When I attempted to expose my students in a Digital Marketing class to the reality of how businesses employ digital strategies, I found that senior executives marveled when a college student said mundane things like, “add a better description on your LinkedIn page, or how about moving sections around on your web site?” When these college students crossed the line into the business world, they instantly became digital rock stars.
Fresh off reading an outstanding text, Digital Branding, by Daniel Rowles, my students were charged with providing a digital communications plan for their “clients,” primarily local businesses wishing to improve their digital communications efforts.
The moment the students shifted gears from low hanging fruit—the immediate tactical changes—to the most current digital marketing trends, some clients couldn’t keep up with the discussion. It was hard for some to understand the integration of social media platforms, purchase journey mapping, platform migration trends, and personal and relational connectivity.
Most tried to steer the discussion back to easily-answered tactical questions relating to platform type or message post. It was shocking to discover that their digital knowledge was somewhere stuck in 2010. While they marveled at student tactical expertise, they were downright intimidated by current digital theory.
It was an obvious disconnect. In one case, a client actually called me and requested that we simply send two students to their offices a couple of days a week to do Facebook posts. They didn’t have time or interest in talking about all the other areas the students were making recommendations about.
Companies like Uber, Zappo’s, or Airbnb are born digitally and they inherently understand how to talk to their online audiences. They have full-time staffers who remain current on digital marketing trends. Also, they are constantly testing and implementing new strategies to improve performance. They succeed by staying current.
If my class experience is any indication, older, smaller companies that have to adapt to a digital world are in for a harder time. They initially get lured into the ease of execution and quickly lose sight of the complexity of communication effectiveness and the speed at which technology advances the discipline.
Many business leaders consider their company digitally hip if they have a modern Parallax web site, purchase Google AdWords, and make daily posts on Facebook.
What they fail to realize is that the minute they exhaustively finish one digital project, there is already something new on the horizon.
My students innately understand the complexity of current digital communications mainly from socializing with their friends, searching for information to use for class assignments, and incessantly purchasing products online. What they didn’t expect to encounter were clients who didn’t intuitively grasp that digital marketing is continually in motion; changing and evolving daily with small and unnoticeable technological advancements.
Large, successful brands are able to adapt to the new digital reality by building permanent infrastructure to keep them current. But, how do smaller companies keep up? How do they advance without easy access to social media intuition, a large digital marketing budget, and all of the new tools needed to succeed?
The answer is not by bringing in a team of young adults for a semester to show them how to make their marketing efforts more digital. Executives at smaller companies really don’t have the digital aptitude or commitment to embrace that kind of immediate change.
Regrettably, the students didn’t spend much time talking to clients about the highly addictive nature of digital expression, especially with less cluttered social media platforms. The focus rarely expanded beyond the executive experience.
It might have been better to give the business leaders some exposure to newer, more popular platforms like SnapChat. Within a few weeks, their new cravings and dependence might have convinced them that modern digital marketing requires frequent education, online tutorials, engaging with experts in the field, testing, and constant study. It is probably the best way for them to keep up with competitors or larger companies.
My pedagogical goals for the semester were to expose my students to digital marketing theory in the classroom combined with practical application outside of their usual social circles.
Along the way, they have learned a more valuable lesson that will serve them well as they start their first full-time jobs in corporate America this summer. Working in a company doesn’t provide the same kind of freedom of expression as in the classroom. Managing those above you requires an ability to gently help them learn what you already know. It’s an important skill for those who aspire to get promoted.