Fluence Media Publisher Blois Olson Shares Insights Into Newsletter Marketing
David Erickson: I am delighted to have my friend Blois Olson as a guest for an interview. Blois is a radio personality here in Minnesota. He's the publisher of a bunch of newsletters. He's a podcast host. He's the principal of Fluence Media. And Blois and I go way back. We first met through politics, started publishing what was I think probably the first political blog in Minnesota, covering Minnesota politics, developed a newsletter out of that. We're publishing a book at one point. I've done a lot of work together over the years. So Blois, thanks for joining us.
Blois Olson: This is all your fault. All of it is your fault. I can trace this whole crazy social media, online content, newsletters business, to Dave Erickson saying I own a URL, do you want to start something?
David Erickson: And it was 1998. The perfect year to start something. Jesse Ventura was running for governor. We had a lot to talk about. And so yeah, it worked out pretty well. That was the early days of the web. We didn't have content management systems back then but we managed. And then we started this newsletters as a companion to the website, which was a daily roundup of the Minnesota political news.
Blois Olson: That was like the second big thing we did was morning headlines. But our first newsletter was called MN-Spin. I think we did it once a week.
David Erickson: Yep.
Blois Olson: And we did it once a week. And I remember part of our audience was the Capitol crowd but we had to print off the HTML newsletter on the hard paper because they didn't get HTML email in their DOS systems yet. And so that should just put it all into perspective of how long we've been scheming and coming up with ideas for content.
David Erickson: Yeah, bring those printouts to the Capitol press corps down in the basement and hand them out.
Blois Olson: We were the first that had graphics and photos of people as well. Which is ironic, because now every email that I have, has minimal graphics and is just basically black and white, quick read, because now we know how email servers treat those graphics. So it's an evolution.
David Erickson: We also started--I mean, we could argue that we had the first political podcast in Minnesota as well, with--what was it? Spin Cycle.
Blois Olson: Spin Cycle, and it was a collaboration between our website then--MN-Politics.com--and Minnesota Public Radio. They thought so much of our work that they thought we should do a podcast together. Which is really ironic, considering that they now have such a dominance in podcasts over at American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio.
Blois Olson: And of course, it was Election Day, 1998, when Jesse won, that became my first day on WCCO radio, which is now in its 25th year for all kinds of various roles. So again, David, I really trace this all back to you looking at me saying, "I own a URL. Do you want to start something?" And I said, Sure. And you said you have good information and I know how to program in HTML, let's go. And here we are, 23 years? Yeah, 23 years later.
David Erickson: I trust your math.
Blois Olson: 23 years later. Yeah. There we go.
Talk Radio Commentary On WCCO
David Erickson: So what I tell me about how you got into radio. So you're, you give a radio show now. But you did a lot of commentating on politics, we did a lot of commentating on politics.
Blois Olson: Yep.
David Erickson: That turned into the WCCO gig. So tell me about how that happened and evolved.
Blois Olson: Well, I was just an analyst for a number of years from '98 until 2010. And they'd pull me in now and then whenever there was breaking news, whether it was the Wellstone plane crash or election night. And then in 2010--WCCO was owned by CBS and CBS did some buyouts, which of course we know many media companies have done.
Morning Take Newsletter
Blois Olson: And in April of 2010, I started Morning Take. You and I had left the political publishing business. We focused on our consulting practices, we merged our companies into a firm you're back with now, Tunheim. And I kind of missed the political game; I was doing some writing.
But I read--there was a moment in April of 2010 when--you just kind of get inspired when we come up with these ideas. And I got inspired by Politico's playbook. And it was the idea that everybody read it before they got out of bed or got in the shower every day in Washington. And I said, well, I think that's more--that's good--that's more than political headlines, which we had already done and sold and gotten rid of. I said, so there's some dots to be connected.
And so without telling literally anyone in the world, I woke up on a Monday morning and put together I think it's like 13 bullet points about a Democratic convention the weekend before and some other dynamics in the 2010 governor's race. I think I sent it to between like 50 and 80 people out of my normal Exchange server.
And I remember distinctly being like: Alright, what am I going to call this? Like, it's done. And I remember just like: date, dot, date, dot, date, and Morning Take. Like Blois' Morning Take. I didn't say Blois' Morning Take, but that's what it was. And it grew to about 500 subscribers in like three or four weeks. And by August of that year, we had to open mail accounts and server accounts. And now it's a daily audience of over 15,000 people across a lot of things.
Throwing Spaghetti Against The Wall
Blois Olson: So I always say this is like, I keep trying stuff and when it stops working, I'll stop trying, but it's just the spaghetti test. If you throw a bunch of stuff against the wall, some of it's gonna stick and that stuck. And that then led to Morning Take radio on WCCO at 6:20 every day.
Owning The Inbox
Blois Olson: And the premise was, well, you're awake anyways--because people who know me know that I don't sleep a lot and I'm an early riser--and so it just kind of grew and grew. And frankly fueled what I say is another new revolution in media, which was the fall of newspapers, the rise of whatever wave of social media that was and you and I all along had an agreement that you can take all the social media channels in the world but if you could own the inbox, if you could find real estate in the inbox of email, that was still the most powerful thing. And I still think that's true today.
First Read Of Minnesota Politics
David Erickson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So let's take a step back and kind of describe Morning Take for people who are not familiar with it. It is the morning read on what's happening in Minnesota politics, it is a compilation of the headlines, the committees that are happening that day. What you--
Smarter Before Breakfast
Blois Olson: It's meant to be a preview of the day. The whole--the original premise was that you're smarter before breakfast. So if you're in politics in Minnesota and you have a business breakfast, or you have a conference call, or you have an early meeting, you're smarter for that meeting.
And then it grew into kind of a view of the day ahead. So much of media is what's happened and especially, um--hold on, we have some breaking news in the Fluence newsroom right now. One sec. Governor Walz was just called a curfew and we are about to put out an extra. So my managing editor, Mike Maybay, was waiting for me. So here we go. That's how this operation works.
What Is Going To Happen?
Blois Olson: So the idea was, so much of news is like what happened? What happened? In cable news, especially, in talk radio is so much about why did that happen? Why did it happen? That there's nobody telling you what's gonna happen. And that was the premise of Morning Take; what's gonna happen? Our goal is two to three days a week, we tell you something before anyone else does about politics in Minnesota. And that was the premise.
Morning Take Growth
Blois Olson: It's grown from about a page to about five pages. And we link back to the media. So that's the other thing is that we don't take their content. It's clearly curated. And we drive traffic to their websites, which is one of the reasons why I think they don't mind us curating their stuff.
Brilliant Email Engagement Tactic
David Erickson: You've got what I think is a brilliant but simple and elegant way to get people to scroll all the way down to the bottom of your newsletter every day. So can you tell me about that and how that came about.
Blois Olson: We publish birthdays and everybody likes to be noted on their birthday. And this is not original idea. That was from Playbook; they had birthdays. And early on I was at a social event and there was these three couples; we're all having this conversation and the wives were like kill the birthdays, it doesn't matter. Then the guys were like, no--pretty, some big-hitters in Minnesota politics--the husbands were like: No, that's my favorite part. It allows me to call so and so on the way into the office and say happy birthday. And they think I, you know... So that whole concept lives on today. We have people who send us their birthday, we have people who are mad when their birthday is not in there. Or if they were on one year and they fall off the list. The truth is, there's not a lot of rhyme or reason. Other than people I know who are in my calendar or in my Facebook feed that fit Minnesota politics.
We have a Wisconsin product and I've done a few birthdays there. And then it's like, how did you know? And the truth is most elected officials birthdays are public record. So you can find it. But yeah, it makes people scroll to the bottom.
Blois Olson: Our open rates are, steadily higher than national average. And frankly, in the last year, since the begining of the pandemic, our open rates have risen even more. And, you know, I'm just grateful people continue to find the information valuable.
David Erickson: So why do you think people are...why are your opening rates increasing during the pandemic?
Blois Olson: Well, never before have more people looked to the government for information, I think. And we were fortunate, we're usually the first out of the gate in the morning. People have tried to compete and get out before us, but then I just wake up a half hour earlier.
David Erickson: You have to get up pretty early in the morning--
Blois Olson: A lot of the major players have given up trying to compete at 6:30 or 7 am. And so they go at nine or 10. And so through the pandemic, there was always this when is something going to happen? When are vaccines going to be available? When is a curfew going to be lifted or put into place? And people, normal people--and I talked about them as my neighbors; like my neighbors didn't necessarily even know who the governor of the state of Minnesota was, necessarily. But then they started to watch these briefings and they cared what he was going to say. And then they want to know when golf courses open, when, you know, restaurants could reopen, when bars could reopen. And we generally--at least 90% of the time--had that information first.
And so there was just...there became a formula. And people just kept subscribing and opening and subscribing and opening. And I thought there'd be some fall off, like as vaccines came off. And the truth is we haven't; we've still...I think we added, you know-- In a normal year, we average 25 to 30 subscribers a week. Last year we averaged about 60 to 80 subscribers a week. And this year, we're holding steady at 40 to 50 new subscribers per week. Now we have some attrition and people change jobs and you know, but on average, we're still growing after 11 years.
David Erickson: Morning Take is your flagship. It's the first one. You have a bunch of other ones. So what was the next one?
Blois Olson: So the next one was Business Take. We surveyed our readers: They wanted a business newsletter. But there's a lot of business news. And so I thought like what can we do differently? Well, there's a lot of big corporations in Minnesota that do a lot of things around the country that people don't cover here or it's later. Whether it's the ad industry and big national accounts, or it's Cargill--a global company that once in a while they'll get covered in the StarTribune, but frankly, it was usually bad news.
And so for instance, we learned that Cargill made major investments in the cocoa or coffee world--chocolate and coffee. So they made some major plays and that is a commodity. And we would pick up this news from all over the world and people in Minnesota were like, oh, Cargill's into chocolate and coffee; who wouldn't be?
We learned that when when a brewery would put out a beer on social media and we put it in Friday, that it got a lot of clicks. And so we just, we drove Business Take.
Blois Olson: And then we added Ag Take, focused on agriculture. And that was where data began to really inform our growth. We found that our best subscribers--people, elected officials, CEOs--were clicking on ag content in Mourning Take and Business Take at a higher rate than other stories. And that was because there was this void or vacuum yet ag is a huge part of our statewide economy.
And so we had a conversation and somebody's like, yeah, we've tried to do that, it doesn't work but we'll sponsor it if you want to do Ag Take. And so: You're gonna sponsor it, we're gonna do a newsletter; and so I think that's about eight years old now, maybe nine.
Other Fluence Newsletters
Blois Olson: And since then we've added Minneapolis Take this year. Wisconsin. Minnesota Good news we added during the pandemic, about philanthropy and good stories; because frankly, people needed some good news. And then Health Take is, I think, five or six years old; because health care is, again, a huge part of what people think about. But we we've been able to find sponsor partners for most of those newsletters; which, you know, makes the cost of innovation really inexpensive.
David Erickson: You've had impressive growth, impressive staying power. It takes a lot of work to put together a weekly newsletter, let alone a daily newsletter. So you mentioned sponsors: Does the sponsor come first before you decide to start a newsletter?
Blois Olson: No, not necessarily. We started Minneapolis Take this year, because it's a decisive year in the future of the city. And there's a lot of news in Minnesota's largest city. So we don't have a sponsor there yet. We have some interest. And we have some growth. So now we can look a little deeper to say, oh, okay, maybe there's some numbers here that somebody might want to sponsor.
Blois Olson: But we remain in control of editorial coverage of every newsletter. And that's clear in all of our sponsor agreements. We won't sponsor with people we don't think aligned with the audience necessarily. We've gotten some pushback on some of our sponsors. But the point is that, you know, let's just say it's an environmental issue. We don't have any clients in that space. So we can take sponsors on all sides of that.
Blois Olson: It's really about what the audience opens and clicks on and engages with the drives what we're trying to do here. And again, our audience is thought leaders, elected officials, other media. And in each case, we strive to be simple of: Here's what's coming, or here's what you need to know to be smarter in your industry. And not kind of regurgitate everything that's already happened. So here are the events that are coming. Here's a news conference that's three days from now.
Because so many people get home because of social media and online news; people get home from work, they don't watch the six o'clock news anymore. They know what happened.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Chauvin Trial Newsletter
Blois Olson: And so we started a Chauvin trial briefing, which will go away as soon as the Chauvin trial is over. But that was because people are glued to their stream but they may have a meeting, they may have a...right? And some people just can't be connected to it. And so it's basically what happened today and what's going to happen in the Chauvin trial. And we put it out and we had 850 subscribers in like six days. And I think part of it is, they know it's gonna go away too.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Blois Olson: Right? But they want to be smarter or they want a little information and people remain just hungry for information. And the more crowded channels get whether it's Twitter or Facebook or whatever, again, if we find real estate in their inbox that they find valuable they're gonna keep opening.
David Erickson: Well, that was a very smart and nimble move you made by doing that. Probably, a lot of stuff that you were already collecting for other newsletters that...so you probably weren't going to expend a lot more extra effort to publish it. But yeah, I didn't see anything except notice it in one of your newsletters and that's how I started subscribing.
Blois Olson: Well that's the other thing--and we've worked together on trying to get more subscribers and a good interface--but I also have to give a shout out. I mean, this started as just me doing Morning Take. But there's been various people, and Mike Maybay deserves a lot of credit for the last, I don't know, four or five years, as kind of being the managing editor. And one of the things that I laugh about is people are like, how do you do all this? And I'm not shy, there's people who make me look smarter than I am every day through these newsletters and through content. And you filled in in that role, too. And so you understand that there's a judicious way of trying to be smart. When there's so much competition for smart content.
Newsletter Marketing Lessons
David Erickson: Yeah. So what are the biggest lessons you've learned from all this? These many, many years of growing successful newsletters?
Innovate, Innovate, Innovate
Blois Olson: Try stuff because the cost of innovation in this world--online content, whether it's blogs, or podcasts, or newsletters, or Facebook groups, or whatever--is really cheap. Like, we don't need to--I'll just take a recent example: I don't need 100 scientists trying to figure out a vaccine and dah dah dah dah dah to try to innovate, or a new drug. We try some stuff and we can tell really quickly; people will let us know or they just don't sign up or they don't listen. And so we just watched the numbers.
Minneapolis Mayoral Candidates Podcast
Blois Olson: For instance, we just did a series of podcasts with mayor candidates in Minneapolis. Obviously, Minneapolis is front and center for a lot of our political audience. And some people don't even know who these people are but so many people from our current audience are curious about these people that we had record downloads on podcast with mayoral candidates that nobody had heard of. So much so that the WCCO analytics people are like, what did you do different this time? And I'm like, we just put out there what we think people are curious about.
Beers With Blois Podcast
Blois Olson: Now, we've had the governor on, we've had senators, we've had representatives on Beers With Blois podcast and the mayor one took off, like 4000 new downloads in the first three days. And you're like, well, I guess there's people who want to listen. So we might as well keep feeding them. And again, that cost--I mean, we have sponsors of the podcast--but the cost of doing that is minimal compared to inventing a new drug, designing a new car; whatever it is that people try to innovate with in business. And that's what we're trying to do here is show, like, we have the audience. Our intellectual property is our audience and our method of delivering it. And just knowing behind the scenes, what what people are hungry for what the data is.
David Erickson: How long have you been doing Beers With Blois?
Blois Olson: Started right after the 2018 election. So I think it launched in first quarter of 2019. So two years. And the premise was that after 2016, we covered between 'CCO and Morning Take the governor's race of 2018 very, very closely. And again, it was a big growth year, both on online and on radio content. And so CCO is like you should do a podcast. And I said, I don't really have time. And I don't know what I'd do yet. And so I'm kind of waiting for the dust settle.
Civil Political Discussions
Blois Olson: And then the premise was--it's called Beers With Blois--and the premise was, nobody sits down and talks about politics over a beer. They tweet at each other, they yell at each other, especially in the era of Trump. Civility had gone out the door. So I was like, Can we just sit down have a beer and talk politics like normal people, or how normal people would talk about these things? And you know, the governor kicked off the first episode. Then they were like--now, I mean, I get requests from people when do I get to be on Beers With Blois? It's like, well, you know, it's got to be timely.
Some of the most interesting ones were last summer we did a two- or three-part series where we had a Democrat and Republican on rather than just one person and found some commonalities. We weren't going to save democracy or you know, save the election civility with that. But you could really see greater Minnesota and urban Democrats, Republicans: They have these conversations and that's what people don't see, because they see cable news or they see Twitter or they see, you know, news clips of just people pissing on each other all the time and I wanted to show that that's not necessarily the case.
How To Find Beers With Blois
David Erickson: So how do how do people subscribe to your podcast? Where can they find it?
Blois Olson: They can go to any of your podcast platforms from Apple to Stitcher to Google or to WCCORadio.com and the Odyssey app and they can sign up right there. It's called Beers With Blois. If you search it, you'll find it because my name being Blois helps in my search results, I'll just say that, David. I know you you you profess much ambition in helping people with search but I will tell you that this is a--I've learned over the years that for good and bad, Blois is just a good name that Google keeps finding.
How To Find Fluence Media Newsletters
David Erickson: It's your Blois card. You can play that every time. How do people subscribe to newsletters? We should make sure we say that.
Blois Olson: They go to Fluence-Newsletters.com and they can sign up for any of them there. And if you liked the interface, praise David and if you don't, criticize me because I approved it.
David Erickson: Let's talk about Fluence Media. So Fluence Media is your company. Tell me what does Fluence Media do?
Blois Olson: We're actually two separate entities now, in 2021. There's Fluence Media and then there's Fluence Advisory and Advisory is the consulting side of the business. So high-stakes communication, C-level communication, crisis management for trade associations, businesses, regulated industries. As you know, I built and grew a firm and sold it a long time ago. That was one thing.
And then, you know, what I heard from my clients was, you know, we really like an agency but we really want deep strategy from you. And so Fluence Media is now nine years old in July, it will be. And so that's where it is. It's not a big staff. This is a small firm and it's executive-lead communications from myself and a few other contractors. But you can see me sitting in my home office and that's not because of COVID, it's because this is where I've been since we started the company. And I like it like that.
Pandemic Powered Innovations
David Erickson: You were all set for COVID. So was I.
Blois Olson: Yeah, we both were. Although I will say that COVID has made, I think both of us way more efficient in content development and production. And I was commenting to somebody for multiple reasons, not just because I like tech toys, but also, whether it's this microphone that now sits here or whatever, we just--The ability to, again, yes, it costs money.
Blois Olson: But relative to other industries, the cost of having a home studio for you and I to record this is minimal. Not to mention, we didn't really know what Zoom was before and now, I couldn't live without it. And in fact, don't ask me to travel a half hour each way to a meeting if we can help cover it a half hour or 45 minutes here. And those weekly conference calls where you know, people were faceless, or whatever now moved to Zoom.
And I...have no endorsement deals with Zoom, let's be clear. But I'm a shareholder, so if they want to give me one, I'll take one. But if you look at the cost of Zoom, the cost of Zoom is lower in an unlimited basis than my previous conference call service that charged me by the minute, just a year ago.
David Erickson: Yeah. Yep. Yeah. My how the world changes so quickly.
Blois Olson: Yes.
David Erickson: Well, thank you, Blois. This has been fun. I appreciate it. We'll have to do it again. When you launch your next venture, we'll talk again.
Blois Olson: Stay tuned.
David Erickson: Take care.
Blois Olson: All right. See you, Dave.
David Erickson: Bye.
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