Penn State marketing students get real-world experience

bmilazzo@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2013 

— Getting real-world experience while still in college is something Karen Winterich’s Penn State marketing students said they value most.

And adding to their experience and resumes while also helping a local business is the icing on the cake.

“I wish more classes would use this type of real-world learning style rather than just notes and lectures,” said Penn State senior Zach Pitts. “We can use projects like this to better our business and professional skills before we enter the workforce.”

Pitts was one of about 30 students in Winterich’s Marketing 422 class who worked with Webster’s Bookstore Cafe on a marking and advertising plan to help Elaine Meder-Wilgus’ business grow.

Winterich said she worked with the Penn State’s Small Business Development Center to find a local small business her students could work with.

“I heard about Webster’s a couple years ago through a book club, when they went through a relocation and reopening phase,” Winterich said. “I figured they might need some help, and the owner was on board when we presented the idea to her last summer.”

Each team of five students was to compete as a mock advertising agency and present ideas to Meder-Wilgus on what they would do to better her bookstore with marketing strategies the students developed.

The other half of the course was a classroom setting where students learned those techniques and methods used by large retailers or major corporations and how they market to their customers, which the students later used for the project with Webster’s.

“We urged the students to be creative and think outside of the box when it came to a marketing plan,” Winterich said. “What they needed to do was find a common ground between what Elaine was looking for and what the student’s perspective was on the business. They might see things one way, when it really looks different through the eyes of the customer.”

Meder-Wilgus said she met with the students four times throughout the semester, where they fed off each other’s ideas.

“They targeted some of the business challenges I had been facing,” Meder-Wilgus said. “To have them really take on the role of a professional was interesting and beneficial to both sides.”

The most common business strategy within the students was to get Webster’s in the process of using social media. This would help target the student population.

“Our goal was to incorporate more students to Webster’s target market. Our goal: Provide Webster’s as a venue or meeting place for organizations instead of a boring classroom with hope they would become repeat customers and spread the word to their friends,” Pitts said. “Rather than just handing out fliers to any student, we would contact specific undergraduate clubs through Penn State’s student organization database.”

Other students added that giving Webster’s a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would draw a younger crowd as they are social media savvy and get most updates via the Web.

“It’s nice to make a resource like this to draw from,” Meder-Wilgus said. “While I’m still learning the gist of these sites, social media is extremely beneficial. It’s spreading the word to multigenerational customers what Webster’s is really about. That it’s a good vibe where reading and eating the healthy food that we serve is fun or good. Some things that often don’t go together.”

This semester, Linda Feltman, senior business consultant for the SBDC, said she is working on getting students who can help Webster’s, and what she calls “caffeinated interns.”

“They aren’t getting paid except through coffee,” Feltman said with a laugh. “These students are going to put the plan into action and show that Webster’s is ‘more than just a name on a cup.’ ”

And with Winterich’s success at getting her students to do hands on work, she said she wants to keep up the strategy in the future.

“I’d love to do the same sort of project again. It’s a win-win situation for all involved,” she said. “Elaine was happy with the results, the students got a lot of positive feedback from it and allows them to learn to find what the business’s goal is and put their ideas to the test in the real world.”

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