For a young, fairly niche publication about farming lifestyle and food culture, Modern Farmer sure seems to be everywhere. Barely a year old, the magazine’s experiencing a surge in growth and recognition—including a 2014 National Magazine Award for Best Magazine Section, for which it beat out established titles like GQ, Vanity Fair, and New York.
At a time when people are more curious about where their food comes from, Modern Farmer’s Digital Director Jake Swearingen acknowledges that much of his team’s growth has been a factor of having the right idea at the right time.
“I hate to use the word ‘organic’ because it makes it sound so cliché, especially for a magazine called Modern Farmer,” he admits. “But I think we’re also just lucky to come into this idea that nobody else has really done in this way before.”
Modern Farmer has a daily website and a quarterly print publication, so it made sense for them to use a newsletter to spur growth in readership and subscribers. Originally, they’d planned to send a campaign monthly, but they instantly got such a tremendous response that they upped it to once—then twice—a week.
Modern Farmer‘s emails include a mix of top stories from the magazine and website along with less-popular-but-still-great pieces that deserve a second chance at the spotlight. They’ve realized that, as Fast Company recently said, "newsletters cater to people who want to stay informed without feeling like a slave to the Twitter stream." An email waits for you in your inbox, rather than expecting you to keep up with it; in other words, an email plays by your rules.
“As editors and media people, we spend all day on Twitter and Facebook,” Jake says. “We sort of forget that, for 95% of the population, they don’t spend all their time just constantly reading media to see what else is new.”
Social media has a role in growing their list, too, though. When a story is doing really well, like when it’s linked on a major website or retweeted by someone influential, Modern Farmer takes advantage of increased site traffic by issuing a pop-up form asking first-time site visitors to sign up for the newsletter. Although Jake admits the tactic is a little in-your-face, “the complaints have been minimal and results have been pretty inarguable.” They typically add anywhere from 2,000-3,000 new newsletter subscribers a month and have gone from zero to more than 25,000 in the span of a year.
Of course, Modern Farmer never forgets they’ve got a print magazine to sell. Email helps with that, too, providing their loyal web readers an opportunity to turn into loyal print subscribers. As a thank you, new email subscribers are sent an automated email upon signup, offering them a discount code for a print magazine subscription. And every newsletter that goes out also includes a link to subscribe to the print magazine. That link gets anywhere 20-70 clicks per campaign.
Jake is looking forward to Modern Farmer growing and publishing even more award-winning content in their second year. He also predicts taking their newsletter from twice-a-week to daily, if that’s what the readers want. “I think we are obviously in this big shift about how newsletters are viewed,” he says. “After a decade of people sort of considering the newsletter as a kind of spammy, marketing tool, publications are really coming back to life around them. Especially if they’re well done.”