Digital marketing grads tackle needs of small businesses during pandemic

As part of their culminating experience at NIU, five digital marketing graduate students helped ease the burden placed on small businesses during the pandemic-related shutdown.

The students in Capstone Application in Digital Marketing (MKTG 684) provided businesses with the digital transformation they needed to stay relevant. The capstone course is taught by Mya Groza, Ph.D. and associate professor in the Department of Marketing in the College of Business.

To earn master of science degrees in Digital Marketing, seven of Groza’s 11 students took a client-based approach to their capstone projects, as opposed to a more research-based approach. Five students worked directly with small businesses this past spring to develop websites and social media campaigns. Their efforts took on added meaning as the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic hit and most small businesses had to physically close their buildings.

“The importance of digital technology was just amplified,” Groza said. Groza is a member of the small business task force DeKalb County UNITES (DeKalb County University and Neighbors Investing Together for Economic Success).

The task force is comprised of NIU and DeKalb County leaders and was formed to help small businesses remain viable during a period of restrictions and economic uncertainty.

Recently, Groza and fellow members conducted a survey to help gauge consumer sentiment in DeKalb County. Among their key findings: 70 percent of consumers either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that small businesses without websites are viewed as less credible, highlighting the importance of digital tools for small businesses

Groza is happy NIU graduate students were able to give small businesses the essential tools they needed to connect during a time of isolation. While beneficial to small businesses and entrepreneurs, the experience was engaging and educational for students, she said.

“There were so many benefits,” Groza said. “The students helped small businesses in a time of need and also have something to put in their portfolios. When they’re applying for jobs, they can point to these websites and say, ‘I did this.’”

Graduate student Kristen Killian, NIU’s enrollment communications coordinator in the Division of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications, redesigned a website for Big River Hardware in Sugar Grove. The small business’s product line revolves around antique radio restoration and unique guitar parts. Along with transforming their website, Killian provided the business with resources to maintain the site for years to come.

“Although COVID-19 unfolded in the middle of this project, it allowed me extra time to re-design their website,” she said. “Because of that, it made me feel like I helped a small business that could possibly be affected by the economic effects of the pandemic.”

Awarded the outstanding graduate student award in digital marketing this past spring, Kellsie Mohr of DeKalb worked with Wired Nutrition of DeKalb to create a new website for the business. Wired Nutrition, which opened in 2019, previously had marketed itself solely through Facebook.

Mohr, who is a customer of Wired Nutrition, asked owner Kimberly Zepeda if she’d like to collaborate.

“I was super excited,” Zepeda said. “A website was something we wanted, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it. Because Kellsie and I had built a connection through my customer base and had become friends, I knew what kind of person she was and I knew my website would be done to the best of her ability…

“It was amazing. She really listened to what I wanted and created it. I love it,” Zepeda said. “It was definitely an asset we were missing.”

Along with finishing her capstone project, Mohr found it rewarding to help a small business. With an undergraduate background in sociology, she said helping people always has been a top priority.

“Especially during all of this, with everything so uncertain, it was definitely something that brightened my day,” Mohr said.

Among other graduate student projects, Faiza Aslam created a new website for Ashley’s Pizza in Rockford; Milan Brown worked on a social media campaign for Crème De La Brim; and Jeremy Johnson helped Opticways with the creation of a website (no longer active).

reposted from NIU Today. M. De Jean, Director of Marketing

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