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- After experiencing burnout as the design lead for HealthCare.gov, Alisha Ramos created the Girls’ Night In newsletter as a side project.
- The newsletter quickly took off, bringing in 30,000 subscribers in its first year and hosting 170,000 subscribers today.
- The company has since grown to include a community called The Lounge and sibling retail brand known as Whiled.
- She shared with Business Insider how centering her business around experimentation and personal connection helped her grow her subscriber list to six figures in less than four years.
- Ramos recommended focusing on organic growth by encouraging sharing through direct CTAs or referral programs. Avoid giveaways, she cautioned.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
It all started at her mom’s dining-room table.
After the 2016 presidential election, Alisha Ramos was experiencing professional and emotional burnout. Ramos, who was 26 at the time, had been working as the design lead for HealthCare.gov, which was undergoing major changes as a result of the new administration.
“I was showing up to work every day, but I had no fulfillment,” Ramos told Business Insider. “I couldn’t really do my job and it was incredibly draining. I had been running full steam ahead in my career in technology and I hadn’t really stopped to take a breath and slow down and take care of myself.”
Ramos finally did take that breath as she sat down and made a list of everything she was passionate about. What she wrote down at her mom’s indicated that her primary passion was, she said, “hosting and entertaining my friends for a night in and this warm, cozy feeling of connecting with my friends.”
While Ramos had always imagined that she’d start a product-based business, she realized that this particular passion might lend itself better to a newsletter format — and thus the Girls’ Night In (GNI) newsletter was born.
Since launching, Girls’ Night In has expanded beyond its original newsletter format to include a community called The Lounge and a sibling retail brand called Whiled, both of which launched in 2020. As of August 2020, the newsletter was reaching 170,000 inboxes every week.
Prior to starting Girls’ Night In, Ramos had authored an email newsletter called Mixed Feelings, in which she shared her reflections and experiences “as a mixed race person in the world.” Mixed Feelings went out to a small audience of 100 friends and family members, but it did give her a basis for building and maintaining a subscriber list.
At the end of January 2017, the first installment of the GNI newsletter went out to 300 people, many of which were friends and family. She grew the list quickly by teasing the newsletter on social media, and six months later she felt comfortable quitting her full-time job to focus on the project.
“The momentum was enough that I felt like, ‘Okay, there’s something here, something is happening,'” she said. “There are people I’ve never met before in my life who are telling my friends how much they love Girls’ Night In.”
By the end of 2017, the GNI subscriber list had grown to 30,000 email addresses. Shortly after committing to the company full time, Ramos began keeping monthly logs of all of her experiments and how they were impacting newsletter readership.
“It was anything from, ‘This month, let’s try subject lines that look like this’ or, ‘This month, let’s try asking readers in the middle of the newsletter instead of the end of the newsletter to share it,'” Ramos said. “Years later at GNI, we still have a culture of trying different things and experimentation.”
Thanks to that culture of experimentation, the team at Girls’ Night In has picked up some best practices for growing a subscriber list, which Ramos shared with Business Insider.
Read and respond to reader feedback, especially in the beginning
In GNI’s early days, Ramos read and responded to every reply that came in to the weekly newsletter. “It was important to me to invest time in building community and creating a dialogue and making sure people knew there was a real person behind Girls’ Night In,” she said. “There’s somebody writing this newsletter — and they care.”
Ramos’s approach to writing these responses is generally the same across the board. She thanks the person and asks them to share the newsletter with their friends. If the reply included a recommendation or a specific comment on the newsletter content, she responds to that directly. If the feedback is critical, she thanks the person and tells them their feedback will be taken into consideration.
“Often, the person sends the email or feedback with zero expectation of getting a response, so when they do, it’s a delightful surprise,” Ramos said. “By responding thoughtfully to some of the most critical feedback we’ve received, we’re able to engender more brand loyalty.”
One of Ramos’s biggest tips for anyone working to build a community-centric newsletter or brand is to establish that personal connection. Even today she responds to many of the emails GNI receives from community members.
“If they spent the time to write you an email — no matter how short it is — that speaks multitudes,” Ramos said. “It means they truly love what you’re doing. They will probably become your superfans.”
Encourage sharing everywhere
Once you’ve identified your superfans, ask them to help you spread the word about your newsletter. The GNI team has seen more growth with this kind of email sharing than they have with sharing on social media.
Ramos suggested including a line in the body of the newsletter itself. Make it easy to do this by linking to the email forwarding function. Candid, transparent language — I’m really trying to grow this audience. I’m trying to reach more readers. If you really love this issue, would you mind forwarding it to a couple of friends? — has been effective for Girls’ Night In. The GNI subscriber list gets a boost every time the team includes a push for sharing, Ramos said.
Keep your subject lines consistent
Ramos and her team have done their fair share of experimenting with what makes newsletter subject lines most effective for growing readership. Ultimately, they’ve found that consistency in the formatting of their subject lines is more important than the content of them. Each issue of the GNI newsletter is labeled with the issue number, a fun subject line, and an emoji.
“I think that consistency creates habits and a ritual,” Ramos said. Her newsletter, she added, “is a thing that people look forward to getting on Fridays, specifically, and you can train your audience to look for those kinds of visual cues.”
Ramos also recommended A/B testing subject lines whenever possible. The GNI team has a focus group for newsletter subject lines every week.
Use a referral program
According to Ramos, somewhere between 20% and 30% of GNI’s newsletter subscribers join the list after being referred by a friend. As a result, investing in a referral program was a no-brainer.
“The people who are referred by their friends are by far the most engaged,” she said. “They’re the people who stick around. They’re high-quality subscribers.”
GNI fans who secure five referrals can cash in on a digital good — like a digital wallpaper or PDF — which comes at a low cost for the company. Tote bags are up for grabs for anyone who can secure 10 referrals.
Don’t rely on giveaways and sweepstakes
While it can be tempting to try to bring in large numbers of subscribers by running giveaways or sweepstakes, Ramos recommended caution. Subscribers who join an email list simply for the sake of being put in the running for a prize will often unsubscribe shortly after, which has a negative effect on the overall quality of the list. Even subscribers who come in through a giveaway and stick around are less likely to engage with the content.
As an alternative to giveaways, Ramos suggested exploring content swaps and collaborations with mid-sized brands. “Even if it’s kind of smaller players or smaller media outlets, as long as that person or that brand has a super engaged audience, it’s going to be really valuable,” she said.
Focus on organic growth
Girls’ Night In regularly tests paid social media advertising for their newsletter, but it’s consistently underperformed against organic, unpaid strategies.
“Double click into your organic growth strategy,” she said. “There are so many creative ways that you can grow your list.”