Python: The Programming Language Everyone Needs to Learn


What’s one thing that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg,, Chris Bosh, Karlie Kloss, and I, a data science instructor at General Assembly, all have in common? We all think you should learn how to code.

There are countless reasons to learn how to code, even if you don’t want to become a full-time programmer:

  • Programming teaches you amazing problem-solving skills.
  • You’ll be better able to collaborate with engineers and developers if you can “speak their language.”
  • It enables you to help build the technologies of the future, including web applications, machine learning models, chatbots, and anything else you can imagine.

To most people, learning to program — or even choosing what language to learn — seems daunting. I’ll make it simple: Python is an excellent place to start.

Python is an immensely popular programming language commonly used by data analystsdata scientists, and software engineers. In addition to being one of the most popular — it’s used by companies like Google, SpaceX, and Instagram to do a huge variety different things including data cleaning, build AI models, building web apps, and more — Python stands out for being very simple to read and write, while offering extreme flexibility and having an active community.

Here’s a cool example of just how simple Python is: Here is code that tells the computer to print the words “Hello World”:

In Python:

print ("Hello World")

Yup, that’s really all it takes! For context, let’s compare that to another popular programming language, Java, which has a steeper learning curve (though is still a highly desirable skill set in the job market).

public class HelloWorld {   public static void main(String[] args) {      System.out.println("Hello, World");   } }

Clearly, Python requires much less code.

Experiencing Python in Everyday Life

Let’s talk about some of the ways in which Python is used today, including automating a process, building the functionality of an application, or delving into machine learning.

Here are some fascinating examples of how Python is shaping the world we live in:

  • Hollywood special effects: Remember that summer blockbuster with the huge explosions? A lot of companies, including Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), use Python to help program those awesome special effects. By using Python, companies like ILM have been able to develop standard toolkits that they can reuse across productions, while still retaining the flexibility to build custom effects in less time than ever before.
  • File-sharing applications: When Dropbox was created in 2007, it used Python to build the desktop applications and server infrastructure responsible for actually sharing the files. After more than a decade, Python is still powering the company’s desktop applications. In other words, Dropbox was able to write a single application for both Macs and PCs that still works after more than a decade!
  • Web applications: Python is used to run various parts of some of today’s most popular websites, including Pinterest, Instagram, Spotify, and YouTube. In fact, Pinterest has used Python in some form since it was founded (e.g., to power its web app, build and maintain data pipelines, and perform analyses).
  • Artificial intelligence: Python is especially popular in the artificial intelligence community, again for its ease of use and flexibility. For example, in just a few hours, a business could build a basic chatbot that answers some of the most common questions from its customers. To do this, programmers could use Python to scrape the contents of all of the email exchanges with the company’s customers, identify common themes in these exchanges with visualizations, and then build a predictive model that can be used by the chatbot application to give appropriate responses.

Python at General Assembly

General Assembly focuses on building practical experience when learning new technical skills. We want students to walk away from our data science courses and bootcamps equipped to tackle the challenges they’re facing in their own lives and careers.

Python at General Assembly section, change the second graf to:

Many of our courses are designed to teach folks with limited exposure to Python to use it to answer real business questions. Dive into fundamental concepts and techniques, and build your own custom web or data application in our part-time Python Programming course. Or learn to leverage the language as part of our full-time Data Science Immersive program, part-time Data Science course, or a one-day Python bootcamp. Projects students have tackled include visualizing SAT scores from across the country, scraping data from public websites, identifying causes of airplane delays, and predicting Netflix ratings based on viewer sentiment and information from IMDB.

Meet Our Expert

Michael Larner is a passionate leader in the analytics space who specializes in using techniques like predictive modeling and machine learning to deliver data-driven impact. A Los Angeles native, he has spent the last decade consulting with hundreds of clients, including 50-plus Fortune 500 companies, to answer some of their most challenging business questions. Additionally, Michael empowers others to become successful analysts by leading trainings and workshops for corporate clients and universities, including General Assembly’s part-time Data Analytics course and SQL/Excel workshops in Los Angeles.

“GA provides an amazing community of colleagues, peers, and fellow learners that serve as a wonderful resource as you continue to build your career. GA exposes students to real-world analyses to gain practical experience.”

Michael Larner, Data Analytics Instructor, General Assembly Los Angeles

Machine Learning for Data-Driven Predictions and Problem Solving


Ever wonder how apps, websites, and machines seem to be able to predict the future? Like how Amazon knows what your next purchase may be, or how self-driving cars can safely navigate a complex road situation?

The answer lies in machine learning.

Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) that concentrates on building systems that can learn from and make decisions based on data. Instead of explicitly programming the machine to solve the problem, we show it how it was solved in the past and the machine learns the key steps that are required to do the same task on its own from the examples.

Think about how Netflix makes movie recommendations. The recommendation engine peeks at the movies you’ve viewed/rated in the past. It then starts to learn the factors that influence your movie preferences and stores them in a database. It could be as simple as noting that you prefer to watch “comedy movies released after 2005 featuring Adam Sandler.” It then starts recommending similar movies that you haven’t watched — all without writing any explicit rules!

This is the power of machine learning.

Machine learning is revolutionizing every industry by bringing greater value to companies’ years of saved data. Leveraging machine learning enables organizations to make more precise decisions instead of following intuition. Companies have begun to embrace the power of machine learning and revise their strategies in order to remain more competitive.

Data Scientists: The Forces Behind Machine Learning

Machine learning is typically practiced by data scientists, who help organizations discover hidden value from their data — thereby enabling them to make smarter business decisions. For instance, insurers use machine learning to make accurate predictions on fraudulent claims, rather than relying on traditional analysis or human judgement. This has a significant impact that can result in lower costs and higher revenue for businesses. Data scientists work with various stakeholders in a company, like business users or product owners, to discover problems and gather data that will be used to solve them.

Data scientists collect, process, clean up, and verify the integrity of data. They apply their engineering, modeling, and statistical skills to build end-to-end machine learning systems. They constantly monitor the performance of those systems and make improvements wherever possible. Often, they need to communicate to non-technical audiences — including stakeholders across the company — in a compelling way to highlight the business impact and opportunity. At the end of the day, those stakeholders have to act on and possibly make far-reaching decisions based on the data scientist’s’ findings.

Above all, data scientists need to be creative and avid problem-solvers. Possessing this combination of skills makes them a rare breed — so it’s no wonder they’re highly sought after by companies across many industries, such as health care, retail, manufacturing, and technology.

Supervised Learning

Machine learning algorithms fall into two categories, supervised and unsupervised learning. Supervised learning tries to predict a future value by relying on training from past data. For instance, Netflix’s movie-recommendation engine is most likely supervised. It uses a user’s past movie ratings as training data to the model and then predicts your rating for unseen movies. Supervised learning enjoys more commercial success than unsupervised learning. Some of the popular use cases include fraud detection, image recognition, credit scoring, product recommendation, and malfunction prediction.

Unsupervised Learning

Unsupervised learning is not about prediction but rather about uncovering hidden structures from the data. It’s helpful in identifying segments or groups, especially when there is no prior information available about those segments. These algorithms are commonly used in market segmentation. They enable marketers to identify target segments in order to maximize revenue, create anomaly detection systems to identify suspicious user behavior, and more.

For instance, Netflix may know how many customers it has, but wants to understand what kind of groupings they fall into in order to offer services targeted to them. The streaming service may have 50 or more different customer types, aka segments, but its data scientists don’t know yet.

If the company knows that most of its customers are in the “families with children” segment, it can invest in building specific programs to meet customer needs. But without that information, Netflix’s data scientists can’t build a supervised machine learning system. So, they build an unsupervised machine learning algorithm instead, which identifies and extracts various customer segments within the data and allows them to identify groups such as “families with children” or “working professionals.”

Machine Learning at General Assembly

At General Assembly, our Data Science Immersive program trains students in machine learning, programming, data visualization, and other skills needed to become a job-ready data scientist. Students learn the hands-on languages and techniques, like SQLPython, and UNIX, that are needed to gather and organize data, build predictive models, create data visualizations, and tackle real-world projects. In class, students work on data science labs, compete on the data science platform Kaggle, and complete a capstone project to showcase their data science skills. They also gain access to career coaching, job-readiness training, and networking opportunities.

If you’re looking to learn during evenings and weekends, you can explore our part-time Data Science course, or visit one of GA’s worldwide campuses for a short-form event or workshop led by local professionals in the field.

Meet Our Expert

Kirubakumaresh Rajendran is an experienced data scientist who’s passionate about applying machine learning and statistical modeling techniques to the domain of business problems. He has worked with IBM and Morgan Stanley to build data-driven products that leverage machine learning techniques. He is a co-instructor for the Data Science Immersive course at GA’s Sydney campus, and enjoys teaching, mentoring, and guiding aspiring data scientists.

“Machines are helping humans build self-driving cars, cancer detection, and more, making it the right time to roll up your sleeves, get into the world of machine learning, and teach machines to make the world a better place.”

– Kirubakumaresh Rajendran, Data Science Immersive Instructor, GA Sydney

Using Apache Spark For High Speed, Large Scale Data Processing


Apache Spark is an open-source framework used for large-scale data processing. The framework is made up of many components, including four programming APIs and four major libraries. Since Spark’s release in 2014, it has become one of Apache’s fastest growing and most widely used projects of all time.

Spark uses an in-memory processing paradigm to speed up computation and run programs 10 to 100 times faster than other big data technologies like Hadoop MapReduce. According to the 2016 Apache Spark Survey, more than 900 companies, including IBM, Google, Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, and Yahoo, use Spark in production for data processing and querying.

Apache Spark is important to the big data field because it represents the next generation of big data processing engines and is a natural successor to MapReduce. One of Spark’s advantages is that its use of four programming APIs — Scala, Python, R, and Java 8 — allows the user flexibility to work in the language of their choice. This makes the tool much more accessible to a wide range of programmers with different capabilities. Spark also has great flexibility in its ability to read all types of data from various locations such as Hadoop Distributed File Storage (HDFS), Amazon’s web-based Simple Storage Service (S3), or even the local filesystem.

Production-Ready and Scalable

Spark’s greatest advantage is that it maximizes the capabilities of data science’s most expensive resource: the data scientist. Computers and programs have become so fast, that we are no longer limited by what they can do as much as we are limited by human productivity. By providing a flexible language platform and having concise syntax, the data scientist can write more programs, iterate through their programs, and have them run much quicker. The code is production-ready and scalable, so there’s no need to hand off code requirements to a development team for changes.

It takes only a few minutes to write a word-count program in Spark, but would take much longer to write the same program in Java. Because the Spark code is so much shorter, there’s less of a need to debug or use version control tools.

Spark’s concise syntax can best be illustrated with the following examples. The Spark code is only four lines compared with almost 58 for Java.

Java vs. Spark

Faster Processing

Spark utilizes in-memory processing to speed up applications. The older big data frameworks, such as Hadoop, use many intermediate disc reads and writes to accomplish the same task. For small jobs on several gigabytes of data, this difference is not as pronounced, but for machine learning applications and more complex tasks such as natural language processing, the difference can be tremendous. Logistic regression, a technique taught in all of General Assembly’s full- and part-time data science courses, can be sped up over 100x.

Spark has four key libraries that also make it much more accessible and provide a wider set of tools for people to use. Spark SQL is ideal for leveraging SQL skills or work with data frames; Spark Streaming has functions for data processing, useful if you need to process data in near real time; and GraphX has pre-written algorithms that are useful if you have graph data or need to do graph processing. The library most useful to students in our Data Science Immersive, though, is the Spark MLlib machine learning library, which has prewritten distributed machine learning algorithms for use on data frames.

Spark at General Assembly

At GA, we teach both the concepts and the tools of data science. Because hiring managers from marketing, technology, and biotech companies, as well as guest speakers like company founders and entrepreneurs, regularly talk about using Spark, we’ve incorporated it into the curriculum to ensure students are fluent in the field’s most relevant skills. I teach Spark as part of our Data Science Immersive (DSI) course in Boston, and I previously taught two Spark courses for Cloudera and IBM. Spark is a great tool to teach because the general curriculum focuses mostly on Python, and Spark has a Python API/library called PySpark.

When we teach Spark in DSI, we cover resilient distributed data sets, directed acyclic graphs, closures, lazy execution, and reading JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), a common big data file format.

Meet Our Expert

Joseph Kambourakis has over 10 years of teaching experience and over five years of experience teaching data science and analytics. He has taught in more than a dozen countries and has been featured in Japanese and Saudi Arabian press. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an MBA with a focus in analytics from Bentley University. He is a passionate Arsenal FC supporter and competitive Magic: The Gathering player. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Needham, Massachusetts.

“GA students come to class motivated to learn. Throughout the Data Science Immersive course, I keep them on their path by being patient and setting up ideas in a simple way, then letting them learn from hands-on lab work.”

Joseph Kambourakis, Data Science Instructor, General Assembly Boston

Search Engine Optimization Strategies for Better Page Rankings


A good business website allows customers to learn about a company’s services, purchase its products, and sign up for more information: all key elements for growing a successful enterprise. However, creating a functional website is only half the battle — once you’ve built your site, you need to get it in front of people who will benefit from your product. This is where SEO can make or break your organization.

SEO stands for search engine optimization and, in a nutshell, it refers to how you optimize your website so that it appears on a search engine results page (SERP), like Google, when a user enters specific keywords. The World Wide Web is a messy mass of roads through which it’s virtually impossible to find your destination without search engines. As of 2017, 88% of consumers conduct online research before making a purchase either online or in-store, and studies show that the average user only looks at the top five results when they search for a key term. Given this, it’s worth taking the time to learn how you can use SEO to make sure your website ranks well on SERPs.

Improve Your Site’s SEO With These Tips

Rest assured: If you’ve created a website that’s not ranking well on SERPs, there are measures you can take to get your hard work in front of customers. Here are a few of the most effective ways you can ensure your website has strong SEO.

Research relevant keywords.

SEO is not only about driving more traffic to your website; it’s about attracting the kind of visitors that ultimately become customers. Knowing who your audience should be, and how to write content that’s relevant to them, is an important piece of the SEO puzzle.

Keyword research is your compass for finding which words and phrases will reach your audience. Use free tools like Google AdWords’ Keyword Planner and Google Trends to see which keywords you should target. This is also a good way to discover topics trending in your industry or topic area. For example, let’s say you’re trying to optimize this article. The first keywords you would think of are probably “SEO” and “SEO guide” because these describe the main topic of the article.

When you enter these keywords into the Google Adwords keyword suggestion tool, you may see some frequently searched variations of your keywords that you hadn’t thought of, like “SEO marketing”, “SEO optimization”, and “search engine marketing”.

Focus on long-tail vs. short-tail keywords.

When your site is just starting out, showing up on the first page of Google is nearly impossible. Industry leaders that have been producing content for years dominate all of the top keywords and results. For example, it’s going to be tough to outrank long-standing industry websites like Moz, Search Engine Land, and Neil Patel with the key term “SEO”.

Researching and creating content for relevant long-tail keywords is a great strategy for developing SEO. A short-tail keyword includes one or two words, while long-tail keywords are longer, more specific, and less competitive keywords or phrases. Think about it: If a user  searches the word “bed” (a very broad short-tail keyword), it’s unlikely they’re ready to click through to a sale. However, if a user searches for “French style oak bed”, they know exactly what they’re looking for and are probably closer to the point of purchase. Although you get less traffic from long-tail keywords, the traffic you do drive will be more focused, more committed, and more likely to convert.

Understand how to incorporate keywords.

Once you’ve identified your keywords, you can now tackle your on-page optimization. Be sure to place keywords in your:

  • Title tag: The name of the page that appears both in the browser tab and in the Google search results.
  • Meta description: A snippet of up to about 155 characters that summarizes a page’s content, entered either as HTML code or in a designated field in your site’s content management system.
  • Header (h1 tag): A tag used to indicate the main heading on a page.
  • Subheaders (h2, h3, and h4 tags): Tags used for the creation of headings less important than an h1, which have a top-down hierarchy from <h2> to <h6>.
  • First 100 words: The introduction to your page.
  • Image alt tags: An HTML tag that should be used with any image on your site to describe what’s in the image.

Develop an external linking strategy.

Links to your website from other sites are stamps of approval, especially if your site is linked from authority sites in your industry. If you wanted an authority site to optimize this article, for example, you’d want the article to be picked up and shared by sites like Moz or Search Engine Land. Keep in mind that not all links are created equal, so building a handful of quality links is better than a bunch of spammy links. If a website with low domain authority and no relation to your field links to you, it’s not very useful (e.g., a random hotel linking to this SEO article.)

A few quick and clever ways you can encourage links back to your site and build authority include:

  • Citations: A citation is simply a mention of your business on a third-party website — typically a local business or industry directory, or an event or reviews site. Look for quality, trustworthy directories and listing sites in your city.
  • Creating and sharing valuable content: Sites that create and deliver relevant and engaging content to their users get better rankings. Fresh, regular content improves your traffic and increases the time people spend on your site, two important metrics that tell Google you’re a trusted, relevant, and authoritative website.
  • Guest posting: One great way to get external links is by writing posts or articles for other websites. Think about topics in which you’d like to be known as an expert (relevant to your own website/industry), and reach out to like-minded businesses or blogs that could benefit from a guest post feature. Make sure you include a link back to your own website to reap the SEO benefits.

Technical Requirements for SEO

A strong SEO strategy depends on your website speed, security, and site foundation. Without this technical foundation Google won’t trust you no matter how much content you incorporate. Here are three essentials for developing your site foundation:

  • Site speed: Users are impatient. If your website takes more than three seconds to load then your customers are out of there. A good SEO strategy covers all the ways you can optimize your code and images to make sure your pages load quickly on all devices.
  • Site security: Starting July 2018, Google will mark non-HTTPS websites as insecure in its Chrome browser. Chrome accounts for approximately 58% of the global browser market across mobile and desktop, so you may lose web traffic due to security concerns if your site is not HTTPS.
  • Mobile friendliness: Since we do just about everything from our phones these days, Google looks for sites that can be easily read, clicked, and navigated to across all devices.

How to Optimize Your SEO Strategy

If you’re not measuring your progress, it’s hard to know what’s working and what’s not. SEO success is measured by increasing your page ranking for specific keywords and driving up your overall domain authority. Although every business is unique and every website has different metrics that matter, Google Analytics will allow you to track and report the success of your SEO efforts. You can gather all the data you need to measure the impact of SEO on a page, including:

  • Volume of organic traffic: Organic traffic is comprised of users who find your site through unpaid search results. If organic traffic to your site increases, it means your site is ranking on SERPs and being found by users.
  • Bounce rate: The percentage of users who organically come to your page and quickly click away. A high bounce rate indicates you’re driving the wrong kind of traffic.
  • Conversions: A conversion occurs when a user successfully completes a desired action. The desired action could be clicking on an email, entering their phone number into a webform, and more. In order to track conversions, you need to create goals to track the site visitors from organic searches who are becoming actual customers.
  • Behavior: The duration of a person’s visit to your site, number of pages they visited, and time they spent on each page.
  • Keywords for which you’re ranking: Understand which queries caused your site to appear in search results.

Learning SEO at General Assembly

Whether you want to pursue a career as a digital marketer or just dip your toes into the world of online marketing, SEO is a natural place to start. In GA’s part-time Digital Marketing courses, on campus and online, learn how to conduct technical audits, practice on-page optimization, and utilize more strategies to help improve site rankings. You’ll learn the art of keyword research and practice writing SEO-friendly copy that engages your audience and  increases your site’s ranking. Most importantly, you’ll walk away knowing you’re up to date with best practices and armed with the latest tools and tactics to confidently implement SEO the right way.

Meet Our Expert

Catherine Toms is a lead instructor for GA’s Digital Marketing course in Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Smithfield Digital, a company specializing in-house digital marketing and custom training. With over 20 years digital marketing experience in Australia and the UK, Catherine has worked with hundreds of companies from big global brands to creative startups to find their direction, organize their approach, and implement the right digital marketing strategies for the biggest impact.

“The digital marketing industry is rapidly evolving with new tech and opportunities. With the right training and skills you can move quickly through the ranks, go freelance, launch your own business, or even work remotely.”

Catherine Toms, Digital Marketing Instructor, General Assembly Melbourne

Performance Marketing: Using Consumer Data to Optimize Your Marketing


“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

This quote is attributed to John Wanamaker, a pioneer in marketing back in the early 20th century. These days, saying something along those lines at work is an easy way to get escorted to the exit door. Today, we have enormous amounts of consumer data that can be processed through platforms such as Google Analytics and Facebook Ad accounts. As a result, understanding the impact of our budgets is easier to measure. However, many companies still lack actionable insights regarding what they should do with the information available.

Performance marketing is the process digital marketers use to analyze consumer data, and optimize marketing efforts as it relates to their business goals. Often, performance marketing involves paying for a specific action, such as a click or conversion. However, it can also include paying for impressions, meaning you pay for someone to see your ad as opposed to them taking any further action, like clicking through to your site or making a purchase. From there, the goal would be to use these impressions as efficiently as possible, based on your desired outcome.

How Performance Marketing Works: A Facebook Campaign Study

To see performance marketing in action, let’s look at a paid Facebook marketing campaign. We’ll first need to start with a goal, such as volume of goods sold, and then determine how we can most efficiently achieve this objective. We do this by identifying key performance indicators (KPIs). These are measurable values, such as order volume or cost per order, that immediately demonstrate how effectively a company is achieving its desired outcome.

Let’s say we have volume goal of selling 1,000 units, and our advertising budget is $2,000. KPIs help us understand how much our cost per order (CPO) can be. In this case, we’ll define cost as our advertising budget.

Our CPO is the cost divided by number of orders: $2,000/1,000. That means our target CPO is $2. If we spend more than $2 per order, we’ll fall short of our volume goal.

We’d then identify which segments are achieving a CPO at or below $2. Segmentation is the process of dividing your audience based on various attributes such as age, gender, or location. However, we can also create segments based on the specific ad someone viewed, or the device they used to view it.

The chart below provides an example of how performance can vary by segment.

SegmentAd CostCost Per OrderOrders

After identifying the best-performing segments, we can begin to optimize, which involves spending as much ad budget and/or effort as possible on the most successful segments. To be effective, optimization requires timely reporting and adjustments.

In the example above, the best-performing segment is A, because it has the lowest cost per order. If possible, we would put all our budget in this segment. However, this isn’t always feasible due to various constraints, such as the number of people in each segment. We’ll then have to invest in the next-best-performing segment until we reach our volume goal.

The chart below shows how the budget could have been optimized. I’ve capped the ad cost at $750 per segment to reflect constraints in audience size. Meaning, there is a finite amount of money we could spend in each segment.

SegmentAd CostCost Per OrderOrders

As you’ll notice, we’ve now achieved our goal of selling 1,000 units, with the same advertising budget.

There are many third-party platforms, such as the Adobe Marketing Cloud, that leverage algorithms to assist with this process. Facebook also introduced its own optimization tool, automated rules, within its Ad Manager platform. These automated rules are used to continually monitor your campaign KPIs and execute your desired actions based on the performance thresholds you’ve identified.

For example, let’s say your cost per order is $3 for a particular ad — $1 more than your target. These rules can automatically stop running the ad, and/or send you an email notification. This is certainly a game-changer for companies that aren’t quite ready to invest in automation technology without proof of concept.

Today, many digital marketing campaigns are evaluated on performance marketing tactics rather than just reach and frequency. Along with Facebook, campaigns can be run on Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and more, managed through their native platforms or through third-party vendors like Marin and Kenshoo.

The Objective-First Framework

In General Assembly’s digital marketing programs, we focus on performance marketing by leveraging the Objective-First Framework.


GA’s Objective-First Framework, used to define and document digital marketing campaign strategy.

This framework is a lean marketing plan used to define and document campaign strategy. Students first start with an objective and the associated KPIs. Next, they design their tactics, which is how they’ll present their business value in a way that addresses a customer need or desire. They then move on to launching campaigns and measuring the outcomes. Proper measurement is an absolute must for performance marketing, as we can’t optimize what we can’t measure. After reviewing their KPIs, students make adjustments — optimizations — and further refine their strategy.

This is an ongoing process, and there will always be new approaches to explore. “Test and learn” is a phrase familiar to all performance marketers, but it’s also important for companies to create a culture of innovation so they can be free to test. I typically recommend setting aside 20% of your total budget for testing, which shouldn’t be earmarked for any critical outcomes. However, it should still be evaluated based on your existing goals and KPIs.

If your test works, keep it up, and increase the amount of budget and effort toward that approach. If it fails, stop. At least you learned something, and you know what part of your advertising spend was wasted. You’re already better off than John Wanamaker.

Performance Marketing at General Assembly

In General Assembly’s part-time Digital Marketing course, on campus or online, students learn performance marketing by creating, distributing and optimizing their own digital marketing campaigns. These campaigns are served on platforms such as Google AdWords, Facebook, Instagram, MailChimp, and LinkedIn. Additionally, we supply training in data and industry benchmarks for students to practice the budgeting and optimization process before launching their real-world campaigns.

“GA instructors are still active in their field, which is extremely important since digital marketing changes so quickly. You want to learn from someone who can tell you about their day, not just a user guide they read.”

– Terry Rice, Digital Marketing Instructor, GA New York

Using Influencer Marketing to Connect Consumers With Your Brand


In a multichannel era in which people’s daily lives are increasingly spent devouring content through mobile devices, consumers are increasingly tired of interruptions from advertisements. Because they regularly install ad-blocker software, or skip past obvious ads, marketers have had to generate new ways to reach potential customers on these valuable digital platforms. Enter influencer marketing.

Influencer marketing is a method of promoting your brand or product through the medium of an influential individual — whether that is a digital celebrity like fashion and beauty vlogger Zoella, or an opinion leader in your industry, such as the editor of Vogue. It allows brands to reach their target audience through the voice and network of a person directly in the social news feeds they’re looking to for entertainment.

For example, Dolce & Gabbana filled the front row of its Spring 2017 fashion show with millennial influencers, which got them countless press features. Big and small niche influencers were the stars of H&M’s TV campaign that challenged what it means to be “ladylike.”

The rise of mobile advertising — in which the amount of time spent on mobile is disproportionate to the amount of money spent advertising there — has led marketers to specialize in social media-focused content and influencer marketing. According to a survey by the influencer marketing platform Linqia, 39% of marketers intend to increase their influencer marketing budgets in 2018, compared to only 5% who intend to reduce it.

These influencers have more sway than newsworthy celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence or Tom Cruise because they have a closer connection to their followers. In some demographics, such as Gen Zers, they’re at least as well known, if not more so. But marketers need to build those relationships early in the influencer’s career, before they’re mega-famous. That way they can foster a genuine business relationship that can result in reduced costs, better content, a lower cost per engagement, and a higher ROI. Then, you must continue to invest time and budget to ensure your pool of individuals is connected to your brand, both emotionally and via the relevance of their style and audience.

What Makes a Good Influencer?

Influencers fall into various categories, each with their own benefits and challenges:

FansAlready loyal and committed to spreading love for your brand.Tiny reach, and require campaigns/competitions to engage.
Key Opinion LeadersHigh level of trust, and good for B2B. They will not expect high fees.Need to build the relationship offline. Cannot be transactional.
MicroinfluencersYou can become their champion; build an early relationship.Smaller reach and time-consuming to manage.
CreatorsThey create high-quality, unique content with minimal budget.Lower reach and complex negotiations.
Digital CelebritiesHuge reach and highly efficient to contract.Engagements can appear sponsored, lessening the brand impact.
CelebritiesDrive awareness, consideration, traffic, and high-authority links, too.Highly expensive contracts that require focus to activate effectively.

For our purposes here, we’ll be talking about digital influencers, a term that each brand must also qualify on its own terms. For example, the popular online cosmetics company Glossier famously considers every one of its customers to be an influencer, reflecting an open attitude that’s consistent across all of the brand’s marketing activities, and clearly shapes its influencer strategy.

The Rise of Influencer Marketing

In the last few years, brands are increasingly considering influencers to be more valuable than global celebrities who can gain them coverage in mainstream press to drive awareness, but don’t increase brand consideration as highly. This was evidenced by the game-changing New York Fashion Week show held by Tommy Hilfiger in Autumn/Winter 2016, during which a handpicked audience of more than 3,000 influential individuals experienced the “show” in a “Tommy Pier” carnival experience littered with Instagrammable moments that flooded attendees’ social feeds.

While influencer marketing content in Europe and the U.S. must be clearly identified as an advertisement through the use of #Ad or #Advert hashtags on Facebook or Instagram, or flags built into the platforms themselves, the influencer’s “authority” and character attributes (e.g., their behavior or artistic flair) are lent to the brand, providing rich product marketing that creates a deeper connection with the target audience than pure-play advertising.

At my creative agency This Here, we conduct regular analysis into the engagement rate on posts containing #Advertising tags, and repeatedly find that the hashtags’ inclusion does not affect performance, when compared to untagged posts. Consumers increasingly understand that a portion of the digital content they consume is sponsored; they understand that their favorite influencers need to draw an income from their work, and react negatively only if the brand in question is not a natural fit for the influencer.

How Influencer Marketing Works

If you think about it, there have always been influencers around us. Think of celebrities promoting brands and products. This hasn’t changed. What has changed, perhaps, is the type of people the world has decided to trust.

Today many of us look up to the individuals we follow on social media — people who resonate with us. And while a famous actress might give a beauty brand a massive reach, digital influencers serve a more targeted, engaging, and cost-effective way to reach specific demographics. Plus, the connection with their audience is so much more magical. ✨

As with any brand collaboration, marketers need to approach influencer marketing strategically and with both an analytical and creative mindset.

When it comes to finding the right brand-influencer match, the key challenge for marketers is finding influencers who:

  1. Reflect the brand’s values.
  2. Are followed by a demographic that’s desirable to the brand.
  3. Will be happy to be associated with the brand in question.

After finding this sweet spot, the influencer manager — if there’s not someone in this specific role, these duties could fall under social mediacontent, communications, or even paid media teams — provides the influencer with a clear and creative brief about the project. The brief details the actions the brand would like the influencer to carry out, and the deliverables, e.g., the number of posts, relevant copy or hashtags to use, and a posting schedule. That leads to a budgetary negotiation, influenced by the level of effort involved and, of course, the desirability of the influencer ad the brand in question.

A luxury brand like Gucci can often negotiate lower fees for its innovative campaigns like #TFWGucci (influencers are lining up to work on such briefs), but high street fashion brands, for example, need to work a lot harder. This is particularly true if the brand needs the support of influencers to drive a perception shift.

For example, the Spanish fashion brand Desigual needed to make a significant investment to inspire a global pool of influencers to get involved early in the process of the brand’s transformation in 2017 and 2018. The brand had huge awareness across Europe, but a poor reputation. As a result, the company revamped everything from its products to its retail stores, and decided that influencers were the perfect mouthpiece to communicate the change.

Finally, the influencer receives the product or experience and creates engaging content in their unique style to help the brand achieve widely varying objectives, from brand awareness or reputation, to directly attributable sales, and even SEO. Most agencies and brands track the performance of each post carefully, ensuring the response was positive, before working with the same influencer again.

Influencer Marketing at General Assembly

Though influencer marketing can be a marketer’s sole focus, anyone in the industry, especially those who focus on content, social media, and communications, could benefit from a deeper understanding of the field. In General Assembly’s Digital Marketing course, on campus and online, students gain insight into this growing sector while digging into content strategy and social media practices. Through selecting influencers for your class project and crafting an influencer strategy, you’ll get hands-on experience that you can use in real-world campaigns.

Meet Our Expert

Jemima Garthwaite has nearly 10 years’ experience in the world of digital and social media marketing. She’s the founder of the data-fueled creative agency This Here, where she oversees strategic, creative, and analytical work, and has held roles as head of social media at Groupon and Poke London.

Jemima has taught at General Assembly for five years, first on our London campus, and more recently for GA’s corporate training programs. Jemima is also a judge at the Lovie Awards, was a Cannes Young Lions winner, made The Drum magazine’s 30 Under 30 list, and has been a guest on The Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast.

“Influencer marketing all comes down to connection. It’s not about impressions — it’s about creativity, collaboration, and reciprocity. It’s about real influence and human relationships.”

Jemima Garthwaite, Digital Marketing Instructor, GA London

Personalization: 3 Ways Digital Marketing Can Speak to your Customers


When was the last time you went through your mail? No, not your email inbox. Your physical, real-life mail. How much of it was relevant to you? I’m going to take a guess and say that around 90% of the material you found was impersonal, generic, and maybe downright bothersome. But log onto the internet and suddenly you’re inundated with content that seems tailored to you. Where a one-size-fits-all method still tries to succeed in physical marketing materials, smart advertisers are using their money and energy to grab you where you’re spending the most time: online.

From sponsored Instagram posts by a brand you may be interested in, to email subject lines that tempt you to come back by adding in your first name or a specific call to action “just for you,” the lines between pleasantly browsing and unsuspected marketing are blurry. Where, as users, we think of the internet and our social media channels as a way to catch up with friends, see what our relatives are doing on vacation, or share updates about our lives, brands see this space as prime real estate to catch our attention and convince us to buy a product or service.

For digital marketers, catering ads to users on social media is a smart move. When it comes to buying products, people most often trust the recommendations of family and friends, and, according to Nielsen, if they see the product on social media, they’ll at least consider taking action from that platform.

The landscape for personalized marketing is competitive — but with considerable payoff for brands that do it well. A study by marketing platform HubSpot notes that advertisers utilizing social platforms with paid ads are seeing startlingly high returns on investment. The popular morning newsletter theSkimm, for example, used Facebook’s lead ads to drive more signups, which led to a 22% increase in lead quality. There are many factors at play here, including a popular brand (versus one that’s lesser known) using ad space, and engaging with users on a platform they’re already familiar with, but it could work with smaller brands as well.

With a user base as large and active as Facebook (the same study counts 1.18 billion active users as of September 2016), marketers would be remiss to not consider implementing strategies on this more personal channel. The challenge is how to make a brand or product visible on a platform that’s already saturated with competitors vying for consumer attention. Savvy brands are utilizing personalization tactics to make their marketing stand out, and you can do the same.

A Brief History of Personalization in Marketing

The early days of digital marketing were similar to our mailbox example: Marketers tried to create enticing messaging that was general enough to be used on multiple parts of the internet. You’d run into the same banner ad many times over the course of a few days of browsing, and perhaps at some point thought, “This doesn’t relate to me at all.”

Geotargeting — pinpointing a user’s location — somewhat helped to address this by making regional sidebar ads more common and eliminating the extra headache and ad spend for marketers. With location as a driving force, marketers could spend time and money where their users actually were. Thanks to Google Analytics and other ad tracking tools, marketers could learn not only where their leads were from, but also from which kind of page they landed from, giving early insight into potential interests.

With the advent of social media, though, digital marketing exploded. People quickly started sharing personal data every day, sometimes without realizing it, including foods eaten, places visited, and entertainment enjoyed, complete with their own personal ratings. Social giants like Google, Facebook, and Instagram began to gather all this data as a compelling way to get marketers to spend money on their platforms and reach more targeted leads.

However, gathering consumer data is just the start. Knowing what kinds of people to market to is one thing, but knowing how to market to them is much more important. You can know any number of stats about your customer, from their age range, to gender breakdown, to how much money they make, but your customer is not merely a statistic, devoid of personality or motivation. Unless you speak to your potential leads as people rather than numbers, your personalization efforts will fall flat. It is the combination of informed statistical analytics and targeted content marketing that will lead to purchase conversions, and ultimately, brand loyalty.

Personalization Strategies for Digital Marketing

Once you’re armed with the statistics about your audience, you can better create a content strategy that will resonate with them. Below are a few content strategies you can use to make your marketing more personal, along with how to use specific data points to strengthen the message.

1. Ask customers for feedback. Fans love to interact with the products they love. The cosmetics brand LUSH is particularly known for using its social pages to drive conversation by asking for opinions, personal anecdotes, and ideas for new products or customer service initiatives. Once you have a good understanding of your user, consider nontraditional calls to action that will drive engagement.

For instance, instead of posting, “Like us if this is true for you,” share your update and say, “Tell us about a time where [XYZ scenario] applied to you. We may feature you in a future post!” By both asking for personal stories and showing how those stories may impact their future, customers will build trust in your brand and be motivated to contribute.

Data to watch for: engagement. Keep any eye on any post where you specifically ask for feedback and monitor engagement, including likes, comments, and shares, and promptly respond to or acknowledge comments. The more active a post is, the more likely it will stay in a prime spot in someone’s newsfeed, and the more likely that a relevant (but currently disengaged) user will see your content. This also shows current users that your brand is actively listening and responding to questions and anecdotes, and that you’re not just asking to appear interested.

2. Tell stories. There’s a good chance your product or service has helped you or your team at one time or another. Show your users how you are like them by tying in how what you do has affected you personally to create accountability and familiarity with your users. Employee testimonials are a great way to accomplish this, and show users that you as a company truly believe in your product. The online clothing retailer Modcloth uses employees to model its products. Potential customers can see firsthand that the company stands behind what it does — because it puts its people at the center.

Data to watch for: location. Take a quick glance at where in the country (or in the world) your customers are viewing your content, and if it’s appropriate, tailor your stories to a certain geographic area. I live in Chicago, and for the past few months I’ve been seeing sponsored posts from Smirnoff about how its vodka has ties to the Second City. While telling about its history, the company asked readers to share stories about their favorite cocktails and bars in the city (Smirnoff or not). By sharing the brand’s story and encouraging others, people throughout the Chicagoland area were talking about their favorite places to grab a cocktail, and users were interacting with one another in a genuine way. Smirnoff got to enjoy the increased brand awareness and the benefit of highly engaging content — some commenters even said they were going to give Smirnoff another try, after years of loyalty to other brands. Would they permanently switch? Maybe not, but the online experience was interesting enough to make them think differently.

3. Be conversational. Consider your product as another person your customers interact with on social media. Instead of “selling,” think of “sharing.” This automatically positions your word choices as more conversational and less toward conversion — but the difference in tone will be apparent to your customers. By offering advice or a recommendation as opposed to pushing a product (at least not directly), you’ll increase rapport with your audience in a way that’s natural and unforced.

Data to watch for: age range. Recommendations or advice are much better tailored when you know the age bracket you’re speaking to. BuzzFeed content verticals like Tasty (for food and cooking) and Nifty (for money-saving DIY projects) are great examples of this. Some of the language Tasty uses when it posts recipes and tips may come off as too trendy or informal for certain age brackets, but the content speaks directly to its most engaged audience, which happens to be a younger group. Similarly, if your product is aimed at a more mature demographic, be cautious of using slang to entice younger users. Not only will you drive away your core user base, but you’ll confuse the base you’re trying to attract — because they associate your brand with other language. If your metrics start to shift, however, you can adjust the tone and see how it performs on a post-by-post basis before you make a more permanent pivot.

Personalization in Digital Marketing at General Assembly

In GA’s Digital Marketing course, on campus or online, we cover personalization when students learn about content marketing strategies. By combining content marketing know-how with skills in social analytics and key performance indicators (KPIs), students discover strategies for creating marketing pieces that resonate, connect with audiences, and will drive sales and engagement. Throughout the curriculum, students learn about real-world examples of marketers who do this well, and get a chance to practice the skills as they relate to their own or future businesses.

Meet Our Expert

Rachel Wendte is a designer, content strategist, and marketer who teaches the User Experience Design Immersive course at GA’s Chicago campus. She is passionate about communicating design for connection, and uses her skills in client management, user research, and strategic thinking to craft meaningful solutions that are user-friendly and aligned with client goals. Before learning UX, she worked as an arts administrator and social media consultant.

“Giving students the information they need to succeed and providing tools to turn their ideas into solutions is powerful. Combined with input from career coaches and industry experts, GA students are well rounded and strong.”

Rachel Wendte, User Experience Design Immersive Instructor, GA Chicago

Programmatic Advertising: 5 Successful Methods to Reach Your Audience


The first website banner ad ran on October 27, 1994, when Wired magazine launched its first website. It asked users an important question: “Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE?” Online advertising quickly exploded, as banner ads revolutionized advertising by allowing brands to actually track how many times an ad was seen and show true user engagement.

Even with these exciting innovations, there certainly were challenges in the early days of buying online media, including:

  • Publishers had to negotiate rates with each individual website and developing contracts every time a new budget was added.
  • Marketers had to use average site audience as a proxy for whether a brand reached its target audience. This may sound fine in theory, but creates a lot of wasted media dollars in practice.
  • Agencies and clients entrusted publishers to optimize their campaigns with very little visibility into actions taken on brands’ websites.

But no more! Programmatic buying — the automated bidding on advertising inventory in real time using data and algorithms — allows media buyers to efficiently identify and target users who are more likely to love their brand, be interested in its message, and purchase its stuff. Using signals like geographic location, demographic information, browsing behavior, purchases made, and shows watched on streaming services, it’s easier than ever to serve the right message to the right user in real time.

Popular Methods of Programmatic Targeting

Programmatic buying allows marketers to use data to segment and target users based on their behavior. There are five major targeting types, which can be used separately, or combined to create a more complete audience picture.

Remarketing: Generally the best-known type of online targeting, remarketing allows brands to reach users who have previously visited their site. You may recognize some brands “following” you around the internet with the same ad — that’s remarketing. While poorly managed remarketing can become annoying, good remarketing works. According to the conversion rate optimization consultancy Invesp, website visitors who are retargeted are 70% more likely to convert than those that are not.

Audience: Audience targeting, also called demographic targeting, is reaching users based on their demographic information. This includes identifiers like income, education level, relationship status, and hundreds of other specific attributes.

Behavioral: This is generally used to reach users based on actions they’ve taken online, but can sometimes include offline behavior as well. Behavioral targeting allows advertisers to segment based on things like specific websites or types of websites visited, searches made, and purchase history. In a campaign for the Amanda Foundation, a nonprofit emergency animal rescue, this was used to reach users with an adoptable cat or dog that fit their lifestyle. For example, a user identified as athletic or outdoorsy would be served an ad for Mandy, an energetic and active pup with the phrase, “I love a good run, just like you.” Contrast that with the message for someone identified as a single reader: “I love curling up with a good book, just like you.”

Geotargeting: Using geotargeting, marketers can target users in specific locations or types of locations. Don’t worry, they can’t target anyone based on a specific address! But they can target types of places, like stadiums or gyms, or general areas by zip code or latitude/longitudinal address. This is often layered with other types of targeting to deliver specific messages in the right place at the right time.

Contextual: Similar to how marketers traditionally bought online media, contextual targeting reaches a user based on the website they are on. However, using programmatic, buyers are able to target not only specific sites, but also site categories and keywords, leading to increased efficiency and improved relevance.

We can start to see why programmatic targeting really changes the game and reaches the right user with the right message.

Programmatic Advertising at General Assembly

Programmatic advertising has changed the way marketers run digital advertising, from display to video, and even audio and out of home. Programmatic is constantly changing as new platforms and technologies continue to roll out. At General Assembly, all of our instructors are also practitioners of our craft, so we see and feel this change in our day-to-day lives.

We teach programmatic advertising in our part-time Digital Marketing course, across our campuses and online. For businesses, the skill is taught in our corporate training programs in formats ranging from one-day seminars to multi-day workshops. While programmatic education is certainly relevant to digital marketers, it can also help anyone in a company that practices digital media truly understand the landscape as dollars continue to shift. In our programs, we focus on making the theoretical real using hands-on exercises, real-world examples, and a collaborative approach to help each participant understand how programmatic approaches can help their team succeed.

Meet Our Expert

Veronica Ripson is an experienced digital marketer with a passion for developing full-funnel, data-driven solutions across programmatic and paid social channels. Currently an Associate Director of Optimization and Innovation at the Kepler Group, Veronica has worked with leading brands including Google, Barclays, Church and Dwight, Albertsons, and Harvard Business School Executive Education.

At General Assembly, Veronica is a member of the Enterprise Education team, developing customized in-person and online training for large-scale enterprise companies. She also teaches our 10-week Digital Marketing course in New York and contributes lessons to our online training programs for companies.

“Anyone in media will benefit from learning about programmatic, especially as more channels shift to programmatic buying. GA instructors hold day jobs in our fields, so we’re able to share real-world challenges and solutions.”

–Veronica Ripson, Digital Marketing Instructor, GA New York

Developing Your Social Media Marketing Campaign for Success


When you hear the term digital marketing, a few examples may come to mind. Perhaps you can remember a viral campaign on Facebook, sponsored ad on Instagram, or popular YouTube personality acting as a spokesperson for a certain product. These are all common forms of social media marketing — which most of us see every day.

In recent years, social media platforms have emerged as a popular — and essential — channel for digital marketers to reach their target audiences. With 2.46 billion people worldwide using social networks today, according to the statistics site Statista, this is a huge online audience that marketers can’t ignore.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have developed many advanced features that allow marketers to target different user segments based on their demographics, geographic locations, languages, interests, online behaviors, and more. Ad formats may include sponsored posts and various types of banner and video ads.

With so many platforms, though, it can be overwhelming to determine which ones to utilize, and how best to leverage a particular platform’s features to reach specific segments of users.

Before carrying out a social media marketing campaign, you must first ask yourself the following three questions:

1. What is the objective of your campaign?

Marketers launch campaigns for various reasons, including building brand awareness, generating sales, strengthening customer relationships, or acquiring new customers. By answering this question, you’ll know what KPIs (key performance indicators) to set and who you want to target. For example, if you want to acquire new customers, your target audience would be people who fit into your customer profiles, or personas, but are not yet your customers. Your KPIs could be the number of new potential customer email addresses you want to collect, and how many new buying customers you want to acquire through the campaign.

2. Which social media platforms does your target audience use?

Find out about the demographics, geographic coverage (i.e., where the platform’s users are based), user interests, and behaviors for each social media platform you’re considering using. This will help you track down and reach out to the target audience that you have defined based on your campaign objectives.

3. What is the mindset and intention of users on different social networks?

On a professional network such as LinkedIn, users want to display their professional competency, improve themselves professionally, and connect with business associates or authoritative people within certain industries. On personal networks like Facebook and Instagram, users look to display their lifestyle and beliefs, entertain themselves, and connect with family and friends.

Therefore, a user may be more receptive to a software promotion ad on LinkedIn than on Facebook. Similarly, a leisure travel ad might perform better on Instagram than LinkedIn. So, reach out to your audience where they are “tuned in” to your message.

In conclusion, choosing the appropriate social media platform — where your target audience is present, plus, tuned in with the right mindset to receive your type of marketing message — is already half the battle in creating a successful social media campaign.

Managing Your Social Media Marketing Assets

Once you’re on a social media platform, there are three types of marketing assets you’ll manage and leverage:

  • Owned: Company-created content, e.g., the company’s Facebook page, Instagram account, Twitter feed, or YouTube channel.
  • Paid: Sponsored ad placements, including video ads, promoted Facebook events, or Instagram photo carousels.
  • Earned: Content published about your company that’s distributed or created by your fans or users, such as tweets, Facebook reviews, or Instagram photos of your product.

Marketers need to create a well-thought-out content calendar and publish high-quality, engaging, and relevant content on the owned social channels. The paid campaigns should amplify the messages on the owned channels, driving more users to the company’s owned assets. Well-managed owned and paid assets will help grow positive and high-quality earned assets generated by fans or users, and over time lead to increased cost-effectiveness and success of your social media campaigns.

Social Media Marketing at General Assembly

As part of General Assembly’s part-time Digital Marketing course, on campus or online, we look at emerging trends in social media marketing, including the market positioning, user base, and user profiles of various social media platforms. We also explore the pros and cons of collaboration with social media creators on content marketing and affiliate marketing. Students also learn about the various targeting capabilities and advertising formats offered by each platform, and have a chance to create sample social media campaigns for selected companies or a company of their choice.

Students complete class with an understanding of the social media landscape, trends, and ecosystem, so they can:

  • Integrate social media marketing as part of an overall marketing strategy.
  • Effectively evaluate and select the appropriate social media platforms for different campaign types.
  • Execute and measure the success of various social media marketing campaigns.

Meet Our Expert

Frances Chiu has over 17 years’ experience in IT and the internet industry. She has worked for leading companies including Apple, Yahoo!, eBay, and AT&T, and held Asia Pacific senior management roles in product management, marketing and PR, and channel management. Frances is currently an instructor at General Assembly in Hong Kong and a lecturer at Hong Kong University’s School of Professional & Continuing Education. She also runs her own management-consulting company, Solitude Productions Limited.

Frances was born in Hong Kong and lived in Sweden for 13 years. She holds a Master of Science degree in industrial engineering and management from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

“In recent years, companies have started to realize the importance of digital marketing, as their target customers are spending more and more time online. Therefore, the demand for digital marketing skills has grown rapidly.”

Frances Chiu, Digital Marketing Instructor, General Assembly Hong Kong

Branding: 6 Ways to Classify Your Image to Build Authentic Connection


When Instagram updated its logo in 2016, did you notice? Did it change the way you thought of the app? If so, you wouldn’t be alone — the company’s transition from a tiny toy camera to a bold, gradient icon generated heated debates from social media all the way to Forbes.

The reactions surprised Instagram’s team. The company had just spent the first quarter of 2016 rolling out a controversial new feed algorithm, something that actually changed the way the app functioned, and it caused some minor outcry, but nothing that threatened to permanently affect the app’s user base. But when the new logo went live that May, the pitchforks came out. Users took to Twitter to express their feelings of abandonment, leading some to question whether they actually enjoyed using the product at all.

Instagram New Logo

Brands as Consumer Connections

A brand is much more than a name and a logo — it’s the emotional and cognitive connection a company or product has with the rest of the world. As Entrepreneur writer John Williams says, “Your brand is your promise to your customer.”

Before May of 2016, Instagram’s promise to its users was surprisingly tied to that little toy camera: The app took simple photos with classic filters, appealing to users who were nostalgic for a more analog time (whether they lived through it or not). Its new logo, on the other hand, seemed like a reversal of what made Instagram cool to begin with. It was an attempt to be modern, hip, and current — the exact opposite of the long-extinct cameras it emulated. It raised the question: How did Instagram picture itself, and why did that differ so greatly from how the rest of us did?

6 Ways to Classify a Brand

Jean-Noël Kapferer, brand expert and author of the book Strategic Brand Management, poses a simple question to steer this conversation: “If your brand was a person, who would you compare them with?”

Kapferer’s Brand Identity Prism highlights six categories that work equally well for classifying a brand, as well as a person:

  1. Physique: What does the brand look like? Is it strong and bulky, or maybe sleek and agile?
  2. Personality: What attitudes and characteristics does your brand have? Does it have a sense of humor, or can you count on it to always respond seriously?
  3. Relationship: How does your brand mingle among consumers, and other brands? Would it win homecoming king, or is it a dark horse in terms of popularity?
  4. Culture: What core beliefs comprise your brand? Does it believe in giving back to certain communities or causes? Are there cultural touch points strongly tied to its identity, like specific types of music or fashion?
  5. Reflection: How would the people who know your brand describe it? Is it trustworthy and honest, or maybe vapid and superficial?
  6. Self-image: What does your brand see when it looks in the mirror? And, most importantly, is it the same thing the rest of us see?

If we were to apply this treatment to Instagram, what kind of person would it produce? Before May of 2016, you might have come up with something like a twee hipster nerd — at least, that’s the way it was personified in this 2013 video by Cracked.

Finding Brand Authenticity

What Instagram failed to recognize was that, while it had every right to change the appearance of its brand, its perception had already been determined and heavily rooted by the public. The new logo felt incongruent with the current perception, making it feel forced and fake. It’s reminiscent of Garth Brooks’ attempt to create an alternate rocker persona, “Chris Gaines,” in the late ’90s. His brooding, soul-patched, fictional counterpart was such a departure from Brooks’ rugged cowboy look that his fans were embarrassed — even if the same style worked perfectly for a musician like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. In both cases, it came down to what fans had come to expect.

Consumers are gifted at smelling inauthenticity. As a result, when a brand decides it’s time to pivot, that movement must come from a genuine place, answering to an equally genuine opportunity. These opportunities can’t be invented, only discovered. There are a number of tools available for this. For instance, a user experience (UX) researcher might perform a competitive analysis to find gaps in competing products that they can fill. This exactly what Old Spice did in 2010, and the results produced one of the most memorable ad campaigns of the decade.

At the time, Old Spice was struggling to keep its head above water in the competitive field of men’s deodorant and body wash. Axe Body Spray had completely captured the 18-24-year-old market with trendy, youthful packaging and a series of raunchy commercials that suggested women would be magnetically drawn to anyone wearing its scent. Old Spice, once the gold standard of male grooming, had become the brand associated with your grandfather. Even the introduction of more youthful scents and washes did little to move it into the present. That is, until the now-infamous “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad campaign created by the Portland-based agency Wieden+Kennedy.

As it turns out, Axe was ignoring a very large portion of its market: women. Old Spice found that in many households, women were the true power-brokers of what men smelled like. While Axe held a youthful image that managed to be masculine without reminding consumers of their older family members, the brand also embodied the aspects of masculinity most problematic to their female demographic. To these consumers, a deodorant that promised to send dozens of scantily clad models after your husband couldn’t be further from a value proposition.

Old Spice managed to capture the positive perceptions of masculinity held by both men and women, all thanks to one man: Isaiah Mustafa. The handsome, muscular actor spends the entire 30-second spot speaking directly to women, while exemplifying the strong confidence that young male viewers aspired to. If Axe made Old Spice look like an old man, the new Old Spice made Axe look like an immature little boy. What follows is one of the most interesting branding faceoffs of the decade — one that competed not just for deodorant sales, but for which of two distinct ideals would become the modern definition of masculinity.

Branding at General Assembly

Branding isn’t a science; it’s an art that requires both a wide collection of tools and a discerning perspective to effectively steer. At General Assembly, in our part-time Digital Marketing course and full-time User Experience Design Immersive program, we explore these nuances using case studies and skills like user research, competitive analysis, and visual design. You can also learn branding fundamentals through short-form, expert-led workshops and events across our global campuses. We believe in a holistic approach to our work, inviting students to collaborate with seasoned designers and marketers to better understand their role in the success of their clients. We look at the stumbling blocks other companies have faced in order to better avoid them, as well as the successes that fuel the kind of work we love to do.

Meet Our Expert

Nick Anderson is a Denver-based developer, designer, and writer. He’s created digital solutions for Bacardi, Angry Birds, and dozens of other brands in more than eight years of working for various agencies and startups. Currently, he teaches the full-time Web Development Immersive at General Assembly’s Denver campus. His go-to karaoke song is “I Wish” by Skee-lo.

“Digital technology makes it easy for people with ideas to establish themselves or their business as a brand. There’s high demand for those who can take someone’s vision, and create a strategy to propel it into success.”

– Nick Anderson, Web Development Immersive Instructor, GA Denver