Some millennials swoon over the prospect of joining Taylor Swift’s #squad, but if there’s any power lady clique worth joining, it’s Lenny Letter‘s line of guest contributors, helmed by “Girls” co-producers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. The duo launched their radically-feminist email newsletter in October of last year, and they’ve since amassed 400,000 subscribers in just six months. Lenny defies the argument that the email platform is archaic, touting a 65% open rate — 42% higher than the average email campaign’s (according to MailChimp).
Lenny epitomizes the concept of “art for social change.” The newsletter has thus far featured essays authored by influential female figures — not just celebrities from popular culture, but respected leaders in a variety of fields such as politics, business, technology, and so forth. Its list of contributors currently includes actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Jane Fonda, comedienne Sarah Silverman, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao. Its list of exclusive interviews thus far includes presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and businesswoman Melinda Gates. It’s clear that the celebrity names have largely prompted readers to subscribe and read, and the appeal has yielded fruits of financial success, as well.
Emailed to subscribers twice every week, Lenny doesn’t shy away from long-form content, even when modern media seems to be obsessed with the fleeting attention spans of millennial audiences. Usually with six articles in each Tuesday’s email, Lenny isn’t a 5-minute read like TheSkimm, another feminist newsletter. Instead of capturing current events in short, digestible bites, Lenny digs deeper into trending topics of the moment: Lena responded after Kesha lost her sexual assault court case; she wrote about photo retouching after her image was morphed in a Spanish magazine; Lenny opened conversations about abortion, gun regulation, equal pay, and birth control during the weeks the government discussed them.
According to Buzzfeed, Lenny’s lucrative model now employs a full-time staff of four: Editor in chief, Jessica Grose, is a former Slate editor and Jezebel writer. Editor at large Doreen St. Félix has written for Pitchfork and BuzzFeed, associate editor Laia Garcia still writes for Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie magazine, and editorial assistant Dianca Potts edits for LIT magazine. With not many staff to compensate on the payroll, Lenny has constructed a star-studded reputation where contributing to the platform is more an honor than an opportunity for freelance pay. Its contributors rarely write more than one article, and illustrators usually only submit one piece of art.
Ultimately, this is why Lenny Letter is, and will continue to be, successful:
-the EMAIL NEWSLETTER medium
-strategic SOCIAL MEDIA usage
-the CELEBRITY FACTOR
-its HEARST PARTNERSHIP
EMAIL NEWSLETTER MEDIUM
Curated newsletters have been successful as of late because they understand and cater to their niche audiences. It may help that they select and deliver news straight to the inbox, so readers don’t need to seek out — amalgamate from blogs and social media — their reading for the day.
Specifically, Lenny seems counterintuitive: its target demographic consists of young millennial women whose waning attention spans are supposedly “responsible” for the death of long-form media (hence the rise of Buzzfeed, listicles, and 140-character stories). However, Lenny exemplifies giving readers what they “need” instead of want. Lenny’s introductory message was 7,300 words alone, and each newsletter averages 6,000-7,000 words — a seemingly nauseating amount to read.
Katie Penrod, a University of Michigan sophomore and Michigan Daily news editor subscribed to Lenny Letter upon a friend’s recommendation. In an email interview, she said, “I think the density and length of the newsletter could be a deterrent for some people, but the themes and stories throughout the emails are powerful and worth reading.”
Lenny editor in chief Jessica Grose told the Washington Post in an interview:
When it is read in the e-mail newsletter format, it’s so much cleaner, and the images and the words — it’s almost a throwback to reading magazines,” said Jessica Grose, the editor at Lenny Letter. “We want that kind of experience. We want the individual experience.
According to a Neiman Lab article published just last month, “Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter has grown to 400,000 subscribers with a 65 percent open rate.” TheSkimm can be viewed as a model for comparison, because its key demographic also includes females aged 18-34. According to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, “At Year Two, TheSkimm Hits 500,000 Subscribers.” So, whereas it took two years for TheSkimm to reach 500,000 subscribers; after just half a year, Lenny Letter has already hit 400,000 subscribers. Whereas TheSkimm built an impressive 45% open rate, Lenny has already a 20% higher open rate.
In 2015, one year after WSJ calculated, Neiman Lab reported that TheSkimm’s subscriber numbers exponentially increased from 500K to 1.5 million. If the email newsletter platform is to be accounted for, TheSkimm’s growth trajectory could reflect what Lenny has the potential to do at an even faster rate.
According to the Neiman Lab’s Justin Ellis, “The Skimm’s passionate readership helped its newsletter grow to 1.5 million subscribers“:
Media companies have been rediscovering the power of email in recent months, building out newsletters to amplify their work and create new connections with readers in their inboxes.
When Ellis asked, “Is email an old technology?” Danielle Weisberg, one of the co-founders of TheSkimm, answered:
A lot of the original investors we pitched to would say things like ‘Email is dead’ and ‘Why don’t you create an app instead?’ But they would say it to us over email, which kind of illustrated our point — we don’t believe email is dead… We believe email is how people really communicate with each other, especially when we looked at the morning routines of our target audience… The Skimm focuses on women ages 22–34 in big cities throughout the country… And email is very much in the routines of the demo that we’re going after.
To counter lamentations that newsletters are archaic because they’ree time-consuming, Lenny uses social media for faster consumption.
It all started with Jennifer Lawrence’s personal essay — controversially titled “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co‑Stars?” — about Hollywood’s gender pay gap. As Lenny’s first-ever published piece, JLaw’s essay didn’t appear on its website or in people’s inboxes; the text was first pasted into a Facebook post on Lawrence‘s account. Even if Lenny wasn’t first to publish the text though, Lawrence made it clear that the piece was specifically for Lena Dunham’s publication:
Lawrence’s powerfully-feminist statement almost singlehandedly launched Lenny into widespread recognition: liked over 178,000 times and shared almost 26,000 times on Facebook alone, not to mention covered in several other publications. The Internet went crazy, and it sparked heated discussion about the sexist wage gap in the entertainment industry.
Upon first glance, Lenny’s Instagram bio makes it clear that it understands and caters toward its audience: “Dismantling the patriarchy, one newsletter at a time.” Lenny’s content is multimodal — featuring commissioned illustrations alongside its articles — so Instagram is more suited to highlight the art where Twitter promotes the writing.
Instagram is a photo-focused platform where links can’t be clicked or even copied in captions; users must make the extra effort to follow the “link in bio.” So, Lenny uses Instagram specifically to feature their original commissioned illustrations and photography, allowing their articles to come secondary. Here, the feature of artwork feels like a less commercial, more altruistic form of native advertising — supporting up-and-coming artists instead of large corporations. Consequently, Instagram is more widely-used platform that can showcase original artwork in ways even Lenny’s 65% open rate can’t. Of Lenny’s 400,000 subscribers, 140,000 (the 35% who subscribe but don’t always open), could belong to the 220,000 Instagram followers who can quickly consume the artwork without the time commitment of reading.
Lenny Letter’s Twitter presence is the best testament to the digital community of feminists it’s created. Recently, Lenny brought its online community to real life when it held its first event — a reading by contributors at a New York City bookstore. Twitter was the perfect social interactive to promote attendance.
Though Lenny’s YouTube isn’t as active as its other social media accounts, its videos support its feminist agenda and certainly emphasize the celebrity interviews it conducts. The clips, later shared on Twitter and Facebook, are rarely more than 4 minutes and often under 60 seconds, such as this 14-second bit here:
The channel further’s Lenny’s “celebrity branding” that helps raise awareness of the newsletter. Below is a scripted skit featuring Dunham and comedienne Amy Schumer, who also has many devoted fans that could discover Lenny through the video.
As a result of its Hearst partnership, Lenny’s sister publications help promote the newsletter by selectively republishing stories on their platform. This helps monetize the publication, recruit writers, and diversify its readership.
As Dunham announced in the fifth newsletter:
We also wanted to let you know that in the next few weeks we are going to start running advertising in our newsletter and on lennyletter.com through our new partnership with Hearst Magazines. Hearst is going to help us by spreading the Lenny word across its digital platforms like Elle, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Marie Claire, and more. (Our articles will be online a day after our email subscribers have had the exclusive look. Y’all are the originals)… (This partnership will help us) pay our authors and artists fairly
For comparison, TheSkimm is independently operated by investors and sponsorships, such as Chelsea Handler, the NBA, and their “Skimm’bassadors” — readers who voluntarily promote their content. On the contrary, Lenny operates under the umbrella of Hearst; instead of separate sponsorships, it feeds off of Hearts’ advertisement sales.
As Konner told Buzzfeed, “The project will be self-funded at first, but slowly establish revenue streams from a mix of carefully selected advertisers and e-commerce that collaborates with independent female artists and designers in ethical, affordable, and witty apparel and design items.” Thus, Lenny has even opened its own online store of “feminist merch,” such as banners that say “STAUNCH” or nude-figure incense holders, all designed by commissioned artists.
It’s uncertain how much Lenny editors are salaried, and even though Konner confirmed that all contributors are paid, it’s significantly less than keeping on staff writers. The four staff Lenny does empoly help recruit guest journalists and interviewers from the publications they’ve formerly worked for, such as Jezebel, MTV, Hello Giggles, Rookie, Slate, and so forth.
CELEBRITY FACTOR: pros and cons
PROS: Whereas TheSkimm grew from 200 to 6,000 Skimm’bassadors in one year to help grow readership, Lenny uses it’s “star power” to gain traction instead. Posts written by or interviewing famous figures almost immediately go viral, most notably like JLaw’s piece, Lena’s essay on Kesha, or model Emily Ratajowski‘s story on body love. It also helps to have Lena Dunham, an activist active on most social media platforms, at the helm.
Penrod stated, “I think the stories with celebrities give Lenny an appeal and an edge. Having celebrities share sometimes very personal stories is something that intrigues people maybe more than a writer who is not well known.”
CONS: One of the main critiques of Lenny Letter is that it isn’t formal journalism. This is partially acceptable because Lenny’s content is akin to magazine or features journalism. While it doesn’t deliver straight news, it covers current events and trending topics through features of figures in the field. Grose explains the aesthetic they aspire to is like “Rookie’s Big Sister” or “Goop meets Grantland.”
The four staff editors and many contributing writers come from editorial backgrounds (many are currently reporters for other publications), but most celebrity contributors do not. This is where Lenny differs from traditional features journalism, and it begs the question: “Does ‘celebrity authorship’ offer more leniency on ‘quality’?”
Ultimately, Penrod states, “I think Lenny Letter will be successful for a long time, especially because of the niche audience who watches ‘Girls’ and admires Lena Dunham (sic).”