Emailing teenagers the news: 8 good questions with Clover’s Liza Darwin and Casey Lewis
Email newsletters are in the midst of a renaissance, and new email newsletter Clover is taking advantage of the medium to reach teenage girls. Started by former magazine editors Casey Lewis and Liza Darwin, Clover aims to inform teenage girls about the news that matters to them in a way that feels new and fresh.
Lewis, who came from Teen Vogue, and Darwin, who worked on Hearst’s Snapchat Discover channel Sweet, are escaping the pressures of traffic-driven websites to explore a medium that they believe will really connect with teenage girls. The first edition of Clover came out on Feb. 1, and Lewis and Darwin say they got 1,000 subscribers on just their first day. Since then, Clover’s open rate has been 70 percent every day.
Clover includes short news clips and longer features, all presented in a way that teenagers will respond to without feeling like they’re reading “clickbait.” While Lewis and Darwin currently have no plans for an expanded website or app, they’re focused on turning their group of subscribers into a community.
We talked to Lewis and Darwin about how they came up with the idea of Clover, why they think teenage girls will respond to their newsletter, and how they’re making sure they feel authentic to their readers.
Why did you choose to go the route of a newsletter, as opposed to a website or app?
LEWIS: When Liza and I first got this idea, we were both working on these very Internet-forward publications, and we were talking about how we think that there’s gotta be a better way to get information to teenagers than with traffic-reliant websites. We were talking about how much we personally love email newsletters. There’s this renaissance that we’ve been seeing lately with Lenny and theSkimm and all these publications that are bringing people information in a different way than with clickbait headlines. It just seemed like a perfect opportunity to reach teens in a way that they aren’t being reached right now.
DARWIN: Newsletters combine the best of both worlds. They feel familiar, but they also feel fresh in a way that a traditional website doesn’t.
LEWIS: Newsletters are almost like a slowing down of the Internet. You get on Facebook, and it’s like everyone is trying to compete for your attention, and then you get an email that feels almost like a personal letter. The pace seems a lot different than anything else on the Internet.
What research did you do beforehand?
LEWIS: We had this idea, but we know from spending time reading Adweek and other industry resources that there’s this theory that teens don’t use emails. We were like, “Wait, we need to make sure that they are in fact using email.”
We did a lot of digging, and most of the studies that you find that claim that they don’t use email are actually about how they communicate with one another. They’re not using email to talk to other teens, which is an obvious thing. Of course they aren’t — why would they when there’s Snapchat and text messages and Gchat and every other easier way to communicate?
But they are all using email. They have to use email. You have to have an email address to sign up for any of these accounts. To have Facebook, you have to have email.
[Teenagers] have to use email. You have to have an email address to sign up for any of these accounts. To have Facebook, you have to have email.”
We started on Instagram really, just finding teen girls who seemed like they would be into what we were doing. Then we would send them direct messages on Instagram, tell them a little bit about what we were thinking and see what their response was. We probably talked to 400 girls just as market research and everyone — everyone — was so into the idea. So we realized we had something.
What kinds of questions did you ask these girls on Instagram before you launched?
DARWIN: Some of the questions that we asked these teens when we were doing our informal market research were: Do you feel like you’re informed? Where do you get your news? What do you do to stay on top of what’s going on in the world?
A lot of girls were saying that they are interested in finding out what’s going on, but they just don’t really know where to look. They’re not going to go to CNN. They don’t have time to seek it out, so we wanted to curate the news in a way that felt digestible and easy for them to understand, but not dumbed down.
LEWIS: There’s so much important news happening right now with the election, and there’s so much world news that is relevant to teens and impacting them in a major way, but no one is really flagging it or packaging it for them. One of our biggest things is to present the news in a voice that is chiller to them but not at all dumbed down. If we a sneak in a reference to Kanye West in a story about Planned Parenthood, it makes it a little bit more amusing.
How are you making teenage girls aware that Clover exists with this Instagram approach?
DARWIN: When we started reaching out to teens on Instagram, most of the people we reached out to were influencers — they had between 10,000 and 250,000 followers. We would get a response between 70 and 80 percent of the time, which is surprising for us, because I just never really thought that approach would be effective.
They don’t really care so much if the adults tell them to follow it. But if a cool girl in their class or some girl they follow on Instagram tells them, then it changes the game.”
Then these girls who have been involved since the beginning have been really awesome about contributing. We can include them as our featured girl in each issue, and then we’ll send them an email and be like, “Hey, you’re in today’s Clover.” More often than not, they’ll be so excited and want to promote it on social media too. It feels more organic and like more of a grassroots effort, as opposed to something that is more sponsored or strategic. They want to spread the word because they feel personally involved in it, and it’s great for us because teens only trust what other teens are saying. They don’t really care so much if the adults tell them to follow it. But if a cool girl in their class or some girl they follow on Instagram tells them, then it changes the game.
Why aren’t there more newsletters targeted toward young people?
LEWIS: There’s this big misconception that teens don’t use email. If you talk to any adult, they’re going to tell you that teens don’t use email. I think that a lot of people thought we were crazy to do this. Like, you’re trying to talk to teens just over email? You’re not starting an app?
But then the crazy thing is, our open rate is insane. We have all this interest from teens. Teens are using email, but there’s no up to date study that proves otherwise. So I honestly think that’s the only reason why there aren’t more emails newsletter for teens in general, because there’s just no study there. No one has tried it.
DARWIN: I also feel like digital media right now is very focused on short-term goals. Casey and I have both had to deal with the traffic pressures at a website, and you’re under such intense pressure from the top to get a certain traffic and click goals every month. In order for sites to keep up with that, they can’t even look beyond these short terms goals to be like, “OK, maybe this is too much, maybe we need to slow down, maybe teens aren’t responding to this.”
Teenagers are not going to sites out of loyalty so much anymore. They’re going off one-off headlines or social media links, and we’re trying to invert that and make it so that they open Clover because they trust what we have to say.
In another interview, you said that you’re thinking about how to balance monetizing without creating an overly “branded” experience. How are you avoiding that kind of experience?
LEWIS: More than anyone, teenagers know if you’re trying to sell them something. Even if you’re talking about a really cool brand, and it’s a brand that they’re totally into or should know, if they see that it’s sponsored or if they have any sense that making money off of them in a way that isn’t organic, then they’re going to lose trust. Our main thing is building that trust, and we definitely think that there’s a lot of cool brands out there that partnering with makes sense, but we’re just extremely apprehensive about losing that trust, especially so early into the game.
Even if you’re talking about a really cool brand, and it’s a brand that they’re totally into or should know, if they see that it’s sponsored … then they’re going to lose trust.”
DARWIN: Branded content can often get a bad rap because it’s usually done in a way that feels very inauthentic and uses marketing jargon, rather than actually being written by the editors or targeted toward a specific audience. There’s a way to make branded content cool, and we’re focusing on a) partnering with brands that we believe in and that are actually cool and that our readers will think are cool, and b) presenting it in a way that is like something that we would cover otherwise. If we’re partnering with a brand to sponsor a series of posts that are focused specifically on brand messaging about confidence or individuality, it’s going to be something perhaps a bit more universal than, “Buy this body spray.”
You’ve said in a previous interview that teenagers are “tired of the clickbaity-ness of the Internet.” How can Clover and other news organizations stop feeling clickbaity and still reach teenagers?
DARWIN: I think that just by removing ourselves from the Internet race and the short-term goal-oriented traffic pressures, we’re inherently stepping aside out of that whole clickbaity thing where we’re trying to make money in a different way. One that’s based on brand loyalty and manageable growth, and we’re not trying to knock it out of the park right away. We’re really trying to grow organically and in a way that makes our readers want to keep reading us two months down the line and two years down the line.
I think in terms of other magazines or other media properties doing that, it’s tough because it’s so ingrained in digital media right now that you have to get these clicks, and everyone’s fighting for the same stories and for the same readership.
LEWIS: When Liza and I first started talking about this idea and asking how do we get teenagers the most important information without watering down the message in order to get traffic, we realized that no one can predict where the Internet will be in five years. The quality of so many websites is so low right now because they’re just trying to make money.
No one has the answers. We certainly don’t have the answers. That’s why we decided to go to a completely different format, because as long as the traffic model stays the way that it is and people are still approaching advertising the way that they are, I don’t know how anyone can ignore the clickbait thing completely.
Teenagers have this certain reputation of being uninformed or they don’t want to be involved. … But we’ve learned that they want to be informed, they are interested in the news, they want to make a difference, and they are very, very passionate.”
What lessons have you learned so far?
LEWIS: One of the best things that we’ve figured out in the month that we’ve been doing this is that teenagers have this certain reputation of being uninformed or they don’t want to be involved. The general reputation around teenagers is not a great one, but we’ve learned that they want to be informed, they are interested in the news, they want to make a difference, and they are very, very passionate. I think that’s one of the most encouraging things about all of this. We’re covering hard news every day and they’re reading it every single day. That makes for an interesting case study, because a lot of people don’t think teenagers care about hard news. And we’re finding the opposite.