Bryan Rubin of Virtu Academy: “You need to learn from other marketers whose work you admire”

You need to learn from other marketers whose work you admire. I meet with a marketing advisor on almost a weekly basis and that always teaches me new things. It’s important to know what you don’t know. The field changes so fast. We literally change our ads almost weekly so our tools and their approaches […]

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You need to learn from other marketers whose work you admire. I meet with a marketing advisor on almost a weekly basis and that always teaches me new things. It’s important to know what you don’t know. The field changes so fast. We literally change our ads almost weekly so our tools and their approaches are always evolving. What works one day may not work the next.


Marketing a product or service today is easier than ever before in history. Using platforms like Facebook ads or Google ads, a company can market their product directly to people who perfectly fit the ideal client demographic, at a very low cost. Digital Marketing tools, Pay per Click ads, and email marketing can help a company dramatically increase sales. At the same time, many companies that just start exploring with digital marketing tools often see disappointing results.

In this interview series called “How to Effectively Leverage The Power of Digital Marketing, PPC, & Email to Dramatically Increase Sales”, we are talking to marketers, advertisers, brand consultants, & digital marketing gurus who can share practical ideas from their experience about how to effectively leverage the power of digital marketing, PPC, & email.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bryan Rubin.

From a young age, Bryan was obsessed with marketing, inspired by his favorite tech company, Apple. He would watch ads over and over, reviewing what made them so appealing, while also forcing his family to watch them. Bryan Rubin is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Virtu.Academy, a platform for online music lessons from musicians from top conservatories, such as Juilliard, Oberlin, and Berklee. Bryan is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he studied environmental studies and politics, graduating in 2018. Throughout his time in college, Bryan worked with his passions, photography and videography, becoming a member of Oberlin’s Office of Communications media team, the Photo Editor for the school newspaper, The Oberlin Review, and a member of the college’s Office of Environmental Sustainability media team. During and after college he worked with EPA’s Office of Multimedia, managing video and photo production. In the last three years he has been responsible for marketing, creative direction, company brand image, and social media strategy for Virtu.Academy.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Happy to! I would have never thought I would be here — even though I always was enthralled by marketing, I thought it was a far flung dream of an energetic young kid! After all, I was a politics and environmental studies major in college. Throughout my life, I’ve been passionate about photography and videography and the power to tell stories visually. In college I used those skills in my majors and extracurriculars. And one day in 2017, my friend and Co-Founder of what would eventually be called Virtu.Academy approached me with an idea for an online music lesson platform harnessing the musicians in the conservatory of our college, Oberlin. We ended up taking the idea to a three-week business accelerator/entrepreneurial competition hosted by the College. Three weeks later we had our first customers and came in second in the competition. We received a grant from the College to kick-start the idea. Just as important as the funding were the advisors and mentors we were connected to.

With our 10,000 dollars grant and advisors, it was time to start marketing! We were excited, scared and didn’t have experience in our first two channels, Google and Facebook ads. After a bit of testing, we began using Google to get our first lower funnel conversions for people who were already in the market for online music lessons. But Facebook was a totally new beast for us. We would spend days, even weeks, prepping an ad with our messaging. Late at night we’d launch an ad and by the end of the next day we would have already turned it off! We would see 100 dollars spent without a conversion and freak out, thinking it wasn’t working. We were scared of Facebook and thought it was nuts that people were saying that was the best place to go. We were going to be Google people!

Well, of course that changed. Over time we learned we had to experiment and with our initial new Facebook ads we would have to allow them to run for a bit and spend money to learn about our target audience. And from there it all starts to fall into place as you build a more advanced funnel. It took us a bit, but we got there!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are lot of people who have helped us along the way. But, early on we received advisors from Oberlin’s accelerator program. After almost a year, they asked us how much of the grant money we had spent. We hadn’t spent much because at that time we were still intimidated by Facebook. Their response was simple. “What are you doing! Spend that money on marketing!” At that time we were just spending a little on Google and trying to form partnerships with schools, but we were hesitant to “waste” money on Facebook tests. But our advisors convinced us that we had to test and experiment in order for Facebook to learn. We took that advice, and now our Facebook marketing budget is 3–4x more than our Google budget.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re not the only online music lesson platform out there, but the quality of our teachers and the mission of making that high-quality music education accessible, make our value proposition unique. It allows people who live in rural areas as well as big cities where lessons are expensive, to have access to top musicians, such as Grammy winners, Juilliard musicians, and Metropolitan Opera musicians. All from the comfort of their home, for both the teacher and student!

We had these ideas validated when we were just getting started during the three week accelerator in 2017. We had reached out to a school in rural Ohio and the band director was eager to have his students try it out. He came back to us saying “This has actually been an opportunity we’ve actively been seeking.” He told us that of his 200 students, not a single one had access to private lessons. He said the biggest barrier was the amount of time it took for parents to drive to lessons. We were making high-quality lessons accessible, while at the same time providing budding musicians with the opportunity to make additional income as teachers. We were off to the races.

But the biggest differentiating factor between Virtu.Academy and other music lesson platforms is that we have a strict hiring process for our teachers that includes interviewing them to make sure they are not only great musicians but talented teachers as well. We get references from professors and former students to make sure that they meet our high quality standards. Other sites are not as strict. I am not a musician, but as a test of other companies’ hiring practices, I was able to become a five star rated bassoon teacher on our leading competitor’s website — despite the fact that I have never touched a bassoon! We knew then that there was room for a high quality alternative.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Ah, that’s a tough one!

Let me first start by saying I think we owe a lot of our success to Oberlin College and the fact that it’s a liberal arts college. It allowed both me and my co-founder to explore many different disciplines and see how they can come together in an interdisciplinary fashion. That gets me to my first answer, which is being open minded to pursue new avenues of communicating and reaching new customers.

Being honest is essential. It is important in the context of relationships, but also with regard to interactions with advisors, consultants, and customers. We built respect among those audiences by being frank with our feedback to consultants and partners. By being honest with our customers, they quickly understood that we stood by our product and our service.

It is important to be thorough and patient. For me, that meant taking the time to think about all of the different ways people might interact with our content.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Applying what we’ve learned from Virtu.Academy, wehave started Virtu Ventures. Our goal with this company is to help early stage entrepreneurs with their marketing and customer acquisition, in other words, helping them bring their idea to life. We are working with our initial cohort now, but hope to open up our services to more companies in the future. Learn more here: https://www.virtu.academy/ventures

At Virtu.Academy, we just launched a new offering beyond private lessons: Classes At Virtu.Academy. Instead of just private music lessons, we’re expanding to more complex ideas and topics that may be more interesting to experienced and advanced musicians, such as music theory classes, home recording tips, songwriting and intro to jazz history, to name a few.

Now, this also means new marketing! Before spending anything on marketing it, we’re testing it out with our current customer base, using email marketing and banners on our website to gauge interest before expanding it! It’s always important to test the waters on a smaller scale before going all out! You can check it out at www.virtu.academy/classes

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. As we mentioned in the beginning, sometimes companies that just start exploring with digital marketing tools like PPC campaigns often see disappointing results. In your opinion, what are a few of the biggest mistakes companies make when they first start out with digital marketing? If you can, please share an example for each.

We’ve been there! When we started out we didn’t know what we were doing. Everyone said a channel like Facebook was great way to get customers at the best cost per acquisition (CPA). So, of course we wanted to try it. But wow were we disappointed with our early results. We’d put together specific landing pages, work on copy and design til late in the night, only to turn off the ads less than a day later! It was “wasting” money we thought. All that work and nothing?

And that was our biggest mistake. We were too impatient — we expected results way too fast. We had no real understanding of how to to structure our ad campaigns, on either Facebook or Google, or that that was even a thing. We thought we had a good idea of our ideal customers and made detailed audiences to target — particularly on Facebook. But that was just our hunch. We hadn’t really tested it out — and that’s what a lot of early campaigns are. Testing and being willing to fail!

With PPC campaigns, especially on Facebook, you want to experiment — and to a large degree, at first, wait. It’s likely that if you’re just starting your first campaign, you won’t have hard info on your likely customers. You may have ideas like we did, but not hard data to prove it. That’s where the first ads come in. Don’t go crazy trying to target your ideal customer — you may not actually know it! Rather, give Facebook room to test and figure out which audiences resonate with your ads. It may surprise you. In other words, just give it a broad overview. For example, for us, that would be parents. That’s it! Don’t go into interests or anything too specific at first. Facebook will figure that out all by itself. After a while it’ll give you insights into who responds to your ad. And from there you can start to build out audiences based on the data you get from your best ads and start to make a funnel.

If you could break down a very successful digital marketing campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas.

The marketing “blueprint” is definitely going to differ a bit for each company and product you’re trying to sell, but there are some general guidelines I would consider.

Make sure not to go for everything all at once. When you are first starting out, it might be tempting to get on Google/YouTube, Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Nextdoor, marketing emails and the list goes on. You’ll burn out and not everything works the same way — your Google audience may not respond the same way your Facebook audience will. And it probably shouldn’t!

Let’s say you start with Google and Facebook. Make sure you set up tracking on your site to get the data for people visiting and buying. For example, it’s essential to set up Google Analytics, Tag Manager and Facebook’s pixel. Depending on your website, the setup difficulty will vary with the introduction of Apple’s iOS 14.5, which limits data collection with Facebook. More on this later. Back to setting up your campaign!

For a lot of people, Google search campaigns are a great place to start, especially if you know there are people out there in the market for your product. For us, we saw a lot of Google search volume for online music lessons. Using Google’s keyword planning tools, we targeted keywords around interest areas which is a great way to get those first lower funnel customers who are actively looking for your product. Keep it simple in the beginning before expanding into display and YouTube ads. Those are effective ways to increase your reach and budget when you want to expand your Google marketing.

With Facebook, let’s assume you have tested your first ads for a while and Facebook has given you some good insights into your ideal customer. Now you want to make different campaigns using that data to target similar groups as well a retarget people who visit your site, both from Facebook, and your other channels, like Google as well; they should work together.

With the customer info you’ve gotten from your tests, such as a database with current customers or past website visitors, you can create what’s called a lookalike audience with that data. This way Facebook can target people similar to those who have purchased your product or visited your website. Make it a 1% lookalike audience at first. That means 1% of the all Facebook users that are most similar to your current customers. You can also take it a step further, if you have a decent amount of data on your typical buyer vs. high spenders, and make a “VIP” 1% lookalike audience that goes after people that more closely resemble your top customers. The 1% lookalike is the most-likely-to-convert based on the data you have. It’s a great place to test out new ads and launch your first ones to see how well they perform.

From there you can build out your funnel to go broader, like a 5% lookalike audience. If an ad performs well in your 1% lookalike, it may be a good idea to test it to a bigger audience to see how they respond.

Your 5% lookalike audience will be a separate campaign within Facebook that would be a higher funnel level that, over time, will hopefully turn into your primary converters after you have tested new and winning ads in your 1% lookalike. For some companies, a “middle funnel” engagement campaign may prove beneficial. This is for people who have already interacted with previous ads but want to learn more about your company. The ads should reflect more about the company, its values and principles.

We started with “middle funnels” but slowly moved away and concentrated on retargeting from our “upper funnel” ad sets. Retargeting is vital. Assuming you have proper analytics and pixel tracking on your site, you will be able to see who has interacted with your site and who has gotten close to purchasing, for example, a person who has initiated a purchase but hasn’t checked out. With that information, you can create ads that only target people who have gotten very close to buying, but the ads shift into a “welcome” or discount offer. For example, our retargeting ads are the first ads that mention that there is a welcome offer for a half-off discount on the first lesson. This is just the tip of the iceberg and more info will come as you collect data on your customers. Start small and start building out as you use some of these principles to begin email campaigns to people who drop off your site and offer sales around holidays or special events. Don’t be too “spammy” and use emails sparingly with other, more informative content your users may be interested in.

Let’s talk about Pay Per Click Marketing (PPC) for a bit. In your opinion which PPC platform produces the best results to increase sales?

I would typically say Facebook is the best marketing channel to reach the most people at the least cost. But it is important to consider the current environment. Facebook is great for learning about your current customers, but it may be hard to set up tracking, depending on your site. This is especially important because of Apple’s iOS 14.5 that, in the name of privacy, limits cross-tracking between websites and other apps. This restricts the amount of valuable customer data you can get. I commend Apple for its stance on privacy, but the additional privacy component comes at a cost to smaller businesses that don’t have other channels to reach customers. Because of these new implementations, it can be hard to tell who is actually converting from different ads, making Facebook more expensive, or not as data-rich, in an effort to lower your cost per acquisition. Does this mean you should give up on Facebook? I don’t think so, but I think it’s important, especially when just starting out, to look at things with a discerning eye. For example, one tool is a customer form or pop-up to see where the person came from or how they heard about you. That will help validate some of the information that may have been lost. So while I believe Facebook is great, I think it’s important to diversify your channels in order to maximize your marketing spend.

Can you please share 3 things that you need to know to run a highly successful PPC campaign?

As I’ve detailed above, those three things are:

  1. Setting up tracking across all channels, such as Facebook’s pixel, Google tag manager and analytics.
  2. Particularly on Facebook, it’s important to start out fairly broad so that the platform can “learn” and give you valuable insights into potential customers rather than trying to use very specific audience targeting.
  3. Be willing to fail — it’s just as important to learn what doesn’t work as it is to know what does. From there you can experiment on new creative concepts and copy for ads and iterate on that.

Let’s now talk about email marketing for a bit. In your opinion, what are the 3 things that you need to know to run a highly successful email marketing campaign that increases sales?

  1. I think of email marketing as a tool to reach out to current customers to let them know about promotions and sales. But it is just as important to use email to reach customers who have dropped off and haven’t recently bought your product. We use email marketing as a way to re-engage them and offer them incentives to come back. For example, around holidays we have marketing emails that offer a free lesson with the purchase of four in order to re-engage that audience.
  2. Make sure your messages aren’t always about sales, otherwise, they will be viewed as spam and your audience will get annoyed. Be sure to include interesting and informative content that your customers will enjoy and learn from. It is important that your customers stay engaged. If they view your messages as spam, they will drop off and become unengaged and literally mark you as spam, hurting your overall email marketing efforts.
  3. Be timely. Make sure the emails focus on whatever event or activity is around the corner, to be more relevant.

What are the other digital marketing tools that you are passionate about? If you can, can you share with our readers what they are and how to best leverage them?

A good customer relationship management (CRM) software is vital. We use HubSpot. It’s a great way to manage customers throughout the sales journey. It’s also very important for an organization, especially as you begin to grow, so that you can move beyond Excel spreadsheets to a more robust tool for engaging people. For example, the moment after someone takes a first lesson, we have automated emails from HubSpot, welcoming them to the family and asking them to schedule their next lesson. We do this for customers at every stage, depending on whether they haven’t taken a lesson in a while or if they want to provide feedback about their experience. It also happens to be how we manage and automate our marketing emails, not to mention keeping track of support issues. I could go on, but I’ll just say that HubSpot is a tool to do almost everything.

Here is the main question of our series. Can you please tell us the 5 things you need to create a highly successful career as a digital marketer? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Be willing to fail and learn from your failures. It may be a cliche, but it’s true. When we first started out, our ads weren’t working, but we were too scared to fail because we had limited funds and we wanted to see a quick return.

Be patient, but flexible, because it’s an ever-changing landscape. If you’re not willing to change, you’ll become a dinosaur. When we started out, we were fearful about wasting money and not seeing results. But we learned from that experience and applied what we learned to future projects. You can’t become an expert overnight without experiencing failures and learning from them.

You need to learn from other marketers whose work you admire. I meet with a marketing advisor on almost a weekly basis and that always teaches me new things. It’s important to know what you don’t know. The field changes so fast. We literally change our ads almost weekly so our tools and their approaches are always evolving. What works one day may not work the next.

You need to stay on top of trends and how platforms are changing. For example, it’s important to understand how Apple’s privacy policy affects marketing. It is also important to stay on top of trends, like what app is up and coming, who is using it and why.

Being creative is important but the cornerstone of almost any career is to understand that you don’t know everything. I believe it is incredibly important to seek advice and take advantage of knowledge of the field. For example, when we were starting out, we worked with multiple marketing agencies, most of which we were unhappy with. But we learned from all of them and were able to take that knowledge, add it to our insights, and develop our own in-house marketing strategy, always with more advice from outside experts. But it’s also important when seeking advice to be able to discern what is applicable to your business and recognize that not all advice applies.

What books, podcasts, videos or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

Resources include outside marketing experts and interdisciplinary advisors that expand our knowledge of the field and business practices. We monitor our competitors and scour social media. Google, Facebook and HubSpot offer courses on a wide array of topics that span every aspect of their products and how to leverage their tools most effectively. They also have resources about evolving trends.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I was an environmental studies and politics major in college and would love to harness the skills I’ve learned through marketing and creating companies to advance solutions for climate change. It is the existential crisis of our lifetimes, but I don’t believe that message gets across. Climate change and its affects aren’t being marketed effectively. It comes down to how to motivate people. Finding ways to economically improve lives through climate change innovations may be catalysts for change. Appealing to people’s self interest may be the best approach. It is from crisis that many profound innovations are born.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Follow us at www.virtu.academy. Feel free to check out our work on our Facebook and Instagram pages as well at https://www.instagram.com/virtu.academy/ and https://www.facebook.com/Virtu.Academy/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

It was my pleasure! Thank you for taking the time to listen!


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