Highbrow is a free email subscription service with one goal: to help you learn something new—in just 5 minutes—every day. They use MailChimp’s segmentation tools and a series of automation workflows to deliver 10-day email courses about dozens of eclectic topics across categories like art, history, business, productivity, science, and more. So far, they’ve made 65 courses, sent more than 5 million emails, and plan to monetize the business with premium courses in the future.
A bunch of us at MailChimp HQ have learned some pretty neat stuff thanks to Highbrow’s courses over the past few months, and we thought it’d be fun to learn more about the people who made it all happen. So, we reached out to Jane Limanskaya, one of Highbrow’s co-founders, to learn more about the company’s origins, why they chose email as their medium, and how they develop their content.
What inspired your team to start developing educational content, and how did that lead to Highbrow?
“The idea for Highbrow first came to us when we noticed we had some gaps in general knowledge, but we didn’t know how to start to fill them. I wanted to learn more about art and history. Artem [Zavyalov, co-founder] was interested in science, philosophy, and psychology. We did actually find (and read) some great books, and we enrolled in online classes, but all of them took up so much time and a required a lot of motivation. I started a lot of online courses but never finished them. That was really a problem for us—and, I guess, for our generation.
We launched Highbrow as a daily educational newsletter on different topics, and months later, our idea evolved to the product we have now. Today, Highbrow is made of bite-sized courses delivered straight to your inbox every morning. We help people to expand their general knowledge of various topics, from art and history to science and philosophy. We know that all of us are busy and don’t have much free time, so our courses are 10 days long (you don’t get bored) and are broken down into 5-minute lessons (you can read them with your morning coffee).”
What advantages has automated email offered you that other mediums might not provide?
“We really believe email is a great channel for educational content delivery. First of all, 2.5 billion people have an email address. Second, all of us have email apps on all of our devices. Third, people already have a habit of checking their email multiple times a day, especially first thing in the morning. Why not take advantage of all these benefits? We’ve tried to use this habit to form another one—learning new things every morning with Highbrow.”
What is your process for developing and creating each course?
“We have a research team, a writing team, and a MailChimp team (that’s what we call the team that builds emails). The goal of the researchers is to come up with ideas for the next Highbrow courses and then create a course syllabus for the writing team. After that is ready, the writing team finds reliable resources, teases out the most important and interesting facts, and then writes lessons from scratch. Then the editor proofreads the content, makes some improvements, and finalizes it. Afterwards, we decide when the course will be published, and the MailChimp team goes about its work.”
As your list grows, how do you strike a balance between attracting a new audience and keeping your existing audience excited about your content and engaged with your emails?
“First of all, our emails are short, and all the content is available right in the email, so subscribers don’t need to click on something to go to their content. This approach carries the highest probability that users will actually read and enjoy our lessons. Second, in Highbrow, you can only take one course at a time. We want to keep our users hungry for more knowledge. It’s key to our high retention rate. We get tons of feedback from our users, and they constantly ask us to let them take 2 or more courses at the same time. But it is our firm decision that they take courses one by one. Our major aim is to help our subscribers form a micro-learning daily habit. So until an overwhelming majority asks us to let them take 2 or more courses, we are on the right track. Third, our courses are 10 days long. We think this length is ideal for our concept in order to make sure users don’t get bored with one topic."