A Newsletter/Online Course May Just Be Publishing's Next Big Thing

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Remember, for those of a certain age, the commercials where the person holding the chocolate and the person holding the peanut butter collide and a new, magical concoction was created.

Something similar has apparently happened with newsletters and online courses. Welcome to the latest trend—the limited-time, evergreen newsletter.

Talking about the success of their two-week, "short email mini-course" on immigration, Andrea Caumont, Pew Research Center's senior social media editor, said "It's not like a regular newsletter where you're going to get it every Saturday, no matter what, til death do us part. I'm only going to get it over the course of a couple of weeks and then it's going to end. I think there's a psychological thing about that that makes it precious or appealing." (See more details below.)

Last week on the site Digital Content Next, Nicole Torres, senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review, and Walter Frick, deputy editor of HBR.org, wrote about their "eight-week newsletter on making analytics and AI work for your organization" called Managing Data Science. So far, more than 38,000 people have signed up, and their open rate is over 40%.

Similar examples abound. The Washington Post put out a 12-week Meal Plan of Action newsletter last year, with signups receiving a full set of materials every Thursday afternoon "starting with a paean of sorts to tomatoes." In February, The Information launched The Information Courses, a free and finite primer on a specific theme. Vox launched Future Perfect, a five-emails-in-five-days guide to charitable giving. Curbed created The Small Fix, a four-week newsletter with easy tips for improving your home.

"We wanted to blend the focused, short-run, 'finishable' nature of pop-up newsletters with a more educational, course-like approach," the HBR duo wrote. "We were inspired by how online learning platforms convey a sense of progression and by The Economist's Espresso app, which offers the feeling of having completed the day's news. The result is our 8-week email series on Managing Data Science.

"When we started thinking about this project, there were already lots of excellent newsletters devoted to data science and machine learning. Many of these, though, focused on technical, business and societal perspectives. We wanted to cover the challenges that organizations face in actually managing data science work and teams."

A few reasons for HBR's success:

  • They "hypothesized" that a finite newsletter series would work in today's market;
  • They interviewed many data scientists focusing on management challenges;
  • They commissioned eight articles, each on a different theme, "with all eight amounting to something of a mini-course on managing data science."
  • They Axios-ized it, meaning they added a 400-word "mega-summary" to each article. It provides places to go for further reading—including HBR—and ends with a "more lighthearted stat or chart."

A detailed article on The Lenfest Institute site recently chronicled the Pew newsletter/course on immigration. It encompassed a series of seven emails explaining different topics related to immigration. About 9,000 people signed up, and the whole series averaged a 60% unique open rate.

Caumont got the idea from a newsletter-based social media course she took from Buffer, the social media management company. For a few weeks, she received a daily email with one tip for how to improve her organization's social media strategy. At the end, she got a certificate of completion. (We love those.)

"People have an idea of what a newsletter is, and this was a different kind of product. It wasn't the typical newsletter where you set it up and you send something every week," Caumont said. "This is an evergreen resource. People sign up for the experience, and then it's a finite experience. It took a little while for me to explain that and for people [here] to get their heads around what I was proposing, but once everybody understood we were all on the same page, it was a matter of putting the team together."

Readers receive seven total emails—a welcome email introduces them to the project and the first issue of the course. Then five issue-focused emails follow—every two days—and a wrap-up email concludes the two weeks. "We thought that daily might be too much, weekly seemed too far, and so we just decided to try every other day and see how it works," Caumont said.

"My personal theory: I think that it's a different kind of experience," she said. "...People are willing to stick with it because they have a goal in mind and they want to achieve their goal. It's a finite experience."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…