“This is the best thing we do.”
That appraisal — spoken by the irrepressible Jennifer Osbon — sounds like a clickbait headline you’d see on Facebook. And her celebratory tone might be just what you’d expected from the instructor behind Terry’s highly successful digital marketing efforts.
But the truth is, Jen Osbon is just telling it like it is.
“Of all the things that I have going on, the students learn the most, they work the hardest, they network the best, and they grow the most professionally from the Digital Marketing Competition,” says Osbon (MBA ’97), who, like Entrepreneurship Director Bob Pinckney, is an example of how beneficial it can be to the college when a former Terry student returns to the classroom to teach what they’ve learned out in the marketplace. “It’s better than an internship, better than a capstone class,” Osbon adds.“It truly is the best thing we have going.”
The Digital Marketing Competition is the centerpiece of Osbon’s digital media marketing program, something that no B-School in the country does quite like Terry. Here, the coursework isn’t just based on real-world problems; it actually is real-world problems.
Each spring, companies like Coca-Cola and hotel giant IHG use Osbon’s students as an ad hoc marketing firm. The client companies outline a particular problem they’re facing, such as how to attract a specific demographic or how to rebrand a facet of the company, and Terry students compete for a chance to pitch their solution.
The digital marketing program officially operates as an area of emphasis within the marketing major. Students who elect to participate in the program, which consists of three courses, receive special recognition on their official transcript.
Staged like “The Voice,” the Digital Marketing Competition pairs student groups with Atlanta marketing professionals who act as coaches. The students fine-tune their proposals through three elimination rounds, until the best team is picked to showcase its solution directly to the client’s executives. The winners not only have a shot at seeing their plans implemented, they also accompany Osbon on a trip to San Francisco to tour Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and eBay.
“If you win, you’re all set. But even if you don’t, you’ve made great contacts and you’ve been mentored by some of best industry professionals out there,” says Osbon, who founded MegaPlayer, an Atlanta-based digital marketing consulting and education company that is a trusted partner of global brands such as Coca-Cola, Sunglass Hut, K-Swiss, Verizon, Standard Register, and Pearle Vision.
“It takes three months to do this competition,” says Osbon. “The students come in and they want to do their best work because they want to impress their coaches, who in turn are working with the teams to help them refine their ideas and understand what the real costs of these campaigns are. Through all of this, natural relationships form between students and coaches, and that becomes a great way for students to find internships and jobs after the competition ends.”
As it turns out, digital marketing is more than pithy slogans and pretty pictures. A lot more.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” says Kelly Utt, a marketing major who participated in the Digital Marketing Competition last spring. “I was super excited when we found out who the client was — Coca-Cola. We had all these different ideas, but we didn’t know what the process was. So going through it with coach Teresa Caro, senior vice president of marketing for Fortiva, it just didn’t make sense to us at first. It seemed like we were doing all this extra work when we already had all these ideas. What we didn’t realize is that we had to back up those ideas. We had to have metrics behind our ideas in order to understand how our campaign would work. This whole experience has been . . . a lot of work. But it has been so rewarding. I know this is something that no other university has, so being a part of it has been amazing.”
Utt’s effort and knowledge attracted the attention of the prestigious Dallas, Texas-based marketing firm The Richards Group, where she’s interning this summer. Other students from the program have landed jobs with Newell Rubbermaid, New York ad agency RazorFish, Turner, Chick-fil-A, and the Georgia Aquarium, to name just a few.
“The reason students love this is that it’s real work,” says Osbon. “It’s not a textbook that they might have trouble getting excited about. Coca-Cola gave us a live briefing. The students were required to sign an NDA. That’s a teaching moment, too. In the real world, you don’t just write your name, you honor what your contract says.”
The Digital Marketing Competition has an outsized impact on the overall program, both from within Terry and outside. Osbon admits that the hardest part of running the competition lies with its limitations. Only so many students can participate, and they can only serve one client at a time, even as more and more Atlanta brands are lining up to work with her.
“From the companies’ perspective, they get access to all of the intellectual properties that the students create, so it’s a win-win,” Osbon says. “Not only do they have access to these students, but they’re getting very high-quality stuff. What was really cool this year was that our winning team was invited to go back to Coca-Cola and present their ideas to an even higher-level audience — the chief of sustainability officer at Coca-Cola. Can you imagine as a 22-year-old presenting to the chief of anything at Coca-Cola? I couldn’t be more proud of what these students can do.”
Osbon understands the things that catch an employer’s eye. Graduates leave her program minted with real credentials and a portfolio of marketplace-driven work.
Take, for example, her MARK 4650 course, in which students create actual social media campaigns for Atlanta-area nonprofit organizations.
Inspired by an eye-catching project in which Osbon and other volunteers helped build 48 websites for 48 nonprofits in 48 hours last summer, her MARK 4650 course partnered with five nonprofits that received Google grants to grow their online presence.
It works like this: Every time someone searches Google, paid advertisements show up at the top of the search results. Each click-through to the advertised site has a cost for the organization or company. Google grants gives nonprofits $10,000 a month to invest in Google AdWords, meaning that instead of paying Google, they can focus on increasing their volunteer base and expanding their brand’s reach online.
“As a learning tool, it’s natural for students to create plans. We do lots of planning in school,” says Osbon. “Now they get to do a plan, they get to actually invest the money, they get to see how it performs and make tweaks and changes and recommendations for the future. So they’re not only helping the nonprofit, they’re also getting the real-world experience of actually investing money — not just playing around with it or getting close to it or seeing how it works. They actually do it and look for actual results.”
As a result of their participation in MARK 4650, students become certified in Google Analytics Individual Qualification and Google AdWords Fundamentals and another advanced AdWords test with topics ranging from search advertising, mobile advertising, or shopping advertising. The Google Analytics certification shows potential clients that a student is knowledgeable in how to use Google’s tracking system for online usage. AdWords, on the other hand, is a marketing system used on Google that lets advertisers pay to show up in relevant Google searches, and certification allows recognition of an individual as an online advertiser.
Last semester, students worked with a number of nonprofits: Warrick Dunn Charities, which helps single parents and their children; International Community School, which helps educate refugee and immigrant children; Race for the Orphans, which sponsors annual races to raise money for families looking to adopt children; Pebble Tossers Inc., which helps people find volunteer projects for youth; and the YWCA of Greater Atlanta, which focuses on empowering young girls and women through advocacy and education.
“As a junior, it’s been really helpful in interviews for internships,” says Kelsey Clark, a marketing and finance major, “because I can tell them that I’m actually handling $10,000 a month and working with an actual company or charity that is making a difference. Instead of just saying that I’m writing a class paper explaining what I would do, I can say I actually did this. These were my team’s results, and this is how we helped the charity.”
The nonprofits aren’t left high and dry at the end of the semester.
As the students learn how to manage grant money and implement their marketing efforts, they pass that knowledge on to the people who work at the nonprofits. Osbon is also considering adding an intern who will manage the five charities over the summer until next fall’s class can take over where this spring’s students left off.
Osbon wants to continue to grow the program, something that is definitely doable given the demand for her classes. Every semester, she gets emails from students begging to be admitted to her courses. In addition to her two sections of Social Media Marketing Strategy and one section of Digital Marketing Analytics, Osbon is also teaching an extra “overload” class on the subject every semester until at least spring 2017.
It’s a lot of work, she says, adding, “But the demand is just thrilling!