WMU News

First foray into e-marketing a success, say students, professor

April 6, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Thirty-one graduate students at Western Michigan University's Grand Rapids Regional Center are wrapping up the University's first e-marketing course and many of them already are applying lessons from the fast-paced, fluid course to their jobs in west Michigan.

"The internet is becoming such an important vehicle for marketing information that we felt an immediate need for a course like this," says Dr. Roberta Schultz, professor of marketing, who taught Electronic Marketing during winter semester. "It's no secret that electronic commerce is revolutionizing the industry and we obviously felt it was crucial that we keep up with the trend."

How does one teach a course on a medium which changes on a daily, even hourly basis? According to Schultz, she and the students relied on one another. As part of the coursework, students brought in "contemporary business examples" -- information on timely, internet-related topics for discussion in class and on an online bulletin board. And Schultz's classroom was wired; if a student had heard of a new technology or visited a new and interesting Web site, the class logged on immediately.

"Part of the allure of e-commerce is that it is so dynamic, but that is also part of its danger," says MBA student Eric Hansen, who took the course to become more attuned to the new Web-based business model. "There are no facts proven by history which can be written in a text book. Clearly, it's going to be another 10 to 20 years before the legacy of e-commerce is proven. The Internet may prove to be a great fiasco, but certainly it will have been very exciting."

Hansen teamed up for a class project with Tim Parker and Jim Taylor, two of his coworkers at Bissell Inc., where Hansen is a research and development manager. With the blessing of the company's Web director, the trio tackled a vexing problem with online sales of its new ProLite vacuum cleaner.

"The internet is basically this wild, wild west, with prices running all over the place," Hansen says. "Obviously, we can't completely control pricing, but we did want to get some handle on what was going on out there -- our consumers expect some consistency. People were even stealing Web site content from our site and posting it inappropriately on their own sites, and we knew we had to get this problem under control."

So Hansen and his cohorts, as their class project, developed an affiliate program in which independent dealers agree to a minimum retail price and share revenues and referral fees. Bissell will provide participating companies with a Web template into which they can simply drop their company name and logo, creating an immediate and polished online presence. These templates also solve the issue of content theft from the Bissell site.

"Instead of being nasty or confrontational with these folks, the affiliate program allows us to provide a win-win situation for both parties," Hansen says. "Our consumers will find more equal pricing and they won't be seeing pilfered or outdated information. The content will be appropriate, and the symbols and trademarks correct. And the companies, especially the mom-and-pop shops, will get a professional presence on the Web that they otherwise could never have afforded."

Like Hansen, MBA student Tim Ruffini is using the information he learned in the course on the job. A product analyst with Haworth Inc., Ruffini says he took the course to learn about the latest technologies and understand how the Internet is driving today's business issues and opportunities.

The course helped Ruffini realize that a new Web model is quickly emerging.

"I've learned to think of the Internet as more than just a cyber-catalog, somewhere you go to learn about the features and benefits of a product," Ruffini says. "I'm thinking bigger, in terms of communities, relationships and experiences.

"For example, if you go to a site that sells running shoes, yes, that site has information on the features and benefits of those running shoes. But maybe it also has a link to information on health and fitness, or something that leads into a personalized program to increase your running performance. Suddenly, it's not just the shoes, it's the workout and the shoes and how they interact with your life."

That's exactly the kind of sophisticated thinking that Schultz had hoped her course would spark. Although some have suggested that e-marketing could someday be taught online, Schultz says the personal interaction between students was invaluable.

"We had students at many different levels, from those who designed Web sites for a living to those who had very little knowledge of the Internet," she says. "They learn from each other, and forced one another to think in new ways."

Schultz is slated to teach the course again in the Winter of 2001.

"You could almost take the class again next year, as fast as the Web is changing," Ruffini says. "The technology that drives the class will be completely different and it could be a completely different course in just a semester or two. One thing that surprised me was the volume forecasted for e-commerce. This isn't like the supposed video conferencing revolution that never really took off -- the Internet is going to change all our lives."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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