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Business schools have to keep abreast of trends. Just as no company chief executive can now go before investors without a well thought-out social media strategy, no business school marketing course is complete without some mention of how to create brand communities and the fashionable sales tools emanating from Google and other social media companies.
At Warwick Business School, part of Warwick University, a social media module is being introduced for the first time this year as an option on its masters in marketing and strategy course.
Meanwhile, at the UCD [University College Dublin] Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, students can find themselves being sent on assignment with social media companies in the Irish capital.
As corporate spending on the internet overtakes television advertising budgets, social media will play an increasingly significant role in marketing strategy.
For companies, social media offer a more efficient way to track performance as they throw off so much data.
Most business schools offering masters courses in marketing tend to include social media as a separate module, but academics think it will soon be incorporated into the core curriculum and not require specific teaching.
“It reminds me a lot of the hype surrounding CRM [customer relationship management] teaching in the 1990s, when companies made huge investments in Siebel systems,” says Jaime Castelló, professor of marketing at Esade Business School in Barcelona. “But for us, technology is always just an enabler – it’s not a substitute for a strategy.”
In the sales module he teaches, Castelló uses everything from LinkedIn, the professional networking website, to video games to engage his students. But he says those on the MSc course are already familiar with the new technologies – something he says is not always true of the companies for which they expect to work.
“Some companies are still lagging,” he says. “They may have their Facebook page, but they are not willing to be open, in the way that social media ask them to be open.”
Enrique Casas, a social media consultant who gives a class to marketing students at the University of Barcelona, agrees: “In social media, we talk about marketing differently. We don’t talk about selling to the consumer; we talk about creating a relationship with the consumer. A lot of companies don’t understand how to use social media.”
David Arnott, academic director of the masters in marketing and strategy at Warwick, says marketing is still about what you know about your customer and what you understand about how your customer interacts with the technology.
“Branding is about trying to create short cuts so that when people go into a store they reach for your product automatically, rather than thinking about which one they want,” he says.
“The social media module we offer is trying to understand how and why consumers use particular social media. But I can imagine in four, five or six years’ time, social media will be gone and something else new will have arrived.”
In the 1990s there was a similar obsession about business schools offering courses on ebusiness, with the arrival of the internet creating all sorts of new opportunities. Arnott recalls that Warwick had a module provocatively entitled “The cynic’s view of ebusiness”.
It is not that he thinks social media does not have a role to play in marketing strategy. But he believes, as with the internet, social media will become second nature to business leaders and so fully integrated into the way they do business that it will not require specific teaching at business schools.
He says: “There was no necessity for a specific ebusiness course. Equally, you wouldn’t have had a module on telephone marketing. You can go out there and do a social media degree.
“But we tend to think a marketer needs to understand the spectrum of ways of communicating with your customer. While social media is a big topic – and one of the reasons we are introducing it as an option – it is just one marketing tool among many.”
But, as Arnott says, social media content is what students now demand of a marketing course. It is also what employers increasingly look for.
“We do have space to bring some of these particular issues that are current, attractive to employees and employers, and attractive to students. So in some ways we would be a little foolish to ignore the customer base that we serve,” he says. “But we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think there was something of substance in the module.”
Arnott believes one reason social media have been embraced by companies so enthusiastically is they see them as a way to reduce marketing budgets.
“One of the attractions of the internet and social media is they hold out the hope of relatively low-cost communications. Now in reality that is not quite true, because if you are really going to do it well you need the people who really understand how to do it – and that costs money.”
Arnott’s main concern is that students should not embrace the new ideas unquestioningly. “We want people to come out as thinking human beings, not try to apply models by rote. It is about understanding how those models, concepts and ideas can help run your business better. You can’t do that by slavish adherence to the models.
“It is about understanding people and how people interact, and then understanding how those frameworks and models can help you think through various problems.”
Arnott concedes, however, that it is difficult to know why people use social media, and thus how you create brand communities around your product.
“How an organisation creates that community is the challenge. How do you get BMW owners to talk to each other? A lot of businesses are interested in how you create a typical brand community – the brand advocates online. But it is all still very undeveloped.
“If you get 600 people to talk online about Heinz baked beans out of, say, 100m who eat them, that is not really what is meant by a brand community.”