How Instructure’s Walking Dead MOOC Went Viral

Unlike zombie outbreaks, which generally spread whether you want them to or not, B2B marketing campaigns don’t typically go viral. So when one of our portfolio companies, Instructure, had a story blow up to the tune of thousands of tweets and coverage from over 600 news outlets on Wednesday alone, I was all over it. All over it like a hungry zombie scarfing down a human brain.

The campaign, in case you haven’t already guessed from the title, picture, and terrible puns, is a Walking Dead MOOC (massive open online course), hosted on their Canvas platform. It’s free to anyone who signs up, and will be taught by a multidisciplinary team of professors from UC Irvine with support from the show’s creator, AMC.

Other platforms offer MOOCs too – in fact, thousands of courses are available through Web sites like Coursera and Udacity. But none of those thousands of courses allow students, upon completion, to model the spread of a zombie epidemic while debating whether gender roles will still exist in a post-apocalyptic zombiescape.

Or, as Instructure’s mastermind for the project, Sunny Washington, puts it, “We weren’t going to be the first, but we knew we could be the most innovative.”

Needless to say, their innovation is paying off. In case you’ve been living under a rock, zombies are all the rage right now, and this course is a fresh take on the already popular topic. That’s already a great recipe for any marketing campaign.

But before you go out and start promoting your “private zombie cloud,” (looking at you, Xtium), zombies aren’t the only thing that makes this a great idea. If you’re a B2B marketer looking for similar success, consider trying to emulate some of the other aspects that have made Instructure’s campaign such a hit.

4 keys to the viral marketing success of Instructure’s Walking Dead MOOC

1) Great partners

It always helps to have someone else to help you promote your content, but finding the right partners is often very difficult.

Instructure struck gold with the combination of AMC and UC Irvine. “We have common goals, but we all have very different strengths that we bring to the table,” says Washington.

AMC has the audience and marketing platform, but the partnership allows them to engage with their fans in a way they never have before. For UC Irvine, it exposes a huge new audience to their brand, while lending academic credibility to the class’s content and increasing the reach by word of mouth. Finally, Instructure brings a technology platform that can accommodate the huge anticipated volume of students, as well as experience hosting over 100 MOOCs.

It’s as symbiotic a marketing relationship as you’ll find anywhere.

2) Universal appeal

Instructure’s core customers are the educational administrators that purchase the Canvas platform as their LMS.

That’s a pretty small target, so instead of aiming narrowly at it, Instructure came up with a campaign that’s universally accessible and appealing. It will still reach their buyers – but will also produce a ton of consumer fans in the process.

Instructure no doubt has dryer, more targeted campaigns (which also have their place), but this kind of universal appeal has home-run potential that many B2B marketing departments lack.

3) A strong call to action

When I think about viral marketing, I think of viral videos like this one.

Videos are great, especially when they feature dancing pandas, but what happens after someone watches one? Maybe they’re interested enough to poke around your website, but if they don’t convert, your relationship ends with brand recognition and not much else.

This campaign, by contrast, has an extremely strong call to action: try out Canvas by taking this course. Any of the thousands of people who follow through will need a Canvas account (giving Instructure a way to track and develop their relationship), and will have already familiarized themselves with Instructure’s great product. That’s many times more powerful than just brand recognition.

4) Flagship potential

Instructure’s most immediate objectives were to get people talking about and using the product, but Sunny has another, much larger goal lurking in the background. “We want this to go into history books as the largest MOOC ever.”

By doing so, Instructure hopes to prove that their product is as good or better than anyone’s, and thrust themselves into MOOC conversations that they haven’t yet been part of. For them, Walking Dead is more than just a single campaign, it’s a launch pad to market leadership.

The big takeaway

While we all want to be the one to get a million hits from a 2-minute clip on YouTube, that’s a low-percentage way for marketers to make their living. A well thought-out partnership with strong mass-appeal is the much more productive way to go, even if it is a lot more work and planning.

When they first came up with the idea to launch the biggest MOOC ever, Sunny admits that it was a bit far-fetched.

But then again, so is a zombie outbreak, and that won’t stop me taking furious notes during the lecture on how to survive the zombocalypse.

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