August 01, 2022
Case Study

Customer-led Marketing: How Codecademy, City of Seattle, and Groupon put customers at the center of their marketing plans


“Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking,” Bernard Baruch said.

Our brands do a lot of talking through our marketing. But how much listening do they do?

And would a little more listening improve our marketing?

To get you thinking about the value of listening to customers, in this article we bring quick case studies about improving your marketing by learning from customers using forums, coalitions, and social listening.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

Customer-led Marketing: How Codecademy, City of Seattle, and Groupon put customers at the center of their marketing plans

This article was published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

How do you learn from your customers?

On August 10th, we’ll be hosting a live workshop – Boost conversion. Learn from 150+ CTA experiments. Flint McGlaughlin will show attendees what companies are learning from their customers using marketing experimentation. He’ll work directly with the marketers in the workshop to use discoveries from this experimentation to help you optimize the conversion rate of your call-to-action.

And in today’s article, we bring you other tactics you can use to learn from your customers as well – forums, coalitions, and social listening.  

Quick Case Study #1: Codecademy crafts brand campaign based on forum feedback, increases new users in targeted cities 77%

In October 2021, Codecademy launched its first brand-focused advertising campaign in the company’s 10-year history. Titled “Live By Your Own Code” and developed in partnership with The Narrative Group, the campaign positions learning to code as the pathway to a better future, as millions of people seek greater control and flexibility in their work lives.

The campaign was inspired directly by Codecademy learners and their responses to a community forum post’s question – “what will learning to code enable you to do?”

“We aim to put our learners at the center of everything that we do. So, when we decided to embark on our first focused brand efforts this is where we started,” said Robin Zucker, Chief Marketing Officer, Codecademy.

Like the record number of people switching jobs as part of the Great Resignation, these Codecademy learners explained that they were placing greater value on things like job flexibility, spending time with family, and financial stability. And they believed that learning to code could help them build lives, not just careers, that aligned with these priorities.

The messaging and visuals of Codecademy's “Live By Your Own Code” campaign speak to the shifting priorities around work and life discussed in the forum post. “The objective of the campaign was to expand to new audiences by showcasing the possibilities of what they could do by building these skills,” Zucker said.

Creative Sample #1: Forum post about remote work and job security

Creative Sample #1: Example of customer-led marketing – forum post about remote work and job security

Creative Sample #2: Forum post about remote work and job security

Creative Sample #2: Forum post about remote work and job security

Creative Sample #3: Message in brand campaign based on forum posts about remote work and job security

Creative Sample #3: Message in brand campaign based on forum posts about remote work and job security

To execute the campaign, Codecademy leveraged both out-of-home and digital channels, including TikTok, which marked another first for the company. The campaign strategy also extends to Codecademy’s owned channels including social, blog and email, building on the campaign theme “live by your own code.”

Brand campaign results

“This strategy has worked really well for us and can be a powerful tool for other marketers looking to break through existing perceptions, make their brand resonate with a larger audience, and achieve company objectives beyond conversion,” Zucker said.

In a post-campaign study, the team saw up to 10% increase in brand awareness across the platforms they ran the campaign on.

Brand awareness was calculated using Codecademy's analytics for the channels the campaign ran on measured against the education norm. There was a test group (who saw the ads) and control group (who didn't), both of which got a standard ad recall poll, which revealed a lift in brand awareness following the ads.

Codecademy activated more than 100 locations across seven cities with wild postings and billboards and saw a significant increase (+77% average) in visits from new users in these cities (the biggest increase was 104%, which happened in Seattle).

How can you launch a brand campaign centered on real customers?

  • Make the audience your hero
  • Give people the opportunity to write their own story
  • Establish cultural relevance through your audience

Zucker provided the following advice to any marketer interested in reach new audiences by building a brand strategy and campaign that centers on real customers.

Make the audience your hero

“If you’re thinking of launching a customer-centric brand strategy, you need to start by asking your audience what they love about your brand,” she advised.

Give people the opportunity to write their own story

“Brand work should never be prescriptive. In our case, for example, there isn’t one ‘right’ outcome for Codecademy learners. We love to see all of the different things Codecademy learners do with their newfound skillsets. Whether it’s the next level in the career, the opportunity for more economic freedom or more flexibility with their life – for family or travel, there is a message that resonates with a range of individuals and showcases the possibilities,” Zucker said.

Establish cultural relevance through your audience

“Another benefit of putting your audience at the heart of your brand is that it allows you to naturally be part of the current conversation. We didn’t intend to launch our first-ever brand campaign during the greatest talent shortage in over a decade. By focusing on our learners’ journeys, however, we realized that people’s changing attitudes toward work made our 10-year-strong brand mission more relevant than ever,” she said.

Quick Case Study #2: City of Seattle learns from youth to launch counter-marketing campaign, attracts 14,000 visits to campaign website

The City of Seattle Human Services department sought to address an advertising discrepancy – minority youth were seeing more ads for sweetened-sugar beverages (SSB) than their white peers.

They formed The Coalition – a group of multicultural organizations working together to create a public awareness counter-marketing campaign. The Coalition began by eliciting in-person feedback from children and teens at a Youth Coalition Kick Off. They then worked with these community organizations already serving youth to help find young people they could elicit feedback from and collaborate with. They created a group they dubbed Creative Change Leaders.

The Creative Change Leaders are 10 Seattle-area young people who took on the task of developing this campaign. They worked with The Coalition to develop the themes, artwork, and music for this campaign. The Creative Change Leaders not only represent Seattle but also the communities with Seattle that SSB companies target in their marketing and advertisements.

“We wanted to center our approach on youth at every phase,” explained Amalia Martino, Founder and President, The Vida Agency (the City’s agency for this campaign and coordinator of The Coalition). “When planning began in January 2020, we envisioned a year of connecting with people in the community. Sadly, we all know what happened next.”

The ability to safely gather and connect in person was challenged month after month throughout 2020 and drastically impacted the campaign.

The team pivoted to virtual tactics to learn from their audience, like community collaboration sessions over computer screens.

First, they wanted to discover what messaging would resonate.

They quickly learned that youth preferred positive messaging, rather than shaming, and the most popular choice for alternative beverage consumption was water. They created a “Be Ready. Be Hydrated.” campaign that encouraged water consumption as an urban lifestyle choice. Campaign imagery focused on urban settings rather than the typical mountains and streams associated with water that did not resonate with the urban youth.

The team initially had alternative choices for the campaign name that did not translate well across all languages. Guided by the feedback from the youth, coupled with the multicultural transcreation team (local translators certified by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and language professionals with communications backgrounds who are part of the local community), they were able to settle on “Be Ready. Be Hydrated.” The messaging resonated across multiple cultures and languages.

They then wanted to discover the best places to communicate this message.

Community and multicultural media outlets as well as local influencers were identified and prioritized by listening to what the youth identified as a good source of information. These partnerships were designed to amplify the campaign and tell the central community-created empowerment story through trusted sources within Seattle’s Black and Brown communities.

As a result, the campaign appeared with paid ads in 15 local outlets trusted by their audience and garnered earned media stories from four.

Creative Sample #4: Earned media example for counter-marketing campaign

Creative Sample #4: Earned media example for counter-marketing campaign

The team also learned from its youth advisors which platforms were most important to them – TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram. From July 15, 2020, to September 15, 2020, the campaign received nearly 5.9 million impressions and almost 14,000 clicks to the project website from digital promotion. The team used geotargeting to ensure the ads were served to Seattle-area youth.

For example, the team recorded a song and posted it to Instagram.

Creative Sample #5: Instagram post of the Water Song on Be Ready. Be Hydrated. account

Creative Sample #5: Instagram post of the Water Song on Be Ready. Be Hydrated. account

“This was a fantastic and innovative creative process to engage community and promote better health outcomes for young people,” said Tanya Kim, Acting Director, Seattle Human Services. “This effort can serve as a blueprint for how the City can support community-led ideas in the future.”

Quick Case Study #3: Groupon uses social listening to inform promotions, gets a 300% increase in brand mentions

Groupon’s business relies on the ability of customers to make plans. However, the local deals website discovered through social listening that the pandemic was proving quite resistant to long-term forecasting. Even as some reopening began, consumers were concerned about their inability to use the deals they purchased. 

The team used reopening data to help target the right areas for the right promotions and social listening helped the brand avoid negative reactions to tone-deaf messaging.

Social listening was put at the forefront of the strategy to ensure sensitivity to the different situations people were facing. This gave the team insight on how to craft targeted messages or adjust them if circumstances changed.

“We’ve evolved the way we apply listening to our campaigns so we can not only keep pace with the dynamic marketplace but also ensure our messaging is timely, accurate, and provides valuable information that aligns with our customers’ needs. This approach is more important than ever before as we come out of the peak of the pandemic and experience rapidly changing consumer buying habits,” said Tricia Higgins, Head of Global Social Media Operations, Groupon.

In addition to better understanding how the pandemic affects customers, the company has used social listening to inform its promotions.

When the company launched its first-ever Groupon Day last December, social listening was critical to driving promotion for the event, resulting in a 300% increase in brand mentions over Black Friday the same year.

Another campaign, the Super Bowl-themed “Party Like a Player” with Rob Gronkowski, drove an engagement rate that was 60% higher than Groupon’s benchmark for Facebook and 40% higher than its benchmark for Instagram. This was due, in part, to the fact that Groupon’s team of influencers is now taking cues from customer insights gleaned with social listening.

“Today’s customers want to feel seen and heard. They don’t want – nor will tolerate – a unidirectional, transactional relationship. With a fine-tuned social listening strategy, we’re able to collect and analyze meaningful insights on customer feedback that enables us to deliver quality offerings around the world,” said Higgins.

Additionally, insight into merchant sentiment has helped Groupon to identify industries in which to focus its partnerships. For example, social listening helped the team identify and understand the health, beauty and wellness industry was ripe for future opportunities.

“Groupon can now easily analyze customer data to determine the best marketing strategy before a plan is launched, and ultimately achieve its goal of creating relationships between loyal, repeat customers and quality local businesses that help communities thrive,” said Paul Herman, Vice President, Customer Engagement and Market Intelligence, Sprinklr (Groupon’s customer experience management platform).

Related resources

Customer-First Marketing Guide: 4 steps (with case studies) to build a customer-first marketing strategy

Marketing Chart: Does customer-centric marketing fall short of satisfying the customer?

Consumer Marketing: All that stands between you and Walmart is a good story

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