21CF Chats: theSkimm co-founders Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin on building a fervent audience, finding the right voice, more


Earlier this week, 21st Century Fox announced that it was leading an $8 million funding round for theSkimm, a multi-platform audience company that curates news and events for millennials. To get a better idea of how theSkimm has managed to gather, engage and grow an audience of more than 3.5 million active subscribers in less than four years, I spoke with co-founders Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin.

Below you’ll see Danielle and Carly talk about the importance of theSkimm’s voice, the power of their Skimm’bassadors, how they’ve maintained authenticity with their readers and more.

One of the most impressive things you’ve done is establishing a clear, unique voice for your specific audience. This is clear when you read the Daily Skimm, theSkimm’s various online guides and even the information about your app. How did you come up with theSkimm’s voice?

Danielle: The voice of theSkimm is meant to sound like your friend telling you what you need to know to get through your day, your week, your month and your year. It’s really meant to sound like your friend, so someone who knows what’s going on, who’s smart, who’s witty, who’s irreverent and tells it like it is. That’s really what we’re going for. I think the most important thing for this specific audience is authenticity. We know how this audience speaks and how they communicate because we’re part of this audience. So from the very beginning, we decided to start with news and information, and we were going to talk about it in a way that we actually talk to our friends about news and information.

Did you both “hear the same voice”?

Danielle: When we sat down to write the voice for the very first time, we didn’t really need to talk about it. It was the same vision in both of our heads. It was something that’s not my voice, it’s not Carly’s voice – it’s the voice of the character that we’ve created together. And what we’ve done over time is create a whole brand book that not only talks about the voice but who this girl is inside and out – what she does on Friday afternoons when she gets off of work, her relationship history. Knowing her tastes, knowing her history is something that helps everyone in our company in a lot of different ways be able to understand what’s on brand and what’s off brand. When we say “voice,” we really mean understanding who this character is, and she really shapes the company.

Does the character have a name?

Danielle: Skimm Girl.

Do you anticipate the voice for theSkimm or for Skimm Girl changing over time as your target audience matures and grows up over time?

Carly: Obviously, when we started this in our mid-20s, it was emblematic of how we talk to our friends and how they talk to one another. Skimm Girl will certainly grow up as we grow up. She’ll go through life changes and phases of life, but I think she’ll stay true to what her voice is.

You clearly have a special bond with your readers – from your Skimm’bassadors to the birthdays you highlight in your newsletters. How do you go about building and engaging with your community? What do you think you’ve learned in the process?

Carly: I think the community is probably what we’re most proud of and something that actually came to us in the beginning. When we launched, Danielle and I wanted to get this out there and get as many people reading it as possible. We literally said to each other, “Then we’ll focus on building community.” We kind of laugh thinking about that because it was so naïve. When we launched, immediately people came running to us saying they’ve never been into anything before but that they just love this product so much. We developed this amazing pen pal relationship with so many readers, which evolved into our brand ambassador program, which we call our Skimm’bassador program. And what we’re really known for is a passionate, fervent, loyal audience.

Do you have a story that exemplifies your audience?

Carly: Our favorite story is a reader who wrote in recently and said, “I read a lot of other news publications, and when I read them, I’m a consumer. But when I read theSkimm, I self-identify as a Skimm’r.” I think that says it all. When you keep that relationship going, it’s really about having a sense of authenticity. In the beginning, it was literally the two of us sitting in our apartment or coffee shop on our block responding to every user email, writing back to them and telling them, “Sorry we didn’t put your birthday in. We’ll put it in next year.” Or, “Sorry that theSkimm went out late this morning. We’re trying to figure out how to use our email service provider.” We’re always very honest. We gave our users a heads-up before we worked with our first sponsor. Even with our launch of Skimm Ahead, we were honest about making “cash money.” I think for us, we’ve just had this open line of communication with them. There’s always been a sense of authenticity behind it.

Danielle: One of my other favorite stories is when we started and would respond to every user email, I responded on my iPhone, and those emails would have the automated signature “Sent from my iPhone.” Someone wrote back and said, “That’s pretty clever to make that your signature. It makes me think there’s a human behind there.” I responded by saying, “There is! I’m in a taxi. This is me on my iPhone.” They said, “No way! I didn’t think anyone would actually respond.”

Clearly, your audience has grown by leaps and bounds since the first days. How do you maintain that level of authenticity?

Carly: We still respond to every single email. We actually have two hires and a whole lot of interns dedicated to our Skimm’bassador program. As we have scaled, we definitely face challenges in keeping up with this group. For a little while, we actually had to freeze the Skimm’bassador program – we couldn’t let it grow because we didn’t feel like we could keep that good connection or service level with these people. It was so important that they have a good experience because they’re helping us in so many ways, so we decided to cap it until we could get the infrastructure straight. Now we’re growing it again, but one of the things we had to decide as a company was: Is our Skimm’bassador program an offshoot or is it a core part of what we’re building? We decided that it’s a core part of what we’re building, and in order to maintain that, we have to feed it – we need to put resources behind it, we need to be iterating on products for them.

Can you talk about what your Skimm’bassadors have done for theSkimm?

Carly: They were so involved in our mobile products and they were our PR force. Our 13,000 Skimm’bassadors led to our PR army: they can opt in to being part of our Skimm Squad, and we kind of put them through PR boot camp. And in the end, Apple was so impressed with the amount of five-star reviews that we were able to get for our app that they thought we had hacked their system. Someone said, “No, that’s just being a Skimm’bassador.” It’s something that we see as part of the lifeline and DNA of this community.

Have you heard of Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit”?

Carly: No, I haven’t.

No problem. I was making that reference just to sound sophisticated. Basically, he talks in great detail about the process of forming habits and how paying attention to habits can be a key to success for brands, products and people. It seems like one of the keys to theSkimm’s success is how you’ve been able to make it a habit for your readers and fans. How have you gone about achieving that?

Carly: We’re really focused on habits and fitting into the routines of our audience. For us, everything that we’ve done has been about being a part of someone’s habits – not necessarily asking someone in our audience to form new habits, but basically showing up into the habits that they already have. I think that’s a real differentiator for us. It’s really, really hard to get someone to change their habits. We’re not trying to change anyone’s routine – we’re just trying to be part of their existing routine.

I think you’re succeeding. Thank you both for doing this.

Danielle and Carly: Thank you so much.