Classroom Spotlight: Students run $10,000 ad campaigns during Mercer course

Mercer professor Dr. Lane Wakefield (standing, left) and students Marissa James (sitting), Kendra Houghton (center) and Emily Stepp talk about the Google advertising campaign project.
Mercer professor Dr. Lane Wakefield (standing, left) and students Marissa James (sitting), Kendra Houghton (center) and Emily Stepp talk about the Google advertising campaign project.

A new class at Mercer for the spring semester paired students with nonprofit organizations across the country and $10,000 in funds for search engine advertising campaigns.

Dr. Lane Wakefield, assistant professor of sports marketing and analytics, created the digital marketing course. He was inspired by a class he took as a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University. 

“I think anybody paying attention to marketing knows that digital marketing is in high demand,” he said. “We go through everything from how websites work to how to run advertising campaigns. It’s pretty broad, but the project digs deep into search advertising.” 

Two years ago, students in Dr. Wakefield’s event management class ran event advertising campaigns through the Google Online Marketing Challenge, which gave each group $300 for their projects. Google discontinued the program the following year but brought it back with new rules and increased funding for this year.  

Dr. Wakefield’s application was accepted, allowing his digital marketing class to join in the revamped challenge. Twenty-five students – divided into six groups – were enrolled in his upper-level, special topics, online course.  

Each of the student groups was paired with a U.S. nonprofit and received $10,000 from Google to run search campaigns for that organization. His students worked with End Hunger in America; the Museum of Discovery and Science in Florida; Flag Steward in Colorado; Adirondack Council in New York; Eastside Torah Center in Washington; and The Oneness of God in Christ in Texas.  

They put together a campaign strategy with their nonprofit partners to increase their website traffic in order to reach their goals, such as awareness and fundraising.

The groups wrote Google search ads and tested them throughout a four-week period, analyzing performance data and revising or rewriting the ads and keywords along the way. They launched their campaigns in late March and turned in post-campaign reports and video presentations on April 26. The organizations will be able to keep using the successful ads in the future, senior Emily Stepp said.  

Stepp and Juniors Kendra Houghton and Marissa James, all marketing majors, worked with the Museum of Science and Discovery. The campaigns they created should help the museum gain more traction in the Fort Lauderdale area and surrounding counties, Houghton said. 

Few students have run campaigns with a $10,000 budget and had the kind of freedom that this Google challenge allowed, Dr. Wakefield said. The partner agencies offered guidelines, but the Mercer students ultimately made the decisions. James said she has never had that kind of an opportunity in a class project.

“It’s a difference-maker on their resume because of that reason – the high-dollar budget and lots of responsibility and control,” Dr. Wakefield said. “I’m always thinking about what I can do that’s going to help students be successful, and in this case, it’s learning the concepts and putting together a story for their resume that fits the jobs they want.” 

Dr. Wakefield required his students to complete the Google Ads Fundamentals Assessment at the beginning of the course, and they could receive extra credit for completing other certifications, such as in digital sales, display, mobile, shopping or search. This could put them ahead in the job market, since many employers hiring in digital marketing fields are looking for candidates with these certifications. 

The students also learned how to communicate with managers and work well with other people, and they gained a great understanding of how businesses operate.  

James said she enjoyed learning the behind-the-scenes process of how search ads are made, and that real-world experience will benefit her in the future. Employers want people who already have this kind of experience and don’t have to be taught these skills, Houghton said.  

Houghton and James said the campaign work in the class helped them secure summer internships. Houghton will be working with the Macon-Bibb Industrial Authority and James with the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. 

“Mercer makes sure we are all prepared … (so) we’re the most competitive candidates,” James said. “I’m a lot more prepared, and I feel like I’m a lot more confident in my skills, so when I go into my internship I will kind of have a footing as to what I can and cannot do.” 

Photo by Rebekah Howard: Mercer professor Dr. Lane Wakefield (standing, left) and students Marissa James (sitting), Kendra Houghton (center) and Emily Stepp talk about the Google advertising campaign project.

Andrea Honaker is a digital content specialist at Mercer. She writes feature stories for The Den and creates and maintains content for primary University web pages. She also plans and executes campaigns for the primary official Mercer University social media accounts.