The next evolution of newsletters is mini-courses

Here’s a breakdown of how to use newsletter courses to increase engagement

Joe Lanane Joe Lanane  - November 17, 2020

Newsletters are proving so effective for independent publishers at increasing audience engagement and reader revenue that new email products are emerging — and newsletter courses perhaps best represent this trend. 

What are newsletter courses? Here is a basic breakdown:

These emails follow a consistent sending schedule regardless of when readers subscribe. So once the content is produced, these mini-courses can run on autopilot and continually recruit new audiences and retain existing subscribers.

Here are three more benefits pushing publishers to embrace this newsletter format.

Your content has a longer shelf life

News cycles come and go faster than ever, so newsletter courses are attractive to publishers who want to tell big-picture stories that aren’t necessarily time-sensitive. 

Want to explain North American car culture? Canadian site Passage broke down automotive history and potential alternatives in a four-part mini-course called “How The Car Conquered The World.” Passage also produced a deep-dive on democracy, and promises another course soon on prison reform.

Passage co-founder Geoff Sharpe said the car culture series attracted enough new members to recoup expenses after a month. But more surprisingly, the mini-courses helped build the news outlet’s middle marketing funnel.

“We originally thought this would be a way to acquire new readers, but it’s acted as more of a retention tool to engage people already on our list in a deeper way,” Sharpe said. 

The content itself isn’t much different than typical articles, he said, but it arguably offers more overall value to the organization.

“We can pay a little more for content because we know more people long-term will read it, helping our mid-funnel,” Sharpe said. “We’ve certainly been happy with the results, but there are a lot of potential opportunities to experiment with.”

Tell really epic tales

Some stories can’t be told in one swipe, so newsletter courses allow readers to consume bite-sized chunks of bigger, timeless stories. For example, Oregon Public Broadcasting recently produced “Timber Wars,” a joint newsletter-podcast project about the state’s forestry fight in the 1990s. That’s when the Northern Spotted Owl was added to the endangered species list, resulting in “one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the 20th century,” according to OPB.

The newsletter course complements a seven-episode podcast series of the same name by providing additional reporting, photos and video about the controversy and how loggers and environmentalists have since found common ground. Much of the reporting was pulled from OPB’s archives, helping to revive prior reporting efforts from the public news outlet’s environmental and science reporters. 

The 2020 U.S. presidential election also served as a catalyst for newsletter courses. The Texas Tribune created a five-part newsletter course to “Teach Me How To Texas,” an election rundown for new voters in the fast-growing U.S. state. 

Additionally, Boston-based NPR station WBUR and Spanish-language daily news outlet El Planeta partnered together to produce its own state-focused crash-course on the 2020 election, providing both a seven-day overview and three-day crash course to inform Massachusetts voters. 

Another way to make money

Passage caps off its “Deepening Democracy” series with a membership call-to-action: “Without the support of members, this course wouldn’t have been possible,” the extra email reads. 

Passage currently doesn’t require readers to pay for its newsletter courses, although Sharpe said it may someday produce paid series or add-on editions accessible to members only. 

Content shelf life can also be extended, he said, by hosting webinars related to the series weeks after the newsletter course debuts. 

“Maybe make it a members-only event to try to convert subscribers,” Sharpe said.

Don’t feel bad about requesting donations if you don’t have a membership program established. But if you’re not targeting reader revenue, then consider grants that could fund these mini-courses. For example, The Open Notebook received nearly $50,000 in foundational support to create a newsletter course geared toward science journalists.

And if you’re in the ad sales game, newsletter course sponsorships should be easy to sell because of the higher open rates, roughly 60 per cent to 70 per cent per edition at Passage, according to Sharpe.

In the news

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Editor’s note, Nov, 17, 3:44 P.M.: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Geoff Sharpe’s name. We apologize for the error.

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