You probably wouldn’t exactly expect a short film about computer programming to be a blockbuster hit, but that’s exactly what’s happened with the ‘Learn To Code’ short film that computer science non-profit Code.org debuted last month.
The film, which is in both five minute and nine minute versions and was directed by famed documentary producer Lesley Chilcott, features Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Drew Houston, Tony Hsieh, Miami Heat player Chris Bosh, and others talking about how knowing to code has brought them the success they have today.
According to numbers released today, Code.org’s film has been viewed well over 12 million times in the two weeks since it was released. And the response was incredible particularly in the first several days, noted investor and Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi tells me. Within the first four days of the film’s debut, the video had exceeded 10 million views — and that does not include views that occurred on Facebook, some of which can’t be tracked. It’s fair to estimate that the actual number of times the film has been viewed as of today could be in excess of 20 million.
Putting A/B testing to work
How did it get so much traction? The celebrity factor is certainly a strong one, but Partovi tells me that there were some unconventional tech-powered tactics at work here too. Code.org A/B tested the film’s headline and thumbnail image a week before launch, he said, “because if we show up in somebody’s newsfeed, we want to maximize the chance that our video gets clicked.” Using a Facebook ad campaign, Code.org ran a 36-way ad campaign on Facebook with each combination of six different headlines and six different thumbnails, settling on “What most schools don’t teach” because it performed nine percent better than average — and 15 percent better than Code.org’s initially favorite headline, “Wizards of the future.” In terms of thumbnail images, photos of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg actually performed 17 percent better than a thumbnail image of an attractive blonde female programmer, which Partovi also said went against Code.org’s initial instincts.
Another very unconventional tactic was A/B testing the film itself. As Code.org had both five minute and nine minute versions of the film, and decided to launch both on its website — showing the five minute version to half of the visitors and the nine minute version to the other half. “We measured which was shared more, which resulted in more petitions signed, which had better audience-retention in YouTube analytics,” Partovi said. “We knew that the nine minute film was the better artistic production, but the A/B test showed that the five minute promo was more viral and drove more instant and impulsive action, so we swapped it out as the ‘main’ film that everybody sees at first.”
Bigger goals ahead
All this work and the response has been very impressive. But Code.org is not stopping here: Partovi says he’s aiming to have the film hit the 100 million view mark.
That’s because there’s a very serious mission behind it. One big reason why we have a dearth of engineers in the United States (and a hiring problem in the tech industry) is because nine out of 10 U.S. schools don’t offer computer programming classes at all — and those that do often treat it as an elective that doesn’t count toward graduation. Code.org’s film was aimed at building awareness of the problem, and calling people to action to help fix it. Teachers were asked to sign Code.org’s petition to get computer programming classes on the curriculum in their schools; engineers to volunteer their time to help teach kids their skills; and parents to get their children started with simple lessons on Code.org’s website or in local schools nearby that teach programming.
That call has been answered. In the past two weeks, over 550,000 online petitions have been signed asking for more computer programming classes across the country, with more than 9,500 schools indicating they want more programming courses. More than 21,000 engineers have volunteered through Code.org to teach classes in their local areas.
There’s still much more to be done, but this is a very encouraging start.
Here is a new outtake from the film released today, featuring Mark Zuckerberg talking about teaching others to learn to code: