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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Not just for news: HBR’s evergreen approach to newsletters

April 1, 2019 | By Nicole Torres, Senior Associate Editor – Harvard Business Review @nicole90t and
Walter Frick, Deputy Editor – HBR.org @wfrick

The first successful American newspaper was founded in 1704 by a postmaster named John Campbell. Called the Boston News-Letter, it was not unlike many email newsletters today: Campbell wrote “a summary of the most noteworthy items of information that passed through his post office and circulat[ed] that newsletter to a small group of friends.” As journalism historian Christopher Daly writes in his book Covering America, Campbell “filled his paper with stories that he lifted from London newspapers – supplemented by letters from his friends, news of the comings and goings of ships, public announcements, and some paid advertising.” Campbell didn’t have access to Substack or TinyLetter, but his product – a prototype for American newspapers – should sound familiar to subscribers of modern email newsletters.

As media companies and the public have grown more skeptical of social media platforms over the past few years, email newsletters have seen a resurgence. Publishing companies are being built around them, new publishing tools are gaining momentum, and we’re seeing countless experiments in editorial style, format, and more. But for all that experimentation, much of publishers’ effort around email newsletters has focused on what’s new. That makes sense, given that reporting the news is journalism’s central charge, but it’s only one opportunity that email provides.

Evergreen Approach

At Harvard Business Review, we recently launched a newsletter designed around more evergreen content. We wanted to blend the focused, short-run, “finishable” nature of pop-up newsletters with a more educational, course-like approach. 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 in early 2018, 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 Must Read

HBR was 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 was an 8-week email series on Managing Data Science.

Based on the success we’ve had with other curated products like our Must Read book series, we hypothesized that readers would prefer a finite series of carefully selected content over an ongoing weekly or monthly newsletter. We interviewed numerous data scientists to better understand the biggest management challenges that they were facing on their teams and to get their feedback on the concept. Then we commissioned and edited eight digital articles that became the heart of our email series. The articles were written by professional data scientists who’ve worked at companies including Google, Apple, Netflix, Stitch Fix, and Coursera. Each email in the series focuses on one theme (like the different types of data scientist), with all eight amounting to something of a mini-course on managing data science.

Following on the newsletter success that publishers including Axios and DealBook have had, we designed our email series to be more than a collection of links to content. Each issue links to one of the eight articles, but also contains what we think of as a “mega-summary” – a 400-word version that basically gives you the gist. It also includes further relevant reading from HBR and other sources, as well as a more lighthearted stat or chart at the bottom to reward readers who make it all the way through.

So far, Managing Data Science has been a success. More than 38,000 people have signed up for the email series, and our open rate is over 40%. We expect the audience to grow substantially throughout 2019.

Popping the Popup Bubble

In our experience, the evergreen-series approach to email has significant advantages in terms of product development, user acquisition, and editorial resourcing. Unlike an event-based pop-up newsletter, we didn’t face pressure to drive signups immediately at launch. We were able to stagger promotion over several months, testing and gathering feedback. This ultimately allowed us to make improvements to the design of the newsletter before promoting it to a larger audience. We’re now able to continue promoting the series and driving engagement with our readers without endlessly creating new content. Instead, we can focus on incrementally improving the series for new subscribers.

We’re not the only ones experimenting with evergreen content in newsletters. The New York Times has given its Smarter Living material regular space in its morning news briefing. Even closer to our experiment, The Information is offering email courses on topics like the future of mobility; Vox.com launched a newsletter on giving to charity at the end of 2018 that followed a similar approach; The Washington Post has a 12-week email series on cooking; and the Pew Research Center recently launched a two-week email course on immigration.

Engagement and Inspiration

These examples as well as our experience suggest that evergreen newsletters can become a critical part of publishers’ strategies. For one thing, email engagement tends to decline over time; short-run newsletters don’t ask readers to sign up in perpetuity. Therefore, they tend to have higher engagement. They also help publishers focus on a particular audience. And that focused relationship is between the publisher and the user, not mediated by social media algorithms. Finally, as mentioned, evergreen newsletters are a chance to take an iterative approach to improving email products. Because the content doesn’t need to be refreshed every day or week, more attention can be spent to continually improving other elements of the experience – such as the subject line – and adjusting where users would most benefit.

Newsletters are only going to become more important for publishers in the coming years. They can take many forms, and news briefings likely will (and should) be the quintessential email product. But email programs don’t always need to emphasize what’s new. They can help users learn about new topics or acquire new skills, too.

About the Authors

Nicole Torres is a senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review. Walter Frick is the deputy editor of HBR.org and will be speaking at DCN Content Everywhere on April 25.

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