Greenwood may be known for its mild year-round climate, attractions, festivals and recreational options, but the county also is home to several notable institutions of higher learning and up-and-coming small businesses. It was this later combination of resources that inspired Ben Calhoun, area manager and business consultant at the Greenwood Area Business Development Center (SBDC).
“When I moved here in 2018 to manage the Greenwood Area SBDC, I recognized there was a great opportunity for collaboration between university students and SBDC clients,” said Calhoun.
When presented with the idea, SBDC advisory board members, local business owners and faculty from Lander University, Erskine College and USC Upstate agreed. This was the go-ahead Calhoun needed to launch the Business-College Connection Program (BCCP), an initiative designed to provide students real-world experience and business owners with insight from people with their pulse on the latest technology trends, affordable market research and the insight needed to become more competitive.
“In January 2019 I distributed a prospectus to local college professors and SBDC clients soliciting their participation in the program,” said Calhoun. “I asked business owners to identify any challenges they were facing and the educators to provide their areas of expertise and course description. From the applications I received I paired SBDC client Piper Buck with the Digital Marketing course led by Dr. Cherie Rains, assistant marketing professor with Lander University.”
The program was officially launched the Fall semester of 2019. Students of Rains’ Digital Marketing course learned that in lieu of a conventional class structure, they would be working in teams to meet the needs of an actual client. Rains is an advocate of the program saying that it challenges students to use what they are learning in a realistic setting. “My goal as an educator is to have students prepared for their careers as they walk across the graduation stage. A program like the BCCP offers exactly that. Students have the advantage in the job market of having a portfolio of work to show future employers. No textbook offers such an experience.”
“We were excited to participate in this program,” said Julie Schlageter, co-owner of designer handbag brand Piper Buck. “At the time we were struggling to understand how best to use social media and digital marketing to promote our business and attract more clients. As a small business, we didn’t have the budget to hire expensive consultants. We saw the BCCP as an opportunity to not only receive much needed insight but to also offer college students a ‘real-world’ scenario with practical applications.”
After introducing themselves to the class, Piper Buck co-owners Julie Schlageter and Caroline Furman provided students detailed information about their company, identified what assistance they needed to gain a competitive edge and described their desired outcome.
“We wanted recommendations on how to launch a social media marketing campaign that would reach our target market and inspire them to buy our product,” said Furman.
Working in teams, students were asked to analyze every aspect of the client’s digital footprint and develop a portfolio of recommendations with an implementation plan they would present formally to the client at the end of the semester.
According to Rains, the students assessed online data to better pinpoint Piper Buck’s target audience, scrutinize social media channels to determine which would be most effective, create consistent messaging and develop an implementation timeline.
“By examining the client’s social media analytics, products and pricing, we were able to determine that the ideal target audience for Piper Buck is professional women between the ages of 28 and 35,” said senior Jessica Johnson of Spartanburg.
When asked if they preferred the BCCP format over a traditional classroom structure, students were unanimous with their praise. “I enjoyed working toward a real-world end goal as opposed to just a grade,” said Madison Copeland.
According to Beverly Augustine the BCCP is highly preferable to a traditional class where rote memorization and cramming for a test are the norm. “I learned things that will have valuable applications after graduation,” she said. “This required critical thinking, the flexibility to work effectively as a team and the ability to adhere to strict deadlines.”
The owners of Piper Buck also hailed the program. “The students showed us the importance of using social media to tell clients our backstory and that for our digital marketing strategy to succeed we had to be more spontaneous, less structured with our approach.”
In light of the positive feedback he’s received, Calhoun says that plans are already underway to offer the program in the 2020 Spring semester. The long-term vision for the program is to include students, businesses, and colleges from Greenwood, Laurens, Edgefield, Abbeville, McCormick, and Saluda counties in an annual competition. The competition will be an opportunity for the participants to showcase the results of the program and share practical tips with business owners in their local communities.