Learning with newsletters.

Editorial newsletters have been thriving recently. For many publishers worldwide, they have become a pillar of their subscription strategies. For knowledge-driven organizations, they are the best way to stay in touch with their members. Twenty-twenty has elevated newsletters to a new level of relevance.

The Covid-19 crisis, with its sheer amount of information (and disinformation), the many questions to answer, the thirst for expert advice, has galvanized readers. Newsletters have been the best format to follow the crisis and handle anxiety: the event is urgent, but ongoing, and unfortunately not supposed to end soon; the complexity of information requires thoughtful curation.

It is hard to believe that until a few years ago, email was a format condemned to extinction. Newsletters were little more than a boring list of links or a piece of unwelcome, cold and irrelevant corporate information (well, many content marketing newsletters ARE still boring and irrelevant).

Emails took a different road. They did not die. Devices got better, email clients got cleaner, and push notifications helped you not to miss a thing. Newsletters became a better alternative to the social newsfeed and, thanks to the brainpower of many writers and creators, it found novel ways to deliver knowledge and messages, including learning and training.

Newsletters for learning.

I am an avid reader of newsletters. They helped me to escape from the social feed and put some order into my sources of knowledge and information. I confess: to create folders in my email clients and assign newsletters to its dedicated folders is an activity that brings me cognitive joy. It is one of my digital “Marie kondo” moments.

Learning and educational newsletters have been my recent discovery. One year ago, after reading “Storytelling with data”, a book about information design, I subscribed to its blog.

The newsletter evolved into a lifelong learning tool, with “back to basics” explainers, exercises and challenges, and a community of practitioners joining for workshops and helping each other to learn and grow.

I discovered that the world of charts and graphs is a perfect domain for lifelong learning newsletters: we live in a world of data, and every new diagram is a chance to learn how to tell better stories. Think about the crucial role data visualizations have played to educate people and convince governments to acts and citizens to adjust their behaviours (I wrote something about that in April).

Education in your inbox.

Instructional designers spend more time with Mooc, videos, digital learning platforms and interactivity than with emails. Few of them have considered newsletters as instructional design objects.

That is why, when looking for interesting examples, you need to turn to newsrooms and publishers. It makes no sense to create a taxonomy of learning newsletters: almost any topic and any learning experience can benefit from a newsletter format, either as the core learning experience or as a companion.

So, this next is a shortlist of learning newsletters I found inspiring for my projects, ranging from life hacks to research topics to data science to personal finance.

In most – but not all – cases, they made of a finite series of evergreen emails: you can start anytime and will receive the same emails over a fixed period. All the examples come from the English-speaking world, but it is more a matter of discoverability. I’d love to hear from you if you have other learning newsletters delivered in languages different from English.

From the team at the Wall Street Journal: “Six-Week Money Challenge”. Learn to manage your personal finance.


The Wall Street Journal launched its first free newsletter-course, the Six-week Money Challenge, in March 2020, to provide instructional steps each week that readers can follow to increase their knowledge about personal finance.

The format, concise but narrative, personal and clever, allows even the most novice person to follow along with step-by-step activities that teach the basics of finance and help readers change their spending and saving habits right away. 

Beautifully illustrated, the format has a millennial readership in mind, and each new challenge starts with a personal note from the life experience of its authors, the personal finance journalists Bourree Lam and Julia Carpenter.

The goal is not only to attract a broader audience but to develop the Wall Street Journal value proposition into more utility. “Utility” means something you can apply in your daily life. To play a role in the daily lives of your readers: still one of the most underdeveloped elements of newspapers value proposition, but one that can make a difference, especially with younger audiences

Following these links, you find the first weeks of the newsletter-course. Read one or two of them: language and tone of voice are per se a good reason to enjoy the newsletter, even if you are not a millennial seeking for personal finance advice. 

Johns Hopkins University: advanced data science for biostatistics students.

Data Science is not only for data scientists. How to collect, explore, analyze and communicate insights from data has never been more crucial than today.

The John Hopkins University includes data science courses in all its nine schools (that range from Arts and Science to International Affairs, Medicine and Education), of which the most renowned is the Public Health school. A Public Health student of this university created the Global Covid-19 Tracking Map, the most visited dashboard ever. 

A companion to its biostatistics course for PhD students, the “Advanced Data Science” newsletter course is a digital handout: each email complements one lesson and is enriched by Q&A and exercises.

As an advanced course, this newsletter is not for everybody – it requires some previous knowledge of programming and statistics – but you can appreciate the high readability of the format and how graphs and illustrations fit perfectly a mobile newsletter format. If the future of education is mobile-first, then the future of education is email too. Again, the proof of how promising are newsletters for designing learning experiences. 

The Pew Research Center: understanding immigration.

The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the U.S.A and the world through public opinion polling, social science research, reporting news, analysing news coverage, and holding forums and briefings. 

Although the Pew Research Center is very popular in the U.S.A. and all of its research is available for free, bringing in new audiences is a challenge.

To make research content more accessible and reader-friendly, in 2018 the Centre tackled one of the hottest topics of American politics, immigration. The project was born: the Pew Research Center conducted yearlong research and wanted to help more people, including the less familiar with the topic, to understand better migration: its roots, its impact on the American society, and how it has evolved in the American history. 

For that purpose, they developed a finite experience, with fewer emails optimised for reading on-the-go: 

  • Subscribers get seven total emails – a welcome email, five issue-focused emails and a wrap-up newsletter final issue. 
  • The emails cover five topics: the demographics of today’s immigrants, the legal immigration process, the history of immigration in the United States, the country’s changing demographics, and how public opinion on immigration has developed.
  • The emails are a distilled version of the Centre’s research, with fewer numbers and stats and simpler graphics, short and crispy text (up to 800 words per email) and few links: the purpose was not to drive readers away but to keep them focused – for few minutes. 
  • The approach was not newsy, but evergreen: you can still subscribe to the email series and get information that is not obsolete. It gave no previous knowledge of the topic for granted: that helped to attract a new audience, with 70% of subscribers being new to the Pew Research Center resources. 
  • Every email began with a question – “Who are today’s U.S. immigrants?” and “What do Americans think of immigration?” for example — and the next subheads answered the questions.
  • Within a few hours of signing up for the project, new subscribers receive a welcome email introducing them to the project and the first issue of the course. They then get recent issues every two days, delivered via the MailChimp platform. The newsletter course lasts two weeks.
  • Nearly 9,000 people have taken the course, and Pew has averaged about a 60 per cent open rate across all seven emails. 
  • To keep the readers engaged, Pew worked on many details: a welcome email provided orientation, each email had a numbered subject line, with a lesson number and a tracker at the top of the email letting readers know where they are in the course’s progression.
  • At the bottom of the email, Pew congratulates readers for completing the lesson and shares a preview of the next email. It also asked readers to rate the course at the bottom of each email.

The “Big Idea Series” of the Harvard Business Review: dive deep in a topic.

At the Harvard Business Review, the “Big Ideas” series – ranging from Corporate Culture to Artificial Intelligence, from Racism in business to Organizational Psychology – has been one of the most successful subscription products of the last years: it brought both new audiences and increased loyalty and engagement of usual readers.

It started in 2016, when the magazine dropped its print issues from the original ten to six a year. As a digital alternative to the bunch of thematic articles that the HBR used to publish in each issue around one feature topic, the HBR launched its first Big Idea series in 2016.

It was a week-long effort centered on work by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino about the benefits of nonconformity in the workplace. HBR is dropping one piece of content each day — a long article packed with research, case studies, and recommendations on Monday; a quiz for users to determine whether they are “constructive nonconformists” on Tuesday; a webinar with Gino on Wednesday — and eventually sold tickets for a final roundtable on the topic. 


After this first experiment, that ran over a brief period, the HBR evolved the series to deliver issues over a longer time, with emails coming once a week or biweekly. The latest series of Big Ideas – usually between 6 and 8 emails – have been delivered between June and July 2020 and focused on the WFH (Working From Home) 2020 boom and its meaning for the future of work.

You find it here: https://hbr.org/cover-story/2020/07/do-we-really-need-the-office

All these series live outside of the HBR paywall: the purpose is to attract new audiences and give them a chance to get a taste of the in-depth coverage of topics not usually associated to the Harvard Business School. The Big Idea series is not per se an instructional format: it aims at taking readers along a learning and discussion path that deserves more content than one feature essay.

From news to utility: actionable teachings from the New York Times. Learn to housekeep like a pro.

The New York Times’ product recommendation site, Wirecutter, began experimenting with newsletter courses in January 2020.

The first has been a Five-Days Credit Card Checkup in January, followed by a Five-Days to Better Sleep Challenge later that month. A Work from Home Challenge email series launched once the pandemic took effect in March. 

Now, in September 2020, the new instructional series is about housekeeping, another topic that – with all of us staying longer at home – has come back to popularity. With “How to Clean everything”, you get step-by-step advice on how to keep everything in your home squeaky clean.

Emails go out every Wednesday. Do not expect a simple to-do list or a nice way to package product recommendations (yes, it is also an email with product recommendations): some instructions are true hacks and made to help you not only optimize your housekeeping, but to enjoy it too.

And often they start from a current life challenge: the recent “How to Clean Wildfire Smoke” is a sad, but useful, how-to content for people living on the American West Coast.  

Nearly 30,000 of Wirecutter’s newsletter readers subscribe to one of the publisher’ courses. If you think that, after YouTube, there is nothing new to say and show about how-to… think twice. The New York Times – Wirecutter emails are made with the same care and credibility of the news site.