Quizlet faces a unique challenge for us as PMMs because all of us at one point or another will have been our customers - students - and that can make it easy to fall on familiar cliches.
In this article, I’ll explain the approach we took to identifying our brand strategy - Brand OS - and walk you through how we rolled it out and put Brand OS into action for Quizlet, plus what I’d do differently next time.
Quizlet's a direct-to-consumer company so for those of you who don't think about sales enablement, this might be more useful for you.
In this article I'll cover a little bit of a case study:
- How we approached finding our brand strategy,
- How we rolled out this brand to product and design teams at Quizlet,
- Putting our brand into action the product, and
- Looking back, if I could do it all over again, what I would do differently next time, which hopefully will be useful.
This is me, I’m in marketing at Quizlet, I've been there for about three and a half years. I started as the first marketer at Quizlet and our team is now nine people across product marketing, growth, and communications. I do a little bit of everything.
If you're in your early 20s, you probably use Quizlet in college, or in high school. If you are maybe in your 40s and you have kids who are in middle school, Quizlet's probably a household name. If you're in your mid to late 20s or 30s, you've probably never heard of us and that's okay.
We are an online learning application that helps students practice and master what their learning and confidently prepare for their next test, assessment or whatever else they're studying for. Our customers are students.
Our unique challenge
When we started thinking about brand strategy, we actually acted like product marketers, we looked at who our customers are. We have a unique challenge, which is unlike B2B product marketers, for example, we all have been our customer.
It's super easy for us to fall back on familiar tropes of 'Well when I was a student, this is what was true'. The truth is that being a student today looks very different than it did 10 years, 20 years, 30 years ago, it's really hard.
This is from a recent New York Times magazine article about why more American teenagers are suffering from severe anxiety, this is not just an American phenomenon we see this in Europe as well, we see this in Asia as well.
I don't like to linger on this because I find it so upsetting. Anxiety is really a prevalent thing in the student population right now. The good news for us, we believe, is that we can help.
The role of Quizlet
We help 50 million students each month. We're in 130 countries in 18 languages. We know from user research that 90% of students who work with Quizlet get better grades.
We know that we get better grades, we also know we do something else because we see this kind of stuff happen around graduation season…
Students will thank us for helping them get to graduation day, which is so powerful and inspiring for our team.
What is Quizlet’s brand?
What's our brand? Why do we start thinking about this?
Similar to product marketing, we look to our competitors to understand the lay of the land.
- Learn faster,
- Learn twice as fast,
- Learn German in five minutes a day,
- Super fast,
- Study less, remember more,
- It's super easy to remember things,
- Achieve mastery,
- Make learning awesome,
- Your kids will love to learn,
- There’s so much gamification it’s going to be great.
My favorite two are the bottom ones:
- Learn anytime, anywhere,
- Learn anywhere, anytime
These are actually from two different companies.
What we do
This is Quizlet - we say the exact same things.
I wrote all this copy, it's fine. It's really easy to turn back to that very functional benefit you deliver for your users. That's one issue we identified.
The flashcard issue
Then we had this other issue, which is this flashcard issue. Quizlet is a platform students upload content, and then we will generate activities and games, adaptive study plans for them, but when you ask people what's Quizlet? They'll just say it's flashcards.
My favorite quote's on the bottom, this is from Katherine, she says "Quizlet is a website you can make an account on but you don't have to, and it's flashcards".
We help students achieve outside of flashcards
The first thing we discovered in this user research phase is that we help students achieve outside of flashcards. We know that the more students use Quizlet, the more they see the benefit. So when you start talking to them, they'll say, "Well, yeah, Quizlet's digital flashcards, but I also do this other thing, and it's so much more useful and powerful for me".
We see this in our data as well, from our own internal research into how students are using Quizlet we know that for all different age groups, all different segments, flashcards are less than half of all study on Quizlet. There's so much more stuff happening, that people just fall back on this easier to identify thing they can do, which is 'its digital flashcards'.
We deliver on an emotional transformation for students, as well as an academic one
The second thing we identified is that we deliver an emotional transformation for students, not just an academic one. This was really, really important because the utility is there, the utility is 'I get better grades', but we do this thing that's super important for students and that's why they come back to Quizlet over and over again.
When we look at the overall edtech landscape, we see that companies who focus on helping students succeed, really over-index on this rational side and underserve how hard it is to be a student today. For us, there was a real opportunity here.
We know that we help students go from being disinterested to motivated and engaged.
We help them go from feeling overwhelmed to in control and in focus.
This was a familiar topic that came up over and over again in our research, which is, "I don't know what to do, I don't know how to start, I have so much homework, my test is tomorrow".
They know that when they come to us, we can help them take that first step to get closer to their goal.
We help them go from being isolated to supported.
We're a user-generated content platform so students come to us they have an AP history test tomorrow, for example, and they can see that "Oh, I searched the name of my textbook and I found content that another student has put on - that student's gotten through it, I'll get through it too".
Most importantly, we help students go from being anxious to confident and proud.
I like this quote from Numair, one of the users we talked to you, he said, "I feel more confident and happier that I have something I can depend on".
We know there's a lot of potential here for us. Our main finding here is that we transform more than grades. We transform students. That's really, really different than saying, "Get it done faster".
What does this mean for our brand?
I promise this will get into product marketing in a minute. We decided when we were building out this brand strategy, we relied on this modern brand framework, we call it Brand OS, it's the building blocks.
Marketing owns this at Quizlet but this is something for the entire company to use.
Your belief is a core foundational belief about the world.
Your purpose is why you exist as a company.
Your pursuits are how you take that purpose and bring it basically into action.
The actions are your OKRs, your decisions, who you hire, all that stuff, the day-to-day.
This can feel a little bit like something out of a marketing course that you may have taken in college so I find it helpful to ground it in a real-world example we all know and love.
Hopefully, I'm not screwing this up if anyone reading is from Nike.
This is what I've been told Nike's brand OS is. Their belief is you have a body, you're an athlete. The purpose is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. The pursuits are the best equipment for athletic activities, experiences that inspire athletic activity, and relentless innovation for top athletic performance.
I think this is really important to say how transformative a good brand can be, a good Brand OS, because 30 years ago, an athlete was someone who was in the Olympics or playing the NFL. Today, because of what Nike has done to build into this brand, every single person who laces up their pair of Nike running shoes is like 'I'm an athlete, I'm gonna put on my Nike running app, I'm going to go out, I'm going to do this'.
Quizlet Brand OS
For Quizlet, our belief that came out of this is that with tenacity and guidance, anyone can learn anything. We think students bring the tenacity and the guidance comes from teachers, from parents, from tutors, and yes from us too.
Our purpose is to make every student unstoppable.
We do this by connecting students with the content that's right for them, coaching every student through enjoyable and efficient routines, and building momentum through quick wins and relentless focus.
In a lot of organizations, especially a lot of bigger organizations, brand strategy, and product marketing are two totally different things. We are lucky enough at Quizlet that because we're a small company, we're about 150 people, our marketing team is nine people, that we can sit side by side and think about how these things interplay with each other.
Brand is not something that lives off in an advertising campaign, where other people are focused down here typing away and launching emails. They're very much aligned with each other.
What do we do with this?
Introducing: Learn on
This is super important for me to think about, once we built this brand OS how do we use it every day? Because this project was a failure if it lived in my Google Drive and it was something that I referred to when I did my December 360 review. Remember when I did that brand OS asset no one ever used? That was great. So how do we roll this out to the company and get people excited about it?
I should also mention, we built a little mantra to build some internal enthusiasm about this.
Product & design rollout
We wanted to build a little bit of a guiding mantra for us around what this brand meant and we brought it to life. Then we had to roll it out to the company and I started by getting our product managers and our designers in a room. I'd already worked with our marketing team on this.
Rapid idea generation
We did a brainstorm and we said, "We're breaking you into groups, choose a captain, go for breadth not depth, aim for quick wins, and longer-term initiatives. Any idea is a good idea and if it's not on a Post-it it doesn't exist".
We really wanted to do that design thinking style brainstorm.
Then we gave the team these thought starters. These are specific to Quizlet but of course, for your company, you could do whatever is unique to your brand.
- How do we bring it to life through marketing?
- How do we use social channels to reward students?
- How do we build the confidence of a new generation?
- How do we help students take control of their learning?
- How do we prove out this story of transformation?
- We know from our user research that there is this emotional transformation happening - what does it look like to demonstrate that more to our users in the product?
- What are other reasons and benefits? People could upgrade, we're a freemium business, we have a free experience and then a paid experience.
- How can we use this brand to push people into a better experience for them?
- How do we create programs that reward students?
These were our thought starters but it was a brainstorm and the conversation went in a lot of different ways.
Regroup and share
Once we did that, we did a readout of ideas and options, very classic design thinking brainstorm, we did all the post-it notes clustered around different ideas about things that people want to do, like a new product marketing campaign, or a new marketing campaign, or a new onboarding activity, and tried to cluster things in different themes.
It was interesting, and then we needed to go for a plan on what to launch. We did this with product and design, and we also did a separate one with the overall marketing team.
We thought great, what does it look like in action?
Quizlet brand in action
This is Learn mode.
This is our adaptive study plan. Essentially, what happens is students create content, we generate different games and activities for them, in Learn, we basically will coach them through easier questions first, so if you know anything about how students learn, learning science, which hopefully none of you spend your time doing, it's much easier to answer a multiple-choice question than it is to type the answer to something out of your brain.
So we will progressively help students show their mastery with harder and harder questions. We know that when a student is trying to learn one hundred vocab words, it's really tough, so we build in these checkpoints partway through with encouraging messages to help coach them to go one step further, to do one more round.
We give them little mentions sort of annotations about how much they've mastered, and how much progress they've made. This has actually been in the product for a while, we continue to iterate on it, but this is a nice Tweet from a student...
You can see some of these messages that we give students. The one on the bottom right, we get lots of feedback from people that don't like it, it says 'you're nearly perfect' - that's what you get when you get a 90%. But I think it's funny, it has a little angel.
We started thinking about what do we do to help encourage students every step of the way?
Have you ever crammed the night before a test? That's a very typical study activity. We as a company that makes a learning tool would love for students to study every day in the week before the test, because it's better for your brain and helps you learn, and it's better for our numbers.
But that's actually not how students usually study, they usually study in a long chunk the night before the test. The challenge for us is as we onboard people, how do we get them to come back? We don't know what they're gonna need to study next.
This was essentially an email you get a couple of days after you sign up. It basically says, "We can help you get started and make progress ASAP". It's a very low key call to action because we don't have anywhere to send them, we don't know what they want to study. It's educational.
We basically say "Here are three ways to get started". The email is pretty text-heavy, it's not that pretty, we're working on making better templates. But the thing that I think is interesting here is just sending an email lead to a 1% increase in week one retention, we're a company that helps 50 million students a month learn so a 1% increase in anything is pretty massive for us.
This one's a really fun test we ran, if any of you also wear a growth hat in your roles, you know that pretty frequently you're told to make the funnel shorter and make it easier to get to the destination.
We tested this thing out, we said, "Tell us your goal and we'll recommend the best way to study". Then we did this little emotional check-in, we said, "How are you feeling? Confident? Unsure? Stressed?".
It actually doesn't matter what you answer, we send you to the same place at the end, but we want to just test out how this study guide emotional check-in would work.
Tell us your goal, how are you feeling, and then we send you to your destination.
The interesting thing is, we did a control, we did a three-screen version, and we did a two-screen version that didn't have the emotional check-in screen.
The three-screen version actually led to 54% longer study sessions. So just by checking in on their emotions, we actually help them study more and get closer to reaching their academic goals.
The one where we had just the other two screens led to a 42% increase. Both ways - getting in the way of students and doing a quick check-in before they just start studying actually lead to better outcomes for them.
It's interesting because it's a good example of why you should probably always test because if you read Lean Startup or any of those kinds of things, they'll say "Don't get in the way of people's actions, get them to their destination fast enough, make the funnel shorter".
This is a good example of knowing your user, knowing what's important to them, can lead you to do things that might be a little bit counterintuitive.
We haven't rolled this out yet, because we need to figure out how frequently to give this to people, we don't want to do it every time you go into a study session, that would be annoying. Sometimes, maybe we need a little extra encouragement.
On the product and design side
As we think about continuing to invest in this area, we want to focus on celebrating the wins a little bit more, checking in on emotions, creating moments of fun and wimzie, and then being empathetic, because we know that the journey is tough.
Think back on those earlier slides about how anxious students are. It is hard work to be a student and a lot is unknown so how can we just make sure that we're there to support them every step of the way?
Get more product buy-in earlier
If I was going to do this again, next time, always hindsight is 2020, I think I would focus on getting more product buy-in earlier.
I did a fair number of check-ins and our VP of product was brought in on this process as well, but more product buy-in is always good because you're more likely to get your stuff built.
Create a more concrete deliverable connected to brand work
I would have created a more concrete deliverable connected to our brand work. We ended up phasing this project out in two sections, the first one was the overall brand OS and then we had a key homepage and other marketing pages project that followed.
I would have I think hit a little bit better with our team and we probably would have gotten some faster results if we lumped those two together.
The alternative, though, is that we were able to build some momentum, because the first piece, that brand OS, hit really well so we were able to build momentum and buy-in for the second piece.
ID and execute a few quick wins to bring things to life
Then identifying and executing a few quick wins to bring things to life early on, I think also would have been really useful.
For example, this is an iteration of a homepage that we're working on and it leans into this unstoppable messaging and these encouraging sort of 'you bring the brains we'll bring everything else' - people are really excited about this but I feel like we've lost a little bit of momentum along the way, this will probably roll out this quarter.
Then just finding a few more quick wins - this is a screen from Match, which is one of the games that we have in our app, and we mocked this up when we introduced the brand to the company, but we didn't end up building this into the product, I think it would have been great for us and for some internal momentum to have some nice things ready to roll out as we kicked things off.
Before I go
That's the end of my article, I know this goes a little bit outside of the traditional PMM scope but I think it's really interesting because PMM doesn't operate in a silo.
We are connected to every other part of our marketing org so figuring out how we work together, I think is helpful for all aspects of how we think about who we are and how we go to market.