Milk Road: From 0 to Acquisition in 10 months
How Milk Road scaled to over 250,000 subscribers and got acquired, in under a year.
It all started with a cold DM from Ben Levy, co-founder of Milk Road, on Twitter a few days before New Years Eve 2021.
That led to a call in early January and a few back and forth emails. Spoiler alert: they were considering launching a newsletter in the crypto space.
They were debating buying the milkroad.com domain and had some questions about configuring their DNS settings.
Point being—this whole thing spawned from absolutely zilch back in January. No content archive, no subscribers, not even a cool milk carton as a mascot. Just an idea and a hunch that there was a large audience to capitalize on the recent crypto craze.
And sure, I’m writing this as the CEO of beehiiv…so of course this “case study” (if you will) is slightly biased. But I think it’s cool as f*ck that they launched with absolutely nothing on beehiiv and scaled this thing to get acquired in just under a year.
Milk Road used our hosted web solution for their website, our design suite for their newsletter, our referral program, audience polls, analytics tools, recommendations, advanced segmentation, A/B testing, and infrastructure top to bottom to grow from 0 to over 250,000 subscribers in what feels like record time (still waiting to hear back from Guinness).
You could say they milked beehiiv for everything it had to offer. And you can, too, which is why I’m so damn excited to share this playbook with you all.
- Newsletter Design
- Referral Program
- Organic Traffic
- Paid Acquisition
- Audience Polls
Milk Road launched their newsletter in early January with a simple yet distinct newsletter template.
The signature blue border, coupled with the milk carton dividers, did exactly what it needed to do—stand out in the inbox, and lay the foundation of creating a recognizable newsletter brand.
So many newsletters look like any other newsletter. Black font, white background, no aesthetic uniqueness, nothing to be remembered by. But in a world where attention is limited and inboxes are growing crowded, it pays to stand out. For anyone thinking about launching a newsletter, there are two options:
Option A: Over-complicate the initiative and create more work by hiring an email developer to build custom HTML templates. Test those templates in every mail client from Apple Mail to Outlook 2011, and ensure it renders perfectly across them all.
Option B: Leverage beehiiv’s no-code template editor. Spend 10 minutes tweaking the fonts, borders, spacing, colors, header, footer, etc. Guaranteed to render perfectly across all clients.
Milk Road obviously went with Option B and created a better template than 90% of the newsletters I’ve come across.
They later created a new logo (or rather, mascot) and refreshed the aesthetic of the newsletter.
It looks really f*cking good. Also, Vanta, you can thank me later for the free ad space here. DM me for my ETH wallet address, I’m not above accepting tips.
Get more ideas on template designs here.
To continue with the option A / option B analogy here (because everything in life is a tradeoff)...
Option A: Hire an engineer or two to create a totally bespoke website. Ensure the content is optimized for SEO, ensure the site itself is optimized for email collection, throw some cool scroll effects on that thing, and build the site of your dreams.
Option B: Trust beehiiv to provide you an incredibly performant, functional, SEO-optimized web experience that’s built for email collection and an optimal reading experience. Not to mention the amount of features and functionality under the hood that you get out of the box:
- User authentication
- Advanced search
- Multiple layout options
- Category filters
- Bot and spam protection
- Real-time email validation
- Premium paywalls
- Advanced subscriber attribution
- Popups and email gating
- Optimized caching and loading
- Payment integrations
- …and more
As someone who spent over eight months and hundreds of thousands of dollars (via design, development, and operational costs) at Morning Brew to build our new website back in 2020—it’s a tradeoff worth considering.
Don’t get me wrong, if I had to choose between having Morning Brew’s website or Milk Road’s...I’d choose the former. But Milk Road also saved lots of time, lots of money, and still grew like wildfire.
You don’t go from launch to acquisition in 10 months by wasting your time on things around the margins.
The only reason anyone in tech knows who I am is because I spent way too much time writing a blog about how we built Morning Brew’s wildly successful referral program. You can read it here.
We brought this same referral functionality to beehiiv for anyone to take advantage of–and no one has taken advantage of it more successfully than Milk Road.
It’s truthfully one of my favorite case studies on newsletter referral programs. Why? Because it’s dumb simple, cost effective (free), and it works.
On one hand, you have the Morning Brews of the world—10 rewards, physical goods, fulfillment process and all.
And on the other hand you have Milk Road—1 reward, digital good, fully automated, and free.
Seriously, it's that simple. Ben Levy spent a few hours one day creating a writeup on “What 12 Crypto Whales are Betting On,” turned it into a PDF, and offered it to any Milk Road reader who refers a single subscriber.
One referral = one reward.
Sure, you could attempt to poke holes and argue that people could easily download and share that PDF with friends. But if you wanted that PDF, it truthfully would take you a lot less time and effort just to refer a single person to sign up with your link than to text your 13 group chats and see if anyone already has it.
So how does it actually work?
Readers see the simple referral callout (shown above) in each day's newsletter. They can either copy and paste their unique referral URL and send it to others directly, or they can click on that button to visit their unique referral hub hosted on Milk Road’s website.
That neat page above shows readers:
- the possible rewards they can redeem (in this case fairly minimal)
- their current referral progress (in this case 0)
- the unique link they should use to share with others
After that reader shares their link with someone who goes onto signup (and confirms their email) that lucky reader is rewarded with an email from Milk Road to download this PDF.
This is all automated and on cruise control for the Milk Road team. They just keep dishing out newsletters, readers click through to share, those who share receive the PDF…rinse wash repeat.
And it converts.
Those numbers are fairly dated, but you get the point.
We launched a recommendation feature in late September to allow newsletters to help other newsletters grow together.
After a new subscriber signs up for Milk Road, they’re shown a few other newsletters that Milk Road is currently recommending to check out.
New subscribers can opt to receive any (or all) of these newsletters. In return, these newsletters and dozens of others are all recommending Milk Road to their new readers as well.
So when a visitor signs up to any one of these few dozen newsletters on beehiiv, that person is also nudged to sign up for Milk Road. It’s a 1:n growth strategy that continues to compound over time…and it’s free.
Top of funnel growth is all about getting in front of your target audience in a cost-effective manner. And nothing is as cost effective as free.
Without a web archive/blog, most newsletters lose the opportunity to capture valuable web traffic and keep their past emails alive beyond just the inbox.
Milk Road posts a daily recap of crypto news Monday through Friday, so the content is both timely and relevant. The quality is 🤌, and their beehiiv-hosted website was built from the ground up with SEO in mind.
In just the past 3 months (since publishing this) Milk Road has seen over 175,000 organic search impressions. 50,000+ of which were “non-branded,” meaning visitors were searching for something other than “Milk Road” specifically.
In practice, that means when something circulates–like Mt.Gox returning bitcoin back to their creditors–visitors searching Google may have stumbled across Milk Road’s article covering the news.
While free acquisition is always preferred, some of the most successful newsletters in the world have tapped into more traditional acquisition channels to really pour fuel on the fire.
Milk Road is no different—allocating some marketing spend primarily on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
I asked Milk Road co-founder, Ben Levy, how he thought about paid acquisition:
We really prioritized 3 things:
- How much we’re paying to acquire a subscriber
- The conversation rate of a subscriber into an active reader
- The payback period (how fast it’ll make back the money spent)
For us we were always looking for a payback period of 3 months or less. That means if we were able to make $0.50 /subscriber /month, we would only be willing to pay $1.50 to acquire a subscriber.
We spent most of our time focusing on Facebook due to their scale, and tested a bunch of different creatives and audiences.
After a ton of testing we found two types of creative to consistently outperform others:
- Meme ads
- Social proof ads
The combination of these two worked well for us, and led to over 50,000 readers.
Far too many marketers over-index on the top line CPA. It’s a mistake I initially made in the early days at Morning Brew.
For example, if channel A generated new subscribers at $1, and channel B generated new subscribers at $2, I would pour as much of our marketing budget as I could into channel A. But making that decision with those data points alone was a huge mistake.
Not all subscribers are created equal. In fact, some channels on average yield considerably higher quality subscribers than others. And at the end of the day, you shouldn’t care about the number of subscribers you have–you should care about the number of active subscribers who are routinely opening and engaging with your newsletter.
Going back to the example above, imagine the subscribers attributed to channel A had an average open rate of 10%, and the subscribers attributed to channel B had an average open rate of 50%.
If you were to normalize the acquisition cost by pulling in the average open rates of each (which you should), then the picture looks dramatically different.
And to really bring this point home, let’s say you spent $1,000 on both channels. And all of those subscribers received your 5 daily newsletters in a given week. For the sake of simplicity, assume no churn.
While channel B was twice as expensive, it yielded 150% more opens than channel A.
…so you might be confused as hell right now wondering what this has to do with Milk Road. To be honest, it has just as much to do with Milk Road as it does with any newsletter. You need to understand the quality of these acquisition channels in order to allocate your time and budget wisely.
We took all of our knowledge around data and cohort analysis from the time and tools we built at Morning Brew, and built it natively into beehiiv.
And to put it into practice, and showcase how Milk Road took advantage of this, here’s a side by side breakdown of Facebook vs TikTok campaigns from a random week earlier in the year.
While this was just a cohort I selected at random, there is plenty of useful data in here to help operators like Milk Road make smart decisions about where they’re allocating marketing spend. Subscribers from this TikTok campaign have a 10% higher open rate and unsubscribe at half the rate relative to this Facebook ad campaign running at the same time. I don’t have the costs associated with either campaign, but if, hypothetically, the TikTok ads are converting at a lower CPA, and the engagement is higher, you should have pretty strong conviction to ramp up spend on that campaign and perhaps taper back spend on Facebook.
Now take this small example, and apply it across all acquisition channels or marketing efforts. Even organic signups from Twitter can be measured and evaluated to determine if all that time spent creating threads is worth the ROI.
The best newsletters are always engaging with their readers to gather feedback and continuously improve. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, whether you ask people to reply directly to the email or send an occasional survey.
At beehiiv we wanted to make this process much easier for both newsletters and their readers, so we launched Polls back in June.
While creating your newsletter, you can drop a poll directly into the editor without ever leaving your workflow.
This allows readers to engage and send both quantitative and qualitative feedback in a few clicks directly from the newsletter. Milk Road leverages this by surveying readers asking what they thought about the day’s issue at the bottom of each newsletter.
They also brilliantly screenshot a review from the day before right below the poll, which encourages more readers to submit a response in hope that they are featured in the next day’s newsletter.
This feedback loop gives Milk Road real-time insight into their reader’s thoughts, boosts their CTR and engagement, and makes the newsletter as a whole considerably more interactive.
On the flip side, Milk Road gets hundreds of submissions per day and can view and filter the results.
I started off by saying they milked beehiiv for everything it had, and to be honest, there is still so much more I could have expanded on (segmentation, email blasts, custom domains, DMARC, link-branding, bulk actions, etc.).
But, ultimately, I think the biggest takeaway is this—they made a ton of trade-offs along the way to really focus and prioritize initiatives that move the needle the most:
- Creating the best, most engaging content that they possibly could
- An open-minded approach to testing all sorts of acquisition channels
- And trusting us at beehiiv to fill in the gaps where their team lacked competency
They could have been known as Milk Road, that crypto newsletter with a super cool website that has a neat scrolling effect on the landing page. But instead they’re known as Milk Road, that crypto newsletter that went from launch to acquisition in under 10 months. Which would you prefer?
If you have a newsletter and want to take it to the next level, learn more about beehiiv here. Perhaps 10 months from now you’ll have your very own case study regarding an acquisition as well.