Building an Email List to 1M+ Subscribers

How do you build an email list to over 1 million subscribers? Let’s take a little trip back in history…

An Era of Excitement and Tragedy, but Also one of Despair

In the 1840’s, the United States witnessed a historic shift as the allure of a glimmering new promise swept the country West in search of gold. As the quest for a richer life became a real possibility, It was an era of excitement and tragedy, but also one of despair.

In 2019, social media is having a similar impact as companies seek to navigate new frontiers.  Many are bypassing traditional methods like email marketing and pouring all their efforts into growing audiences on social platforms instead.  

Elite Daily took full advantage of this shift and capitalized early. They didn’t predict, however, that this new distribution model was rooted in algorithms that could change with the flip of a switch.

Today, many publishers have boarded up their doors because they lacked the foresight to take ownership of their biggest leverage point: distribution.

Two content entrepreneurs who haven’t abandoned the reliable email model are Case Kenny, Founder of PRSUIT, and Alex Lieberman, Founder of Morning Brew. By utilizing email to build their platforms, they made sure that staying financially afloat isn’t governed by preference-based clicks or algorithms, but rather by the sustained subscriber growth of hitting Gmail inboxes daily, Monday through Friday.

The main difference between the two is simple:

  • Case is in the business of providing personal perspectives that inspire others
  • Alex’s mission is to make daily business news fun again for the millennial audience.

From the outset, Kenny never intended to build his own venture. The traditional path had been top-of-mind. He worked at ad agencies after graduating from Notre Dame in 2011, learning the ins and outs of publishing, audience building, and branding.

Equipped with new skills, his ambitions led him to reflect on how he could succeed on his personal path while helping others do the same. This vision manifested in PRSUIT, which has already inspired thousands to contribute.

Celebrities from Gary Vaynerchuk to Max Altuscher have given PRSUIT readers an intimate take on their personal lives.

Case quickly realized what it would take to effectively monetize his passion: “I began surveying the media landscape and understood I’d never be able to turn this into a business because I wasn’t garnering 10 million views to my blog per month.”

He swiftly pivoted from the standalone blog to a newsletter, which gives him more direct access points to readers and provides both sustainability and long-term longevity.

With an extended family lineage of successful financiers, Lieberman only knew of one road to follow. Heading into his senior year at the University of Michigan with a secure job awaiting at Morgan Stanley, he noticed students’ frustrations with business news. As he prepared 100 students for job interviews, he polled them about how they stayed informed on current events. Based on his findings, he explained to me that students latched onto buzzwords they saw mentioned in the Wall Street Journal just to sound well-read in interviews. That’s exactly the problem: students rarely want to read dense material at 7:30 AM when they roll out of bed, especially when the content has gone stale.

Contrary to his peers, Alex saw a potential marriage between email and content curation. In the fall semester, he created a daily email called Market Corner to convey relevant business news from the day before to a Listserv of students/readers the next morning. By January, every student in the business school was subscribed. Alex mentioned, “I knew I was onto something because the product had a lot of sign up friction and a template that looked like it was created by a 4-year-old.” That product eventually evolved into Morning Brew. Since officially launching in 2016, they’ve grown past 1 Million subscribers. PRSUIT is not far behind after generating 210,000 subscribers in the past twelve months.

PRSUIT’s base mostly consists of adults who have lofty desires, but don’t necessarily have a roadmap to execute. As readers continue soaking up PRSUIT’s daily content, self-discovery and self-actualization ensues. Case spoke to this phenomenon: “One girl reached out to share that she quit her 9-5 to start a podcast agency, where she works full-time today because of our content.” On the other hand, Morning Brew readers vary from someone climbing the ranks in the finance industry to the intellectually curious type who stays in to read a book on a Thursday night instead of going to the local watering hole.

The two platforms have grown using subscriber referral programs that award users special perks like invitations to an exclusive Facebook group, swag, or premium content. Both have seen the effectiveness of brand ambassador programs that turn users into their biggest evangelists. Case also leaned on his Instagram channel by pointing his with 100k followers to his newsletter. Alex ventured down the community route by piggybacking off the audiences of other newsletters who share blurbs promoting his. With similar but different growth strategies, both founders are bullish on how they can continue adding subscribers because email platforms are conversational in nature and don’t require users to change their habits.

The monetization card for these companies, namely closing deals with brands from Discover Card to smaller venture-backed startups like Casper is one they capitalized on early. As easy as it sounds, repeatable methods to grow and sustain revenue hinge on captivating a focused audience of individuals in their 20’s and 30’s. The two founders carefully select partners and shy away from AI robo-investor platforms who might make them quick money now, but could potentially betray their committed audience. As to the future of PRSUIT and Morning Brew, neither intends to remain a newsletter company forever, but both realize the importance of doing one thing well first.

Lieberman and Kenny shared parting advice for young entrepreneurs. Without trying to beat a dead horse, Case says, “It’s all about gaining a multitude of experiences helping you figure out what you like and don’t like.” Alex added as a final thought, “I try and curate my network as closely as possible with people who are going to help me grow.”

For Thought Leaders
Bryan Wish

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