieces).
Let’s get into the details of the Morning Brew sections.
Morning Brew plays on and reinforces their branding here.
Their subject lines always begin with a cup of coffee emoji, which helps the email stand out in your inbox.
What’s also interesting is that the subject lines are, most often, 1 – 3 words.
Sometimes slightly longer, but very rarely. Here are some examples.
Most copywriters would tell you that you should build intrigue or curiosity in your subject lines.
But, Morning Brew manages to stand out just by going against that advice. Their subject lines look different to 90% of the other emails in my inbox
Which is why I imagine their open rates are far higher than most other people’s.
Logo and sponsor image
The emails always open with the Morning Brew logo and their sponsor for the day.
Such a prime position means every single person who opens it is going to see the name of the sponsor brand.
Which is going to play into the sales teams hands when they’re negotiating deals.
Now we get into the real copy of the email.
This is the first major section of the content and the Brew team are great at reinforcing the brand image of them being more fun and accessible than the big established players out there.
You’re generally looking at a 2-3 sentence paragraph that focuses on a key news point or a recent Brew update. That’s then followed by either…
- A comical way to end the intro
- Bullet points of stats (often with a joke)
And that’s it.
No complex copywriting formula. No story-focused approach to hooking attention.
Just a short, sharp notification of something interesting and current as a fun way to kick off your read.
Again, it goes against most of the common copywriting advice on hooking attention, but it works so very well.
Morning Brew then follows the section with a run-down of the latest market information.
This is super specific to the Brew.
Business news and market trends go hand-in-hand.
Not so easy to replicate for other brands out there.
However, it’s not impossible.
If there are frequent updates your readers would need that could be displayed visually, this top of email area would be perfect for them.
Below the market readout, you’ll have a selection of important headlines from more general topics like…
To me, all of the above feels like the equivalent to an above the fold section on a real-life newspaper.
It’s kind of “these are the most important things you need to know today”.
Then, we get into specific stories.
Morning Brew includes multiple news stories in each and every edition.
However, when you take a look at them they generally take the same approach to communicating that information.
I pulled out this example because they’ve used sub-heads that actually tell you what they’re doing.
The general outline for news stories is…
- Industry / vertical
- Optional inclusion of stats to quantify the information
- Why you need to know this
- Covering implications for you and any takeaways that could be applied elsewhere
- Summary and big picture takeaway
Within the news stories you’ll find a hidden away promotion of the days’ sponsor.
It’s formatted in the exact same way as the news stories.
Which is a far cry from the news websites who pepper their sites with ad boxes for Google display ads that end up detracting from the UX.
There does seem to be a general approach to these sponsor sections though. And that’s the good old AIDA formula.
- Grab attention
- Build interest
- Create Desire
- Push for action
What else is brewing?
This is just a short section to bookend the close of the news.
Generally, these appear to be short descriptions of stories that either…
- Aren’t a perfect fit for the ideal audience (i.e, not straight business news) but still of interest
- Stories that fit, but perhaps don’t warrant a full section
Personally, I love this section.
It’s a super short rundown of what you need to know.
And knowing a lot of people whose news consumption basically entails them reading headlines and nothing else, I’m sure this is a popular section.
Below the end of all the news sections is “Brew’s Bets”.
The section is positioned as a forecast of sorts.
Using currently available information the Brew team are making predictions on things to pay attention to. When you dive into the content, it tends to be one of two things.
- General predictions from the Brew team on something of financial, cultural, or social significance that’s set to blow up
- Sponsored content for advertisers who either don’t have the cash or don’t want to pay for one of the major featured spots
Again, this is a great addition.
For the readers it’s giving them everything they need to sound like they’ve got their finger on the pulse of what’s happening today.
The penultimate section is a little game.
You can’t win anything and there’s no real way to get any sort of “internet points” for doing well.
It’s often just a question with the answer posted in a box below.
It’s fun. And a little reward for those who have read through the entire thing.
This is the start of the gold standard of referral systems in my opinion.
It was this section that prompted us to want to break the Morning Brew down.
We’ll go into detail on their whole process in the next section and why it works.
For now, let’s just tackle a look at the elements of the referral prompt.
You’ll find this near the end of every email sent.
It consists of a few simple elements.
- How many referrals until one of the rewards you can earn
- What that reward is
- A short lead to intro the reward
- An image of the reward
- Button to take you to the referral center
- Your direct referral link to copy and paste from the email itself
I’m 100% positive they have a couple of templates that are auto-populated based on how close you are to your next reward.
I love the inclusion of this in the emails.
If you read something and think “Dave might like this”. You have an incredibly easy way to get Dave on the list.
And you’re rewarded for doing so.
It’s a win-win, really.
They’ve made the act of referring friends not just simple, but profitable (in a sense) for you as the reader.
I’ll go into more detail shortly on this whole process. But first, let’s round this up into a template you could use for your own brand.
Dan and I have already implemented this with the Have-a-Word Newsletter, and it’s made a couple of things like promotion so much easier.
Morning Brew’s Referral System
Getting current customers to refer friends is nothing new in marketing. It’s been an established practice for years because…
- A friend’s recommendation carries a lot more weight than the brand blowing their own horn
- Each new customer could become 2+ customers, who each refer a friend creating 4 total customers and so on (creating exponential scaling possibilities)
- It’s a lot cheaper than paying for advertising
It’s an age-old tactic. But Morning Brew have managed to modernise it in an incredibly simple way.
In effect, there are only 3 steps for the user to take.
Action #1) Click the share button at the bottom of each email.
The reader gets the same CTA in every email. .
If someone wants to share they can either…
- Copy and paste the URL the Brew provides
- Click on the button to go to the referral hub
If the user simply copies and pastes the link to a friend, they’re done.
However, if they hit the “Click to Share” button, they’re taken to a referral hub that tracks all their process.
Action #2) Choose a sharing option.
After hitting the share CTA, the user is taken to the referral hub where they’re given a number of sharing options.
Action 2 is to choose which method you’d like to share the Brew.
- Copy and paste the link
- Send a direct email to someone you know
- Share on social
Action #3) Actually share the content.
Within 3 clicks you can share the Brew with a friend.
To sum up, you can share the Brew with a friend in just 3 clicks:
Click #1) Email CTA to “Share the Brew”
Click #2) Choose the platform to share it.
Click #3) Publish the pre-written post to social or email.
It takes no more than 2 minutes for you, but it means a constant stream of new users and audience members for the Morning Brew email list.
Here’s the thing though.
Morning Brew has a great offer that genuinely solves a problem their ideal audience suffers from.
That’s great for…
- Keeping current Brew readers engaged, happy, and loyal
- Having current readers mention the Brew if conversation strays to something related – in this case, business news
But that’s not enough.
User’s aren’t incentivised to share, and share again.
That’s where Morning brew’s referral rewards come in.
Motivating the user to refer friends
There’s a small coffee shop I go to pretty much daily.
It’s a 3 minute walk from my house and the owner is an absolute hustler. She’s managed to figure out a way to stay open and profitable throughout the lockdowns in the UK.
The coffee is also pretty damn good.
However, rarely do I see someone I know in the area and recommend they go there.
It’s just not something that enters my thoughts.
It’s the same with the Brew.
You might love it. You might read it religiously every day.
But, it’s rare that you’re gonna bring it up in conversation with others and recommend it.
The Brew Crew obviously know this, because they’ve implemented a simple incentive to get people to share.
As mentioned, at the end of every email you’re prompted to share Morning Brew with someone who would like it.
That simple act of asking is, likely, going to get a few people to refer their friends.
After all, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Or as my wife’s friend likes to say, “closed mouths don’t get fed”.
However, the Brew have gone a step further by incentivising the share.
If you refer people, you get a little something back.
It’s a classic reciprocity play. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
In this case…
You help us get the word out, we give you free stuff.
The incentives start off low-value, but as you increase the number of people you refer, the value of the gifts increase.
Which is another smart play to keep you motivated and referring more people.
If the incentives didn’t increase in value, there’d be no point in referring any more than 3 people.
What I absolutely love though is that they remind you how close you are to receiving that next gift.
Morning Brew has a custom-built system that pulls live stats and information into your email.
Those real-time stats show you how close you are to getting the next reward.
This is a great way to build a little FOMO into the entire process.
You see how close you are to getting that next level reward.
And, if you’re close to that threshold, the motivation to invite people who aren’t perfect fits and you likely overlooked before, is elevated.
This also plays into another age-old marketing approach.
Most of your customers aren’t ready to take the action you want them to right now.
If you don’t remind them of what you want them to do, they’re simply not gonna do it.
But, non-pushy, frequent reminders like the Brews tracker and simple CTA are a great way to consistently remind people.
I might not know anyone I could refer right now. However, I might meet someone in 3 weeks who would love the Brew.
By constantly reminding me that they’ll reward me for that referral is an easy way to keep the program top of mind.
Here’s the real magic though.
These kind of referral systems are a dime a dozen.
There are now countless giveaway and viral competition tools that help you use current users and subscribers to attract others.
Yes, the Brew’s is far more sophisticated and just better implemented.
But they have another feather in their cap.
And that’s to do with the actual rewards.
Selecting smart rewards for referrals
Many brands use referral systems the wrong way. They use them to grow quantity without respecting quality.
For example, you could drive big numbers by giving away something like…
- A new Macbook
- $1500 in Amazon gift cards
- A $1000 1st place price and 2 $250 runner up prizes
But if you do that you’re gonna end up with a huge list of unqualified subscribers.
If the Brew was to do that, they’d attract all sorts.
Some would be qualified and part of their ideal audience, but the greater number would be made up of people outside of their sphere of influence and who are, ultimately, of no value to the Morning Brew’s team.
Morning Brew offer smarter incentives.
Products that help the Morning Brew brand in 2 primary ways.
- Their products generally turn you into a walking billboard for the brand
- Their products bring you closer to the brand
The first one is obvious.
If you see someone walking around your college campus wearing a Morning Brew t-shirt you’re gonna have one of two reactions.
- “Hey! That’s one of my peeps who love MB!”
- “WTF is Morning Brew. Let me Google it quickly.”
Those walking billboards either reinforce the community feeling or continue to expose the brand to new users.
But it’s the second point I find more interesting.
The simple act of referring a friend to Morning brew is going to make you feel closer to the Morning Brew brand.
You’ve now become an advocate for them and you’ll be more motivated to stay on top of how they’re developing because you feel like part of the family.
But when you’re drinking your coffee out of a branded mug, starting your car with keys on a branded keychain, all whilst wearing their logo on your shirt it’s hard to escape from them.
These rewards aren’t just there to incentivise you to refer friends.
They’re there to strengthen the bond you have with Morning Brew.
They’re a constant reminder of a great company offering quality advice.
How to build this yourself
How can you build a similar referral sequence into your business.
Here’s the thing you have to understand about the Morning brew system.
It is a completely custom build.
That means you’re not going to be able to create the exact same level of functionality or design unless you get your developer to create it for you.
However there are easier workarounds we’ve been playing with.
This is what we’ve found to be the best method.
The simple answer is to use a tool called SparkLoop.
That will help you create something that’s of a similar level of functionality.
What you’ll need to consider is what kind of referral rewards you’re going to offer.
As mentioned above, you should steer clear of mass appeal items unless your target audience encompasses a broad swatch of the general population.
After looking through various offers from different brands, here are some rewards we’d recommend depending on your business and offers.
- Branded merch (like Morning Brew)
- Discounts for niche training programs or courses
- Free short consultations
- Relevant “add-on” products. If your audience is writers perhaps a writing software or physical notebook (of you can put your brand logo on these even better)
Those are really the only things we’d recommend. Anything else and you’re gonna end up with a non-targeted audience.
Then it’s a simple case of working out what’s going to be profitable for you.
To do this you’re going to need to know a few key numbers.
#1 – The average value of an email subscriber
This is a simple calculation.
You start with the average revenue you make from your email list and divide it by the number of people on that list.
Let’s say you make $10,000 from your list per month.
And you have 10,000 people on that list.
That means the average value of an email subscriber is $1.
#2 – The cost of each product
Let’s say one of your offers is a branded t-shirt.
You might be able to sell it for $22.
However, for printing that shirt, storage, fulfilment etc it costs you $15.
That $15 is your cost.
And that’s what you need to cover with your referrals.
#3 – Align product with relevant referral numbers
Once you know those 2 key stats you can figure out how to run this strategy at profit (or at least break-even).
If we continue with the above numbers of…
- The average subscriber value being $1
- A t-shirt costing $15 to print and ship
Then you would set your referrals up to be at least 15 referrals for the shirt. This way you know, over time, you’re going to at least break even on the cost of that referral.
I would also recommend adding a 10% buffer though.
Not everyone referred is going to be a good fit.
Sure, we’re operating on averages and so the numbers themselves are a little blurry. But I’d definitely build in a number buffer to secure yourself in the long run.
I’d also tip the scales in your favour by copying what Morning Brew did.
The first referral goal, of let’s say 3-5 people, should be something that doesn’t cost you anything to produce.
Morning Brew has the “Light Roast” email that goes out once per week. And they used to also promote a special private Facebook community at, I think , 5 referrals.
These two things cost nothing beside a little time from current employees. I would look at creating something that can be used as a starting buffer.
Personally, I’d explore…
- Free content
- A small addition to the existing offer
- A free training that you record once and re-use multiple times
Bear in mind you’ve got to ensure that you get the referral rewards right.
If you choose rewards no one wants, then you’re not going to get anyone to refer their friends.
Here’s what we’ve put together to help you decide what to do.
Check Appendix D for…
- A visual breakdown of Morning Brew’s referral HQ page.
- → Ideas for your own referral program based on tiered progression.
- Templates to get direct feedback from current users on what they’d want to get as a reward.
If you liked this breakdown and want even more detailed breakdowns delivered direct to your inbox, sign up for the newsletter today.
And if you want more help, consider booking a 1:1 growth marketing consultation with Pete here.
Below you’ll find the various downloads which include frameworks, templates, and guides to help you set up marketing and growth strategies just like Morning Brew.
Be aware, to get the downloads you need to be a premium member. That means you’d need to sign up to the $29 / month level to get access to the details.
Below is a direct link to the Google Drive folder that includes all of the Morning Brew template downloads.