Zombie tie-in breathes new life into online course market

A partnership with AMC network's The Walking Dead helped position education technology provider Instructure as a leader and innovator in the massive open online course market.

Instructure (Salt Lake City, UT)

Method Communications (Salt Lake City, UT)

The Walking Dead online open course campaign

August-October 2013


A partnership with AMC network's The Walking Dead helped position education technology provider Instructure as a leader and innovator in the massive open online course (MOOC) market.

The deal with AMC, brokered by AOR Method Communications, allowed four University of California, Irvine (UCI) professors to use concepts and scenes from the show to teach an academic class on the science of survival.

The curriculum covered the principals of math, physics, health and nutrition, and psychology during an eight-week free online course on Instructure's Canvas Network.

"The biggest education stories of 2013 had to do with MOOCs," says Instructure's PR director Devin Knighton. "We wanted to be part of that conversation to help raise Instructure's value for a future IPO."

The idea for a tie-in with the show came during an Instructure brainstorming session.

"The Walking Dead is one of the most popular basic cable series in history, with more than 12 million fans worldwide," explains the agency's VP of strategy Brad Plothow. "And it has academic merit because AMC invested a lot in making the science credible."

"The PR horsepower and splash we could offer leading up to the season four premiere was a huge selling point for AMC," Plothow adds. "We could provide a different type of engagement with fans and international exposure at zero cost to the network."

Media relations, Q&As, and Twitter chats drove enrollment in the class, named Society, Science, Survival: Lessons From AMC's The Walking Dead.

The partnership and MOOC announcement was issued on September 4. The class started on October 14, the day after the show's season four premiere.

Plothow and his team briefed 15 top-tier journalists and bloggers under embargo before the Labor Day break. Hundreds of additional journalists and bloggers were subsequently pitched. Instructure executives and UCI professors and administrators gave interviews. AMC blogged about the course during its run and promoted it via social media. UCI professors participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything, which Plothow says was the second-highest-rated Q&A session on the site.

The class was promoted on Twitter through the hashtag #TWDMOOC and a paid promotion on the site.

A total of 65,000 people enrolled in the course (five times the numbers of any previous MOOC by Instructure).

"A participant survey revealed that 83% had never taken a MOOC, which is exciting because we were able to get a new audience, and participants hailed from 93 countries," explains Knighton.

Tweets with the hashtag reached an audience of more than 2.5 million as of early December 2013. The campaign generated 1,018 stories and coverage appeared on The Today Show and in media outlets such as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Scientific American, and Psychology Today.

Coverage caught the attention of AMC president and GM Charlie Collier, who then published a LinkedIn post about the Instructure partnership and the tremendous media response.

Other broadcast networks have reached out to Instructure about forming similar partnerships, though Knighton cannot name them publicly at this time.

The team is considering additional MOOC experiments and will expand international marketing efforts this year.

PRWeek's View
This was a really creative idea that was expertly executed. Tying a massive open online course (MOOC) to the popular show pretty much guaranteed coverage, but it easily could have become a joke if Instructure and UCI had not developed a credible and interesting class. The agency's pitch to AMC was spot on, and it was really wise to pre-brief select, highly influential journalists and bloggers. The campaign certainly got Instructure into the conversation about MOOCs, differentiated it from its competitors, and drove outstanding enrollment and engagement results.

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