Illinois State College of Business students have been helping small businesses in Normal that have been affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In December, 50 local businesses received grants from the Town of Normal’s Small Business Relief Program. Three of those businesses partnered with Illinois State’s American Marketing Association (AMA) chapter in order to receive digital marketing support from qualified students.
Integrated marketing communication majors Cam Hinman and Kiara Rodriguez assisted Uptown Gifts and Accessories, a family-owned boutique in Uptown Normal. Hinman helped owner Kristin Moore create a marketing plan, while Rodriguez assisted with social media.
“We created a marketing plan that included an analysis of the company, competition, buyer journey, and sales funnel before the pandemic and now,” said Hinman, a sophomore from Normal. “Based on these insights, our plan and creative materials focused on changes to the website, social media, and in-store content and channels to improve sales and visibility.”
The students wanted to increase the shop’s online presence while improving its online transactions through Shopify. While Hinman focused his efforts on analyzing and planning, Rodriguez partnered with classmate Catherine Coffey to expand the reach of the shop’s digital marketing.
“My partner and I would set up Zoom meetings with the owner, and she would communicate the troubles that she was having with her digital marketing,” said Rodriguez, a senior from Aurora. “Then, we would go and help with whatever she needed, whether that was an email campaign or an Instagram post.”
Other AMA students assisted two small businesses in Normal with their digital marketing: Wild Country, a sporting goods store, and Fabulous Affairs, a bridal shop with wedding planning services. Each group completed approximately 30 hours of work for their client over the winter break. For Rodriguez, the short timeframe for the project was the biggest challenge.
“I did have another job, so it was hard at times to balance everything,” said Rodriguez. “But in the end, we were able to make it all work out.”
Assistant Professor of Marketing Dr. Aaron Charlton served as the facilitator between the students and the businesses.
“I was really pleased that the student projects went so well,” said Charlton. “They had a tight deadline and only limited guidance, and they went in there and got the job done.“
Moore was also impressed by the students’ work ethic. “Working with the ISU students was very helpful and an overall great experience,” said Moore in a previous story. “The students made astute assessments of our social media/online presence that will help us make informed decisions going forward. It was a very worthwhile exercise.”
In fact, Charlton says that some students have even been hired by their clients to continue their digital marketing services as paid employees. The emerging opportunities for students to gain real-world experience are perfectly in line with Charlton’s teaching philosophy.
“It’s very important to invest in our young people and to give them a chance,” said Charlton. “They don’t have all the training and experience yet, but they are the future and we can benefit from their fresh perspective and intuition. I’m grateful that the Town of Normal and our local business partners trusted our students.”
The project enabled students to apply the skills they’ve already gained from their courses and their extracurricular activities in the professional world. Rodriguez credited her major for providing her with knowledge about Adobe programs, social media, and efficient client communication that she used on this project. Hinman drew from his course work as well as his involvement in registered student organizations such as Gamma Iota Sigma and the Sports Marketing Student Association, his internship with COUNTRY Financial, and his experience with the Innovation Consulting Community.
“I’ve learned many skills in developing a marketing plan, creative materials, and presentations,” said Hinman. “I’ve also been trained in design thinking, project management, and marketing, so I was able to apply those skills with our client.”
The project was meaningful to Hinman and Rodriguez on multiple fronts. For one, they can add this experience to their resumes. Also, Hinman, who has lived in Normal his entire life, expresses that his hometown pride is what inspired him to give back to his community. And while Rodriguez’s hometown is over 100 miles away, the project still hit close to home for her.
“I come from a family of small businesses and entrepreneurs, so I really understand where these businesses are coming from,” said Rodriguez. “I think that the work I did is something that made a difference. It feels good to give back.”