Why the Pew Research Center created a two-week newsletter course on U.S. immigration

I’m sure you’ve noticed: Immigration has been in the news a bit over the past few months.

The Pew Research Center noticed, too. The DC-based organization has been conducting research and studying immigration for years. While its work is regularly cited in the media, it wanted to find a way to reach more casual readers directly.

So last year, inspired by projects from some digital publishers, Pew created a U.S. immigration email course. Over the course of two weeks, subscribers receive a series of seven emails explaining different topics related to immigration.

While Pew is, obviously, not a news organization, many of the people on the team that created the product are former journalists, and there’s plenty to learn about how Pew thought about how it could serve its readers.

That’s why this week’s Solution Set will dig into how Pew developed the email, how it thought about the coverage, and how it encouraged readers to stick with the series.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one rad thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

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Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: The Pew Research Center wanted to create a more accessible and reader-friendly path into its research so it could grow its audience.

• The Strategy: Pew created an email newsletter course that highlighted its research on U.S. immigration. When readers sign up they get an email every other day for two weeks.

• The Numbers: About 9,000 people signed up and the whole series averaged a 60 percent unique open rate.

• The Lessons: By creating a resource that is largely evergreen, Pew was able to build a product that will remain valuable to readers for an extended period of time.

• The Future: Pew is planning to try this approach with other topics.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down for other examples of this type of course-focused newsletter.


The Challenge

Andrea Caumont is the Pew Research Center’s senior social media editor. In late 2017, Caumont signed up for a newsletter-based social media course from Buffer, the social media management company. Over the course of a few weeks, she got a daily email with one tip for how to improve her organization’s social media strategy. At the end of the course, she got a certificate of completion.

A number of other outlets have tried similar approaches to short-run evergreen emails.

The Washington Post created the Voraciously Meal Plan of Action, a 12-week email series that focuses on sharing easy weeknight recipes. Curbed created The Small Fix, a four-week newsletter with easy tips for improving your home. And Harvard Business Review created an eight-week analytics course.

So after taking the Buffer course and seeing other organizations try course-focused email newsletters, Caumont began to think about whether the approach could work for Pew, the Washington DC-based research organization.

“We have a huge body of knowledge on a wide variety of topics, but immigration was one of the first ones that came to mind,” Caumont told me. “The idea of boiling down what we know on a big, complicated, complex topic like that into a series of digestible, easily understandable emails seemed like it would be something worth experimenting with.”


The Strategy

Caumont first had to get Pew’s leadership on board with the idea of a newsletter course. That was a “lengthy process,” she said.

She shared other examples of similar products and also explained how it could help the center share its research with broader audiences.

“People have an idea of what a newsletter is, and this was a different kind of product. It wasn’t the typical newsletter where you set it up and you send something every week,” Caumont said. “This is an evergreen resource. People sign up for the experience, and then it’s a finite experience. It took a little while for me to explain that and for people to get their heads around what I was proposing, but once everybody understood we were all on the same page, it was a matter of putting the team together.”

Pew quickly decided to focus on immigration because it was a topic that it had done a lot of work on and also it was one that was newsy — and likely to stay in the news. They also began pulling the team together to create the series.

Digital producer Ariana Rodriguez-Gitler produced the coverage and interactive designer Kristi Walker built and designed the emails.

The Pew team began mapping out what the course would cover. It decided to focus on five topics centered on immigration in the United States: 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 evolved.

The team also set guidelines for the editorial product. Each issue had to be between 600 and 800 words long. And every email began with a question — “Who are today’s U.S. immigrants?” and “What do Americans think of immigration?” for example — and the subsequent subheads answered the questions.

 

Pew senior writer and editor D’Vera Cohn, a former Washington Post reporter, wrote each edition of the newsletter. Cohn has a deep understanding of the immigration issue, but she said she had to adjust her approach to fit the newsletter format.  

“For me, as a writer, it was a completely different experience than what I usually have,” she said. “I had to keep the visual experience much more in mind. We realized that many subscribers could be reading it on their phones, so we had to make it look appetizing on a mobile device.”

She continued: “We didn’t want to put a lot of links in there that might distract readers from what we were talking about, but we put enough in there so if they wanted more information they could get it. We kept it very tightly focused on what we’re talking about in that email.

The writing was much more casual and informal than we normally have. There were many, many fewer numbers. Every time I turned a draft in, other members of my team would say: ‘No, no, no, there are too many numbers.’ So as each draft came out, it had fewer percentages and actual numbers and was more focused on the theme.”

The project launched in October 2018 and took months of development. Part of the reason it took so long was that everyone involved in the initiative had other more pressing deadlines throughout the process. However, the team went through multiple iterations of the product as it thought about things such as the editorial tone, how graphics were presented, the frequency with which the emails were sent, and more.

Readers get seven total emails – a welcome email, the five issue-focused emails, and a wrap-up email.

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 the course. They then get new issues of the course every two days. In total, the course lasts two weeks. 

“We thought that daily might be too much, weekly seemed too far, and so we just decided to try every other day and see how it works,” Caumont said.

Pew is able to automate the emails through Mailchimp, which it uses as its email service provider.

“There are triggers that we set,” Caumont said.


The Numbers

Nearly 9,000 people have taken the course.

Pew has averaged about a 60 percent open rate across all seven emails. “We don’t see a lot of drop off,” Caumont said.

My personal theory: I think that it’s a different kind of experience,” she said. “There’s an intentionality about signing up. People want a better understanding of this topic, and we’re telling them that you can sign up for this course and if you read these five emails over the course of a couple of weeks, you’ll have a better understanding of immigration. They’re willing to stick with it because they have a goal in mind and they want to achieve their goal. It’s a finite experience. It’s not like a regular newsletter where you’re going to get it every Saturday, no matter what, til death do us part. I’m only going to get it over the course of a couple of weeks and then it’s going to end. I think there’s a psychological thing about that that makes it precious or appealing.”

Pew received a surge in sign-ups when the newsletter debuted last fall, and there’s been a “pretty steady but slower rate of signups since then,” Caumont said.

Pew used both paid and native social promotion, it shared the newsletter series in its existing products, and it also created sign up modules that it put in its ongoing immigration coverage on its website.

The newsletter has also brought in a new audience for Pew. About 70 percent of the subscribers are new to Pew’s email list.


The Lessons

Keep it 🌲: One of the benefits of this type of newsletter course is that its content is relatively consistent, so it will be interesting and relevant to readers no matter when they start progressing through the emails.

“It’s important to know that a lot of the trends we’ve been talking about have been going on for quite some time. They won’t change suddenly. We wanted this to be as evergreen as possible in terms of stating some of the big findings in terms of immigration trends and public attitude,” Cohn said.

Still, when Pew came out with new data on unauthorized immigration last December, the team had to update the course to reflect the new information. Once that was done, it sent an email to everyone who had completed the course by that point to let them know they had updated it with new estimates on the unauthorized immigrant population in the country.

So while there is some maintenance from time to time, much of the heavy work is at the beginning. But by setting it up and letting it run, publications can create valuable tools for readers that are fairly easy to maintain.

Keep it focused: For this project, Pew had a specific audience in mind, and it worked relentlessly to ensure it was serving those specific readers. It wanted to target readers who were interested in learning more about immigration, might not as be familiar with Pew’s work, and are interested in a more conversational tone.

As a result, the team cut out references to immigration not related to the United States and went through multiple edits to make sure that each issue explicitly covered the topics it set out to discuss.

“We think that all of our content is readable, but this had to be particularly focused on [readers] who might not know a lot about immigration or might not have seen our work before,” Cohn said.

By putting the readers at the forefront of their editorial and product development, the Pew team was able to create a service that truly filled a need for its readers. News organizations should similarly think like this as they’re looking to try out new ideas or build new products.

• Keep readers engaged: At each step of the process, Pew tried to help readers navigate the newsletter and encourage them to keep reading.

Shortly after signing up, subscribers get a welcome email that oriented them to the project and gave them more insight into what to expect over the next couple weeks.

Every subject line was structured the same way, with a lesson number and📚.

Each issue also has a tracker at the top of the email that lets readers know where they are in the progression of the course.

While at the bottom of the email, Pew congratulates readers for completing the lesson and shares a preview of the next lesson.

It also asked readers to rate the course at the bottom of each email. Kelly Browning, Pew’s user experience manager, recommended that the team put the survey in each email because “if people don’t like it or they drop out, you’re not going to capture their feedback because they’re not going to make it to the end of the course and they’re not going to see your survey,” Caumont said.

 

In the final email, it also created an image that was optimized for sharing on Twitter so people could let their followers know that they finished the class. It also included a link to a more complete survey in the last email.
Little details like these can help provide readers with important context and also afford publications better information about how they can improve their offerings.


The Future

Pew has no plans to stop running the immigration course for the time being. However, it may make some small tweaks.

It’s currently not doing anything with the list of people who signed up for the course.

“We feel like people signed up for this experience… they haven’t given us permission to send other emails,” Caumont said.

In the final email, readers are encouraged to sign up for Pew’s weekly immigration newsletter, and Caumont said they’re thinking about making the CTA for that email more prominent throughout the series.

The Pew team is also beginning to discuss how it could apply the same framework to other topics. Though they wouldn’t tell me what they were going to cover moving forward.

“There will be more,” Cohn said.


Want to know more?

Melody Kramer introduced me to the Pew Immigration email. (Thanks, Melody!) She also pointed it out to New Yorker newsletter editor Dan Oshinsky, who writes the outstanding Not A Newsletter Google Doc on newsletter best practices. You should absolutely check it out. But Melody also reached out to Dan, and he included a bit about the Pew email in this month’s edition of the Doc.

Before he joined The New Yorker, Oskhinsky led newsletters at BuzzFeed. He wrote about his experience at BuzzFeed creating course-like newsletters:

At BuzzFeed, we saw real opportunity for courses. (We called them courses because they were designed to teach you a new habit or skill.) They were automated, so that if you signed up today, tomorrow, or a year from now, you’d always get the same email experience. And they were short-run products, so the entire course would typically run anywhere from 7-14 days. (My favorites were the 7-Day Skin Challenge and the 14-Day Butt And Core Challenge.) The open rates were consistently excellent, and they were a good way to show readers how useful our newsletters could be.

• If you want to know more about different types of short-run newsletters, I previously wrote about how The Washington Post created a men’s World Cup newsletter and about how CBC News developed a pop-up for last year’s royal wedding.

• And for more on newsletter strategy in general, you should check out The Newsletter Guide, a toolkit I co-wrote with The Shorenstein Center and Yellow Brim.


Anything to add?

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