How The Lily is reaching Millennial women with a strong brand built for its audience

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


The Washington Post launched The Lily in 2017, aimed at reaching Millennial women. Designed specifically to be read on mobile and to spotlight its journalism on the platforms Millennials use — such as Facebook, Medium, Instagram, and Twitter — The Lily is amplifying the voices of women.

This vivid creative concept grew to an audience of 18,000 Instagram followers in its first year, running an average of 10 stories per day with an eight-person team. In an exclusive Webinar on Wednesday morning, INMA members were led through the process, from mission statement to editorial voice to engagement strategy to marketing.

Amy King, editor-in-chief and creative director, and Amy Cavenaile, art director, outlined the entire concept and first-year journey for INMA members tuning in. They explained that their team was tasked with coming up with new ways to reach new audiences.

The Lily was a new Washington Post venture aimed at reaching Millennial women where they live.
The Lily was a new Washington Post venture aimed at reaching Millennial women where they live.

“The main goal was trying to reach a new audience,” King said. “We knew at the beginning, from doing a little bit of research, that Millennials were a group of people the Post did a good job of reading, but we could definitely improve our numbers. We started by thinking of ways we could reach all Millennials. But after getting feedback from the newsroom, and because we are Millennial women, we decided to focus on women.”

From March to December 2016, the team launched its pitching phase. Team members knew the pitch would be a lot more powerful if they had real things to show, King said, so they created mock-ups of newsletters, Instagram and Snapchat posts, etc.

Coming up with a name for the new platform was difficult, and the team went through several iterations. Eventually, the name decided on — The Lily — was an homage to the first newspaper started by a woman, Amelia Bloomer, in 1849.

“This was a mission that really resonated with us, so we felt good about naming the publication after that,” King said.

The Lily mission statement was created: empower women with news and information and expose diverse voices and perspectives.

The Lily team created a specific brand voice that was identifiable and didn't speak down to its audience.
The Lily team created a specific brand voice that was identifiable and didn't speak down to its audience.

Distribution strategy

“We wanted to create something where people were already looking,” King said. “We knew that Millennial women are mostly using their phones, so we optimised for mobile. We meet people where they are: Medium, Facebook, Instagram. We made those choices at the beginning because we know our audience.”

The first thing the team launched was the app, followed by Snapchat Discover and finally The Lily Web site. Everything was done with the specific audience in mind, from design to editorial.

“We had all these stories that we knew would appeal to a younger audience; it was just hard to get them to read the Post,” King said. “Lily was sort of a packaging solution to that. We knew if we took some of these stories and put them in a certain spot, they would appeal to Lily readers. A lot of the stories are repackaged Post stories, with a different look.”

From January to June of 2016, the team worked on building the visual and editorial voice of The Lily.

“We consider the stories to be just as important as the visuals. Design and editorial directors are at the same level,” King explained.

The content is created in several places:

  • The Washington Post.
  • Freelance network.
  • Contract writer.
  • Team Lily.

They work with 207 female writers and reporters, 173 female artists and illustrators,  and 12 female photographers. King and Cavenaile were quick to say that they do work with men, too, but they are proud of their focus on women.

When it came to visual design, the team noticed how people typically designed for an audience of young women, with an overabundance of pinks and pastels. Then they took a look at what was currently happening with women and their voices, taking cues from the Time Magazine Person of the Year 2017, that was actually a group of women all dressed in black, speaking out about abuse in the #MeToo movement.

The Team Lily photograph was styled after the Time Magazine Person of the Year 2017 shoot.
The Team Lily photograph was styled after the Time Magazine Person of the Year 2017 shoot.

They went with black and white as the main colours of The Lily, with accent colours of green, blue, and purple for its branding. The team even had their photo for the Web site taken in the newsroom, all wearing black, similar to the Time Magazine shoot.

“We know that social feeds are really busy places, and we wanted The Lily to stand out completely,” King said of these decisions. “We want someone to look at their feed and not even need to look at the handle to know that is a Lily story. It’s really clear. We have an identity.”

The Lily has a specific and consistent design voice that stands out from the crowd and is immediately identifiable.
The Lily has a specific and consistent design voice that stands out from the crowd and is immediately identifiable.

When it comes to editorial voice, King describes it as just being “normal.” They incorporate no hyperbolic language, emojis, or slang into their content. Instead their voice is direct, conversational, and engaging. “We made a really clear rule on how we were going to speak to people. We were never going to use these words such as totes, girlboss, etc. And we never use exclamation points, except in cartoons.”

Results and profitability

The Lily is a sponsor-based platform, with all of its content available to readers for free. JPMorgan Chase & Co. has been the exclusive sponsor since launch. This has made The Lily a profitable endeavour from the beginning.

The Lily’s current follower counts on social media channels are:

  • Instagram: 27,000 followers.
  • Facebook: 276,000 fans.
  • Twitter: 14,600 followers.

Platform marketing strategy

Amy Cavenaile jumped in to talk about the specific marketing strategy used by The Lily team on its social media platforms.

“One of the things you’ll notice when you look at our feed is that we follow a grid. Every other image has either a white or a black background. We don’t view this as a hindrance. We view it as something that is elevating our brand and setting it apart.”

It takes a little bit of patience to launch something like this, Cavenaile said, but once The Lily hit about 15,00 followers, the team started noticing a lot more comments and double taps: “If you’re starting a similar venture, just be patient,” she advised.

Instagram Stories

The Lily’s Instagram Stories are news roundups, with headlines and pull-in text. They do regular features such as the “I’ll drink to this” story, in which five questions are posed to a woman, which she answers while drinking her favourite beverage.

Anxiety Chronicles is a new series for The Lily and is seeing high engagement. “We have noticed that anxiety and mental health has really struck a chord with our audience. It’s something we are trying to focus on,” Cavenaile said.

The Lily uses Instagram fonts and tools such as ask a question, she said: “We just want our content to look like it belongs on this platform and was made for this platform.”

Other Lily editorial products

Lily Lines is a twice-weekly newsletter that goes out on Monday and Thursday. It’s a complete “in the inbox” experience, where recipients can open the newsletter and read its full content right in their email. Click-outs are toward the end of the newsletter.

One thing that is extremely important and has proved popular is the focus on design. People have given feedback that they open the newsletters because they want to see the original artwork featured, Cavenaile said.

Lily Likes  is a round-up of favourite things, while Stat Check, Texts from Friends, and Quick Hits are other social media features that come out regularly.

Video and other campaigns

“This is something where we’re experimenting with and growing, like all our platforms,” Cavenaile said. “We’re very conscious when we’re creating video of where it will end up. That answer dictates how we shoot.”

For example, if the end result will go on YouTube, the team shoots in horizontal.

“We’re designers, so visuals and the production value of our video is very, very important to us,” Cavenaile said.

Team Lily also launches non-traditional campaigns, such as the “We’re Getting Louder” street mural the team had painted in Washington, D.C. The mural invites engagement and sharing by inviting the audience to use the hashtag #thelilyisloud to share how they are getting loud.

The Lily's "We're Getting Louder" mural is interactive and encourages its audience to share its voice.
The Lily's "We're Getting Louder" mural is interactive and encourages its audience to share its voice.

The team also puts on events for local Instagram influencers, where they give out Lily swag and local female-owned businesses provided alcohol and food.

Lastly, The Lily publishes an Incognito zine, which is sold and distributed to independent book stores. Its newest venture is the Lily lit club, just launching, which is book club on Instagram.

“We’ve been experimenting with non-traditional campaigns and events in order to be able to connect with our audience and look them in the eyes,” Cavenaile said.


INMA: does revenue mainly come from sponsorships? Apart from JP Morgan Chase, who are your major sponsors?

Team Lily: They are our exclusive partner. They are the only ones that sponsor us. Part of why we moved off Medium, because that platform wouldn’t support multiple advertisers. But our sponsorship with them is through the end of the year, so that might change in the future.

INMA: How does the team reconcile all the different and sometimes competing goals of different internal stakeholders?

Team Lily: That’s a tough one. The Post is a national newspaper focused on subscription and politics. When we were pitching, we had a year of sales so I think that helped. We had the buy-in of research and PR, for example; we gave them reasons why we needed to exist. I think the team is excited to reach new audiences, but we do have to continually keep ourselves relevant in the newsroom.

INMA: How would you go about expanding a digital medium with only limited resources and a small team?

Team Lily: For us, it was a lot of work. A lot of extra work, outside of “work time.” It was a lot of designing and pitching; it was a grind, honestly. Proving you can do it before they let you do it was the only route we saw. But I think our emerging markets team had a good track record, so they were more willing to give us the runway to try something new.

I think if you can get people’s support in whatever way you can, even if it’s just being an advocate, goes a long way, too.

INMA: How much time do you spend on your Instagram profile, and how much time should a media company set aside for this?

Team Lily: We probably spend at least an hour or two each day. Instagram is incredibly important; it’s more popular in the United States than other countries, so it probably depends on where you live. For this platform, you need people who can tell stories well, but you need someone with a visual eye and someone who understands how to create a voice.

INMA: How far in advance do you plan your content, and how do you map out future content plans?

Team Lily: We have it planned out a week in advance, but we have spots open for breaking developments. We publish eight to 10 stories a day. We have a document that we share amongst ourselves. Our contract writer pitches us every morning at 8:30, and we choose what we’re going to write about that day.

INMA: Is there anything that might suggest a paid model in the future?

Team Lily: Not right now. It’s a sponsorship model at the time, all of our content is free.

INMA: Is the rest of the newsroom engaged to produce special content to The Lily?

Team Lily: Yes. We were really happy with the response from the reporters around the newsroom. There have been instances when people will write directly for us. We’ve had reporters create extra coverage for us from a story.

INMA: Have you learned anything surprising about how your readership base consumes news for The Lily?

Team Lily: The biggest thing is that they are spending more time on their phones than other people. People finding news on Instagram more and more. When we surveyed our newsletter readers, a lot of people commented on the design. We know that people open the newsletters just to see the illustrations.

INMA: What was the biggest mistake you made in this process?

Team Lily: When we first started the newsletter, we made an entire jpg of the newsletter and then cropping them to smaller images. We got a lot of negative feedback about why we were creating text in jpg.

About Shelley Seale

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.