Cracking Your Own Code: Codecademy Makes Its Brand Personal

The “great resignation” of pandemic-fueled soul-searching and career reassessment had an acute impact on the virtual education market. Tech literacy and some coding skills were high on everyone’s list of basic skills for any career shift in the next-gen economy. Coding was not just for developers anymore, and online skills shops like Codecademy have been riding the wave.

The company claims to have taught over 40 million customers across its ten year history, but the category is awfully cluttered now. With backgrounds in tech (early Yahoo) and media (Playboy), CMO Robin Zucker is marketing the brand at the intersection of performance and storytelling. The company’s new tagline, “live by your own code,” aspires to make the brand more personal than transactional.

MediaPost:  What have been the most important media channels for building the Codecademy brand?



Robin Zucker: SEO has been really critical. Folks are looking for what we offer.  We've got a lot of content that we definitely optimize. But a lot of that evolution is also, how do we tell the story of what we're doing, how do we contextualize coding?

We've just hired a few folks that have an editorial background from Refinery29 and HuffPo to tell that story. Paid performance marketing does work; you have to continually optimize there. CRM is, of course, a really critical piece of what we do, being an Edtech platform. People come in, they want to learn, so how do we really nurture them along the journey to ultimately convert? And then community is really critical as well.

MP: How did your brand experience the media landscape during the pandemic, especially managing costs for acquiring customers?

Zucker: We've remained really efficient. I think we continue to test and learn. There's no set it and forget it. We've started expanding into some new channels as well, and then we've optimized through the process, so part of it is making sure that we keep refining our messaging as the audience refines. Building brand is helping us because we're reaching a new set of users. Start gathering the interests, get the user inclined, get them to our site, and then put them on a path; retargeting and re-engagement through paid and organic and owned channels.

MP: Are there particular channels helping you build brand most effectively, and that you then can connect back to this performance piece?

Zucker: We launched our first brand work in Q4. We started experimenting with new platforms, for us at least. We had not been on TikTok. We had done pretty limited programmatic and out-of-home as well.

When we started this brand work, we literally saw the sessions on our site go up. So while we were driving folks from a clip from the ad to a landing page, people got engaged and interested. It was a combination of video and static content, and so, we actually saw the sessions on our site increase by 63%. We saw overall brand lift go up by 10% on these platforms we hadn't really spent time on before.

[We] also saw a considerable lift on the Facebook and Instagram combo. We did some brand work testing there as well. Even though we play a lot there, the work we did around brand drove incremental lift there as well.

MP: How did your brand experience the pandemic?

Zucker: I think we all know that the pandemic hit everybody out of the blue, essentially. And so folks were like, how do I learn more, what can I do, can I bake, can I learn how to code? Maybe I lost my job, I need to find something else to do.

We gave away around 200,000 passes of free access to our pro product to users as a way to help folks. Growth went up dramatically. That was really building on the need for people to have tech skills. There are so many needs for tech skill sets that were happening before that kind of converged with this. We’ve looked at the culture and what's happening. Folks are trying to reinvent themselves. Individuals are trying to figure out what they want next, whether they want more flexibility, to make more money. 

MP: D2C in almost every category has become extremely cluttered. Everybody's joining in. So what's the differentiation in this category? 

Zucker: Accessibility is one. It's interactive, it's hands-on learning, which is quite unique in this space. There's the quality of the curriculum: we have an in-house team of folks that develop the curriculum. And ultimately, it's the price point as well. There's a lot of different offerings from free to paid to thousands of dollars. There is a free offering to get started. 

Another piece is the community. So when you think about learning, you think about the benefit of being on a campus. Even though we are all online, we have a community that acts online, so you can kind of learn from each other there. We also have 100 chapters across the world. More and more are going in-person. That's a real differentiator for us, for both learning and cohorting. 

MP: So, how does all that wrap into a brand identity and the brand message? 

Zucker: Part of what we're doing from the brand perspective is ultimately empowering inspiring careers in technology. We're giving people the tools to get to where they want to go next.

The theme of the campaign is “live by your own code,” and it was inspired by our community. Obviously you want to get that job or get that project to make more money, but why are you doing it? That's really a key part of it.  We didn't want to be transactional. We don't just work to work. So we asked our community why they wanted to do things. We really wanted to have it be about this intersection of your career and your life, and how having these skills can really unlock your potential to give you freedom, and also help you bring these amazing things into the world.

But the other thing that's been front and center is this little game called Wordle that launched in October and has hit viral levels. It's just a simple javascript game. We think about editorializing, how we tell our story and contextualize what coding can do. The first blog post was just about Wordle and how easy it was to code that.

It is just telling those stories about what coding does and gets people thinking a little bit differently, and how they can explore, experimenting with it and potentially create the next Wordle, or go to a company and really power things. So coding is a really important skill set that I think most folks across business are going to need to have. The goal is to show how accessible it can be, really contextualize it with a simple game like Wordle that we all wish we could invent and then be acquired by the New York Times.

MP: You were at Playboy. What skill set or what particular insights do you bring to this world from the media world? 

Zucker: I grew up professionally at digital-first companies, and so I think that balance of brand and performance and growth is really important. I've always been both: very brand-centered, but also data-centered. I've done both the media side of getting consumers there and eyeballs -- but, also, when I was at Yahoo, I was working on paid search, which was getting folks into a product. So I think that foundation is really important, that combination of art and science and really understanding the data.

What's changed in the last 10 or 15 years is that every brand has a platform, so they can have a blog and it can have social. There [are] some brands that have magazines. Playboy was a magazine and evolved to a brand, but there [are] brands that are actually using physical literature to build their brand. It all comes down to storytelling. A lot of what we're trying to do is tell our story in a way that's going to contextualize it for different users. Media ultimately starts with an audience. Every product starts with an audience.

And the other thing I'd say, which is definitely a lot of what we talked about at Yahoo, was how do we become a daily habit? So Yahoo grew as a media company because we had email, we had weather, you want to check your stocks, you want to check every day. And, ideally, our product is a daily habit for folks when they're really in the training mode. But let's say they're in between taking a course. How can we create content that keeps them coming back and keeps them engaged? So that's really important as well. 

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