Normally, this month would mark the end of school for the summer for many. But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has interrupted education globally, may have changed the routine forever. To date, mandatory school and campus closures have barred more than 1.6 billion students—close to 90% of all primary, secondary and college learners in the world—from attending school in person.
Happily, the shutdowns have also opened new avenues for remote online and in-app learning, challenging deep-rooted notions of when, where and how education is delivered. It’s also prompted marketers of education platforms and apps to rethink strategies to deliver more personalized learning journeys, making education accessible and even enjoyable for traditional students and lifelong learners alike.
Consider MasterClass, a San Francisco startup that offers online courses taught by an eclectic mix of over 85 instructors. Cinematic video classes engage and educate users by tapping top celebrities (film star Natalie Portman teaching acting), entrepreneurs (Vogue magazine editor-in-chief Anna Wintour teaching leadership) and brilliant minds (retired astronaut Chris Hadfield teaching what the future holds for humans in the final frontier) as master teachers. Members pay an annual subscription of $180 to access classes via desktop, mobile apps and a suite of connected TV options including Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV and Roku.
MasterClass edutainment makes the grade
Lesson plans follow a unique formula, MasterClass CMO David Schriber tells me in an interview. “It’s education plus entertainment and amplified by inspiration,” he explains. “We want you to go out there and do something—and love the results.” MasterClass also takes a cue from how people’s lives have changed at a time when they are stuck at home. Timing is key, as MasterClass uses cultural context to align their class launches to the needs of users. American designer Kelly Wearstler gave tips on interior design just as we were sheltering in our homes and television broadcaster Robin Roberts spoke on communication as we learned to connect while distancing.
“It’s Hollywood meets Harvard,” Deborah Quazzo of Chicago-based GSV Ventures told fellow Forbes writer Susan Adams in a recent interview. While the jury may be out on the pedagogical merits of celebrity-fueled content, there’s no denying it’s an approach that strikes a chord with members. Compared to the previous year, user engagement has increased by 2x (measured in total minutes per month) and sales have more than doubled, Schriber says. The company also reports a successful fundraise, hitting its goal of $100 million on a valuation well above the $800 million that had been previously reported.
Positive messaging for mass appeal
MasterClass, which launched in 2015 with the belief there was an opportunity for a different approach to the learning model, is now 100% subscriber-based. To cement its position as a leader in enabling “everyday learning” MasterClass has also launched its first brand campaign. Aptly titled “Today’s the Day,” the video spot narrated by American film director Spike Lee sends a positive message to learners eager to expand their horizons while sheltering at home. “People are leaning into learning,” Schriber says. “And this is what we capture in our message: that today is really the day you can take a step in the direction towards what you want to do or believe in.”
It’s too early to tell how well the new brand ad will perform. But past MasterClass promotion campaigns, which tech blog TechCrunch calls “ever-present,” score high marks, thanks in part to a marketing strategy that goes beyond segmentation.Thoughtful message crafting is a must for a business that offers over 85 products across nine categories. “Each of those products has different demographics,” Thomas Hopkins, Head of Performance & Lifecycle Marketing at MasterClass, tells me on Retention Masterclass, the video show I co-host with fellow Forbes Senior Contributor John Koetsier.
To encourage users to browse and buy into a subscription, Hopkins has set up campaigns that cast a wide net for reach, and then micro-target to serve lessons to people based on their interests. Contextual relevance that fills the top of the funnel then paves the way for lifecycle marketing to keep users engaged. The goal is to “serve people the right type of video content and video that they can stream at the right time based on what they’re looking at,” Hopkins explains, making it clear that an understanding of viewers’ perspectives is critical. His toolkit is currently focused on email and push notifications and will soon expand to include in-app messaging and badging. All efforts are aligned to solve what Hopkins calls the biggest question for marketing in a pandemic (or anytime): How do you attract and retain users while keeping people’s perception of the brand high?
Gradeup tests new models
For India’s Gradeup, one of the largest platforms helping students prepare for the country’s most competitive graduate and post-graduate exams, the bigger challenge is guaranteeing continuity of education for the estimated 200 million students whose lives and studies have been disrupted by the lockdown. Gradeup’s website and mobile app offer subscribers access to a mix of live classes (taught by renowned Indian faculty), mock tests and mentors in a virtual classroom environment.
What started as a community for students to discuss their upcoming exams has since become the go-to platform for more than 20 million users who rely on Gradeup to prepare for and pass rigorous exams that are the first rung on the ladder to upward mobility. “Education is the mission and mobile is the means,” Shobhit Bhatnagar, Gradeup Co-Founder and CEO, tells me in an interview. His vision to “democratize access to learning” online and in-app is a reality thanks to public and private efforts to propel digital consumption growth in India. Chief among these initiatives is the strategy of mobile operator Reliance Jio to bundle virtually free smartphones with subscriptions to its mobile service. As a result, data costs have dropped by more than 95%, download speeds are soaring and the number of Internet users is pegged to reach 835 million by 2023.
The advance of mobile and the acceptance of online education are the big drivers, Bhatnagar observes. “But the catalyst is COVID-19, which is interrupting education, disrupting the traditional learning models and causing a sea change in behavior.” Before the pandemic, Gradeup subscribers could view 120 live classes a day. Today that number has jumped to over 300—and programming expansion shows no signs of slowing. Rather than run classes from professional studios in the Gradeup offices, the company now helps instructors build and outfit studios in their homes. A positive knock-on effect: Gradeup not only gives students access to education, but also opens opportunities for talented instructors living in semi-urban and rural regions to make a contribution.
Keeping costs low and engagement high
Gradeup is also eyeing other opportunities. In January, it launched GoPrep, an online learning app focused on students in grades 8 through 12. The company also launched #PadhaiNahiRukegi, a campaign to offer students classes free of cost. “There’s massive demand to fill, but it also requires the right mindset,” Ankit Gautam, Gradeup Associate Vice President of Marketing, tells me in an interview. “We’ve had to revise some concepts and start with short-duration courses to get students’ attention and the confidence of parents,” Now that both stakeholder groups are convinced of the benefits, and GoPrep counts five million users, the company is ready for the next step: developing strategies to keep customer acquisition costs low and retention high. [Disclosure: I interviewed Gradeup as the host of Reimagine Growth, a bi-weekly series on Mobile Presence, sponsored by CleverTap.]
The answer in both cases is personalization. “Communication always has to be as individualized as it can be,” Gautam says. “It’s critical to understand the user journey—how users interact, what encourages them to excel and where they drop out of the app—and we work with CleverTap to fine-tune messaging based on how recently and frequently students interacted with the app.” The data informs Gradeup’s marketing strategy, allowing the company to choose the best users to keep (because they are highly engaged or visit the app often) and the ones to let go (because they are the opposite), he explains. But data also points Gradeup to ways it can improve the app experience. “Introducing fun elements, such as gamification, leaderboards and interactive quizzes, to the right audience in the right context encourages users to explore the app and discover their own talents.” Overall, 65% of students who take the quizzes go on to take the mock tests and exercises that are essential to ensure continuity in learning.
Without question, the current situation imposes “immense challenges for countries to be able to provide uninterrupted learning…in an equitable manner,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in an official update on the impact of COVID-19 on education. It’s here that digital platforms and apps like MasterClass and Gradeup are filling the void, and inventing a world of learning free of the constraints of distance and physical space. Whether they come for personal enrichment or a path out of poverty, the students who adopt remote education during COVID-19 will likely keep up the new habit. That’s one of many valuable lessons to be learned from the 2020 pandemic.