Personal Finance App Acorns Is Using Content To Plant A Seed With Millennials

Grow_2Acorns is an app that allows users to invest spare change left over from daily purchases in the stock market. Now it’s making an investment of its own with the creation of a digital magazine called Grow aimed at millennials.

“We’re looking to satisfy a hunger our users have for financial content,” said Jeff Cruttenden, who co-founded Acorns in 2012 with his father Walter, a financial adviser. “In a sense, it’s a retention tool for us.”

Rather than funneling users toward an app download, the purpose of Grow is to act as a standalone source of financial news with the fringe benefit of making Acorns stickier with its existing users, although some Grow readers do go on to download the app after engaging with the magazine. More than 850,000 investment accounts have been opened since Acorns launched a little less than two years ago.

Because Acorns users are required to share an email address when they sign up, Grow is able to tell which of its roughly 1 million email newsletter subscribers also have the app.

But getting into publishing requires capital – and a solid strategy. It’s a roadside littered with the bones of commerce companies that have tried and arguably failed to make content work, like Nasty Gal and Thrillist. It’s a nut Acorns is trying to crack from a different angle: journalism.

In terms of capital, Acorns certainly has the cash. On Thursday, the app announced a $30 million Series D with backing from PayPal and Rakuten, bringing its total funding to nearly $62 million.

In terms of content, Acorns is positioning Grow, which soft launched in January, as an independent objective outlet for financial stories and advice rather than a way to promote the app or do lead gen.

The magazine also has syndication partnerships with Business Insider and a number of other outlets, which means the content can’t be self-promotional.

It’s why Acorns hired Jennifer Barrett, a seasoned financial journalist and CNBC vet, who now serves as chief education officer and editor-in-chief of Grow, which has generated more than 1 million page views in the four months since launch

“Content usually falls under the marketing budget at companies that aren’t true media companies,” said Barrett, who joined Acorns in November. “We work closely with the Acorns team, but we have a completely separate budget for Grow.”

Acorns_2Around 75% of Acorns’ users are ages 18 to 34, an age group not necessarily known for its financial literacy. According to a recent study conducted by the Brookings Institute, 28% of students didn’t even know they had loan debt to their names.

“It’s astounding how little most people know about their money and it’s one of the most important things in their lives,” said Barrett, noting that April is Financial Literacy Month.

That’s partially because they’ve been left out of the conversation said Cruttenden the younger, who at age 29 falls squarely within the millennial demographic.

“Sure, there’s Forbes, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal – but we don’t have, or haven’t had, a source of financial content tailored for us,” Cruttenden said.

The idea for Grow sprang from examining its user behavior. By surveying its active users, Acorns learned that many were placing financial news apps next to the Acorns app on their phone. The more users invested with Acorns, the more interested they seemed to become in finance-related content. And the more interested they were in financial content, the more comfortable they seemed to get with investing.

“We’re in a position where we can educate our user and help alter their perceptions about investing, that it’s hard and takes a ton of time to do,” Cruttenden said.

Barrett and her team aims to keep the content on Grow relatable and educational with titles like “What March Madness Can Teach You About Investing” and “‘Always Take the Money’ and Other Lessons from ‘Empire.’”

There are also interviews with well-known personages, including personal development coach Tony Robbins, Soleil Moon Frye of “Punky Brewster” fame (she’s also an entrepreneur who started an ecommerce company) and Ashton Kutcher, who has co-founded two venture capital firms since 2011 and invested in companies like Airbnb, Uber and Acorns itself.

JennifferBarrettGrow“When people write about personal finance, it often becomes so dry,” Barrett said. “We try and pull out what’s most relevant to our audience. Rather than writing a story that says, ‘The Fed just raised its rates,’ we write a story like, ‘Your credit card debt just got more expensive’ and explain why it matters.”

For the moment, Acorns the app and Grow the digital magazine operate as separate entities, but there is some thought about integrating Grow content directly into the app experience, perhaps directly in the user’s timeline flow – for example, a story with advice about how to save money that gets served up after someone deposits a paycheck.

Although there is a discreet little button in the top right corner of every page on the Grow website where readers can click for more information about the Acorns app, there’s no outside advertising, and there are no immediate plans to start running ads or produce sponsored content. Barrett said she wouldn’t rule it out entirely, though.

“The top priorities are education and gaining traction with our target audience, so anything we do with advertising would have to align with those larger goals,” she said.

That said, Grow is actively considering how to take advantage of new distribution channels, including Instant Articles, Facebook video and Snapchat.

“It’s not a question of budget, though, but rather what connects with this audience,” Barrett said. “When I was at CNBC we had access to a huge studio and all of this fancy equipment, and we were still struggling to figure out the best way to use these things.”

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