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Special Project

Special Project
From the 15th Annual Shorty Awards

Sharpen by McGraw Hill

Entered in Launch Campaign


We were tasked with launching McGraw Hill’s new study app, Sharpen, to students across the country. Our idea was simple: make students’ worlds stop spinning and put them back in control of their courses. We related to students’ problems and emotional state while studying with a visually arresting, non-literal approach that will capture their attention among a sea of other options. We used practical effects in a surreal, monochromatic world to bring study problems to life. 

Sharpen was crafted as a one-stop study solution that streamlines learning and addresses students’ key pain points. By bringing together bite-sized lessons, engaging content, and a gamified UI that encourages forward momentum, Sharpen fills the white space left by traditional study tools while turning studying from a chore into a rewarding experience for students. For our app launch, we focused on two goals in parallel: educating in-market students about the Sharpen app and driving them to download it for themselves.

Strategy and Execution

We brought their study pain points to life in surreal scenes on college campuses. Students spun from one scene to the next illustrating the feeling of being overwhelmed at school. We used bold colors to stand out while reinforcing the brand color palette and carefully crafted practical effects to add charm.

In order to achieve our goals of product education and conversion, we knew that our media plan would need to reflect the nature of the app itself, and resonate with college students who are highly selective with how they invest their time and money. We dove into the planning process by mapping our target students’ attributes and daily media journeys. From there, we segmented potential target audiences into three priority groups: students who had purchased a McGraw textbook title associated with Sharpen study courses, students who previously engaged with McGraw digital properties but may or may not have purchased a relevant title, and students with a high likelihood for conversion based on school enrollment who could not be identified within the McGraw data ecosystem. Following audience segmentation, we identified key performance media channels and managed-service partners where we could meet students in moments of intent.

As we moved from planning to our initial execution, we soon learned that we would need to adjust our media mix for launch to align with McGraw’s usable data and the courses available within the Sharpen app. Technical delays also pushed our planned launch from the Fall 2022 back-to-school period to mid-October. Knowing that we would be launching Sharpen with a limited number of titles during a lower activity period, and with our goal of maximizing conversions at the top of our minds, we chose to lean into paid search and social platforms where we could leverage McGraw’s first-party data and reach students who were proven McGraw shoppers.

Shortly following our October launch, we pivoted our media strategy once more when data showed that we were reaching the maximum number of first-party users on Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, even as scale remained low. We expanded our paid social targeting and tested interest and keyword audiences relevant to college students in order to extend our reach beyond past purchasers.

Once we had time to establish the Sharpen brand within students’ trusted social networks, we revisited our initial plan to leverage high-impact media partnerships to educate and engage users. We chose a select number of partners to deploy around the Fall finals and Spring back-to-school peak periods, while simultaneously heavying-up our paid social and search presence to capture the added demand. For finals, we launched a takeover and native ad units with Quizlet, in addition to on-campus digital out-of-home placements. We launched high-impact ad units with RateMyProfessors for Spring BTS, along with custom HerCampus video content and influencer partners for organic outreach.


To date, our paid media efforts have driven 49K AppsFlyer installs, or 36% of total installs. Down-funnel placements with Google app campaigns targeting branded keywords have been most effective at driving cost-efficient downloads and in-app activities - app campaigns are responsible for 32% of total AppsFlyer installs. Paid social placements are also highly-effective, having driven 4.2% of installs to date as we’ve optimized towards in-market behavioral and contextual targeting. For both platforms, we’ve maintained a hands-on-keyboard approach to continuously optimize towards top audiences and creative assets.

High-impact media partnerships have driven fewer direct app downloads, but are still effective at engaging students who are actively in the studying mindset. Following our Quizlet takeover on 12/6, we saw a spike in search traffic and app downloads, indicating that exposed students were pushed down the funnel. Quizlet’s native ad units drove a 1.41% overall CTR and 0.22% app install rate by aligning with the organic on-site experience, outperforming benchmarks. Using a combination of rich media placements and on-page takeovers, RateMyProfessors drove the most visibility with 154.6MM total impressions, as well as 239 AppsFlyer downloads, the most attributed to any direct partnership.


Video for Sharpen by McGraw Hill

Entrant Company / Organization Name

AMP Agency, McGraw Hill


Entry Credits