Inspiration Takes Marketing to New Heights

From the time we entered kindergarten to high school graduation, we were all drilled in the “3 R’s”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. These skills form the foundation of what it means for an adult to be considered properly educated. But we’re now living in an era when computers are far more important than cursive. Despite this, most elementary and secondary schools in the US do not offer so much as a single course in computer programming. This is problematic for both students and the economy as a whole: students fail to gain experience in a vital field with well-paying careers, while companies cannot find enough programmers to meet their workforce needs. The federal government spends $4 billion annually getting computers into schools, compared to just $5 million on computer science education, meaning that 1000 times more money goes to buying computers than it does to ensuring students know how to do something useful with them. In other words, it’s the curriculum not the availability of machines that’s the roadblock.

Hadi Partovi recognized this problem. Partovi was a self-taught programmer who was coding before he needed his first shave. He believed passionately that learning to code could not only open professional doors, but also inculcate in students the type of critical reasoning and logic skills necessary to succeed in today’s economy – and tomorrow’s. Partovi was committed to changing this dynamic, but he wasn’t sure how.

For Partovi, success comes with an inspiration to perspiration ratio close to 50-50. The nonprofit he founded and runs, Code.org, started out as an accident. Partovi had effectively retired but wanted to find some way to expand computer science offerings in schools. His initial thought was to try motivation rather than coercion and appeal directly to students by putting up a YouTube video touting the benefits of learning to code. But while attending a conference, he mentioned the idea to Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Drew Houston of Dropbox, and from there, the video took on a life of its own.

Dorsey and Houston agreed to be in the video and thus began one of the most successful B2B marketing campaigns ever launched. In a way, the video flipped the script of conventional marketing; rather than marketing following concept, concept followed marketing. The video became an Internet sensation with 10 million views in just a few days and helped Partovi reach high stakes tech leaders to participate. The video helped convince the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg that this viral success could launch a movement. Gates and Zuckerberg both participated in subsequent videos and their companies became major partners and corporate sponsors in what would quickly become a pricey effort.

Partovi was immediately inundated with requests from more than 15,000 schools begging for a coding curriculum. With such overwhelming need from chronically cash-strapped schools, Partovi created the Hour of Code. The idea is to give every student just one hour of coding exposure, regardless of grade-level. Partovi helped to build an engaging online portal of tutorials that could be taught in any classroom by any teacher. In essence, the Hour of Code demystifies coding for students and educators alike, and instills the idea that coding is within the reach of everyone.

The idea caught fire and Partovi has continued to use his innovative marketing strategies to push Code.org into as many schools and school districts as possible. Leveraging the online acclaim of the video, Partovi has stirred interest among students who ask teachers to use Code.org and teachers who then ask administrators. Ingeniously, Partovi pairs this bottom up strategy with a top-down one in which he uses the notoriety of his high-profile supporters to advocate for school districts and boards to adopt programming in their schools. The results of these efforts have been staggering: in the two years since Code.org launched, there’s been double-digit growth in total overall enrollment in programming courses, and an even more astounding 30% increase in participation by women, African Americans and Hispanics. On top of that, 100 million students worldwide have participated in the Hour of Code.

Unquestionably, Partovi’s skill as a marketer has catalyzed Code.org. By starting with a viral success, pairing it with a simple message and a low-stakes first step of just one hour of coding that anyone can do, he’s been able to build word of mouth with students and teachers, which then makes the top-down B2B marketing to gain support from corporate sponsors easier. It’s a model other companies should follow.

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