viral loops skimm case study

TheSkimm’s referral program and what publishers can learn from it

TheSkimm is an interesting case.

The company’s story is even more compelling.

Two former news producers for NBC, leave their jobs to build a company that raises about $20M in capital and serves a daily newsletter to 7 million people.

Add “After a mysterious murder, a dark secret emerges” and you have a great premise for a movie (or a headline for tabloids).

I don’t think that there’s any dark secret- or any secret at all.

TheSkimm gives readers something exclusive they enjoy reading and incentivizes them to share about it.

Yes, there’s a referral marketing program involved.

TheSkimm is the second online publisher with a referral program that recently caught my eye; the first one being Morning Brew.


referral marketing guide

I had the opportunity to dissect Morning Brew’s referral program for my interview with Tyler Denk.

In the past, we also took a look at how the Hustle’s milestone referral program earned them 300k fanatics.

So many referral marketing programs right?

TheSkimm’s case is an excellent opportunity to examine why online publishers can benefit from referrals, and how to do it properly.

Why the referral program is vital to TheSkimm’s growth?

Before answering the question, we should take a look at TheSkimm’s business model (and their referral program Skimm’bassadors).

TheSkimm makes money through 3 main revenue streams:
  • Their paid subscription service.
  • Serving targeted advertisements.
  • Selling branded product or products (like their book).

Can you guess what is the common denominator to make these streams a success?

They needed to find readers, and they needed to acquire them as cheap as possible without sacrificing the quality of their leads.

Who doesn’t want access to a private Skimm’bassador Facebook group?

We have to understand that TheSkimm targets a very specific demographic: busy millennial women that want to keep up with current events in various industries.

TheSkimm managed to combine covering subjects that their target demographic is interested in, with an amazing tone of voice.

That’s the perfect combo for creating organic word of mouth, and word of mouth means lower customer acquisition costs.

Since their readers were already “talking” about TheSkimm without being asked, the company decided to expand on that and created their ongoing referral program; Skimm’bassadors.

Currently, 10% of TheSkimm’s sign-ups come from a referral. It’s a pretty big deal.

Let’s see how it works.

TheSkimm’s referral program (aka Skimm’bassadors).

When I took a deeper look at TheSkimm’s ambassador program, I came face to face with something unexpected.

Allow me to explain what happened.

I opened their homepage and subscribed to their free newsletter. Then  I checked my Inbox, and the moment I received the “welcome email”, I immediately scanned it for a mention of the referral program.

It was right there, but something was different.

As you see, the Skimm’bassadors program is “gated” and that’s its power. For someone to get access to it, they have to make successful referrals.

How many referrals? 10 successful referrals, to be precise.

Note: If you subscribe to TheSkimm’s free newsletter, you’ll see that their “welcome email” includes all the elements of a successful referral email.

Many of you would think that “gating” access to an ambassador program (or even programs) would discourage a lot of people from referring to new subscribers.

It’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

A huge part of TheSkimm’s branding and culture is based on the sense of community. The founders represented this idea in the best way possible by having a reader as their first hire for the company.

Although all subscribers are important, people who care the most are a top priority.

In order to help people attain the ten successful referrals (and become Skimm’bassadors), TheSkimm provides a cheat sheet for sharing effectively.


Sharing Mechanisms.

As mentioned above, a reader’s first contact with TheSkimm’s ambassador program comes with the “welcome” email.

Inside this email, you’ll find your unique sharing link (which you can copy and share it)and a link to your dedicated “Invite Page”.

The design is simple with a great UX (it’s like your account in there).

The moment you land on the page, you know:
  • How many successful referrals you have so far.
  • How many referrals you’re away from becoming a Skimm’bassador.
  • Your unique link.

The page also provides you with sharing options, including a pre-made email template.

If you want to ensure that you’ll get the maximum amount of sharing from your subscribers, you have to remind them. TheSkimm knows that very well.

That’s why- in a similar fashion with Morning Brew, they include a referral progress bar at the bottom of their daily newsletter.

The progress bar provides a sense of urgency for those that are close to becoming a Skimm’bassador, or a wake-up call for those with little or no referrals (like me).

I’d like to mention here the copywriting in the referral section.

I received this particular newsletter on a Wednesday, a.k.a. hump day, a.k.a the day in the middle of the working week that you’re thinking of giving up everything.

“Skimm HQ is celebrating hump day with ice cream. Share theSkimm with your friend or friends who like rum raisin.”

Now, that’s what I call a Call-to-action.

The main referral program.

As I explained, TheSkimm’s ambassador program is “gated”.

That means that readers start getting rewarded after passing that “gate”.

I may not have managed to pass the “gate”, but after a bit of research, I understood that they use a milestone referral program.

That means there are multiple rewards depending on the number of successful referrals.

Some of TheSkimm’s rewards mentioned on their FAQ page:
  • Access to a private Skimm’bassadors Facebook group.
  • A bonus Skimm to recap the #SkimmLife each week.
  • Early access to Skimm content and products.
  • Access to Skimm HQ + Skimm HQ’rs.
  • TheSkimm swag (shirts, notebooks, wine glasses, umbrellas)
  • Partnership perks.

Looking at the rewards list, I can’t but to think about Morning Brew’s or The Hustle’s rewards. There’s a huge similarity in these three cases.


There’s a reason that these publishers use a milestone referral program; it keeps people referring.

The more successful referrals, the more the rewards and sense of belonging in a community. It helps simple subscribers to become fans, and fans to turn into “family”.

What online publishers can learn from TheSkimm.

Whatever you’re doing, it’s always good to have a sense of where you’re standing and what you are using.

TheSkimm has a very good knowledge of their target demographic and that’s being reflected on their content, branding, and tone of voice.

They knew that they got people excited enough to share about them, and decided to reinforce this behavior with a multi-reward referral program.

Here are the key takeaways from their referral program:
  • “Gated” access or even early access to super-fans only.
  • Easy sharing process.
  • Help people become ambassadors (sharing cheat sheet).
  • Amazing copywriting.
  • Constant reminders about the referral program.
  • Great rewards.

Whether you’re an online publisher or not, there are many lessons to be learned from TheSkimm.

Building a Milestone referral program is a great start to incentivize your subscribers to share about you, and keep your acquisition at a low cost.

However, you shouldn’t forget that for people to talk about you, you first need to make them love what you offer.

Do you know any other publishers that nail referral marketing?

Do you have any questions? Please, leave a comment 🙂

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