Meeting the Challenge: Classroom Takes on Social Content

A viral post on social media is all about timing and creativity. Whether it’s that hard-hitting article, an untenable controversy or a hilariously-crafted quiz, socially shared content runs rampant online.

But creating engaging content while serving business goals is no easy task. Is there a formula to creating contagious content every time? Dr. Scott Cowley, assistant professor of marketing, seems to have figured it out. 

As part of the digital and social media marketing course, WMU students are learning to create hyper-targeted, BuzzFeed-style content for a target market and engineer its success through good planning. Under Cowley’s coaching, students are gaining skills they can put to use in more serious marketing situations. “Hiring a WMU student who has experience in running a social content campaign from start to finish is a big bonus,” says Cowley. 

The BuzzFeed Challenge

Cowley created what is now dubbed the BuzzFeed Marketing Challenge while still a doctoral student at Arizona State University. After using it in class the first time, Cowley shared his success in a Facebook group geared toward marketing professors and soon had educators from around the country asking for materials. Cowley went on to win the Marketing Management Association’s AxcessCapon Teaching Innovation Competition and published a corresponding journal article, which brought more visibility. Now, Cowley openly shares his materials on, and faculty from dozens of colleges, including Dartmouth, Syracuse and Brigham Young, have used the materials successfully.

When completing Cowley’s challenge, students are tasked with researching topics, writing content and developing a plan to reach their audiences. Teams then publish their article or quiz on BuzzFeed and execute their promotion strategy to reach a minimum 1,000-view goal within a week. “We had to be very open to our team members’ suggestions, tweaking ideas and directions,” says Alex Gray, whose Star Wars-themed Thanksgiving quiz earned nearly 80,000 views. “At the end of the day, our team met the deadline and produced a quality quiz by relying on each other and communicating effectively.”

But it’s not always smooth sailing, and being able to quickly pivot is essential to a successful project. “Our original idea for the challenge put us a day or two behind because it violated community guidelines,” says Brenna Ingram, whose team’s post originally contained political content and was removed. “Navigating the issue put us behind in the first couple days. We had to swiftly change our content to get our quiz live.” The team’s quick thinking paid off, and BuzzFeed featured the group’s article on its homepage, bringing in several hundred thousand views.

Cowley says one of the most important parts of this challenge is for students to experience marketing for themselves, internalizing lessons from their own personal case studies. 

“When the target market has trust and feels valued, they are more likely to engage with the product or company,” says Ingram. “This project overall showed me the world of content marketing and taught me a lot about how to sell myself and a product (or quiz)!”  

And while there is no way to predict engagement, WMU students continue to exceed Cowley’s expectations. Recently, student teams collectively generated one million views, had several articles featured on BuzzFeed’s home page and had the chance to hear directly from Josh Peters, Sr., manager of video distribution at BuzzFeed. Ultimately, Cowley explains, BuzzFeed works wonderfully, but the specific platform is less important than the concepts students are learning through the challenge. “These students take away skills that organizations need in order to effectively reach large groups of target audiences,” shares Cowley. 

Now that’s something we all can like.