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Some might argue that a $250 marketing budget won’t buy much these days — especially in a industry like paid search advertising, which is expected to rake in $21 billion by 2018. But for students who have taken part in Google’s Online Marketing Challenge (GOMC), a project that Professor of Marketing Debra Zahay-Blatz has offered in classes throughout her teaching career, it’s enough to make a concrete impact.

As part of such courses, students create a digital marketing plan for a small company or nonprofit organization and oversee a $250 AdWords budget (provided by Google) to help meet the organization’s goals, from gaining visibility to adding new customers. In addition, students have an opportunity to obtain their certification in Google AdWords, an important credential for those seeking a career in Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

She shared four critical insights students might take away from the project:

The world is full of roadblocks, so resourcefulness is essential.

Textbook examples are designed to be tidy, but there’s almost never a real-world campaign that goes exactly according to plan, says Zahay-Blatz. However, when a student team worked on an AdWords campaign for the GOMC for a company that helped people who were recovering from anorexia, the students quickly discovered that Google carefully monitors the content on paid advertisements on the site: Because Google didn’t want to promote dangerous pro-anorexia websites, it was all but impossible to run an ad with the word “anorexia” in it. “The team had to rework their whole ad approach — developing new keywords, going through hoops — it was marketing in the real world,” says Zahay-Blatz.

Setting goals matters.

Too often, marketers leap into paid search advertising without a clear sense of what success — clicks, traffic, sales — looks like. Zahay-Blatz makes sure her students set measurable goals that they compare to their final results, instead of simply drawing the center of the bulls eye wherever they happen to land at the end of the project.

The world is full of data that has subtle insights.

Today’s online campaigns provide vast troves of data, but the real skill isn’t gathering the numbers; it’s finding the patterns that lie deep within them. “Students learn how to draw inferences from data through this real-world experience,” she says.

Real-life stories sell.

These days, employers don’t want to hear about the A+ that a student earned on a final. They want to know what students have actually done, and how they’ll apply those lessons to their company. “These are the kinds of projects that students can talk to an employer about in an interview,” she says. “That’s not something that you get when you’re taking a multiple-choice test.” Many students report that talking about the AdWords project and other project-based work in an interview helped them land an important internship or first job. 

The Bill Munday School of Business at St. Edward’s University prepare students for professional success by helping them build highly sought-after skills in both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Erin Peterson is a freelance writer.

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