For industry, activating data is the key to creating great media and customer experiences. In our world of connected devices, companies of all sizes are using data to discover, automate and optimize media experiences. It is essential students not only understand the basic concepts around how data analytics are used to shape media experiences, but students must also have opportunities to practice prior to graduation. Education must adapt because our industry requires it.
A ‘Pracademic’ Approach
As “pracademics” (A.K.A. Practicing Academics), we have a unique view into the challenges within our industry and opportunities for academia to evolve and meet those challenges. In addition to the academic space, we both have worked in marketing-related roles for various Fortune 500 companies, media agencies, and major nonprofit organizations. Upon reflection, some of our greatest challenges typically occurred when trying to fill entry-level digital analytics and digital strategy roles. There was consistently a severe shortage of talent in these areas. As a result, we focused on hiring individuals who seemed otherwise very capable and were hungry to learn, and invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money into on-the-job training.
The risk of this approach was always that you would “train up” an individual, only to have them poached by an employer who could pay a higher salary. There is also great risk in the time it takes, regardless of industry, to onboard. It would be ideal if instead the pool of these individuals could be much deeper, so that it would be easier to “share the wealth” with other employers. As a result of these experiences- we felt that most academic programs seemed to be missing an opportunity to build this talent pool.
Building & Activating Analytics Partnerships
Our approach has a foundation in service learning with bridges to the technology industry. Lots of evidence supports this approach with healthcare and education being great long-term examples; both require “real” shadowing experiences prior to working in the field. Likewise, our teaching model is focused on application through real partnerships leading to not only a degree, but public-facing work and certifications.
We create learning partnerships by asking potential clients questions like, “Do you have a project/research question you wish you had time to execute/investigate?” This removes much of the performance pressure for the client and for your team because you are providing a “value add” to the organization. This approach is key to putting students in real situations with real clients – often yielding huge value to both organizations.
As industry examples, we have taken this approach with both Eastman Chemical and Starwood Hotels with success. For Eastman Chemical, students are engaged in a number of projects each term- tackling items from website usability studies to running site user pathing and funnel conversion analytics. For Starwood, students have worked on research studies to understand the current travel and tourism landscape and how visitors make the decision between hotel properties and room or home-sharing options, such as Airbnb.
On campus clients are great for real work as well. Our model really focuses on bringing value to campus organizations though student partnership. We work with advancement, athletics, and others on real initiatives that cannot be done due to staffing/resources. In fact, this fall we will have a student team focused on the promotion of our own department’s programming and recruitment. Student teams will create content strategies around awareness and participation – a real opportunity to fill a real need.
Building partnership bridges is simple; connect via direct or indirect networking. These connections can come from professional advisory boards, professional clubs (e.g. SPJ, AAF, PRSA, AMA), and alumni. Partnerships can also come from your own professional network by just discussing the mission or posting content on LinkedIn. These informal discussions continue to yield more partnerships than we are able to scale at this point. The word of our success spreads because our model bringing organizational value and a talent pipeline (many of our students get jobs with partners). There are additional benefits in terms of guest speakers, tours and relationships that inspire students and faculty.
We also find ways to integrate data/software certification training into courses. This approach connects our programs to the vendor side of the industry. To do this we are “baking in” ways for students to activate learning outcomes with industry-adopted software training so they graduate with experiences in multiple contexts. We aren’t just teaching software – we are using software to activate learning outcomes. This helps students to know how to be lifelong-learners in our field via vendor-specific training. We want graduates holding industry-recognized certifications along with their degree upon graduation.
Use Analytics to Connect Students to Real Challenges
Step 1. Create experiential learning environments.
This could mean designing a course with certification modules as part of the curriculum or you could build a team component working with a real client or it could be both! It is important to decide course “fit” and design for opportunities in the course. Some courses offer more opportunities than others but all could have some analytics component.
Step 2. Decide on software/data.
Look at all the options and decide what makes the most sense for your program. We have positioned our program around Adobe’s Experience Cloud since there is a huge talent need in the large digital experience enterprise space and the partnership gave us a unique program in the academic space. Adobe has always been a leader in education with Creative Cloud (e.g. Adobe Education Exchange) but they are really ramping up their academic approach for their Experience Cloud platform. We initially did a cold call to them and Adobe has proven to be an amazing partner by helping with training and engagement both internally and with other campuses via the Adobe Creative Campus Collaboration. Because of this amazing community Adobe has created, we are now exploring Adobe Creative Cloud certifications similar to what has been done at the Annenberg Digital Lounge at USC.
That said, we are teaching with other platforms as well and we are working to create academic partnerships with them all. Louisa Ha recently published a great MediaShift piece highlighting some resources we also incorporate, but valuable software/certifications can also come from HubSpot Academy, Hootsuite Academy and Salesforce’s Trailhead. The most important thing is to not “boil the ocean” but to decide on what makes sense for your program and scale accordingly.
If you are working with smaller nonprofits you might be working with platform-level data (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and even that can give students great experiences. The main point is to get the students working with real data on real platforms with real projects. Most importantly, get them talking with clients who will express their concerns. As instructors, we continue to learn from these outside perspectives and improve learning outcomes.
Step 3. Decide on clients.
The work students do must be real – be it a discovery report or a campaign. Our program serves on and off campus clients – many are nonprofits who would not have the ability to hire an external partner/consultant. We have two things we ask of clients: act like a client and give us the keys to your data platforms. Our student teams are supervised as part of a class and report to faculty, but they work on behalf of the client. The client must provide discovery time and access to data just like any real client – this is a requirement. An essential part of this relationship is that it is ongoing (ideally more than one project) and a faculty member owns the relationship with the client. Students can come and go, but having a faculty member as a constant is a must.
Step 4. Scale and repeat.
Make sure you look for clients who find value in the collaboration. Once identified, try to continue with the same client if possible for long term value. Clients are more likely to collaborate if they know you are committed to a partnership and know you want to help them with their business. Scale is important so start small and build.
Industry needs a talent pool in the analytics space and the job opportunities will only continue to grow. In an age where education is working to keep up with technology and at the same time provide education cost ROI, our program bridges the gaps. Our approach provides value to multiple stakeholders while keeping faculty current and engaged. Most importantly, our students love this approach because it leads directly to great careers.
Stephen Marshall, Ph.D. (University of Florida) is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Media and Communication at East Tennessee State University as well as a brand strategist for Creative Energy of Johnson City, Tennessee. Melanie Richards, Ph.D. (Georgia State University), is an assistant professor in the Department of Media and Communications at East Tennessee State University and chief thought partner at Thought Catalyst, LLC. Both authors teach courses for Adobe Digital Learning Services focused on corporate and executive training.