One of the brighter things to come out of the global pandemic is an increased focus on education technology (edtech). With so many lockdowns and restrictions, children and adults were unable to attend classes and courses in person. Education providers were forced to pivot and develop alternate ways of offering their subjects and programs. This shift to online education and technology has allowed many of us to continue with otherwise-stalled learning paths, opening avenues for further learning and opportunities for growth.
One edtech company that has successfully navigated the last two years is General Assembly (GA). Joining us for this issue of the Marketing Expert Series is Sima Saadat, Head of Marketing at GA. An experienced marketer and passionate about edtech, in this interview, Sima shares her story and how she – and GA – grew together against the odds.
Hi, Sima, thank you for joining us in our Marketing Expert Series. Let’s kick off with a little background, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get to where you are now?
I am originally from California. I started my career in HR as a New College Graduate Recruiter. Then I decided I wanted to shift into marketing and I took on a role at a startup doing Partner Marketing. I moved around from a few different startups and learned so much at each one of them.
Eventually, I joined an EdTech company called Teachers’ Curriculum Institute. It was there I found my passion for the edtech industry. I wore a lot of hats at TCI and got to experience different marketing tactics and strategies. When I moved to Singapore, I wanted to stay in EdTech and was excited when I learned about a Marketing Producer role at General Assembly.
I joined right before Covid, when a major of our local marketing strategy was around events and community building. Once Covid hit, we (and everyone else) had to shift tactics, providing me with an opportunity to help with a new strategy. I’ve grown my career at GA starting as a Marketing Producer, moving to a Partnerships Manager and now am the Head of Marketing for the APAC region.
You’re the Head of Marketing APAC at General Assembly. Please tell us about the work General Assembly is doing and your role there.
General Assembly is working to help professionals pursue careers they love. We do this by focusing on the most relevant and in-demand skills across data, design, business, and technology. GA confronts the global skills gap through award-winning, best-in-class instruction and innovative opportunities across diverse communities. GA works with students online and in-person across the globe and partners with top employers to help companies source, assess and transform talent.
My role specifically is focused on brand awareness and lead generation within the APAC region. I help get the word out there about GA and build a community.
Has General Assembly’s role changed since the onset of the global pandemic? For example, has there been a change in the courses people are choosing to take?
The reasons for students to join General Assembly (GA) have often revolved around wanting to transition their career into tech and to ensure their skills evolve with the job market demands. While the pandemic has not changed students’ reasons for joining GA, it has highlighted the need to pick up tech and digital skills that they could apply to their current work or next role. This is largely driven by the shifts in the market and companies accelerating their digital initiatives.
We didn’t see any specific changes in the course subjects people were choosing, However, we did see a transition in the modality of the courses. Previously, GA offered all-immersive programs as 10-12 week-long full-time courses in areas such as Data Science, Digital Marketing, Software Engineering, and User Experience Design. This requires individuals to leave their current jobs to take up the course full-time and transition to a new career.
One of the trends we noticed during the pandemic is that while people do want to transition to new careers, they are more hesitant to leave their current jobs – understandably! Last year, we began offering our immersive courses in a “Flex” format. They are the full curriculum, but run part-time over a longer 20 – 24 week period, allowing individuals to pick up new skills while remaining in their current jobs and then transition to a new role after they graduate.
How have these changes affected your own strategies as Head of Marketing? What challenges and/or developments have you had to adapt to since the start of 2020?
Like many companies, much of GA’s events were only in person. GA hosted a wide variety of in-person events to build our community, brand and educate the public. The events were a place to gather industry leaders to discuss trending topics within tech and beyond. However, when the pandemic hit, we had to quickly transition our entire event process to become virtual. The goal was to continue to provide quality content while building and fostering our community virtually.
The content and partnerships strategy around events had to shift, as zoom and webinar fatigue began to emerge. In order to stand out and continue to provide quality content, GA produced a few event series, which allowed for a virtual conference feel and was able to tie the content into a common theme. Partners were also excited to join in with GA, as we became experts in running virtual events. The series quickly gained a reputation as a fast way to hear about the latest trends or learn something new in a casual and friendly environment.
Some companies – especially those in the digital space – are finding hybrid or pure work-from-home models very useful, with many planning not to return to traditional office spaces. Do you think these different working models are sustainable in the long term based on your own experiences? How will a sustained remote or hybrid work situation for your audience impact your marketing initiatives for General Assembly?
We are currently working in a hybrid model, where we go into the office two days a week and work from home the other three days. Personally, I love it. I feel it’s the best of both worlds. From a product perspective, we are also offering remote courses and hybrid courses. This allows us to meet our customers wherever is most convenient for them.
Similarly, our marketing efforts around community building can move towards a hybrid method. Remote events allow us to have amazing panelists from all over the world and we open up the knowledge share to a larger audience. Of course, on the flip side, in-person events allow for networking with like-minded individuals within your specific community. Offering a variety of opportunities for our audience to interact with General Assembly allows us to expand our reach and build a stronger community.
What sort of lasting impact do you believe the pandemic’s forced acceleration of digital transformation has had on your industry?
Previously, there were some reservations around virtual learning and its effectiveness. However, now that learning online has become parts and parcels of life, most can realise and appreciate its benefits and advantages compared to traditional learning formats. It is so impressive how the instructors can adapt their teaching methods to keep the students engaged and excited throughout the class.
The pandemic also popularised the usage of some great tools such as Slack to help enhance a virtual classroom environment. I believe even as in-person classes can resume, both teachers and learners will continue to appreciate the flexibility of a hybrid arrangement.
Do you think that this impact has permanently changed how you and your team go about your work? Where do you see your strategies going in the next few years?
There have definitely been strategic shifts that resulted from the recent changes. We’ve transitioned all in-person events and workshops to online and on top of that, expanded our strategies to incorporate greater digital and content marketing. The benefit of running events virtually is that we can maximise the value of the content generated by using it for other platforms like our blog, social media, and more. Allowing industry experts to share their knowledge through multiple platforms continue to provide value to our audience.
Diversifying our marketing approaches will also allow us to work smarter as we have more access to data around what is and isn’t working, and then channel our efforts and resources on the winning strategies.
As for the next few years, I envision the strategy shifting towards more content-based marketing and data analytics to find new target markets who are ready for reskilling and upskilling.
Any advice you’d give to young and/or aspiring marketers?
Beginning my career in the startup world helped me learn to be agile and to embrace the growth mindset. Jumping into any and all projects made me appreciate how important it is to continuously be learning and growing. No matter what type of company you work for, I would always advise young marketers to insert themselves into as many different projects as possible.
In the tech world where things are constantly changing, you’ll never know all there is to know, so don’t be scared of working on new things and figuring it out as you go. And for any specific skills you might need, General Assembly is here to help! (Shameless plug)
Another piece of advice that I know is common but extremely important, is to find a mentor. It sometimes can feel awkward or forced, but having people you can rely on to support your career can make a huge difference. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and reach out to people you look up to.
It’s been great to learn more about you and your work, Sima, thank you for sharing. How can people connect with you if they’d like to know more about you or General Assembly?