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VCU Business Librarians help marketing class discover consumer insights

August 30, 2019

To outsiders looking in at academia, one perception can be that research is an abstract concept that is separate from real-life impacts. That perception is shortsighted, says Business Research Librarian Janet Reid

Reid, who worked in corporate life before becoming a business reference librarian, points to one School of Business Class, Marketing 310, “Information for Marketing Decisions,” as an example of how undergraduates learning basic research methods reaps tangible learning outcomes, delivers real solutions to a client and builds skill sets that appeal to potential employers. 

“Marketing”--roughly defined as actions that position a product or service, price it competitively and promote it to attract customers--is a core function in the business world. Sensible and successful marketing decisions are rooted in understanding, knowledge and research about potential customers that “goes far  beyond Google and Wikipedia,” says Assistant Professor Katie Gilstrap who has designed an intense hands-on course for “Marketing Decisions.” 

Gilstrap takes a learning-laboratory approach to teaching. Her experiential learning approach builds on her significant industry experience. Before her career teaching business, she was a senior vice president and director of marketing at FirstMarket Bank and a business analyst for Ukrop's Supermarkets.  

“Essentially, Information for Marketing Decisions  is a class about customer insights. I wanted to give them a real project to work on.” 

She tasked the class to work with the venerable The Jefferson Hotel, a historic landmark hotel in downtown Richmond. This luxury historic hotel has a strong client base from the Baby Boomer era. Its management asked the students to explore how the hotel could position itself with affluent Millennials to enlarge its customer base and prepare for a bright future.  

The project came about in spring semester 2019 through the leadership of a School of Business alumnus, David Crowl. The former executive in the hospitality industry wanted to give back to his alma mater by getting more involved with the school. He approached his contacts at The Jefferson about becoming the client for the course.

The students in the class split into nine teams that would compete to create the winning proposal that would be presented to The Jefferson management. Crowl committed to fund financial scholarships to members of the teams that provided the strongest analyses, recommendations and presentations. In essence, the students who pulled the concepts of the course together most effectively for a real-world client. Each team came up with recommendations for The Jefferson managers. Their conclusions were rooted in market research. 

Before the real work could begin, Gilstrap laid the foundation with her students by bringing in various subject matter experts for workshops on research methodologies. 

  • An expert in ethnography, Dean Browell, presented about how to conduct a systematic study of people and cultures. In the era of social media, this process in part is “social listening,” monitoring influencers and trendsetters posting on social media to ascertain patterns of beliefs, values and interests in certain demographic groups. 
  • A resource from a Richmond-based market research firm coached the students on how to design a valid survey instrument and conduct a field study. 
  • An expert in demographics and differences among age groups, Erin Weinlend of SIR  worked with the students on the nuances of generational identity. 
  • Business research librarian Reid met with the class several times and presented about how to use secondary sources using VCU Libraries resources. 

“Janet came in a number of times to punctuate the semester with presentations, coaching and participating in a round robin, speed-dating sort of session where students could bounce ideas off her one-on-one,“ said Gilsrap.

The one-on-one relationship building and teaching led to an uptick in student knowledge and awareness as measured by a survey. Use of library resources increased and Reid saw an increase in appointments. “I tried to emphasize that learning is a two-way street and to communicate that students can benefit from tapping these library resources, that they are  paying for in their tuition. You have to be proactive and do the research, explore questions and seek answers with a critical eye. No one is going to tell you want to do or think. You need to gather the information and do the analysis yourself.” For many students who are accustomed to being told step-by-step what to do in a course, Reid mused, this was a new way of working.

Business and Public Affair Collections Librarian Pattie Sobczak worked with Reid on this class. She notes she wanted to stress to the students that “library resources and databases such as Mergent Online, ReferenceUSA and Business Insights are the same used by professionals in business and industry. Because of this experience in this class exploring these materials and creating a research program, you can show employers that  you have experience with these key databases. You’ll be able to take this with you as a skill set.” 

For the class, the librarians  

  • Provided a broad overview of resources for class assignment.
  • Presented fundamentals of database searching.
  • Answered questions from students on how to find the answers using databases and how to use databases to complete the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis. 
  • Conducted consultations with students regarding research strategies. 
  • Created pre- and post- surveys to capture the change in students’ awareness of library resources.  

“It  was a very cool set-up,” says Gilstrap. “Nine teams tackled the same problem. They all made formal presentations. They left the class with tangible skills. They learned how to write a survey, do social listening property, and do scholarly research and apply it to market-decision making. The mentors, like Janet, helped groom them. The class was about real skill building and real professional connections with local businesses.” 

Gilstrap is teaching the same course during the summer session, using a similar experiential approach. The client is the ICA and the problem students are researching is about building brand awareness and overcoming barriers related to contemporary art. In the fall semester, the client will be the Target company and in spring 2020, The Jefferson Hotel will get another round of student research and recommendations. 

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Courses like this marketing class are a growing trend at VCU. According to the VCU Outcomes Survey, of the students in the Class of 2017 who participated in experiential-learning activities, 86% reported that their experiences helped prepare them for the workplace. As part of an emphasis on increasing student participation in those valuable types of learning opportunities, VCU REAL (Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning) is an initiative to help make experiential learning an integral part of the education of every VCU student.

VCU REAL is a student-centered and faculty-driven effort to ensure that students have at least one high-quality, experiential and career-focused learning experience while at VCU. Programs throughout the university already integrate experiential education, such as research and internships, but REAL will provide a common thread and anchor for all experiential-education activities at VCU. The goal is to have students enrolled in courses that are being tracked with a REAL designation by fall 2019.

Courses like this one are a hallmark of the VCU School of Business. Its strategic plan emphasizes creativity, experiential learning and problem-solving skills.

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