UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


MBA courses prepare students to be digital marketing strategists, not just consumers


In the fast-paced world of digital marketing, where new technologies are constantly revolutionizing the industry, keeping courses relevant and up-to-date can be challenging. With a strategy-based curriculum built to withstand rapid innovation, “Digital Marketing Strategy:  Search, Social, Mobile and Beyond,” an MBA course designed and taught by UNC Kenan-Flagler marketing professor Valarie Zeithaml, prepares students for the next big thing – whatever that might be.

The course provides an overview of digital marketing, with a focus on search engine, mobile and social media marketing strategies. While it familiarizes students with the latest digital tools, such as Instagram and Pinterest, its real purpose to provide students with broad understanding of digital marketing strategy that they can apply to any platform.

“It’s a very difficult course to teach because the industry is constantly changing,” said Zeithaml. “Every school wants to set up these digital programs, but it’s not easy. Very few professors are willing to take on this challenge.”

To keep up with the latest industry innovations, Zeithaml revises her syllabus extensively every time she teaches the class. Seven out of the nine Harvard Business cases that she used last course quarter were outdated by the next, so Zeithaml uses a steady news diet of technology and digital strategy blogs to bring the latest industry trends into her classroom.

Zeithaml recognized that UNC Kenan-Flagler needed a digital marketing strategy class during her tenure as the MBA Program’s associate dean. She received requests from students who were interested in developing their social media knowledge and skills, as well as recruiters who were looking for digitally savvy employees to help their companies use the new technologies.

“To be successful, it’s absolutely essential for every student to understand how digital fits into the overall management, marketing and tech goals of a company,” said Zeithaml.

While her students are digital natives, class gives them new perspectives on these tools and technologies. “Most students know how to use these technologies as customers,” she said. “But what MBA students really need to know is how to look at them from a company’s point of view – for branding, marketing strategy and customer engagement.”

To help students better understand companies’ needs, she brings in a variety of guest speakers from brands, advertising agencies and social media networks that represent the breadth of the digital industry. “I knew that getting people into the classroom with experience would be crucial,” said Zeithaml.

To find those successful digital marketing professionals, Zeithaml tapped into the UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni network. Facebook’s J.B. Skelton l(MBA ’10) led the class in a mobile marketing discussion, while Elizabeth Kreul-Starr (MBA ’07), Johnson & Johnson Vision Care director of professional marketing, presented on metrics, analytics and the ROI of social media. She also recruited Dean Hanlon of Razorfish, who shared his road map for crafting an effective digital strategy and presented one of his agency’s latest case studies. Students filled the whiteboard with their ideas for strategies before he revealed Razorfish’s recommendations for the client.

After completing “Digital Marketing Strategy,” students may enroll in an advanced course built around the Google Online International Marketing Challenge. In keeping with UNC Kenan-Flagler’s emphasis on experiential learning, students apply their digital strategy lessons. They work in small groups with local companies to design and implement Google AdWords campaigns. They learn how to select effective keywords and win the AdWords bidding process, while keeping costs down and measuring effectiveness. During the final presentations, they share their experiences with the class and learn from their peers’ campaigns.

By focusing on strategy, rather than the latest digital trends, students will be prepared to embrace innovation and thrive in the constantly evolving digital marketing industry, Zeithaml said. “I want them to have confidence that they know how to do this strategically, and if they don’t know, that they can find out.”