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Why Marketers Depend on Students for Social Network Campaigns [Update]

Giving internships to college students who want to learn about real world business is an old practice. But it seems that the pupils must teach the pros. According to the WSJ, such companies as Sprint Nextel (S), Levi Strauss, and Mattel (MAT) are getting students to run their online marketing campaigns.

Universities get paid in cash or previously unavailable data (great for professorial projects), students get something to put on the resumes, and corporations get to hide how little their executives may actually know about forms of media that most people almost take for granted.

As my BNET colleague Ira Kalb notes, many marketers have no idea of how social media can help their companies and brands:

Upon asking marketers if they use Twitter, the common replies I hear are:
  • "Why should I care if you are having a latte at Starbucks?"
  • "I already get status updates from LinkedIn or Facebook."
You'd think that people in top marketing positions would get social marketing cold and would consider using students in a highly supervised manner the way internships have run in the past -- as opportunities to provide experience in return for free student labor that undertakes low-level tasks. But this is the Year of the iPad 2, and social media is on everyone's mind. Here's a scary example from Reed Exhibitions, which puts on BookExpo America, a big publishing trade show. The following was the lead on a direct marketing email for a webinar:
Not sure what Twitter is and how it can help you? You're not alone -- join the Webinar and we'll demystify Twitter for you and give you tips that you can immediately use to engage readers and promote your brand.
That's right, it's that Reed realistically assumes that many not just authors but publishers have no concept of what Twitter is or how they could use it. That boggles the mind. [Update: Some people at Reed took what I wrote as saying they were somehow wrong to offer such training. My amazement was not at them, but at that there could be such a market among communications professionals who should have been at the head of the line in understanding.]

It's not that everyone knows everything about social media. Quite the opposite. But those in the media and marketing businesses should have some practical grasp at this point. After all, there are only 600 million people using Facebook. And according to, Twitter almost doubled its traffic from August 2010 to January 2011 to reach nearly 90 million users a month.

Apparently marketing people haven't been able to keep up, so they look to students to provide the missing grasp on the new media:

Sprint provided students in an online marketing class at Emerson College with 10 smartphones with unlimited wireless access. In exchange, students blogged, tweeted, produced YouTube videos and posted Facebook updates about the launch of Sprint's 4G network in Boston. "We're teaming up with the class again this semester it worked so well," says Sprint spokesman Mark Elliott.
There's nothing wrong with seeking ideas beyond your own, and if they come from someone younger, so what? In fact, for some companies, getting help from college students really would similar to a traditional internship. But there are too many indications that a lot of marketers remain well behind current reality. Maybe they're preoccupied with another new-fangled invention -- it's called television.


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