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Teaching the Facebook Generation

Our goal as college professors is to open students’ minds to new experiences so they can grow intellectually while they mature through the traditional four-year process. But we are also challenged to give students the immediate skills they will need once they graduate so that they can begin their professional careers and move away from the fry-o-later to the cubicle and beyond.

Over the past decade, there has been a sea change in the marketplace demands for graduates. Whereas broad skills used to be sufficient, now our students must demonstrate a set of concrete skills that not long ago were required only of those in highly technical majors. Nowhere has this change created a greater shift than in fields such as marketing and public relations, which traditionally have been viewed as nontechnical but are now demanding a technological competency that is astounding.

When I began teaching nearly 10 years ago, marketing and PR majors were expected to be stellar communicators, know the Four P's (Product, Promotion, Price, Place), have a good head on their shoulders, and have passion. Employers gobbled them up and trained them on specifics of the job.

Our traditional curriculum emphasized marketing, advertising, sales, research, and consumer behavior for the marketing major. For the PR major, writing, media relations, and campaign management were enough.

A Lot to KnowToday, marketing students also need to know basic HTML, design software such as the Adobe Suite, how to run a Google adwords campaign, how to optimize a Web site for search engines, how to analyze Web analytics data, develop a keyword strategy, and manage e-mail marketing campaigns. A basic knowledge of how social media including sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and Twitter can be used to leverage a marketing message isn't optional—it's a requirement.

Students also must be familiar with online gaming and trends in mobile communication technologies. PR students must now write news releases that are search-engine friendly, pitch bloggers, "listen" to a continual flood of consumer-generated content on multiple social sites from YouTube to Facebook to Twitter, generate social media news releases, and engage with blogs, Facebook fans and multiple other sites. As this is happening, these two professions, one in business and one that is often located in communication schools, are becoming more and more integrated and reliant on the other. One cannot talk about social media without considering both the marketing and PR implications.

Business school curricula mostly do not prepare students for this new digital world. Institutions recognize this, and many are catching up by offering courses and curricula in Internet marketing, digital media and new-media marketing. But the vast majority are not integrating these skills throughout. It's much easier to create a standalone course than it is to take the Introduction to Marketing class and change it so that it integrates analytics into the research or finance portion, or search engine optimization (SEO) into the writing/communication section.

The reality is that many businesses are struggling to wrap their arms around these developments as well. They actually are looking to new graduates to help them manage their digital strategies for them, with the assumption that because they are young they are familiar with the social media world. But our students cannot know how to leverage these tools professionally unless we teach them how. They must learn the difference in writing a news release, a blog post, a Twitter update, or generating content for a Facebook fan page. They have to know which metrics should be tracked on a Web site.

A Leg Up for StudentsWhy is all this important? Because the businesses that don't know how to respond to and use social media are filling knowledge gaps in staff by hiring students with these skills fresh from college. In the lean organizations of 2009, students will not simply learn on the job; they will be asked to implement these tools strategically because no one else knows how.

If we can bring social media into existing curricula, our students will learn not only how but why they should be used within an overall communication strategy. Our mission hasn't changed, but we must bring these tools into the classroom and show our students how they are used in business today and will be used tomorrow.

The challenge for faculty in all business functions—and all disciplines across higher education for that matter—is staying on top of these changes and knowing what to teach in the classroom. More than ever, we must be life-long learners to stay fresh and understand these tools. From professional networking in learning communities with colleagues across the country, to seminars and conferences and building relationships with local businesses that have expertise in these areas, we have many resources at our disposal.

Professors need to lead students by example by knowing the mechanics of social media and showing our students how to use them strategically for the good of their employers.
Dr. Elaine Young is an associate professor of marketing at Champlain College.

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