theskimm, social shake up interview, danielle weisberg, carly zakin

How TheSkimm Founders Transformed an Email Newsletter Into a Thriving Media Brand

By: The Social Shake-Up Editorial Team

May 8, 2019

Seven years ago, Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin launched TheSkimm from their living room couch. Both were 25 years old, working in the news industry as producers, and found themselves in the midst of a crisis: How could they move forward in an industry that they loved, but in which they didn’t see a lot of innovation or routes upward?

Weisberg and Zakin realized that there was a gap between their on-the-go lifestyles and the way that news was being marketed and delivered to them. In short, traditional news products were not made for millennial women. In order to become leaders in their industry, their generation of women needed to be informed, although media programming often catered to an older, male-skewing demographic.

Without a formal business background, Zakin and Weisberg did what they do best as media professionals: They wrote a lot, and asked a lot of questions. 

The duo started with a newsletter but have now grown the media property to include an app, audio content including a daily podcast, and a devoted fanbase of seven million subscribers and 40,000 “Skimm’bassadors.”

TheSkimm revolves around the idea of living smart, with an eye on their audience and mission: making sure millennial women are informed—and that information is delivered in a way to suit their needs.

Weisberg and Zakin sat down to a lunchtime keynote Q&A at Social Shake-Up 2019 with Caysey Welton, content director of The Social Shake-Up’s sister brand, Folio. (Folio covers the magazine publishing industry). Below, an excerpted interview:

Caysey Welton: Where does social fit into the media mix of theSkimm?

Danielle Weisberg: One of the biggest things when we talk about platforms is: You can’t be everything to everyone. It’s a differentiator to us that we use to guide decisions, and which platforms to grow on.

It’s important as a company to have an eye on the daily routines of the audience, not to create a website and hope people go there. We started with email because it is the first thing you look at when [you] wake up in the morning.

We used Facebook a ton, and started the Skimm’bassador program in a private Facebook group. We didn’t have the ability or resources to build something ourselves and Facebook provided a convenient discussion place.  

Twitter is much more customer-service focused for us. We think about a platform being an extension of the brand. Twitter is political, and media people yelling at each other, not a direct channel for us to engage with our audience.

The platform we focus on most is Instagram, [for] millennial women on the go. It’s a fun way to engage with our audience. We think about products we create as a “part of your day” strategy. Bored at work? Scroll Instagram.

CW: What do you look for in your Skimm’bassadors?

Danielle: [Our brand ambassadors] connect to the idea that they have helped us build this company. In beginning, there were two of us and 1,000 Skimm’bassadors. It started as pen pal relationship; Carly and I would always respond.

There was a turning moment when Hurricane Sandy hit, really early on, and we sent out an email saying, “We probably won’t have WiFi, don’t expect to hear from us tomorrow.”  Skimm’bassadors emailed us back saying, “Our daughter lives here, you can go live there.”

Where it’s gotten difficult, [they] help put us back on the right track. They’re the first to call out when the company is not living up to standards. It’s extremely valuable feedback.

Now, they’ve become “squads.” We had 15,000 [members of the] Skimm squad lead our “No Excuses” campaign, getting people to register to vote. 200,000 were registered. Our Skimm’bassadors set up tables in local stations. We flew 30 in [for training].

As a generation, we should be heard.

TheSkimm’s book is coming out June 10: How to Skimm Your Life. We have a 15,000-person squad that wants to learn about publishing. We’re building a 10-city book tour, and they are helping us build it.

CW: You’re reluctant to forge partnerships with advertisers. How do you take that philosophy with Skimm’bassadors? How do you maintain authenticity?

Carly: In the first year and a half, we said no to every brand that wanted to work with us. We focused on growing our user base and community. When we could hire an employee or two, we said OK; we can work with brands.

That same sense of curation is how we work with brands. We turn down a lot; we are picky; we drive action. When we partner with brands, we are creating stories. We think about how can we use this as a value add for our audience.

We had an early partnership with Chase. We created an education program, which turned into Skimm Money, and trained the audience on basic financial literacy. Here is an advertiser that wants to spend money with us, but we created a value add through educational programming. Who are the partners we can work with to make your life smarter?

CW: What are the significant trends we should be looking at in media? 

Danielle: It’s been the biggest back-and-forth between the idea of scale and engagement. We’ve been in the engagement camp. We have millions of women wake up with us every day and love the brand. When we build products, we look at metrics around engagement.

Trust is the ultimate commodity. You get the opportunity to build it over different platforms, but it can just as easily be taken away. It’s a reckoning moment for the industry; [we’re] not measuring success by scale if it doesn’t relate to business objectives.

Carly: We think a lot about voice technology. How do we think about routines, when we want to listen to or give instructions on something? How do we humanize it?

CW: How did you have the time to write a book?

Carly: We were told that the process of signing a contract to getting a book in your hands is two years. We did it in eight months. We write a product every single day, so we know how to turn things around on deadline and do it quickly. It went quickly—we’ve had this idea for a very long time, and it poured out on the page.

It’s meant to be a reference book that we wish we had when we were starting out: how to order wine at a restaurant, travel on a budget, financial literacy, a review of 20th century modern history…It’s a good refresher for civic engagement. A long time coming, it was the book we wished we would have had. 

CW: If you could go back in time 7 years, what advice would you give yourselves?

Carly: Take a vacation.

Danielle: I don’t like this answer, but someone [once] said to us: It doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. For the first two years, you’re climbing the biggest mountain. It gets harder in different ways.

If you have a growing company, you are doing things for the first time as part of your job.

Carly: No one has built TheSkimm before. No one has all the answers; there would be a playbook [otherwise]. How do you take advice, tune out what is distracting and identify what is helpful? 

Every day we look to fire ourselves. Fire yourself, meaning: Get yourself out of the weeds, train someone to do what you do today so that you can move forward.

TheSkimm’s book, How to Skimm Your Life, comes out June 10. Order it today.

At The Social Shake-Up