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Marketing amid a pandemic: WVU students, experts boost online presence for businesses hit by COVID-19

graphic of data from advertising campaign

A screenshot of a Google Ads campaign shows click-through rates and other data pertaining to clients served by Laurel Cook’s Marketing 389 class and other volunteers from the WVU community.

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While the closing of popular downtown burger joint Tailpipes left many crying in their fry sauce, the impact of that business shuttering stretched beyond grumbling tummies and milkshake memories.

Laurel Cook and her Marketing 389 students at West Virginia University had a dilemma on their hands. 

Every spring semester, the class takes on Morgantown-area small businesses as clients for a Google Ads campaign, a project aimed at boosting their online presence and brand awareness. It also gives the students experiential learning – in other words, real-world experience. 

Tailpipes was one of their clients until it closed in early March, leaving the class scrambling for a replacement. 

Then, COVID-19 reared its ugly head in West Virginia.

Cook, assistant professor of marketing at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, posted on a Facebook community group to see if any local businesses or nonprofits were interested in plugging the vacancy.

“I just said, ‘Look, we have students willing to provide an all-expense-paid advertising campaign with Google Ads,” Cook said. “I thought we might get lucky and get a few responses.”

She got 89 inquiries.

With stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines taking place, businesses had already been dealt – or were anticipating – the economic burden of COVID-19.

Cook now had a pool of candidates to choose from as a substitute for Tailpipes, though she didn’t have the heart to leave the other 88 potential clients in the cold.

“I couldn’t send these people up the river,” Cook said. “At first I tried tackling the advertising myself. But then I knew I wouldn’t have the time or money to pay for it myself. So I reached out to some colleagues and before I knew it, it blew up.”

She turned to the WVU community, which answered the call. Colleagues in the Chambers College (such as the Encova Center), Prospect and Price Creative, the Reed College of Media and University Relations volunteered time, effort and money to take the businesses as clients.

Clickin’ on all cylinders

One of them is a longstanding staple of downtown Morgantown – Gibbie’s Pub & Eatery, which has been in operation since 1989.

Over the years, Gibbie’s has been adored for its pub-like atmosphere with trivia nights, sports promotions and live music. That was all gone in a flash when the state prohibited dine-in eating at restaurants. They were now limited to carryout and delivery.

“We did have a carryout service, but it hasn’t been our main focus up until this point,” said Mike Gainer, owner of Gibbie’s. “So we had to quickly adjust to the new carryout regulations, which greatly reduced our hours and canceled our events. We are trying very hard to keep our workforce that has been with us for years.”

That reason resonated the most with Cook.

“Gibbie’s stood out to me because he (Gainer) talked about trying to keep his employees afloat and ensure their dependents were taken care of,” she said.

Gainer is grateful for the assistance and realizes that, perhaps, this was a wakeup call to running a business in the 21st century. Gibbie’s already had a Facebook page but it was infrequently monitored, and its website needed a refresh.

“Dr. Cook and her students helped us achieve more of an online presence and offered many suggestions along the way,” Gainer said. “We’ve learned that it’s helpful to have many levels of online marketing and not depend on just one source, like Facebook, for getting the word out.”

How successful has this marketing class been in bolstering online visibility?

One measure of success is the click-through rate, or ratio of users who click on a specific link to the number of total users who view a page or ad.

Globally, an average click-through rate is 3.5. For Cook and her students’ clients, it’s up in the double digits.

A family affair

When Cook joined the Chambers College faculty in 2014 after spending some time in the marketing world, she lobbied to teach a course covering basic marketing and statistical concepts relating to online tools and platforms, including websites, email marketing, search engine marketing and social media. She was eventually granted her wish. 

The Google Ads campaign is one major component of the course.

An ultimate goal, Cook said, is to land clients on page one of Google search results. For instance, if a new Italian eatery opens in Morgantown, it likely won’t show up on the first page of Google results if you search for “Italian eateries near me.”

The ad campaigns are funded through a Google grant, in addition to each student contributing $50 of his or her own money. There’s no textbook, so that’s the only student expense, Cook said.

Emyle Johnston, a marketing senior from Weston, had no problem chipping in for her client – her father’s business, Johnston Equipment. The 37-year-old family-owned business specializes in farm and heavy machinery equipment.

“It was a perfect time to run this Google Ad campaign,” Johnston said, “especially in the equipment industry since people are mandated to stay at home. The popularity of growing your own food and doing projects outside can require this equipment.”

Johnston and her teammates helped her father’s company launch a “It’s Time to Get Dirty” campaign that generated 129,224 impressions.

“Using word play about getting dirty or being outside proved to make our campaigns successful since people are home and in the market to buy the equipment they need and want,” she said. “Our ad campaigns were so successful that my father would come home and tell me and my family almost every day that he was swamped with customers and calls, which in turn, made them busier than ever.”

Plus, Johnston’s group got their account connected to Google My Business, an accomplishment that elevates ads higher in search engines. It’s one notch in a long list of skills acquired in Cook’s class.

“Dr. Cook fosters a creative learning environment that it truly does not feel like your typical college course,” Johnston said. “We get to be hands-on with not only our Google Ad campaigns, but she prepares us for the future by having us complete various platform certifications like HubSpot, Hootsuite, and Google Ads to add to our resumes, making us attractive to future employers.”

Serving those who served

Brett Simpson saw Cook’s post on Facebook, too, only he wasn’t selling any tangibles like bar food or farm equipment.

Cook’s class also works with nonprofit organizations. Simpson is CEO of Operation Welcome Home, a job placement service for veterans. He had considered running his own Google Ads campaign for Operation Welcome Home, but didn’t feel like he had the level of expertise to do so.

Though COVID-19 was not on his mind as he sought partnering with Cook’s class, the pandemic eventually made the project seem more worthwhile.

“As COVID-19 hit, it became more important and relevant to us as we are a veterans job resource and career placement organization and there will be so many veterans looking for employment in the near future,” said Simpson, an Army veteran. This will help the public know where to go to seek help if they didn't know about our organization already.” 

Once the semester ends, clients have the option of continuing the campaigns on their own. Simpson sees this as a likely possibility, thanks to the guidance given to Operation Welcome Home by Cook and her students.

“This has created a framework and provided us the knowledge to use Google Ads in the future -- something we would normally have to pay large amounts to another organization to do for us,” he said. “This is a total win for both Operation Welcome Home and the veteran and dependent population in our community.”

With no foreseeable end to the pandemic until a vaccine is available, more businesses may continue to struggle into the fall and beyond. Cook is hoping this class will now be offered in both the fall and spring semesters to lend those entities a hand.

“I didn't realize quite how bad it was until I heard their stories,” Cook said. “They’re desperate to not have to lay anyone off. And they’re also desperate to just have a source of income. 

If anything, businesses working with Cook and her students in the future will be better positioned to encounter any variety of disruptions that emerge by having a solid online presence.

“It’s 2020,” Cook said. “There’s no way around it. Small businesses can’t exist in physical retail space alone.”

And if there’s another influx of requests, they’ll have a legion of volunteer Mountaineer marketers on standby.



CONTACT: Jake Stump
WVU Research Communications


Heather Richardson
Assistant Dean of Communications
John Chambers College of Business and Economics

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