Because social media has become the primary method of intrapersonal communication for many in today’s society as more and more companies promote their goods and services through these platforms, it has become imperative that marketers enter the workforce with a clear understanding and comfort in using all social media tools.
Alexandra K. Abney, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business, and marketing educators from three other institutions are working together to address this challenge through a social media education ecosystem designed to provide an innovative learning environment by more readily incorporating social media into their classrooms.
In the article, “Intercollegiate Social Media Education Ecosystem,” recently published in the Journal of Marketing Education, Abney and her colleagues detailed the methodology, results and implications for educators of a 12-week research project focused on the use of Twitter as a marketing tool.
“We created this ecosystem where faculty members from several universities throughout the United States use Twitter within the classroom to have their students interact with other students, other faculty members and brands in marketing discussions,” Abney said. “With more and more students becoming comfortable communicating this way, and with more companies expecting marketing graduates to immediately come in and run their social media sites, we have to give them this experience in the classroom.”
Research indicates that undergraduate students spend more than six hours per day on average using social media, defined in previous studies as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0 and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content,” primarily through mobile devices. Abney also estimates at least 90 percent of companies nationwide now review social media profiles as part of the hiring process for new employees.
It is crucial students develop an understanding of how to use social media platforms professionally and to enhance their personal brands. Students often do not get a second chance to make a first impression, especially in the social media universe.
“If I am with a company and I do an online search for a new marketing employee, I want to see something professional and marketing-related come up first,” Abney said. “That was the purpose of our research — to help students increase the scope and reach of their marketing discussions and improve their own personal brands.”
In addition to the marketing discussions, the project, which sprouted from an online, real-time Twitter discussion about Super Bowl ads four or five years ago, also included a study of Twitter analytics. The analysis of tweets from the 12-week project used the program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count and a survey to determine the students’ satisfaction with learning in this way. The results suggested the students enjoyed learning through this expanded “ecosystem” and improved their professional communications skills while expanding their presence in the social media marketing world.
“We tested their cognitive processing skills, how they structured sentences and the meaning of their sentences, and what we found was what our students were tweeting was significantly more professional than the general Twitter population,” Abney said.
Abney and colleagues have used elements of the project in their classrooms for six semesters, and this intercollegiate collaboration now even has its own hashtag, #ICMKTG. At the start of each week throughout the semester, a new marketing-related topic or set of questions is posted, and the students have that week to interact with others within the ecosystem on the topic or questions.
A particular emphasis has also been placed on getting brands to respond, and more are doing so. Major companies such as Toyota, Walmart, Coca-Cola, John Deere, the Home Shopping Network and more have engaged in discussions as part of the project. One company responded to a student who tweeted they would like to intern there by confirming an internship was available and providing information on how to apply.
“The expansive nature of this is nice. It’s not just me replying to the same 30 students or them replying to me. We might be replying to 3,000 different people they would never have gotten to interact with otherwise,” Abney said. “When they are interacting with marketing practitioners, other academics and other marketing students, they are seeing all different types of diverse perspectives and interacting with them. That experience is vital in the real world.”
Abney admits many students at first have difficulty transitioning from the jargon-laced, emoji-filled style of their personal messages to the clipped conciseness needed for professional communications. But once they adapt, the students quickly begin to see the impact social media can have on their careers and lives.
“Bringing social media into the classroom is something we as educators have struggled with in the past for fear it would interrupt our regular processes,” Abney said. “But this isn’t going away next year or five years from now, so we need to use it. Our project has shown there is an appropriate time and place for social media in the classroom. As educators and marketers, it is our job to teach our students the most appropriate, professional ways to use it to market themselves.”
Working with Abney on the project were Laurel A. Cook, Ph.D., University of West Virginia; Alexa K. Fox, Ph.D., The University of Akron; and Jennifer Stevens, Ph.D., University of Toledo.