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What Marketing Schools Should Really Be Teaching Students

When I went to business school (more years ago than I will voluntarily admit), our marketing coursework focused heavily on the basics. For example, we spent a great deal of time digging into the Four P’s (Product, Price, Placement, Promotion).

While the basics of marketing are absolutely still valid concepts to understand, the underlying techniques have evolved completely. Back in those days, the Internet was still in its early days. Business was about physically packaging goods, selling them through catalogs or retail stores, and promoting using more mass targeted techniques such as advertising, direct mail, and in-store promotions. It was very much a “push marketing” based culture.

Today, the whole game has changed. We have a variety of new product and service types (digital products, SaaS/PaaS/IaaS, premium content memberships), and that has also forced us to rethink pricing. And physical packaging is not even required on a growing share of the products and services we purchase today – e.g. digital music, ebooks, and software.

So the million dollar question is whether or not we are properly preparing today’s college students for the real world. It’s a known fact that new college grads have been struggling to find gainful employment for years now. Sure, the economic recession we had a few years ago is partly to blame. But could it also be that we are underpreparing them for what marketing jobs really have in store for them?

This is a real issue. Some marketing schools have started to update their curriculums, but far too many are still behind the curve. I see coursework being added for SEO, social media, and similar topics. But there’s much more to real world marketing than gaming the search engines or tweeting out promotions and offers.

Here is my take on new topics that schools should seriously consider adding to their offerings. See if you agree with the list.

Relationship Marketing

This is a topic that I hold near and dear, and it’s because relationships are the key to success. Internet marketing is not about gaming the system to “get mine” and running for the hills. It’s about building real rapport with real people, so relationship marketing should be mandatory for all business students in my opinion.

This goes beyond just marketing. Product design and development should be aimed at meeting customer needs, and relationships with prospects and customers can help map out what those needs are.

At the CxO level, it would be refreshing to look at real metrics for longevity, such as number of relationships and the strength of those connections. Not every tactic has to be pigeon-holed as lead generation or revenue generating. A lot of what you do to promote yourself these days is about paying it forward, and winning affinity that will return to you in the future.

If we teach the importance of relationships, we can one day escape the myopic, ROI-obsessed business culture that too many of us suffer through today. ROI matters, but the long game matters more. Today’s relationships drive tomorrow’s customers, so balance is key.

Business and Professional Networking

This is a big one that I completely missed during my earlier career. When I was in MBA school, there were a ton of events to mingle and get to know other students. Little did I realize at the time that these were more than just fun socials; they were helping us model behaviors that encouraged networking.

But that was a graduate business school. How seriously does the average undergraduate student take networking? Do they even realize how important it is? Perhaps they do today because of social networking, but do they understand how they should be using it?

We had optional workshops available on some of the soft skills, such as etiquette for business dinners, how to dress for an interview, and the right way to shake hands. But we didn’t have anything structured t0 coach us on how and why to network the right way. I don’t know if this should be a class, a subject in an existing class, or an extracurricular activity. Either way, students need to be trained on just how critical business and professional networking is to success, from a multitude of angles.

Content and Social Marketing

For anyone that follows or practices inbound marketing, content and social media are the pillars of their success. In fact, content and social marketing can be applied to nearly anything we do as marketers today.

For content marketing, it’s high time that we introduce focused coursework on it. In many schools, content is seen as subsidiary to other tactics. While that is true, the argument could easily be made that content is the center of the marketing universe, and other tactics and promotional activities should spawn from the various formats of that content.

Social media has started to show up as coursework in some schools. But without a more integrated inbound marketing overlay, my biggest concern is that the overlaps between content and social may be underemphasized. Or omitted altogether.

At the end of the day, social media is for content curation and sharing in addition to building online relationships and support. If you want to get your own ideas out there, you can’t just build a bunch of blog posts in a vacuum and push it out on social networks. You have to look at it holistically. After all, why would anyone follow you if they can just subscribe to the RSS feed and walk away?

There are nuances to how you do this the right way. We need to be preparing students for how it really works, rather than training them on how to use shiny new toys for the same old push marketing strategies.

How to Work With Search Engines

I’ve seen a few schools include coursework in SEO. That’s great to see.

My concern is this – what exactly are they teaching in the SEO classes? Is it on-page only? Is it the full range of components and tactics from link building to performance optimization? And how are they keeping the materials updated when SEO evolves on a daily basis?

To get this one right, there needs to be a baseline, but it must be updated proactively through the semester. There’s also the issue that SEO is not the only way to show up in search. What about PPC? Do they cover retargeting at all? Is display included?

If I were building out all the curriculi across the various universities, I’d build it as a class on working with the search engines. This would go beyond simple things  such as on page optimization or building links. It would arm the class for operating in a constantly changing, yet consistently white hat world of search marketing. And it would cover all areas where search engines can help companies enhance their visibility.

Perhaps that would require multiple classes to cover the full range. Great – then let’s make it several classes in sequence. In the end, this would be much more practical than a whole semester of studying every possible pricing model from five different angles. And it is applicable to all industries that depend on the internet for promotion, so every student could benefit.

Writing for the Web

If content marketing becomes important, it logically follows that writing for the web should also be part of the curriculum. It amazes me to connect with well respected copywriters who have no idea how to:

  1. Write shorter sentences and paragraphs
  2. Break up copy with sub heads and sub-sub heads
  3. Link freely to other locations on a website (or even include hyperlinks at all)
  4. Use language that an average audience would understand without breaking out the thesaurus
  5. Includes properly placed keywords and topic references
  6. Has a unique and engaging voice

If creating content is your game (or part of it), you should know how to write scannable content for websites. At this point in time, all marketing students should have these skills, even if they are only serving an editing role during content creation.

Conversion Management and Optimization

While demand generation is much more important than many think, lead generation is absolutely of interest to pretty much all businesses I’ve encountered. At the same time, even seasoned marketers often struggle with driving conversions.

There are many angles that this can be attacked. From a design and messaging standpoint, all new graduates should have an idea of what does and does not work. Sure, it differs by industry and website, but the basic principles remain roughly consistent. And for anything that is still up for question, there’s always A/B or multivariate testing, which should be better understood from the start.

It would also be helpful for students to understand that not all traffic is conversion-friendly traffic. Some of them will never convert, perhaps because they are reading about an early funnel topic, they are not the right target audience, or some other reason. It pays to know the differences and optimize accordingly.

Basic Design and Coding for Marketers

Some of us have dabbled with programming or some type of coding since we were young. For these types, they usually teach themselves the skills needed to hack out a website or landing page as needed.

For the majority of b-school students, though, basic design and coding is a whole new area of study. If content marketing is important enough to prioritize, so is a base level of HTML understanding. Back in the 1980s, markup was required for something as simple as word processing (anyone else remember Wordstar?).

With at least a starter-level understanding of design principles and HTML, students would be much more qualified to execute on content marketing from day one. And it would also prepare them for creative direction when outsourcing execution for new websites, marketing materials, and other customer-facing deliverables.

Measurement and Analytics

While a myopic obsession with ROI is over the top, it pays to understand the numbers that diagnose how well our campaigns and websites are performing. In my mind, measurement and analytics should be at least a full class available to undergraduate and grad students alike.

At the end of the day, the results will dictate what is and isn’t working. It is a great way to defend the continuation of a key program, or to recommend enhancements to one that is failing to deliver. The higher ups will be glad they don’t have to do all the analysis themselves, and it would empower the entire marketing organization to better analyze and act upon results.

Most of All: How To Adopt A Habit Of Continuous Learning

Finally, but certainly not least important, we have continuous learning. No matter what you do to update marketing and business programs, real world practices continue to evolve at a rapid pace. What you learn today may very well be obsolete before the end of this school year.

The biggest value I took away from my MBA program was the habit of continuous learning. In a way, the program was less about teaching me details and more about teaching me to find answers. For that, I am thankful.

My question – how can we expand this ideology out to more marketing and business schools, even at the undergraduate level? To succeed in business today, you simply MUST figure out how to learn and grow in perpetuity. Those of us who embrace it do better, while those who do not are choosing to stagnate. It’s time that our university programs start to emulate that requirement, be it through a dedicated class (probably overkill) or a theme that it integrated into the curriculum as a whole.

Summary

With students struggling to find gainful employment upon graduation, it is time that marketing and business schools modernize their course offerings. These were my ideas for good areas of focus, but this is certainly not an exhaustive list (I had to filter it down to keep the post from growing to a diatribe).

What else would you suggest universities add to bring their programs up to date?

Photo Credit: Marketing School/shutterstock

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