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Decoding Brainscape's Marketing Mastery: Strategies for Educational Markets

Andrew Cohen, Founder & CEO of Brainscape

Harshit Gupta, Director of Business Alliances at Wytlabs conducts an insightful interview with Andrew Cohen, Founder & CEO of Brainscape. Embark on a journey through the tech-savvy corridors of Brainscape with Andrew. Uncover the secrets behind the acclaimed spaced repetition algorithm, delve into the art and science of product optimization, and explore the intricate web of influencer marketing strategies. From cognitive science principles shaping content creation to AI’s role in future learning, this interview unveils Brainscape’s intricate tapestry, where innovation meets education in the digital age.

Brainscape is a smart study platform that helps you break down any subject into its atomic facts and use spaced repetition.

Andrew Cohen, Founder & CEO of Brainscape
Founder & CEO of Brainscape.

Hi. Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Wytpod. My name is Harshit and I’m the Director of Business Alliances at Wytlabs. We are a digital agency specializing in SaaS and e-commerce SEO. I’ve got Andrew Cohen with me, The Founder and CEO of Brainscape. A little bit about Brainscape, Brainscape is a smart study platform that helps you break down any subject into its atomic facts and use spaced repetition. You learn those facts faster than any other study method altogether. So big welcome to you, Andrew, and I’m so happy to host you today.

Happy to be here. Thank you.

Now, before we dive into your platform, can you please let the viewers know a little bit about you and your professional journey?

Sure. Brainscape started as a problem that I had for myself in my old career, which was international development and economics. I was living in Panama. I was working with the World Bank on a very controversial anti-corruption project, and I had to get good at Spanish. I made Brainscape as a Microsoft Excel macro at first to quiz me on my Spanish vocabulary words and verb conjugations and phrases in a pattern that just made sense for me. I kept tweaking the algorithm. I discovered space to repetition on my own, really the cognitive science concept where the hard things repeat much more frequently and the easy things a lot less serious. I was optimizing the interval time between repetitions. It became so effective for me, and I started sharing with some friends that I went back to grad school. I got a master’s in education technology. I learned that space repetition was a very well-known concept, but there wasn’t a way to apply it in education that well. I turned Brainscape into an online and mobile platform based on the idea of adaptive flashcards where any user can create share and collaborate on flashcards and then study them in the mobile interface create a learning path for themselves improve their habits and see how they’re advancing.

It’s taken off. We got everybody from young kids or parents of young kids through medical school and nursing and law and any concept where there’s just tons of content to remember. We raised a little bit of venture capital. We’ve had our ups and downs, but almost about to hit 10 million users now, and we’re excited about what’s to come.

 

That’s brilliant. Could you share the unique value proposition that sets Brainscape apart from the other learning platforms? That’s a pretty competitive space. Also, please, can you explain a little bit more about the space-to-repetition method and atomic habits?

Brainscape’s main value proposition is helping people learn and retain a ton of information much more efficiently in a shorter amount of time and for longer. Who has a ton of information to retain? Particularly people in the sciences, health professionals, foreign language learners, law, high-regulation industries, finance, real estate, and even down to high school students who just have a ton of things for their exams to learn. There is no more efficient way to manage your knowledge than with Brainscape. If you’re looking for something more fun, like you want to gamify your learning, maybe you should use Quizlet or Kahoot! Or node and there are a lot of things out there to gamify. But if you’re focused on efficiency, that’s who Brainscape is for. You asked about spaced repetition. I mentioned even as far back as the Microsoft Excel macro that I wrote with the original prototype, that it repeats concepts in a pattern that is tailored to your pace of learning. We get that interval of time from your confidence rating and how well you know each flashcard. Rather than a multiple-choice quiz where you’re just picking the right answer, you’re recognizing it, a flashcard.

You’re thinking of the answer from scratch in your head. You’re using what’s called active recall or retrieval practice, which is harder and deepens the memory trace. Then you, yourself, rate, How well did I know this answer? Because the computer is not saying whether you’re right or wrong. It could be a complex answer, with many bullet points. You’re saying, How well do I know this concept? On a scale of 1-5. If you’re like, That was hard I’m going to give myself a one, it’s going to come up frequently or soon. If I give myself a five, hardly ever again. With that metacognition, the self-assessment, you’re able to optimize the interval of time between each repetition. Across dozens hundreds or thousands of pieces of information over a long period, you’re learning a lot more efficiently. Particularly if you’re combining that learning efficiency with good daily study habits. If you did all that cramming the night before the test, it’s still not going to necessarily stick. But if you can space the timing out over a long period because you’re motivated by keeping up your streak or increasing your daily number of cards average or something like that, you’re creating a less effort, much more highly effective way to retain information than you ever had before.

Because Andrew, you mentioned that you’re about to hit 10 million users. I’m curious now to understand the user journey on your platform. What do you do basically to optimize the user experience? What are the KPIs that you look into? What tools do you use?

I think two main types of people are coming to Brainscape. One is I’m looking for flashcards. I have this exam or I have a class and they come to the marketplace either on the website or the mobile app. They type in what they’re looking for, they browse, and then there are either user-generated flashcards from other students or teachers around the world, but also Brainscape-certified flashcards with our publisher partners or our editorial team who works on that stuff. For that type of user, the journey is to demo the flashcards and understand how well space repetition works for you. Then if you want to unlock the rest for unlimited study, you’re going to upgrade to Brainscape Pro, which is a subscription model. The other type of person who comes to Brainscape is the person who’s looking for a tool to make their flashcards. They’re using a textbook or a course or some other material where they say, It would be a lot easier to study this if I could break it down into atomic pieces. Because as we know, that is the most efficient way to optimize your studying. You first have to have it broken down.

They come and make their flashcards for free, you can invite collaborators, upload images, upload CSVs, you can move things around, shuffle, adjust user permissions, and do all that stuff for free. But if you want to make your content private, then you’ve got to upgrade to Brainscape Pro. The default is it’s public, almost like GitHub, right? The mission is more democratizing, learning, and studying. But if you’re, let’s say, a school, a professional school, a company maybe who is doing corporate training, then you’re interested in making your content and student data a lot more private. You’ll upgrade to Brainscape Pro or even get a license from us. Those are the two journeys. There’s a lot of intermingling of them. We get people in as creators, and then they end up finding content that they want to study as well. You come for science, but then you upgrade to Spanish, and then vice versa. You might come because Brainscape’s got a great Spanish curriculum, but then you want to make your flashcards for your chemistry class. Then you end up sharing with other students and inviting collaborators. There’s that viral component that works in.

If I had a PowerPoint, I’d show you the viral loop diagram, but you can imagine how those different use cases feed off each other as a growth multiplier.

What do you do? What does your typical process look like for optimizing the user experience?

Well, it’s art and science. It’s data-driven. We’ve got different funnels and we see where people are dropping off. Then we jump into that phase of the funnel through usability tests, both by asking existing users, What did you think of this screen or this feature or this content? As well as virgins, and people who come from outside of Brainscape and we recruit through different platforms. Get a good qualitative understanding of really what’s the psychographics of this type of screen. What are people thinking of? What are their issues? Then we design different prototypes that we can test both internally and then with users and ultimately roll it out, either through an AB test or a feature flipper and C validates that it does improve the user experience and the conversion rate that we were looking for, whether it’s top of funnel or bottom of funnel. Every quarter we reassess where our biggest bottlenecks are and make sure that we’re both addressing the bottlenecks while also continuing to support the longer-term company vision, which I need to keep selling to everybody on the team every day.

I would love to know a bit on the marketing front as well because your marketing strategy gets us to both educational and productivity needs. How exactly do you strategize right now?

We’re very focused on product marketing and content marketing more so than paid user acquisition. We’ve tried a lot of forms of paid outbound, meaning ads, Google, Facebook, all the different social media platforms, buying email lists, or cold outreach to schools universities, or companies. Because we’re a high-volume low-cost product, low-price product, the economics of paid acquisition typically don’t work out. You end up paying 200 hours or 500 hours to get one paying customer who only pays you 50 bucks, so it’s underwater. We focus on creating the assets both for the educational and the productivity markets that make Brainscape a magnet for people who are already looking for us. Maybe the effort happens upfront by creating the blog post, we call it the Brainscape Academy, articles on how to study better, how to improve your focus, how to improve your productivity, or even specifically for an exam, how to study for this nursing exam more efficiently and answer this type of question. People who have these questions may find it via a Google search, via a YouTube video that they’re looking for, a friend sharing with them, or an educator putting a link to the video or the article on their site.

We’re creating a moat around ourselves. Typically, it involves a bigger upfront investment that might take a year or two to pay itself off. But then once it’s paying itself off, it’s gravy. It’s just ongoing ROI. We think about investing in both the education and productivity markets the same way by creating assets that add real value to users and aren’t just interrupting ads where that investment evaporates into the ether. The user clicks it or they see it and they don’t click or whatever, and then they’re gone. Then all the money we spend on that doesn’t increase the brand’s case intellectual property or brand footprint as much as investing in great content does.

That’s brilliant. Anyways, like you know, content marketing, you already mentioned, takes time to kick in, but the ROI that you get is phenomenal compared to paid ads and any other stuff, to be honest. Yeah, I would love to know how the platform leverages cognitive science and expert insights into content creation.

Well, I mentioned before how the product, the technology leverages cognitive science. As you’re using active recall to think of the answer in your head, you’re using metacognition to assess your knowledge, and then you’re using space repetition to determine when it’s repeated. But in the authoring of the content itself, we use a cognitive science principle called scaffolding, which means starting with the easier content or the more foundational content and then moving more difficult from there. It’s both good for making sure users stay at the zone of proximal development, which means that they’re always just a little bit pushed beyond their boundary of what they already know, and a K-plus-one, as the crash says, in language acquisition, rather than being just overwhelmed with so much new stuff at first. It’s better for absorption. It’s also better for motivation if you feel like you’re making progress more quickly upfront and so that scaffolding is guided by our content team, if we’re authoring it from scratch, or if we’re working with experts, subject matter experts. They’re not always educational experts. We’ll have coaching sessions with them about organizing the content. We will send content back for edits, and then we also get lots of student feedback before we publish a Brainscape-certified class where they’re suggesting edits, they’re giving survey feedback on you.

How did I feel about this content and was it the right learning journey for me? All those data points feed into continually improving the content for the user.

Got you. That was brilliant. I would love to know because you’re targeting different user segments. You have students, educators, and employers even. I would love to know how exactly you tailor your marketing for each of these segments. What is a prioritization order for you? Because to be honest, targeting such a broad audience and so many verticals is tough.

I know, man. It’s a blessing and a curse, and I wish I had a great answer for it. Every month or quarter we’ll internally say, Oh, man, guys, we need to focus on this one market. This is the one that’s on fire. This is where we’re retaining users better and upgrading users better. We’ll focus on it by doing things like writing more articles, doing more user-focused groups, trying to partner with more organizations as resellers or incentive models, or things like that. But then as soon as we’ve decided to focus on that one market, 10 other markets approach us and say, Hey, Brainscape, I want to pay you this money to help us develop flashcards for this completely other Aviation or I mean, you may get the Royal Canadian Emergency Medicine certification. They’ll come to us and they’ll say, We have this big audience. We can bring in these users for you. It’s not that much work for us to work with a new partner. We help coach them on how to make good and then we’ll review it and then we’ll publish it for them. But for the most part, we’re just supplementing education entrepreneurs who want to use our product.

We get pulled in different directions. Then, of course, we need to maintain those things. Users are suggesting edits or somebody sent us an email saying, Hey, this article is wrong, or they updated the exam. Now there’s the 2023 version, and so this advice is wrong and we have to go update it. The more we do, the more maintenance cost we have, process debt. It’s tough to say no to opportunity, but we continually do try to reprioritize based on the number one KPI you’re asking about KPI is before retention rate and upgrade rate are two really good indicators of a high ROI subject. The ones that are converting better are usually a good indicator of whether it would be worth spending more money on this market because something is happening there with the user sentiment.

Okay. Andrew, you mentioned two channels primarily that you’re leveraging, right? Seo as well, your content marketing plus inbound marketing. Plus, you are focusing a lot on the YouTube social channel as well. Any other thing? Any other strategy that’s working on your favorite? Paid Ad is out of the question, but do you have any other thing that feels?

Yeah, what’s been promising recently, and we’re going to be leaning in more to this, is getting a lot of advisors in a subject area to contribute to content as reviewers and figuring out what’s the incentive for them, because giving everybody some % royalties of sales is difficult. Having some referral links ends up being difficult for a lot of reasons. It’s not just a page where the user buys right away or that we could pay for a free user because that’s very gamble. The person might click their referral link and then the user upgrades three months later. With the attribution, it just becomes difficult. The way that we’re trying to get them skin of the game is we want to get 10 reviews or 10 YouTube or Instagram influencers, whatever, and say, Hey, we want to pay you to review the content. Just help us edit flashcards, see if we can find some edits, and then maybe make a video or tell your audience about brainscape, and pay the influencer. But then now they’ve got… It’s not only just their audience maybe is going to see that they did something, but because they’ve contributed to the actual flashcards, even if we didn’t need their help because we already made great flashcards, they’ve got skin in the game and they’re going to be talking about it in conversations or cocktail parties in their specific subject domain.

So yeah, how can we create a better web of evangelists? Again, like content marketing and product marketing, it’s a higher cost upfront than just ads. Ads, you could get started with two sets of clicks and then you’re just addicted to that crack forever to keep getting users. Building the relationships takes a lot more research and work upfront, but then could pay off more. Now we’re focused more on that, creating that moat of increased credibility that just continues to grow.

Okay. So influential marketing is one. I would love to know because you have a huge user base altogether, what things do you have in place for user retention? What programs do you have in place for keeping them engaged and reusing and revisiting the platform?

We’ll have a great product, number one. Great reasons for them to continue using it. We’ll show the user. Maybe you came just for one exam and you originally thought of Brainscape as just, Okay, Brainscape is my IBHRE exam prep tool. Once I pass the exam, I’m done. But then you see their trending classes. What’s that? It’s just right there on your dashboard in a little corner thing. You see, Oh, Spanish. I can learn Spanish here. I can learn jokes. We have jokes and flashcards. I want to be funnier. I want to go learn jokes or personal development or the other random subject areas. We’ll suck you in for different reasons than just the exam you came for. That’s a really big thing for retention. The more subjects you’re using Brainscape for, the more likely you are to stick around, particularly if you’re creating flashcards for yourself. Once you’re investing in using Brainscape as a note-taking tool, it becomes a more permanent thing for you. Then for users who have lapsed from Brainscape or are starting to lapse, we have a lot of automated emails. That’s the other big channel I haven’t talked much about.

We use customer.io and just a tremendous number of individual, personalized triggers to send you emails that are relevant to the subject you’re studying, and relevant to the tips you might need for Brainscape itself. We noticed that you’re trying to add lots of images to your flashcards. Here’s advice on how to do that much more quickly. Or, Oh, you’re studying French in Brainscape? Well, here are some great articles to help you practice French better. Here are five YouTube channels that might be useful to you. Or even sending people off of Brainscape, but they’re clicking on an email from Brainscape, they’re being looped back into our fold, back to our academy articles, which not only keeps those users retained, but it also generates traffic that’s visible to Google. If we’re just sending them to our blog post and we’re again, juicing that content marketing loop that, especially as SEO, as you guys probably know, it’s been changing and it’s becoming harder to cut through the noise. Google is putting more ads above the fold. They’re with AI, they’re giving a snappier answer at the top. So the users don’t always have to click on one of the things on the search results pages.

We need to be increasingly smarter about creating real value on our site and having real reasons for users to either click on the search results page or to come from somewhere else, from YouTube Discovery, or from another site that wants to link to us because we have the best content.

 

That makes sense. Beyond marketing, how does Brainscape integrate user feedback into its product development and improvement?

Constantly. We have a Brainscape Discord where Power users are suggesting features. In the tech support channel, people are always suggesting features. For features and bugs, we prioritize everything in Trello. We’ve got thousands of Trello cards of things that we’d love to do. The art and science of prioritizing is based on how easy it is, how much of an impact it would make on the business, how much it contributes to our long-term vision, and how much it is a technical prerequisite. Some things are not sexy, but we need to do that before we do the other things. We need to upgrade the version of Ruby that we’re using before we go write new code on the old version of Ruby, that thing. That’s prioritizing tech and features. Prioritizing content, that’s an area that we’re always revisiting. Like I said, we see a lot of squirrels. We chase a lot of squirrels for things that are opportunistic when a partner comes to us. But for what areas to go after, we look at what’s hot in Brainscape. We look at, Wow, people are studying this one subject a ton. We should probably lean into this and create good certified content around it.

If people are making their flashcards for it, it’d be great if we had a trustworthy set for the rest of the world, so that we have a hook to market to. We had a combination of user feedback, user data, and company prioritization and ended up confluencing things together to generate our quarterly OKRs.

Got you. What do you envision for the future of the company, both in terms of product development and its impact on the user’s learning experience?

Well, because we feel that we have the best, most effective way to study knowledge and intensive content, we feel we have a responsibility to cover the largest amount of content in the world for that learning experience. First and foremost, different ways to grow, to reach people, to keep them engaged, and to increase our footprint. A lot of our technology and content investments are in that. But in terms of the evolution of the product, I think there are a lot of applications of AI to ingest content and generate flashcards more automatically. We’re looking deeply into that. Then expanding the learning journey beyond flashcards, because as a flashcard tool, even as the best one, we’re supplementary. Most learners are also studying on a different platform that has their lessons, their videos, their practice exams, their simulations, their assignments, and their learning management. So Brainscape is their flashcard tool. What other features can we add to make Brainscape the primary destination? So you don’t need another tool or at least as much of another tool. That will change the game for us long term and make us increasingly more of a destination platform. But that’s going to be a piecemeal journey.

First and foremost, we have still a lot of work to do to just even be the best damn Flashcard platform.

Okay, all right. Andrew, we’re coming to an end, and I would love to have a quick rapid-fire with you. Are you ready for that?

Hit me.

All right. What one word do you want people to associate you with?

Efficiency.

Okay. Any funny nicknames your parents or friends used to call you? Or even a work colleague?

My mom used to call me Druski and some of my friends heard it and they jokingly called me Druski as well, so I know I’m not.

What was your last Google search?

My last Google search. Let me go to my history and I’ll tell you. Where’s Google? Sir, man, I have thousand freaking tabs here. It was a study for I-B-H-R-E. I wanted to see what was coming up for that result because I saw that it was a very popular subject in Brainscape, and I wanted to see what the front door looked like for many other users.

What’s something you could eat for a week straight?

 

Beans. Yeah.

Okay.

 

 

Not because they’re the most delicious thing in the world, but because they’re the most well-rounded, nutritious food.

All right. I’m coming to my very last question. What is not a big deal to most people, but is torture to you?

It’s a great question. Your audience can know, by the way, that you did not send me these questions in advance.

You never do.

Yeah, that’s great. Being thirsty, I always have water with me. I don’t like going for more than a half hour without having water near me, I guess, a little bit. All right.

 

Thank you so much. Thank you, Andrew. Thank you so much for the time, for the wisdom, and for all the knowledge that you shared about the platform and in general. Appreciate it.

 

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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