Big consumer-products companies are going back to school.
Businesses including Sprint Nextel Corp., Levi Strauss & Co. and Mattel Inc. are sponsoring college classes and graduate-level research to get help with their online marketing from the young and hyperconnected. Sprint, for example, supplies a class at Boston’s Emerson College with smartphones and unlimited service in exchange for students working gratis on the company’s local Internet push.
Universities, in some cases, receive funding or proprietary consumer data from companies for their research. Students get experience they can display on their résumés, and add lively classes to the usual mix of lectures and written exams.
“We are helping students to go out and get hired,” says Randy Hlavac, an instructor at Northwestern University’s Medill School. “They’ve done the work.”
The partnerships are emerging as businesses are scurrying to bolster their ability to engage with their customers on the Web by using Facebook, Twitter and the like.
Of course, some parents may be surprised to learn their tuition dollars are helping to underwrite corporate marketing in addition to their children’s education.
Sprint provided students in an online marketing class at Emerson College with 10 smartphones with unlimited wireless access. In exchange, students blogged, tweeted, produced YouTube videos and posted Facebook updates about the launch of Sprint’s 4G network in Boston. “We’re teaming up with the class again this semester it worked so well,” says Sprint spokesman Mark Elliott.
On a recent Tuesday evening, the students of Emerson Social Media—or #ESM, as the students refer to it on Twitter and elsewhere online—settled on the concept of a Twitter-based scavenger hunt to help spread the word among Boston’s college population about Sprint.
“The winner could maybe get a free phone,” a student said.
“Or maybe, like, free service for life,” said another.
“We should probably check with Sprint before we offer that,” said student Caroline Richov, who explained how the students would execute the campaign by posting instructions to Twitter and Facebook. She suggested telling people to take a Sprint phone, go dance in front of Boston’s Quincy Hall, and upload a video of themselves “and we’ll tell them why it’s better to use Sprint.”
Ms. Richov says her experience using Sprint’s Evo smartphone and working for the company has changed her opinion of the brand, which she associated with “the old, clunky, Nextel phone.”
“I am certainly more likely to go with a Sprint phone than I ever was before,” she says.
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