A lesson for college students: Real-world business situations are rarely as neat and tidy as the case studies you go over in class.
That’s what students in Dr. Debbi Brock’s integrated marketing communications class often find to be the case. Throughout the semester, students in the class provide a range of marketing materials for a small business. Sometimes in this digital age, the business owners and the students don’t see eye-to-eye, or the business has a minor crisis that has to be dealt with before the students’ work can take precedence. Once, a business shut its doors halfway through the semester. “This is perfect,” Brock told the students. “Businesses fail. What are you going to do now?”
Sometimes, the boxes the student team has to check in order to make the grade don’t quite align with the needs of the client. That’s what senior Mycala Schoeppner and her team found last semester while producing marketing materials for Union Diversified Industries (UDI) in Monroe.
“We sat down as a team and said, ‘We’ve got to make a decision,’” Mycala Schoeppner recalls. “‘Are we really going to try to do everything we need to do for this class? Or are we going to do what we want to do for him?’”
Acting essentially as a marketing agency for UDI, Schoeppner and her team chose option No. 2, and David Casper couldn’t have been more pleased. Casper, executive director of the disability-focused nonprofit, leaned on the students – seniors Schoeppner, Julian Irigoyen and Levi Elliot and junior Julie Diaz – to produce better and better work, and the result was the most extensive implementation Brock has ever had in the course.
The 400-level course is one of the most hands-on at Wingate. Students are divided into teams, which are paired up with local small businesses, for whom they provide a detailed portfolio of items: a radio script, a print piece, a video, social-media posts, guerrilla marketing, etc. All grades for the semester are tied to the teams’ work with the businesses. Some businesses use a bit of the work; some don’t use any of it.
Schoeppner and her team were charged with helping UDI prepare for a December fundraising breakfast, its first fundraiser in years. UDI isn’t the typical business Brock enlists for the class, which is probably why the syllabus didn’t align perfectly with the client’s needs. For one thing, UDI is a nonprofit, providing work opportunities and clinical services for adults who have learning disabilities. It’s also relatively large (with around 100 employees) and doesn’t sell products at a retail level, instead helping other companies with simple, repetitive tasks.
“When you’re marketing for a nonprofit, which has nothing that they sell, not retail stuff, you really have to stretch your mind outside the box to come up with what you’re going to do,” Schoeppner says.
From the first invitation the group designed to a three-minute video shown at the fundraising breakfast, Casper couldn’t get enough of the content the group provided. The team’s social-media posts boosted the number of engagements on UDI’s Facebook page from 20 or so a week to approaching 2,000. Days before the breakfast, Casper had merely shown the team-designed pledge card to a few people and had already raised $6,000.
“These guys knocked it out of the park,” he says. “Their work is really touching people and bringing the community leaders out. They stayed on brand, on tone, gave a very powerful voice to what we were trying to do, and I think they really have bright futures, all four of them.”
Casper, a 2006 Wingate graduate, insists that he did not make use of the cards, social-media posts and videos out of a sense of loyalty to his alma mater. He really needed help, and he was pleased with the results.
“My reputation is at stake,” he says. “This is the first time we’re stepping into the community to do fundraising in about seven years. My name’s at stake. Our company’s image is at stake. I wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t quality stuff.”
Unleashing students’ potential
For Casper, it was important to treat the students more as a hired agency than as a group of college kids. For each item the class was charged with producing, he blocked off an hour to meet with the team, and Casper and team members would then go back and forth doing revisions over the next couple of weeks until he was satisfied with the results.
Giving the students room to experiment and flex their creative muscles and pushing them to think deeply about their audience helped produce material that far exceeded his expectations.
“I could have let them do exactly what they had on their syllabus, and they could eat for one day,” he says. “I tried to give them the tools they could eat for the rest of their life with. That’s the difference between a classroom setting and a real-life setting. In a classroom, you have clear-cut objectives. Here, you tear those barriers down and see what people’s potential is.”
The first task was really understanding what UDI is. Founded in 1970 as Union County Vocational Workshop, UDI provides clinical services and employment for special-needs adults. The company’s “clients,” or workers, typically work about 20 hours a week doing repetitive tasks, such as placing barcodes on PVC piping and connecting PVC joints (UDI’s biggest customer is Charlotte Pipe and Foundry). Most of the clients are on some form of government assistance, but the work gives them spending money as well as intangibles, such as work-related fulfillment and socialization skills.
To sell UDI to potential donors, the students had to understand why its mission is important. “It’s the same reason it’s important for you or I to work,” Casper says. “Everybody wants to feel like they’re a contributing member of society.”
UDI also provides counseling services, and workers spend hours each week in art, music and dance classes and going on outings. “It’s set up as a treatment-style facility,” Casper says. “Individuals come to us, and they receive habilitative services. Part of the habilitative services they receive here in their day training is vocational readiness.”
Schoeppner, whose mother teaches exceptional-children’s classes at a local elementary school, was a natural to work with UDI. The senior marketing major not only has an event-planning background but also works as a behavioral therapist for two autistic children. She and the rest of the team worked hard to fully grasp what UDI was all about.
“That’s what made that group so special,” Casper says. “They understood our mission. Not only did they understand it, but they embraced it and leaned into it.”
And as they became more invested in the project, their work really took off. “This team was consistently making C’s and B’s, but they kept improving and they kept changing and they kept adapting, and the client kept asking for more and they kept doing more,” Brock says. “So, even though they didn’t hit the marks (in class) the first time, they hit the marks the second or third time. That’s what made them so amazing, that they just kept rising to the occasion over and over and over.”
In the end, they were doing such good work that Casper asked them to go above and beyond, and they were happy to comply. Irigoyen produced a one-minute commercial that UDI posted on social media to drum up interest in the breakfast. That video was submitted for grading, but a three-minute-plus video he put together that was shown at the breakfast was simply additional content for the client. And Schoepner made pledge cards for the breakfast, even though the group had already submitted a printed piece.
“They were really motivated and got into it,” Brock says. “They see the value of it.”
Schoeppner even stopped by UDI last Tuesday, three days after her semester ended, to prepare table settings for the event. She and Brock also attended the breakfast, which was held on Friday, Dec. 13.
“I understand the need for marketing in conventional ways,” Schoeppner says, “but that project, for us, was really, really, really stimulating intellectually, because it was not something we’re used to learning in our classes, how to market to people who don’t have something to sell. I think that’s why it was so impressive, the work that we did.”
Learn more about Wingate’s marketing program.
December 18, 2019