Morning Brew's creator focus
CEO Austin Rief sees opportunity to build new brands around personalities
Quick favor: If you know someone who you think would find value in The Rebooting, please share it with them. Without algorithms, newsletters expand their audiences the old-fashioned way: through referral. Appreciate it. This week:
Morning Brew’s Austin Rief on why it’s focused on creators
The FT rebrands How to
The problem of differentiating based on age
The power of simplification
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Morning Brew’s creator play
Morning Brew is a breakout success in digital media, turning an email newsletter of business news delivered with a witty tone, into a robust digital media business that now has over 4 million email subscribers, with another 1 million to its growing stable of vertical industry email newsletters. In October 2020, Axel Springer bought a majority stake in the business at a $75 million valuation. The landscape is now littered with email newsletters attempting to be “the Morning Brew of X,” a sure sign you’ve made it.
One of the things I’ve long felt Morning Brew got right is it stayed focused. Rather than pivot to the latest thing, and only expanded into new verticals once it had figured out its core product. Now, Morning Brew is focused beyond its original product, the daily Morning Brew publication, by building a roster of five B2B offshoots, with two more in the works, in addition to podcasts and video shows.
“We are not an email company,” Morning Brew CEO Austin Rief told me on this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show. “We think a lot about what we call ourselves. Media company? Consumer company? We're just a company that creates great content, engages our audience and tries to make money doing it.”
A key growth area: individual creators. The bet: Morning Brew can use its infrastructure – editing, production and, crucially, monetization – to partner with creators who don’t want to do it all on their own. In January, the company brought on Katie Gatti, creator of the Money with Katie podcast and newsletter, to build a personal finance brand around her.
“It's not what people talk about because the sexy thing is, here's creator X who went on their own and they make a million dollars a year and have a rolling fund and do this, that and the other,” Austin said. “But there's a lot of people who don't want to do that on their own.”
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How to rebrand it
The rich niche is a crowded space for a reason: There are lots of people out there with tons of money, even during a time of declining asset prices, a cost-of-living crisis and impending recession. News publications with affluent audiences often subsidize the nitty-gritty coverage with glossy publications designed to lure in luxury advertisers. These offshoots tend to fit uneasily in the mix with the core news product, but bills need to be paid. The Financial Times is rebranding its long-running How to Spend It to HTSI, with the idea that the new name will give the brand some leeway to be seen as a little less consumerist as readers reinterpret the S to mean all kinds of things. Any rebrand is met immediately with eye rolls among the Twitter set, of course. But HTSI sounds like it could be a Korean chip manufacturer instead of a luxury publication. (The added issue is that HTSI is an acronym for hate to see it.) Names are tough to get right. I do think you need to be unapologetic about who you are. No matter what it’s called, HTSI will be for the .1% and those who like to gawk at the world of the .1%. The idea that switching to a vague acronym will change that – and not offend “sensitivities” at a time of heightened anger at widening inequality – is a bit silly.
21 ways to rebrand
On the subject of rebranding – the term is a bit amorphous – BuzzFeed is apparently mulling its own positioning with its news product. BuzzFeed has downsized its news ambitions after the heady days when it scared the likes of The New York Times and seemed destined to dominate the habits of millennials. Now, with cuts taking its newsroom to a fraction of the size of the NYT and other major publications, as well as pressure to stop losing money, BuzzFeed News is in a tough spot. Wouldn’t you know that BuzzFeed News wants to be “news for Gen Z.” The problem with tying a brand to a specific demographic is the fate of all of us is to get older. That leaves a youth brand with a choice: Does it age with its audience, or stay in the same place like Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused”? The problem is generational tastes change – and the newest generation always thinks what they’re older siblings were into is deeply uncool. There’s a reason MTV is a relic to Gen Z now. Besides, time comes for us all, and Gen Z is about to give way to Gen Alpha in the hearts of The Brands.
One of the traps publishers fell was adopting adversarial business models. The experience on many publisher sites is an exercise in how much the audience will tolerate. I’ve long felt that treating your customers like shit is a bad proposition. The beauty of subscription models is they clearly move the audience from being the product to being the customer base. Still, publishers insist on games that are, at their essence, adversarial, whether it’s quietly jacking up rates after the introductory period without notice or forcing people to call to cancel their subscription. That’s a good way to become as popular as the cable companies. It’s nice to see that Skift is taking a straightforward approach to its event pricing, dispensing with the pricing tiers, “early-bird” discounts and other gimmickry. Simplicity has many benefits to a business.