WATCH NOW: 5 Ways to Use Collaboration as a Growth Hack: Startup Tips by Neil (North Storm Academy)


22 March 2020: PM Narendra Modi announced a 1-day janta curfew in light of the coronavirus pandemic. At that point, no one knew what lay ahead or just how life would change in the coming months. That day, North Storm Academy (formerly Socialopedia), a digital marketing institute announced a free 3-day workshop on digital marketing program. 2500 people signed up and attended that workshop. It was only the beginning of a series of workshops, programs, and discussions on the subject of digital marketing that impacted their brand and business in unexpected ways.

Over the subsequent lockdown months, through various collaborations, 8000 professors, 40000 students, 8000 teachers and over 5000 working executives trained under the founders of the academy Roshni Tarani, Hitesh Motwani and Neil Dodhia. The story of how the events unfolded is a lesson in how sincere intention combined with agility can work wonders for a startup. In a freewheeling conversation with Samira Pillai, Neil Dodhia shares their journey and achievements and explains why Digital Marketing Education needs to be overhauled.

North Storm Academy’s 3-Day digital marketing course was announced as soon as the janta curfew was declared. How did you preempt that this would be a fruitful venture?

I was among the millions who were watching the Prime Minister announce the janta curfew; I knew that we were in for more such curfews. I realized the potential of the digital medium because it would not stop. The curfew was asking you to stop going out, not to stop doing your work. This would be a great way to educate people about the importance of the digital medium, which could keep one going during tough times like these. I was also looking at a platform for people to know us. We wanted to give value and at the same time build some branding.

You then continued to add to the repository of courses that you were announcing and entered into collaboration as well. How did this come about?

You need a helping hand to reach out to the audience and that helping hand came in the form of Shaan Khanna from Networking Now India. They said, “Why don’t we collaborate and reach out to more people?” This was an eye-opener for us because generally, we’d get excited if we even touched the number 100 for our in classroom sessions. We had a Zoom plan of 500 and were looking at the verifications when they crossed 700-800, we decided to upgrade our plan to 1000.

Zoom plans are expensive, so making these decisions without seeing ROI becomes a little difficult. But we always knew that somewhere the ROI will come. So, we bought these plans and it worked out phenomenally well. We did three workshops and the number of attendees never reduced. In fact, they kept on increasing and remained stable for two reasons. One reason is that we always thought of topics that would interest people from the industry. The second was word-of-mouth because people who attended our webinars recommended us favourably.

We also did an FDP, which is a faculty development program. We started with Lala Lajpatrai College, Mumbai since we knew them for a while. With the pandemic, the online classroom has become the need of the hour.

Tell us more about the FDP programs.

Most college professors and teachers have years of teaching experience, sometimes more than 25 or 30 years. But the computer and Internet boom has happened in India in the last 15 years. Typically, our system of education has remained very traditional. A BCom, BMS or engineering student will own a laptop or tablet or a smartphone, but teaching will happen offline, in the classroom. Not much is known about the specific tools we use in online lectures. The faculty development program was where we taught them how this works. They were thrilled to find out that it would be so easy. We were able to reach out to 7,500 professors. This is Pan-India, but 70-80% was only Mumbai because the outreach is much higher in Mumbai. It has been the most satisfying achievement, especially because we have been able to engage with institutions where we aspired to be students!

After the FDP, you addressed students and achieved a record of sorts. Please tell us about it.

After reaching 7500 professors, we were so encouraged that we decided to reach out to students through the professors. That’s exactly how India’s biggest digital marketing course started. There were so many registrations that the Google Form kept crashing. Eventually, we started building something known as North Storm Army, where we took some students who had actually registered and asked them, “Hey, would you like to join our team and work with us?” And they said, “Yeah, why not?” We established WhatsApp groups that they were monitoring. Also, Zoho, India’s biggest CMS platform, happily agreed to help us get e-mails and other marketing tools. By the time we started, we had 300 active WhatsApp groups with an average of 200 to 220 people in each group and a total of 80,000 registrations.

It’s amazing how this expanded so exponentially. Do you feel this is the beginning of the digital course preference in India?

Brands that were spending a lot of money on newspapers and outdoor prints will now be spending money on the digital medium. Also, people are not watching regular cable TV or DTH. They are using OTT platforms. We always say to people that this is your time – skill up. There will be vacancies and jobs in the digital marketing space. Conducting these workshops and programs gave us the platform, the confidence, the publicity and the branding. They gave us the belief that we were right to try. Subsequently, we even hosted a principal conclave with the principals of Jai Hind and MMK College in Mumbai on the subject of Digital Transformation of Indian Education. That has been our journey so far.

You managed to reach out to so many people during this short period of time. What are your feelings on this achievement?

I’m nervous!!! I need to see great results to be excited. Time is a test and we want to keep evolving and doing more tie-ups. The first thing I tell people is to ‘collaborate’. And the second thing that I tell people is to not keep selling. If you keep selling, you will fail. The collaboration has to be fruitful. Collaboration is a growth hack for any startup. 

I don’t remember how many subscribers we had on YouTube before we started this. Today, we’re sitting at 37,000 subscribers. We have grown 15,000 followers on Instagram with absolutely zero ad spends. It has been a really phenomenal journey for us in terms of growth. These numbers portray growth, and will eventually give us sales and branding.

There is a business aspect of North Storm Academy, but is there an underlying passion for upskilling of students and for the teaching fraternity in operation as well?

Absolutely, the first thing I tell people is that any course you do in India right now, be it a BCom or CA or engineering, except a BMS, there is not a single course which covers digital marketing. Not even the MBA course teaches digital marketing to the extent that they should. It is amateur and very theoretical. In our school days, we had this lecture called computer lecture. These teachers are made to teach digital marketing to students. However, they are two different things. Spending time working on computers does not make them a digital marketing master. They teach things out of textbooks. And the textbooks can’t even be there because we don’t know what Facebook will do tomorrow! How can we create students of the future?

Let me give you the example of two webinars we did with the real estate fraternity, where there is a dire need for digital marketing. They advertise properties. People who are interested in these properties show interest. When that lead is generated, the real estate broker or an agent reaches out to that person and shows them the property. Then there is the decision – to buy or not to buy. But a successful lead is where the person has shown some amount of interest in knowing about the property. Sale of multi-crore projects doesn’t happen with a click. If I tell you there is a beautiful 2BHK with an attached terrace and you should buy it, you won’t buy it. You might pay heed to it, but that’s about it.

But what if I show you videos and images? This is what we call rich media and rich media is enabled via social media. I keep telling each real estate person that has a YouTube channel that instead of showing videos and photos to every potential customer, why not just share the videos that you have shot with them? It will not just reach out to that person, but maybe to someone else searching for a 2BHK. Maybe they randomly land up on YouTube and find them, see their video and like it. And then they call the real estate people. It’s all about discovery.

Each and every service today would need a digital medium, be it fashion, real estate, or education. Unfortunately, people are given the wrong guidance. Like Facebook tells you that if you want to create an ad, go and boost the post. I tell people to not boost the posts because that is the wrong way to go about it. Facebook asks you to do it because it’s easy and they will make money out of it. But are you even reaching out to the right people? The problem with all of this is that people try it and then fail, and then they blame it all on Facebook and on digital. That’s exactly why it’s very important to get formal knowledge.

There are so many components to digital marketing. The actual content you produce, how it makes you discoverable and then the actual deployment. These require different skill sets. Does a digital marketer need all these skills or is it alright to be specialized in one?

I tell our students – who are a mix of students, entrepreneurs and working professionals – that it is very important to understand all aspects of digital marketing. You may go and outsource your work to someone, but at least you will know what that person is doing. When we train people, sometimes they come back to us saying they understand things but do not have the time to undertake action. I recommend industry professionals and they collaborate. So now when they are having a discussion, it is a mature discussion as both parties have the required knowledge.

Content creation is important too. In today’s day and age, you need to have good ideas or a thought process. Spend time on creating content around that idea that tells a story. Add value for your audience. Even if you are not successful, there is always feedback to learn from.

A lot of the programs that you offered were literally free of cost and were quite intensive three-day workshops. What has this meant for you as a brand as well as a business?

The number of people we trained during this lockdown is as high as the number of people we trained in the last 10 years put together. The first impact is on branding. When 80,000 people and 15,000 teachers are registering, we have an overall registration of 1 lakh+ people. Now they know North Storm Academy. So let us assume that they each go and tell three other people about us. That is 1+3, 4-5 lakh people that know about North Storm Academy. No marketing can beat word-of-mouth marketing. People think if they are getting so much value in the free course, surely the paid course would be better. That becomes a big selling point for us.

For example, around 5500 teachers attended our FDP and we said this is all you need in an FDP. At the same time, we know that these teachers are generally doing some tuition or part-time classes side by side. We asked them if they would be interested in a basic paid course for teachers or a teacher branding course? Do they know how to make a website? They don’t. Do they have a website? They don’t. Do they want a website? The answer is always yes. Do you want to understand how to create a Facebook or Instagram page? The answer is yes. Do you want to understand how to shoot videos using free tools? The answer is yes. But do you know how? The answer is no.

Because they know us and they’ve been talking to us, they believe in us. They say yes, I should be doing this. We charge them a small amount of Rs. 500 per person, to train them for self-branding for two days. 600 people actually registered for this. It was the branding perspective that interested us, not the monetary outcome. But when you do the simple math of 500 x 600, that’s a good Rs 30,000. It’s not a huge amount, but a decent amount during the lockdown period.

We did a workshop for Indians living in Dubai, and the total number of people attending was just 16. That kind of disappointed us because we got accustomed to seeing numbers like 800, 10000 and 20000. But those 16 people liked it so much that two people actually went ahead and bought a paid course. We realized we should explore this market. It gave us direction and opened our eyes to where we should be advertising, who we should be targeting, what sells or doesn’t sell, etc.

Digital marketing is evolving so quickly with new features popping up every single day. How do you keep abreast of all these changes and share it forward with your students?

Although I am a digital marketer, I don’t always enjoy all aspects of digital marketing. I enjoy strategy, content and social media. I prefer not being a jack of all trades. But at any given time, I have to be aware of the latest trends. Hitesh is the tech head. He’s the one who made the website. Yes, I have the knowledge of all things but you can only master one or two things, not all. Digital marketing is not one subject – it has several specialities within its framework. You need to have faith in your team to push forward.

What are your immediate plans and future long-term plans for North Storm Academy?

Right now, we’re going to make use of the online buzz that we’re getting. Every video we make on YouTube goes on the website as well. Because it is content so we might as well use it. It also goes on my IGTV. This also generates content for us, which eventually creates branding, which eventually creates SEO. It’s all interlinked. Once lockdown finishes, our classrooms will reopen. We were very strong in our classroom and our offline games. We will take it as it goes.

– Written by Sneha Kamat Bhavnani