Community partnerships are paving the way for Illinois State University students in Dr. Aaron Charlton’s Integrated Marketing Communication course to gain hands-on experience with solving marketing problems.
The capstone class is designed to help Redbirds take their content knowledge of marketing and apply it to relevant scenarios involving real-world nonprofits and businesses. As part of the project, students not only pitch a solution to their clients, but they also come up with creative materials to demonstrate how their strategy could be used in practice.
In one of his classes this semester, the real-world client is Marcfirst, which serves “people with intellectual or developmental disabilities or developmental delays from birth until end of life,” according to Leni Kuntz, vice president of marketing and development for the organization.
The McLean County-based nonprofit was founded in 1955 “by a group of families who were told that their children couldn’t go to school,” Kuntz said.
“This was before there was any kind of special education programs in the schools,” she continued. “So those families kind of banded together and gave their kids an opportunity to learn and grow and to reach their potential. (Over) the last 65 years, Marcfirst has grown with some of those same kids.”
Today, the organization offers a wide range of resources, such as a pediatric therapy program, a high school transition program that builds life skills, a residential program for adults, developmental training, job coaching, and social activities.
As Kuntz explained, Marcfirst identified a need for greater community awareness and partnered with Charlton’s class to search for possible solutions. Participating Illinois State students are analyzing a number of different approaches to this marketing problem. Some groups are looking at search engine optimization, while others are considering events or partnerships within the community and on-campus that could benefit Marcfirst. The organization is also looking for ways to make its website more user friendly and hopes to create videos and other content highlighting the meaningful work at the nonprofit, which can be used as recruiting tools.
“We are very excited and just so so grateful that Dr. Charlton was open to taking us on as a client for the semester and working with us. The students have been so wonderful and they’ve asked so many great questions. They’ve really taken initiative, and they’re not afraid to share their ideas … They are seeing things from such a different perspective,” said Kuntz.
Senior Integrated Marketing Communications major Kristyn Bonk described working with Marcfirst as a “win-win for both sides.” Not only is the nonprofit gaining marketing insights and suggestions, but the students consulting on the project are receiving valuable work experience.
“This gives us students the opportunity to put our skills to the test and apply them to the best of our knowledge,” she explained. “Getting to work with a real-life client shows us a glimpse into our futures as marketers, and it also gives us more to talk about with future employers during the interview process. Don’t get me wrong, learning and interpreting vocab to later be tested on it is important, but in my opinion hands-on, real-world experience gives us the best opportunity to prepare us for entering the workforce.”
Bonk also noted that working with Marcfirst has been a meaningful reminder of “how important it is to stay actively involved throughout your community and how a nonprofit manages to stay on top of recent marketing trends.”
“I can’t say, ‘Thank you,’ enough,” Kuntz responded as she expressed her gratitude for the students’ efforts to “take a deeper dive into our world.” She also applauded their efforts to go the extra mile by coming to tour the Marcfirst location at 1606 Hunt Drive in Normal.
“We are so appreciative,” she continued. “We’re a nonprofit so we don’t have a lot of resources. My team works very hard and they are great, but there are only so many hours in the day and there are so many things we need to do. They are saving us so much time, and we can’t afford to hire a marketing firm to do all of these things for us.”
Senior IMC major Hayat El Rafie is in another section of Charlton’s capstone class and her group’s client is the Twin Cities Ballet. She and her peers are developing strategies for helping to increase attendance at the organization’s annual production of The Nutcracker.
“Especially as a senior, it’s very interesting to work with a real-world client because that’s what I’ll be doing in three months,” said El Rafie.
She also described how these projects challenge herself and her peers to “generate new and innovative ideas” and to consider questions about company brands and how to best convey their purpose to the public. They have also helped her to shift her mindset away from the theoretical to the real world.
“It’s impacting real people. This is not hypothetical anymore,” El Rafie said.
In addition to the ballet company, she is doing a project for Kibler-Brady-Ruestman Memorial Home. The senior observed the diverse clients fall at “the two ends of the spectrum” and have given her a taste of the reality of real-world marketers who work with multiple types of clients at the same time.
Charlton described ISU’s focus on connecting marketing students with real-world clients as “unlike anything” he has seen either during his own schooling or at other institutions where he has worked.
“It’s so much of who we are (at ISU),” the assistant professor said, “and I think it’s great for the students to have the real-world experience and real stories they can tell in a job interview. It just makes it so that when they get a real job they can just hit the ground running … One of the main things we do is really train them and push them on testing assumptions and questioning defaults. It’s a skill that students tend to not acquire until after they go into the workforce, so we try to push them on that in this class. Basically, it means improving their argument, improving their logic, making a better case to the client of why their idea would work.”
He also hopes to instill his students with the “ability to reason logically, be creative and make a sound argument.”
“They’re soft skills, but that’s what they really need in the industry,” he continued. “They can teach you content in the industry. They can show you how software works, but if you can’t problem-solve and if you can’t make a case for why your solution works, then you’re very entry-level until you get to that point. For some people it takes years, so I’m trying to speed them along that path.”