The Hustle Uses a Playful Daily Email to Build a Profitable Tech Community

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"Is cheesecake a pie?" is how The Hustle—a general-interest tech and business news site with a free email newsletter that has grown to 300,000 subscribers in less than a year—greeted people today. (It's Pi Day.)

It sets the tone for a playful, informative, easy-to-digest take on today's business and tech news. "We're profitable just from the advertising in the email, but the events make us a lot more profitable," Sam Parr, founder and CEO of the San Francisco–based publisher, told NiemanLab in a Q&A this week. Between January and October 2016, The Hustle made $473,675; 81% of that came from events and the remaining 19% came from advertising.

The Hustle's content does go a bit over the line for most of us, but there are definitely marketing lessons to be learned.

1. Focus on content but... "We have a three-person editorial team and everyone else is focused on building the technology and building the list," said Parr. Now that editorial is solid and distinct, but—and it hurts me to say—you can see where they are putting their money.

2. Ask readers to refer you—in a cool way. As NiemanLab points out, The Hustle has clearly been inspired by theSkimm, which I wrote about last year. They also have an "ambassador" program that gives people rewards in return for referring a friend. "Looks like you arrived on this page because one of your friends thinks you should sign up. So go on...try it." And they have fun profiles of a few of their ambassadors.

3. Think growth. You can pop any story out of the newsletter into a web tab. "We're always testing ways to grow quickly," said Parr. "Until recently, we didn't have a lot of paid marketing. Having stories that click off isn't necessarily a way that people will consume, but it's what they share. Then new readers come to the site and we convert them to subscribers. And so it's kind of a growth mechanism."

4. Lead and sponsors may follow. "Do I need to separate you two?" is the headline for an article about Square's posting for a full-time manager of office seating. (Yes, it really exists.) A headline about Yahoo's regulatory filing Monday is, well, you can check it out for yourself. Microsoft is the newsletter's sponsor today and they go with the fun flow. "It's time to ditch email" reads their ad—which is for Microsoft Teams—at the bottom of the email. The last line is, "Why? Because it's 2017. And, like The Rock in San Andreas, Microsoft Teams is a 6' 5" movie star here to save the day."

5. They went email-only to make money. Originally, The Hustle went even further over the line—with "crazy stunts" and "wild content,...getting millions of unique visitors," said Cole. "But we realized that the business of attracting web traffic was kind of dying. It's just not the same as it was a few years ago, and it was really tough to get and retain traffic and make money off of that. And so last April, we switched. Instead of posting our content as a blog, we went email-only. That's where we are now."

6. Use vivid imagery. The lead, full-screen photo on their Events page of a Hustle audience is dynamic and diverse. It draws you in.

7. Focus on the little things. Last week, I wrote about Kristina Dorsey at CQ Roll Call who sends hand-written notes and cupcakes to her customers. When The Hustle uses a testimonial, it has fun with it.

"You guys throw epic events, every single time."
—one stoked attendee

There's always a visible "Get in touch" button on the screen. At the bottom of the email is this line: "You opted in by signing up, entering a giveaway, or through divine intervention." Even that has a link. And yes, they have giveaways.

8. Put on events. It's very telling that a publisher geared to young people is making almost all their money through events. Hustle Con is an annual conference hosted every spring in Oakland, Calif., featuring 15 successful startup founders. "Con Con is a one-day conference focused on teaching startups how to use content to acquire new users and customers. Horrible name, amazing content." "Pizza & 40s" is their free, monthly, filled-to-the-brim speaker series. The 40 refers to a 40-ounce beer that the speaker is given.

9. Think community. "Our community—we consider ourselves a community more than a media publication—is very big, they love us a lot, and they always ask to invest," said Parr. They recently raised $300,000 from readers in just a few days. 

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…