University Students are “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1) when it comes to using social media for personal purposes, but their expertise does not automatically extend to the use of social media for business purposes. Yet these students are typically able to adapt technology quickly to new situations and are, therefore, a potentially valuable asset to clients, especially those in the nonprofit sector who are seeking to expand their use of social media.
Most often, not-for-profit organizations lack the resources to hire outside experts who are themselves trying to keep up with the latest developments in social media. In this way, the teaming of students with these clients proves beneficial for both sides (Cooke & Williams, 2004): Clients benefit from the technological suppleness of students, whereas students gain real business experience and arobust understanding of the use of social media business settings.
As part of this process, students can also gain an increased understanding of the role of budgeting, marketing, law, and other areas of business. Students also draw on effective business communication skills and abilities such as correspondence, research, professional conduct, and business presentations, among others (Bove & Davies, 2009).
Based on a recent client project assigned to students in two undergraduate business classes, this article argues that social media learning is best done in a context that mixes social media and more traditional kinds of media. Ideally, this approach will involve teams of students who are working on different aspects of a larger client project, a situation that mirrors what commonly happens in the business world. This integrated setup has several benefits: It enhances the students’ understanding of social media within a real context, it complements more traditional communication methods, and it reveals the communicative aspects of key business functions, such as marketing, management, and accounting.
CLIENT PROJECT: BENEFIT CONCERT PROMOTION
The client project described in this article was undertaken by students in two classes in the College of Business Administration at Central Michigan University. The project focused on developing promotional strategies to complement those already used by the client, including newspaper, email advertisements, and direct mail items.
One class was centered specifically on social media in business. The other class was a traditional, upper-level business communication course. These students focused exclusively on promotional strategies other than social media. In each class, teams worked together to support the marketing of a benefit concert held annually in small city of approximately 40,000 residents. All proceeds from the concert are given to charity—in this case, for the local chapter of an international charity.
The concert promoter (the client) is a local business person and philanthropist, who started a production company to promote benefit concerts and other events. In the past, he has used traditional print media, mainly newspapers, along with direct mail and radio ads to promote the concert. Each year a different band is brought in as a headliner for the concert. This year the featured musicians were atribute band for the 1970s group ABBA. Not surprisingly, the likely demographic for this concert was made up mostly of individuals who were teenagers or young adults in the late 1970s, with fans from other age-groups mixed in.
The client was interested in having students help promote the concert and increase ticket sales. He wanted to add social media, about which he knew relatively little but was willing to learn, to his promotional efforts. Below, we describe the work the students in each of the two classes did for the client; then we discuss how integrating the teaching of social media with the teaching of business communication worked much better than teaching either in isolation.
STRATEGIES IN THE TRADITIONAL BUSINESS
Student teams in the traditional business communication class were focused on developing new promotional strategies for the client to use in promoting the concert with minimal costs, if any. Their goal was to target potential concertgoers who may not be exposed to the social media promotions and to simply increase awareness of the concert and motivate the purchase of tickets. Each student team was required to develop a proposal for the client that described their promotional strategy, explained each step for implementation, identified the resources needed and costs (if any), and provided a list of pros and cons of the promotional strategy. The following promotional strategies were proposed:
• Changeable marquee signs located at existing businesses throughout the county
• Radio promotion on local oldies stations
• Promotional items to participate in a “Live at the Library” program
that focuses on community events at 11 district library locations
• Cross-promotions by partnering with other businesses
• Plastic wristbands as a souvenir of the concert and to promote future Concerts
STRATEGIES IN THE SOCIAL MEDIA COURSE
Students in the social media class were given the objective of using those media to effectively promote the concert. Part of meeting this objective required them to educate the concert promoter on the use of social media. Having an educated client would help the students in their immediate task, but it would also serve the client well by preparing him to promote the concert using social media in the future.
A team of four students in the social media class worked on this project.
Using past concert attendance as a guide, the team analyzed the likely demographics of the concertgoers, which helped them devise a social media strategy for the concert. It was assumed that most concertgoers would have some familiarity with YouTube and would be comfortable with watching a clip on this site. The students also surmised that many of the middle-aged, potential concertgoers would have Facebook accounts and would be connected to others in their own age demographic. Twitter seemed less likely to have many followers in the target demographic, but it still offered some potential to spread the word, particularly among younger fans and when combined with other forms of media. Finally, the students found that the concert did not come up in the top hits in a Google search and recognized that this needed to change. The following sections detail the students’ work in each of these areas.
The students communicated with the company that manages the tribute band to get permission to use video clips of the band to promote the concert. These existing videos were of high quality; the students worked to integrate them with other forms of social media. The students also recommended revisions to the existing concert web page, including improved graphic design and connections to social media.
In addition to getting permission to use clips of the tribute band, the students created some videos with a more local flavor. Since the client is a well-known philanthropist in the community, the students used his popularity to their advantage. They created a promotional video in which the client dressed up like Abba, danced, and talked about the concert. This video was posted on YouTube and linked to other forms of media.
The client’s production company already had a Facebook page, as did the client himself. Although both had many friends, they were not well integrated with other forms of social media and traditional media; the students worked to improve these connections. They also made a special Facebook page for the concert, which they linked to relevant media such as the website for the concert venue. In addition to boosting the effectiveness of the production company’s free Facebook page, the students also bought Facebook ads using a small budget donated by the client.
Twitter was a form of media the client’s production company had not previously used. Although the main groups who would attend the concert would not generally use Twitter, it would still provide a wide dissemination of messages and could attract younger users. The students created a Twitter account using a name they felt would not only give it a personalized feel but also connect it to the company. The students tweeted about the concert regularly and connected this Twitter account to the Twitter account of the local chapter of the international charity. The client’s Twitter account was used to follow other local businesses and individuals on Twitter. The students asked these businesses to also tweet about the concert, which they did. Twitter was also linked to other forms of social media and traditional media.
Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization is the least “sexy” media strategy the team used but one of the most important. If potential concertgoers cannot find the concert in a quick Internet search, they may give up trying. The team found that the concert did not come up in the topsearch results in several search engines and that old concert links were more likely to be found than the current one. To solve these problems, the team increased links to the concert’s web page to boost search results; they also reviewed and revised online content to make the relevant information easier to find.
In addition, the students used video to build a foundation for the continuing promotion of future concerts. On the night of the concert, they took videos, interviewed fans, and posted these clips on YouTube, to promote future concerts.
INTEGRATION OF SOCIAL MEDIA AND PRINT MEDIA
The integration of different kinds of media strengthened the promotion of the concert and enriched the students’ learning experience. The relationship between social media and print media expanded the promotional power of each, as did the connection between different forms of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the web page. Links the students built between these technologies also helped support search engine optimization, making the concert easier to find in a web search.
Students in the social media class coordinated their efforts and developed synergies with the students in the business communication class who had worked on traditional media. Students from both classes prepared and delivered presentations to the client in person. In preparation, students in each class were able to “feed off” what was developed in the other class. The students in the social media class were able to give a presentation to the client that was informed by an awareness of what the students in the business communication course had done. Similarly, students in the business communication course could reference social media strategies in their presentations because they had been kept informed of the social media strategies used.