It’s hard to get people with academic or technical backgrounds to take marketing seriously, not least because it’s perceived as being about spin and misdirection. In reality, it is the craft of seeing things from other people’s perspective, understanding their wants and needs, and finding ways to meet them. This should sound familiar: many of the techniques introduced in s:process do exactly this for lessons. This chapter will look at how to apply similar ideas to the larger problem of getting people to understand and support what you’re doing.

What Are You Offering to Whom?

The first step is to figure out what you are offering to whom, i.e., what actually brings in the volunteers, funding, and other support you need to keep going. As Kuch2011 points out, the answer is often counter-intuitive. For example, most scientists think their papers are their product, but it’s actually their grant proposals, because those are what brings in money. Their papers are the advertising that persuades people to fund those proposals, just as albums are now what persuades people to buy musicians’ concert tickets and t-shirts.

You may not be a scientist, so suppose instead that your group is offering weekend programming workshops to people who are re-entering the workforce after taking several years out to look after young children. If your learners are paying enough for your workshops to cover your costs, then the learners are your customers and the workshops are the product. If, on the other hand, the workshops are free, or the learners are only paying a token amount (to cut the no-show rate), then your actual product may be some mix of:

  • your grant proposals,

  • the alumni of your workshops that the companies sponsoring you would like to hire,

  • the half page summary of your work in the mayor’s annual report to city council that shows how she’s supporting the local tech sector, or

  • the personal satisfaction that your volunteer instructors get from teaching.

As with the lesson design process in s:process, you should try to create personas to describe people who might be interested in what you’re doing and figure out which of their needs your program will meet. You should also write a set of elevator pitches, each aimed at a different potential stakeholder. A widely-used template for these pitches looks like this:

  1. For target audience

  2. who dissatisfaction with what’s currently available

  3. our category

  4. provide key benefit.

  5. Unlike alternatives

  6. our program key distinguishing feature.

Continuing with the weekend workshop example, we could use this pitch for participants:

For people re-entering the workforce after taking time out to raise children who still have regular childcare responsibilities, our introductory programming workshops provide weekend classes with on-site childcare. Unlike online classes, our program gives participants a chance to meet people who are at the same stage of life.

but this one for companies that we want to donate staff time for teaching:

For a company that wants to recruit entry-level software developers that is struggling to find mature, diverse candidates our introductory programming workshops provide a pool of potential recruits in their thirties that includes large numbers of people from underrepresented groups. Unlike college recruiting fairs, our program connects companies directly with a diverse audience.

If you don’t know why different potential stakeholders might be interested in what you’re doing, ask them. If you do know, ask them anyway: answers can change over time, and it’s a good way to discover things that you might have missed.

Once you have written these pitches, you should use them to drive what you put on your organization’s web site and in other publicity material, since it will help people figure out as quickly as possible whether you and they have something to talk about. (You probably shouldn’t copy them verbatim, since many people in tech have seen this template so often that their eyes will glaze over if they encounter it again.)

As you are writing these pitches, remember that people are not just economic animals. A sense of accomplishment, control over their own lives, and being part of a community motivates them just as much as money. People may volunteer to teach with you because their friends are doing it; similarly, a company may say that they’re sponsoring classes for economically disadvantaged high school students because they want a larger pool of potential employees further down the road, but the CEO might actually be doing it simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Branding and Positioning

A brand is someone’s first reaction to a mention of a product; if the reaction is “what’s that?”, you don’t have a brand yet. Branding is important because people aren’t going to help with something they don’t know about or don’t care about.

Most discussion of branding today focuses on ways to build awareness online. Mailing lists, blogs, and Twitter all give you ways to reach people, but as the volume of (mis)information steadily increases, the attention people pay to each interruption decreases. As this happens, positioning becomes more important. Sometimes called “differentiation”, it is what sets your offering apart from others, i.e., it’s the “unlike” section of your elevator pitches. When you reach out to people who are already familiar with your field, you should emphasize your positioning, since it’s what will catch their attention.

There are other things you can do to help build your brand. One is to use props: a robot car that one of your students made from scraps she found around the house, the website another student made for his parents’ retirement home, or anything else that makes what you’re doing seem real. Another is to make a short video—no more than a few minutes long—showcasing the backgrounds and accomplishments of your students. The aim of both is to tell a story: while people always ask for data, stories are what they believe.

Notice, though that these examples assume people have access to the money, materials, and/or technology needed to create these products. Many don’t—in fact, those serving economically disadvantaged groups almost certainly don’t. As Rosario Robinson says, “Free works for those that can afford free.” In those situations, stories become even more important, because they can be shared and re-shared without limit.

Foundational Myths

One of the most compelling stories a person or organization can tell is why and how they got started. Are you teaching what you wish someone had taught you but didn’t? Was there one particular person you wanted to help, and that opened the floodgates? If there isn’t a section on your website starting, “Once upon a time,” think about adding one.

Whatever else you do, make your organization findable in online searches: DiSa2014b discovered that the search terms parents were likely to use for out-of-school computing classes didn’t actually find those classes. There’s a lot of folklore about how to make things findable under the label “SEO” (for “search engine optimization”); given Google’s near-monopoly powers and lack of transparency, most of it boils down to trying to stay one step ahead of algorithms designed to prevent people from gaming rankings.

Unless you’re very well funded, the best you can do is to search for yourself and your organization on a regular basis and see what comes up, then read these guidelines from Moz and do what you can to improve your site. Keep this cartoon in mind: people don’t (initially) want to know about your org chart or get a virtual tour of your site; they want your address, parking information, and above all, some idea of what you teach, when you teach it, how to get in touch, and how it’s going to change their life.

Offline findability is equally important for new organizations. Many of the people you hope to reach might not be online as often as you, and some won’t be online at all. Notice boards in schools, local libraries, drop-in centers, and grocery stores are still an effective way to reach them.

Build Alliances

As discussed in s:community, building alliances with other groups that are doing things related to what you’re doing pays off in many ways. One of those is referrals: if someone approaches you for help, but would be better served by some other organization, take a moment to make an introduction. If you’ve done this several times, add something to your website to help the next person find what they need. The organizations you are helping will soon start to help you in return.

The Art of the Cold Call

Building a web site and hoping that people find it is one thing; calling people up or knocking on their door without any sort of prior introduction is another. As with standing up and teaching, though, it’s a craft that can be learned like any other, and there are a few simple rules you can follow:

Establish a point of connection
such as “I was speaking to X” or “You attended bootcamp Y”. This must be specific: spammers and headhunters have trained us all to ignore anything that starts, “I recently read your website”.
Create a slight sense of urgency
by saying something like, “We’re booking workshops right now.” Be cautious with this, though; as with the previous recommendation, the web’s race to the bottom has conditioned people to discount anything that sounds like a hustle.
Explain how you are going to help make their lives better.
A pitch like “Your students will be able to do their math homework much faster if you let us tutor them” is a good attention-getter.
Be specific about what you are offering.
“Our usual two-day curriculum includes…” helps listeners figure out right away whether a conversation is worth pursuing.
Make yourself credible
by mentioning your backers, your size, how long you’ve been around, or your instructors’s backgrounds.
Tell them what your terms are.
Do you charge money? Do they need to cover instructors’ travel costs? Can they reserve seats for their own staff?
Write a good subject line.
Keep it short, avoid ALL CAPS, words like “sale” or “free” (which increase the odds that your message will be treated as spam), and never! use! exclamation! marks!
Keep it short,
since the purest form of respect is to treat other people as if their time was as valuable as your own.

The email template below puts all of these points in action. It has worked pretty well: we found that about half of emails were answered, about half of those wanted to talk more, and about half of those led to workshops, which means that 10–15% of targeted emails turned into workshops. That’s much better than the 2–3% response rate most organizations expect with cold calls, but can still be pretty demoralizing if you’re not used to it.

Mail Out of the Blue


I hope you don’t mind mail out of the blue, but I wanted to follow up on our conversation at the tech showcase last week to see if you would be interested having us run an instructor training workshop - we’re scheduling the next batch over the next couple of weeks.

This one-day class will introduce your volunteer teachers to a handful of key practices that are grounded in education research and proven useful in practice. The class has been delivered dozens of times on four continents, and will be hands-on: short lessons will alternate with individual and group practical exercises, including practice teaching sessions.

If this sounds interesting, please give me a shout - I’d welcome a chance to talk ways and means.



A Final Thought

As Kuch2011 says, if you can’t be first in a category, create a new category that you can be first in; if you can’t do that, join an existing group or think about doing something else entirely. This isn’t defeatist: if someone else is already doing what you’re doing better than you, there are probably lots of other equally useful things you could be doing instead.


Write an Elevator Pitch for a City Councillor (individual/10)

This chapter described an organization that offers weekend programming workshops for people re-entering the workforce after taking a break to raise children. Write an elevator pitch for that organization aimed at a city councillor whose support the organization needs.

Write Elevator Pitches for Your Organization (individual/30)

Identify two groups of people your organization needs support from, and write an elevator pitch aimed at each one.

Email Subjects (pairs/10)

Write the subject lines (and only the subject lines) for three email messages: one announcing a new course, one announcing a new sponsor, and one announcing a change in project leadership. Compare your subject lines to a partner’s and see if you can merge the best features of each while also shortening them.

Identify Causes of Passive Resistance (small groups/30)

People who don’t want change will sometimes say so out loud, but will also often use various forms of passive resistance, such as just not getting around to it over and over again, or raising one possible problem after another to make the change seem riskier and more expensive than it’s actually likely to be. Working in small groups, list three or four reasons why people might not want your teaching initiative to go ahead, and explain what you can do with the time and resources you have to counteract each.

Why Learn to Program? (individual/15)

Revisit the “Why Learn to Program?” exercise in s:intro-exercises. Where do your reasons for teaching and your learners’ reasons for learning align? Where are they not aligned? How does that affect your marketing?

Appealing to Your Learners (think-pair-share/15)

Adult learners are different from children and teens: in general, they are better at managing their time, they’re learning because they want to or need to, and they bring a lot of previous experience of learning into the room, so they tend to be better at knowing when they’re struggling productively and when they’re just struggling.

Working in pairs, write a one-paragraph pitch for a class on web design that touches on these points, and then compare your pair’s pitch with those of other pairs.

Conversational Programmers (think-pair-share/15)

A conversational programmer is someone who needs to know enough about computing to have a meaningful conversation with a programmer, but isn’t going to program themselves. Wang2018 found that most learning resources don’t address this group’s needs. Working in pairs, write a pitch for a half-day workshop intended to help people that fit this description, and then share your pair’s pitch with the rest of the class.