To use live clients or not to use live clients? Insights from educators, students and live clients on the benefits and disadvantages

by Ms Audrea Warner (Graduate School of Management, University of Auckland)

Over the past 30 years there has been an increasing interest in using real (live) clients in marketing courses (Bove and Davies, 2009). As educators we are constantly trying to find the balance between the importance placed on theory and its practical application. The challenge we face today is preparing our postgraduate students to not only have content knowledge, but simultaneously be able to work in teams and solve real life problems. According to Stern & Tseng (2002) as marketing is an applied discipline it is through practice that they will become more proficient.

The American Marketing Association (2017) definition of “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large”. Group projects provide students with the opportunity to develop these vital skills both now and in their future marketing roles. Group projects are one of the key forms of assessment that is used in the postgraduate marketing paper that I teach, but why use do we live clients? Some would argue that there are many other ways such as using “published case studies, participating in simulations or addressing hypothetical problems of established companies” , not just getting groups to work with actual clients (Parsone & Lepkowska-White, 2009). To understand the rationale for selecting to use a live client based group project we need to explore what live client based leaning looks like from both the student and educator perspectives?

Client based learning is when students work on a problem for a business client. This is normally a marketing communication problem that the client highlights for students. The types of organisations over the different cohorts have varied from small local businesses through to an internationally based accounting firm in the UK. More recently, the focus during the COVID 19 pandemic has been focusing on NZ businesses such as the like of Eden Park and Whale Watch Kaikoura as they navigate new and unforeseen challenges.

The contact with the company is normally limited to the initial brief that is created by the lecturer and the live client, this is followed up by a live question and answer session where students after conducting  a SWOT analysis can ask the live client specific questions. Such interaction provides real lasting experiences both through the initial interaction and culminating in the final presentation of their projects to the live client at the end of the 10-week quarter. All other communication is through a Google doc, created by the lecturer so students can add questions, these are then collated and sent in one email to ask the company directly any questions instead of them being bombarded with forty plus emails.  Alumni when asked for feedback on the value of live client project noted that they had developed skills relevant to their careers, such as research skills, writing reports and plans, looking at budgets, as well as carrying out evaluations to track the success of campaigns. Coupled with this are skills around collaborating in a small group, negotiation and creating accountability. Other studies by Cooke & Williams (2004) and Scribner, Baker & Howe (2003) also support this view noting in their research that students saw an improvement in critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.

Live client projects do have pitfalls. Some students in evaluations have noted that they find the project overwhelming. This is linked to the fact, that this type of live client project requires students to apply concepts and ideas, while creating an Integrated Marketing Communication Campaign to the live client at a high professional standard. The responsiveness of the client can also impact how quickly teams can work and slow responses can lead to more pressure. Finally, students have the added competition of having their final submissions being judged by a panel of leading industry experts. There is a lot of prestige of having the winning Best Overall presentation, best 30 second advertisement, client award and finally Best Integrated Marketing Campaign.

If we now look at this from the viewpoint of the lecturing staff, live client projects have multiple advantages. Firstly, it enables staff to have a ‘finger on the pulse ‘, in terms of emerging trends and practices. Secondly, working with live clients lets staff create more diverse networks that can benefit staff and students. Thirdly, working with live clients enables staff to work building relationships with businesses who are key external stakeholders. On the other hand, live client projects can also be challenging. For instance, even finding a suitable live client begins months before the course is in session. Sometimes waiting for a response from potential live clients can take weeks. One live client was very keen up to last minute only to pull out a week from the course starting, leading to frantic emails and calls to secure a suitable replacement live client.

Other challenges relate to setting clear expectations for students and the live client.  A lot more contact time is required in a group live client project, as students navigate the assessment criteria as well as navigate the problem. Each team meet the lecturing staff for one on one board meetings at least four times in the quarter as well as providing drop in face to face or zoom sessions for clarification and feedback.

Regardless, of the challenges, students often write messages about the value of the group project live client experience. In the words of a previous alumni.

The live client project provided a perfect opportunity to combine the knowledge I learned from previous courses into a real-world application scenario. It also provided space and freedom for me to be creative and offer innovative marketing solutions to the client” – Eric, 2020.

But how did the client feel about the end result? In the words of one of our latest live clients who we created an IMC during the pandemic, as they navigated the new tourism landscape.

“What a gift to sit and watch through these videos. It is very clear that each group have put a lot of hours and work into these presentations.

All the thought that has gone in to each groups marketing / social media plans has been so great to read. There is some great ideas among all your presentations that give me and my colleagues much to think about.

It has been such a pleasure to work along the students from the University of Auckland Graduate School of Management in their Marketing Communication course. To be able to share our businesses vision, values and mission is always such a gift and then to see that turned into the excellent presentations that the students put together is amazing. It adds a fresh perspective to what our product offering is about and also provides us with ideas of how we can further improve how we promote ourselves. I look forward to doing this again next year”- Lisa Bond, Whale Watch Kaikoura

The feedback from both past alumni and live clients is indictive that all parties gain a lot through this engagement.

A recording of the webinar on this topic, hosted by the ASCILITE Business Education SIG on 27 July 2021 can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CELq0a8Qke4

References

American Marketing Association. (2017). Definition of marketing. Retrieved June 13, 2021, from https://www.ama.org/the-definition-of-marketing-what-is-marketing/

Bove, L.L., & Davies, W.M. (2009). A Case Study of Teaching Marketing Research Using Client-Sponsored Projects: Method, Challenges, and Benefits. Journal of Marketing Education, 31(3):230-239. doi:10.1177/0273475309344999

Cooke, L. , & Williams, S. (2004). Two approaches to using client projects in the college classroom. Business Communications Quarterly, 67, 139-152.

Parsons, A.L., & Lepkowska-White, E. (2009). Group Projects Using Clients Versus Not Using Clients: Do Students Perceive Any Differences? Journal of Marketing Education. 31(2):154-159. doi:10.1177/0273475309334169

Scribner, L.L., Baker, T.L., & Howe, V. (2003). Efficacy of group projects in support skill acquisition: Student vs. alumni perceptions. Marketing Education Review, 13(1), 59-66.

Stern, B.L., & Tseng, P.D. (2002). Do academics and practitioners agree on what and how to teacher the undergraduate marketing research course. Journal of Marketing Education, 24, 225-232.

 

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Tom Worthington
2 months ago

The term “live clients” is curious. I would have thought that the term “clients” would be used to refer to actual clients, then a qualifier for synthetic clients. The computing profession has the same issues as marketing with the need to give students more realistic training. At ANU I help teach students working on group projects for real clients (about 200 students and 30 clients per year). Getting these clients, and keeping them happy takes a lot of staff time, but provides very valuable student experience. Some clients are academic staff, some are from government, some established companies. One team… Read more »