TheSkimm is the little newsletter that could. Just three years old, it boasts 1.5 million subscribers, a bevy of celebrity fans and enough cachet that it has attracted five presidential candidates to act as guest curators of the news.

TheSkimm is a roundup of daily news aimed at busy professional women in the tone of your “smart friend” and can count Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Chris Pratt among its fans. With a 40 percent open rate, theSkimm boasts high engagement and a focused audience.

One of the secrets of its growth: a referral program that turns its readers into marketers for theSkimm, or in Skimm-ese “Skimm’bassadors.”

The referral program begins, of course, with an email. Five weeks after users sign up to get theSkimm, they receive an email encouraging them to share theSkimm with 10 friends using a unique URL. If the 10 friends sign up, the original sharer becomes a Skimm’bassador. Perks of the job include parties with fellow readers in cities around the country and daily opportunities to win swag, including totes, sunglasses, and beer mittens.

Today, the program comprises of 6,000 female millennials in over 20 cities, and 395 people list “Skimm’bassador” as their occupation on LinkedIn. TheSkimm attributes 10 percent of its signups to the program.

In an email — of course! –theSkimm founders Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg told Digiday the company’s first hire was a reader, put in charge of building out the program.

This approach to audience development has more in common with the early years of Web behavior than modern social sharing and influencing. Rather than gaming algorithms, it empowers advocates of the brand to spread the word.

“It’s the chain letter approach,” Ken Doctor, president of Newsonomics, told Digiday. “It gets around the noise of Facebook, which is an endless flow…it puts bookends on the world.” He credits the Gmail tab as an inbox tweak that theSkimm has used to its strategic advantage. “Your inbox becomes far more personal.”

The personal nature of theSkimm has already caught the attention of big brands such as Chase, Netflix, HBO, and the NBA. Rather than running display ads that break up content, theSkimm runs a line of copy at the top, like “Skimmd while watching the ‘Game of Thrones’ finale and contemplating life” or “Skimm’d while watching the NBA playoffs.” 

Rusty Foster, creator of the media newsletter “Today in Tabs,” says that formalizing the process is smart, and the tone of the email newsletter is key. “I used to stick something in the bottom [of Today in Tabs],” but he ultimately decided that it didn’t work with Today in Tab’s insidery tone.

“It’s not a direct ask,” Foster explained. It’s a request from one friend to another, in the context of a shared interest, which is news.

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