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Why the FT chose to deliver its new MBA course via newsletter

March 30, 2023 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

As publishers look to take advantage of the newsletter boom, news is not the only thing on their minds. Email offers a direct delivery method for all sorts of content and the FT is among those leveraging newsletters as a way to offer educational content to inform and engage audiences. 

The Financial Times launched its first newsletter course last month; MBA 101. The free six-week email series, which starts whenever a reader signs up, is aimed at anyone interested in applying for a Masters of Business Administration. It is written by Global Education Editor Andrew Jack and Content Editor Wai Kwen Chan, and guides participants through the process of applying for an MBA, from choosing the right course to getting funding.

Engaging younger readers

A free newsletter course may not be an obvious starting point for a publication which has one of the hardest paywalls in the industry. But part of the reason why the FT chose the MBA admissions topic for their first course was because it aligned with their existing successful MBA rankings program

Although the top-level rankings are available to view for free, prospective students can register for a profile to compare programmes they are interested in, as well as see key statistics on diversity, career progression, course tuition fees and more. Signing up to the MBA 101 newsletter course also creates a registration for an MBA rankings profile, which keeps the link between the two products strong.

Ultimately though, the end goal is to convert MBA rankings and MBA 101 registrants into full FT subscribers. Because the majority of the target audience for this course are likely to be students already–or soon to become students–each of the newsletter editions also contains a link to the FT’s heavily discounted student subscription.

Emily Goldberg, US Newsletter Editor for the Financial Times led the new project. “We know that newsletters boost engagement among our readers, and that they’re a really great way to promote retention,” she said, explaining why they chose to go with email delivery. “Since the course is available for free, it has the potential to reach new readers, draw them into the FT and then keep them engaged and involved.”

Balancing information delivery

Given the expectation of internet users that information is available instantly, the idea of releasing a course in stages via email is a strange one. The team thought carefully when they were putting the course together about what made most sense for this particular topic.

“We ultimately decided that a weekly cadence would promote habit, which is what we want with a newsletter,” Goldberg said. “This is also a very action-based and practical newsletter. So by spacing things out weekly, we thought it would give readers a chance to engage with the content, read the content, figure out how they might be able to apply it to their own lives, which strategies work best for them, and give it a try before we send them the next piece of information. It means we don’t overload them, and give them a good balance.”

Breaking the content down into chunks also helps meet one of the FT’s key aims of the project: making the course practical. “It’s a much better learning experience to do something like this in chunks,” Goldberg commented. “Otherwise we could just throw a textbook at someone.”

The course is primarily text-based and has been designed with mobile readers in mind. This is particularly important when reaching younger people, who Goldberg says are far more likely to read course content on their phones.  “Anything that we can give people that they can consume in a digestible way is definitely something we thought about in putting this course together that’s clear and action-oriented,” she said.

There are, however, plenty of links to other content, including recordings of an event that Global Education Editor Andrew Jack ran with other FT journalists and admissions professionals working at business schools. One part also includes a template that students can use themselves in networking outreach, reinforcing the practical nature of the course.

The importance of evergreen content

The FT is not the only publisher to have courses delivered by newsletters. The Wall Street Journal has a range of ‘Challenge’ series, from the ‘WSJ Money Challenge’ newsletter to the ‘WSJ Healthy Habits Challenge’ which range from four to six weeks each. The Washington Post also has a selection of limited-run courses delivered via email. ‘A Better Week’ runs for just seven days and aims to help participants free up time, while ‘Bold School’ releases smart advice on how to approach life after 50 with two emails a week across 12 weeks.

For other publishers looking to deliver courses via email, the subject area is crucial to get right. “One of the qualities that you need for a good course is that it needs to be something relatively evergreen,” Goldberg noted. Unlike traditional daily or weekly email newsletters, these courses will start and finish at the same point whenever the participant signs up.

Where next for the FT’s newsletter courses

Engagement is a key success criteria for the MBA 101 course. The early signs are positive for the publisher. “We’ve already seen success with the open rate and click-through rate in these emails which is above average,” Goldberg outlined. She explained they use a verifiable open rate to combat the challenges presented by Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection, and are seeing an almost 60% open rate of the initial welcome letter, which is sent a day after someone signs up for the course.

Longer-term success criteria is ultimately more subscribers to the FT. If younger readers and students take out the student subscription and the course is able to boost awareness of the FT with a younger demographic, then it will have been a great success.

As part of this, registrants are encouraged to reply to the business school email address throughout the course if they have any feedback or questions. They also send out a survey halfway through the course and at the end of the course so readers can share their experience.

MBA 101 is just a month old, so the newsletters team will be carefully evaluating the results to see what they can optimize and improve. The course is not directly monetized at present, although the team are exploring sponsorship opportunities. It’s a model that Goldberg could see transferring easily to other topics across the FT, as well as potentially standalone paid newsletter courses. 

“Anything that is actionable and that our reports can provide as an area of expertise [would work for a newsletter course],” she said. “That’s what made this course such a success is that the writers of the course, Andrew Jack and Wai Kwen Chan are talking to admissions professionals and university administrators all the time. So I think anytime that we can teach our reader something and they can take action off the back of would be a good fit.”

Newsletter courses are a straightforward enough concept. They capitalize on a trend which ultimately drives habit, quality and loyalty. But the subject area needs to be carefully aligned with a publisher’s brand. In the FT’s case, there are so many potential topic areas which they could expand into, this will no doubt not be the last course launch from the team.

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