Learning the Best Ways to Grow Our Local News Subscribers

Hint: It’s about tech tools—but it’s also about human relationships.

The New Tropic, the first WhereBy.Us city that launched in Miami in 2015, recently partnered with a local museum to host a celebration of its latest installation. Events like these allow The New Tropic to deepen its relationship with community partners and grow its readership. (Bruce Pinchbeck)

Like any news startup, a core metric of our success at WhereBy.Us is growth. And like any news organization, we’re always looking for the most efficient and effective ways to grow. But we’ve learned that we can’t rely on tech tools alone—we also have to make time to build human relationships.

When our growth director, Alexandra Smith, joined our team, we had a few hunches about ways we could grow the number and quality of our newsletter subscribers. But Alexandra had to start from scratch when it came to organizing our sources of user growth and learning which ones were our most valuable investments. I talked with Alexandra about how she went about creating our first growth tracker and how she’s developing a more powerful taxonomy for that growth tracker.

Step 1: List all the ways a new user can sign up for your product

Alexandra worked with our existing city brands—The New Tropic in Miami and The Evergrey in Seattle—to identify and document all the ways we currently get new newsletter subscribers. It sounds like a pretty basic step, but our list quickly grew from the couple obvious spots to a list of nearly a dozen places users can sign up for our product.

An example

We have a newsletter signup call to action and form at the top of our homepage and we have sign-up calls to action on our story pages, our newsletter archive page and any forms we use to ask readers for feedback or story ideas. Plus, when someone logs into our site and purchases a membership, they can also sign up for the newsletter.

Step 2: Choose metrics to measure the effectiveness of your growth sources

We decided that we needed to measure and compare three data points for each user acquisition strategy:

  • the total number of new users that were acquired through the strategy

  • the time invested in acquiring those new users through that strategy

  • the engagement of those users

Alexandra wanted to understand how much time and money each growth strategy costs to execute and compare that to the total number and quality of subscribers that the strategy attracted.

An example

We experimented with a portable photo booth for each city so that we could bring them to partner events as a fun activation, and after people took a photo of themselves, they could enter their email address and opt-in to the newsletter. Our hypothesis is that this was an engaging, simple way to sign up new users at a partner’s event.

We estimate the average cost required to execute this event partnership, which is calculated from an average “effort” cost and “cash” cost.

The cash cost is how much we spend, unrelated to hours of effort. Hours of effort is how much time we spent on something multiplied by $40 (this is a rough estimate of our employees’ hourly rate for this work). When we add both of those, then divide by the total number of subscribers (or leads) generated, then we get a cost per lead.

So here’s how that cost per lead looked like for an event we brought the photo booth to.

Screenshot of spreadsheet

Our cost per lead goal is $2.50 or less. So this ended up being way, way too expensive because the amount of effort it took didn’t outweigh the number of new users we acquired.

The majority of our photo booth partner events returned similar results. This data screamed loud and clear that we had to be much more discerning about photo booth partnerships.

While this strategy helps us get to a quantitative measure of the return on investment for each strategy, we also needed a “quality” measure. For now we’re using MailChimp’s contact rating to try and understand how engaged a user is over time. (It’s certainly not a perfect measurement, but our business is built on reader engagement, not just our total number of users, so it’s important that we have some proxy for this.)

Step 3: Collate and analyze all the data

We experimented with tools like Airtable and Chart.io to pull in all our referral data, but ultimately we decided to do our tagging and data analysis with MailChimp’s subscriber tags. We created a taxonomy of all our growth strategies and are currently scoping how to automatically or manually tag new users based on how they signed up. Once we complete that, we’ll update our growth tracker with new data. But for now, here’s what our taxonomy, and tags, look like—in other words, here are all the ways we’re trying to grow our newsletter subscriber list.

  1. Partnerships: We work with an organization or person in our community who reaches users who may be interested in signing up for our newsletter. In return, we offer to promote their events or a specific offer in our newsletter partner section and on social.

    • Webpage event opt-out: Signups from a partner’s event RSVP page. On this page, the partner gives users the option to uncheck a box that would sign them up for our newsletter when the user purchases a ticket to the partner’s event.

    • WiFi opt-out: Signups from a partner’s WiFi page. On this page, the partner gives users the option to uncheck a box that would sign them up for our newsletter when the user logs onto the partner’s WiFi.

    • Tabling: Signups from tabling at a partner’s event.

    • Photo Booth: Signups from using our photo booth at a partner’s event. If we have tabled and used a photo booth, you may use both the tabling and photo booth tags.

    • Giveaways: Signups from a partner giveaway. A partner creates a giveaway for a product or service. We create an entry form page with a newsletter signup option and share it in our newsletter and on our social channels. The partner also shares it with their audience. Anyone who completes the form is entered to win the product or service. We import any new users to our newsletter list.

    • Ongoing: Signups from ongoing partnerships—when an opt-out or WiFi partner sends us new subscribers more than once.

  2. Social ads

    • Facebook and Instagram lead gen: Signups from Facebook and Instagram lead generation ads.
  3. Our events

    • Event sign-in: Signups from users who sign in to attend our events who are not currently subscribed to our newsletters.
  4. Website tools: Users can signup for our newsletters from various forms on our websites. Subscribers we acquire through website forms are automatically tagged.

    • Top call to action on homepage: Signups from users who use the top of the homepage’s call to action.

    • Opt-in website pop up: Signups from users who use the pop-up module on our site homepage or story pages.

    • Referral tool: Signups from users who sign up for the newsletter using the referral tool. In other words, people who have been referred to our newsletter by an existing user.

Step 4: Analyze the data.

Once we created our taxonomy and tagging system, we had a ton of data to look at and learn from. The clearest takeaway was how effective partnerships overall are for our local brands—hundreds of new subscribers sign up from our partnership efforts every month.

All the brands see that when they’re able to make relationships with other local businesses and they’re able to find ways to partner together that make sense for both organizations we see a lot of return,” Alexandra said. “Part of it’s that we’re reaching an already-engaged local audience. These are people who already are interested or involved with the partner event or brand and usually the organizations we partner with have a decent sized audience. So there’s some quality and quantity at play there.”

Step 5: Adjust your strategies to maximize for tech efficiencies and to make time for human touches.

Based on the data, we decided to focus on optimizing two growth strategies that were most useful for us: local partnerships and our referral tool.

Alexandra and other colleagues used simple tech solutions like Airtable forms for sourcing partnership leads, building a partnership status tracker, and creating formulas in which we’d enter a few data points and calculate our cost per lead to help inform which partnerships we’d want to expand, repeat, or stop.

The success of acquiring new, engaged users through partnerships is dependent on how well our local teams can create and cultivate relationships with other locals and local organizations. We’re trying to ensure our local directors have time to source new partnerships, and we’re experimenting with part-time engagement producers who help us nurture and execute those partnerships for growth.

Our referral tool is another growth strategy that worked well for us. Whenever one of our existing readers gets a friend to sign up using a unique link, that existing reader gets credit for the referral that adds up to prizes and, eventually, a membership.

When we figure out creative ways to use our referral tool, it’s an incredibly effective piece of technology. But its success relies on the relationships and loyalty we build with our subscribers, so that they are excited to share the newsletter with their friends. While it doesn’t bring in as many new subscribers as our partnerships, the users we do acquire through referrals tend to be more engaged and loyal in the long-term—the average MailChimp contact rating for these subscribers is 4 (out of 5).

We’re experimenting with new growth strategies every day, which means Alexandra’s revisiting our growth tracker regularly and doing fresh analysis to decide what to double-down on and what to let go.

How are you tracking and measuring the effectiveness of your growth strategies? Reach out! I’m at anika@whereby.us. I’d love to chat more, and hopefully, we can learn together.

This post is part of a series on how WhereBy.Us works in an effort to share what we’re learning, and to learn from others across the industry. Thanks to Alexandra Smith for chatting about her growth work and to WhereBy.Us COO Rebekah Monson for editing.


  • Anika Anand

    Anika Anand is cofounder of The Evergrey, a daily e-mail newsletter helping Seattleites feel more connected with their city, and product director of WhereBy.Us, a digital media startup and parent company of The Evergrey. In 2018, she was selected to join the Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was named one of the 50 most influential women in Seattle by Seattle Met Magazine. She lives in Seattle with her husband and son.


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