...at least according to the recent 2009 Google Online Marketing Challenge. The three-student group of Rachel Bruton, Meredith Rauh, and Brandon Sockwell, led by College of Business Professor Theresa B. Flaherty, placed first in the Americas in the marketing competition, which includes North, Central, and South America. The Challenge pits teams from across the world against each other in a global online marketing competition that focuses on paid search advertising using Google AdWords – Google’s flagship advertising product. This team of three JMU students competed against approximately 10,000 students representing 2,187 teams from 57 countries. After the judging was complete, the JMU team placed in the top four globally overall.
The group decided to be part of the competition after the professor from their integrated marketing communications class, Theresa Flaherty, made an offer to be their faculty adviser. During the inaugural Challenge in 2008, she required her students to take part in the Challenge. But because she was not teaching that class during the spring semester, she extended the offer to do the Challenge to all of her former students. A total of 15 students, representing 5 teams of 3, took part in the 2009 Challenge from JMU. Bruton, Rauh, and Sockwell had worked together on other group projects and decided to take on the extra work load and learn more about AdWords. They knew it would be a valuable skill to have as a marketer.
So what did they actually have to do to win? For the Challenge, they had to find a company with 100 or fewer employees that had a website but had not been using Google AdWords for the past 6 months. The team selected Mobile Tours, which is a mobile touring company based out of Washington, DC. The team thought this would be a great fit for the Challenge because so many people wanted to visit DC due to the recent Presidential inauguration and overlap with the Cherry Blossom Festival. The group had to create a Google AdWords campaign to help increase traffic to their client’s website. To prepare, the students would have meetings periodically on Friday afternoons with Dr. Flaherty to learn about AdWords. Two search engine marketing firms from Charlottesville, VA, Search Mojo and the Rimm-Kaufmann Group, also gave presentations to participating teams. Search Mojo was founded by a JMU graduate, Janet Driscoll Miller. There are also JMU alumni working at both companies. Avelyn Austin and Amanda Chaney are JMU Marketing alums who work at Search Mojo. Also, as a result of the Challenge, Janet Miller hired a student from another one of the 2009 JMU Challenge teams – Paige Payne. The Rimm-Kaufmann group has JMU Marketing alums Ashley Burton Kennedy and Rachel Cook. One of the beneficial aspects of the Challenge was the opportunity to bring students, faculty, alumni, and practitioners together to network and talk about online marketing issues.
In order to prepare for the Challenge, Dr. Flaherty provided the students with a set of reading materials to study over the holiday break before the spring semester started. After selecting their business, the team had to write a pre-campaign report where they developed an initial strategy and then submitted it to Google. Then the real test came. With three weeks and a $200 Google AdWords voucher, they set up their campaign, bid on keywords, modified ad copy, and periodically made adjustments to optimize their results. The students’ winning strategy included two AdWords campaigns with 15 ad groups. They used other Google marketing and reporting tools—including Google Analytics, Keyword Generator, Dynamic Keyword Insertion, AdWords Editor, geo-targeting and restricted scheduling of ads—to adjust the campaign each day. After the three weeks was over, the final step was to write a post-campaign report in which they summarized their results, explained the changes they made during the campaign window, and provided recommendations for future online marketing strategy.
All three students volunteered for the competition, receiving no class credit or internship credit. Their motivation was “a competitive edge” in the workforce, said Bruton, the team captain. “You become much more emotionally invested when you work with a real company. You have the chance to see classroom theories put into action.” The group worked hard on the campaign, but were still shocked when they heard they won. Professor Flaherty reminded Bruton of the day she was in her office and said "Wouldn't it be crazy if we actually won?" As one of the four winning groups, they will receive laptop computers and are going to be flown out to Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, to get a tour of the world-famous Googleplex. While on their trip, they will meet with various west-coast JMU alumni as well. They're all very excited for that trip.
The experiences the students have gained are already paying off. Employers have been telling them that the Google Online Marketing Challenge always stands out on their resumes. In fact, all three students in the winning group already have jobs. Brandon Sockwell is working in Austin Texas for a company called Invodo. Meredith Rauh is working at GSI Commerce. Rachel Bruton will be working abroad at UBS Financial Services in London for the year. All three of them are interested in continuing some kind of work in the online marketing industry. Flaherty said the competition was one of the best experiences of her academic career. She was happy to take on the extra set of responsibilities of teaching these students because they continually demonstrated a true love of learning. Flaherty said “While I am proud of all 15 of my students who volunteered their time to participate in the Challenge, I am especially proud of my team that won the Americas region.”
In addition to this team's first place win in the Americas, there were two other JMU teams who were semi-finalists in the Americas region, ranking them in the top 50. While this is the best placement JMU has had, they definitely aren't new to this competition. In 2008, JMU placed five teams in the top 10 percent. I'd say JMU students are making a pretty good name for themselves in online marketing.
JMU Marketing Students Earn Top Spot in Google Challenge
JMU Marketing Students Earn Top Spot in Americas in Google Challenge
The Google Online Marketing Challenge