Students in Steve Matuszak's Marketing 4304, Integrated Marketing Communications, present a strategic integrated marketing communications plan to their partner organization. Photo by Andy Santos for Virginia Tech.

Even before Steve Matuszak, Assistant Professor of Practice in the departments of Marketing and of Management, began teaching Marketing 4304, the marketing environment was undergoing a tectonic shift. With substantive developments in interactive technology, the marketing function is no longer just about communicating to customers, but rather communicating with customers. This integrated communication involves a two-way exchange through integration with public relations, sales, and customer service.

To reflect this evolution, Marketing 4304 has evolved from Marketing Communications to Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) to reflect the substantive number of touchpoints through which customers and potential customers experience, interact with, and provide feedback on companies’ products, services, and brands.

Matuszak re-designed much of the pedagogical approach to the course to focus on “learning-through-doing,” as students undertake a semester-long project with a professional organization. Working with the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce as well as establishing his own business contacts, Matuszak was able to partner with local, regional, state, and national companies to match with student teams in the course. The student teams then act as marketing firms and work with their respective partner organization, as if hired, to develop a strategic IMC plan for the business.

Students in Marketing 4304 take notes in preparation for their integrated marketing communications presentation. Photo by Andy Santos for Virginia Tech.

What changes were made to the Marketing 4304 curriculum?

Steve Matuszak: The student teams give two major presentations to their partner organizations. The first presentation, done early in the course, is a client brief, where the student teams lay out their understanding of who their respective partner organizations are and what those organizations are trying to achieve. The second presentation, near the end of the course, is the strategic IMC plan, which is based on everything the student teams know about their respective partner organizations and what they can achieve given time, money, and resources. 

The course is now built around the two presentations and the teams’ interactions with clients – there are limited lectures and exams. The whole course is a project. The students work with real business clients, learning how to interact with the clients and, most importantly, listen to their client’s needs, which involves pivoting when necessary to accommodate unique clients, industries, goals, and more.

The partner organizations (POs) and I worked closely with the student teams to replicate a real marketing firm-client relationship with strategic deliverables. The POs give the student teams feedback aling the way, especially after each presentation. The student teams then reflect on that feedback and how they will incorporate it into their next steps and learning. I then give the students feedback from my instructor point-of-view to further guide how they are receiving and leveraging the client feedback. Receiving and leveraging feedback are critical for success in the marketplace. We are always learning.

How were partner organizations identified and matched with students?

Matuszak: As well as working with the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, I drive around the area, walk into different businesses, and talk to management. I rarely receive a ‘no.’ The partnership involves very little work from the POs. They receive an entire IMC plan from the student teams with very little output from the business’s end. The key PO contribution is their feedback to the students. I encourage them to be candid with student teams and tell them where they are on target and where they may need to revise their understanding of the client and their goals.

There is no matching process used to place students, I randomly assign student teams to POs. One of the important aspects of the course is how to learn about and work with an industry, product, or service that the students would otherwise have no interest in or knowledge about. And by the end, the students always show genuine interest in their clients and their products and services.

Marketing 4304 has evolved from Marketing Communications to Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) under the direction of Assistant Professor of Practice Steve Matuszak. Photo by Andy Santos for Virginia Tech.

What is the outcome of the course for the students and partner organizations?

Matuszak: In the course, the students are learning by doing, which is especially critical when you are teaching students about communication – which is an enacted behavior. They are organically learning how to listen and interact with their clients. This means catching the nuances between the lines of what clients say and how to ask strategic questions to get strategic information. The teams learn how to articulate back concisely and clearly their understanding and ideas to clients. They also learn how to provide their clients with relevant, applicable Marketing planning and communication strategies. But first, they learn to listen. Better listening leads to better understanding. Better understanding leads to better planning and, when often required, to better adapting.  Listen, learn, pivot. Most importantly, students learn how to pivot on the fly during the course rather than typical post-experience reflection. 

Students are not there to enact the marketing strategy. They are there to make recommendations. It is up to each PO whether they heed those recommendations. The POs also learn as well as the students, as many of the POs’ leaders do not have a Marketing background.

After the presentations, the PO gives the students direct feedback. That is the most important feature of the course. That is where the “gold” is. There is no better time to start learning how to receive and leverage feedback from clients (or superiors) than during college when students can receive coaching on how to do so before it really counts in the marketplace.

Taking feedback effectively is extremely hard, but significantly valuable. That is where the learning happens. That is where growth occurs – for all of us, including me as an instructor.

Steve Matuszak would like to thank the following organizations for their participation in Marketing 4304:

  • Absolute Treasures
  • Allstate Insurance
  • Bear Dance Market
  • Blouse House Creative
  • Body Balance Therapeutic Massage
  • Cleveland Primecare
  • Cleveland Primecare - Med Spa
  • Counseling Connect
  • The Crafter's Corner
  • FWM Candles
  • ForeLife
  • Headshot Photographer
  • Little Leapers
  • Long & Foster Realtors
  • Minerva
  • Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce
  • Nest Realty
  • NorthPoint Insurance
  • Orange Bandana
  • Sands Anderson PC
  • SlateCreek Builders
  • Sweetgrass Yoga
  • Wine & Design
  • Wonder Universe