‘The second wave’: Publishers see the value of providing education through newsletter courses

As publishers look for pockets of audience engagement wherever they can find them, limited-run educational newsletters are a gambit gaining some traction.

The Wall Street Journal launched its first free, course-style newsletter, the Six-Week Money Challenge, this month, which provides instructional steps each week that readers can follow to increase their knowledge about personal finance. 

The format of the weekly newsletter, according to WSJ personal finance reporter and newsletter author Julia Carpenter, allows even the most novice person to follow along to step by step activities that are meant to teach the basics of finance as well as help readers make changes in their spending and saving habits right away.

Last month, CNN’s shopping vertical Underscored also launched its first seven-part Sleep But Better newsletter series that offers readers advice for, as the name suggests, sleeping more soundly. Earlier this year, The New York Times’ product recommendation site, Wirecutter, began experimenting with this format through three newsletter courses about credit cards, sleep and working from home. And about five years ago, BuzzFeed pioneered this format, in which it now has 13 active newsletters of this type.

“News organizations have historically not really invested in these because they require some up front work and it’s a little bit different than the day-to-day format,” said Dan Oshinsky, founder of email strategy consultancy Inbox Collective. “It’s not the first thing you tackle. This is the second wave of newsletters.”  

But putting in the work yields a lot of opportunities for growth, he said, including building new audiences, deepening existing subscriber relationships, earning new sponsorship revenue by selling to topic-specific advertisers and extending out affiliate businesses by incorporating product recommendations that can help readers better accomplish the goals from the lessons.

One of the goals for WSJ’s Money Challenge is to build deeper connections with the paper’s existing readers. But WSJ newsroom innovation chief Robin Kwong said that there is a broader mission at play, which is to incorporate more utility from the publication’s content, allowing readers to tangibly use the information they learn in their own lives.

BuzzFeed on the other hand, initially wanted to expand its newsletter audience by appealing to a segment of its readers that were not yet subscribing to newsletters because they were not enthusiastic about that method of communication, according to Oshinsky, who was the company’s director of newsletters from 2014 to 2017 and helped launch its course-style newsletter strategy.

Starting with its first newsletter course, The 7-day Better Skin Challenge, the idea was that by providing more “actionable” information than a standard daily email blast, new subscribers would stay engaged long enough to build a relationship with BuzzFeed and discover the other newsletters it had to offer.

Oshinsky said that the new email format drove 25,000 sign-ups in its first 36 hours and on average, the courses newsletters would have higher than average conversation rates between 35-55%.

BuzzFeed’s focus for these newsletters has increasingly turned to engagement and retention of its existing user base rather than acquisition by promoting courses within win-back emails for people who are opening main newsletters less frequently as a cross-sell tactic.

Wirecutter launched its first Five-Day Credit Card Checkup in January, then subsequently launched its Five Days to Better Sleep Challenge later that month. Then its Work from Home Challenge was created once the pandemic took effect in March.

Alejandra Matos, newsletter strategist for Wirecutter, said that while courses are promoted to current newsletter subscribers, the primary goal for her team is to “find readers who aren’t interested in a Daily Deals email or other general emails” and grow its overall subscriber base. 

But Matos’ team is also looking at courses as an opportunity to fill the overall newsletter funnel.

Currently, nearly 30,000 of Wirecutter’s newsletter subscribers are subscribed to one of the publishers’ courses and of those, less than half are subscribed to its flagship Daily Deals newsletter. “Our goal is to get more of those course subscribers opted into our other newsletters,” said Matos.

At the end of CNN Underscored’s sleep course, subscribers are nudged to create a profile with CNN to collect more information about the participants, according to a company spokesperson.

“Email is such an incredible tool because it allows you to have a direct relationship with readers and own the relationship with your readers. All of the other platforms out there get in the way of you and your audience. Email cuts through that,” Oshinsky said. 

There are direct revenue opportunities for these newsletters as well.

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CNN’s, BuzzFeed’s and Wirecutter’s courses all have built-in an affiliate strategies that layer in products that are meant to help readers complete action items easier.

Courses can also be a conversion tool to get new and existing readers to support a subscription or membership businesses and there are also sponsorship opportunities as well. BuzzFeed recently tapped into this with its new 30-Day New Doggie Course that’s sponsored by Amazon and will include affiliate links to related products, according to the spokesperson.

Because courses newsletters have a lot of growth trajectories, the metrics for success that publishers look for will be different.

Oshinsky said that open rates were the initial metric that BuzzFeed tracked when launching courses, but later that transitioned to measuring loyalty — the percentage of the audience that opened all of the emails throughout the series.

And courses that recur seasonally — such as a spring cleaning course — have an evergreen advantage that will bring in new readers with each yearly cycle. Beyond that, however, there are some topics, like a 7-days to better skin challenge, that will always have people interested in it, regardless of the time of year.  

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