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Helping Business Students Learn About Social-Media Strategies

Social media have won fame for their role in supporting the Arab uprisings and for providing a rapidly expanding space for Arab networking. But, for many educators in the Arab world, going to college to study Facebook and Twitter still seems strange.

In the fall of 2011, the Suliman S.Olayan School of Business of the American University of Beirut started offering an elective course titled “Social Media in Digital Business.”

The course helps students to learn about how businesses use social media to build intellectual capital, communicate with society, and exchange knowledge with their global workforces. The course also explores the role of social media in shaping societal and business trends.

“Social media in business is no longer a choice,” says Leila Khauli Hanna, a marketing instructor at the university’s Olayan School of Business, who designed and developed the course in collaboration

with a colleague, Nelson King. “In today’s world being literate means being digitally literate,” says Hanna.

Layla’s view comes from her professional experience with social media’s proliferation. During her work as communication consultant to several local and regional brands, she noticed her clients’ interest in using social media in their business, which made her think seriously of teaching such a course.

The growth of social media across the Arab region is at a pace that is one of the highest in the world, according to the latest research by Deloitte, the global consulting firm. Arab companies are trying to capitalize on the popularity of social media to develop an in-depth understanding of their customers’ demographics and buying preferences. The ultimate goal is to engage these customers in an effective and convenient way, so they can get a competitive advantage in the market.

The “Social Media in Digital Business” course helps students think about the strategy, content, and analytics of social media. The students learn how to manage online communities relevant to a business, to determine the chief online influencers who are relevant to those communities, to look at the potential online customer experience, and to analyze the impact of online social-media efforts. Social media introduced in the food and beverage industry in Lebanon several years ago and tracked each semester by the students has shaped local consumer expectations about quality and service. Consumers don’t just expect to learn about products from social media, they want their complaints about those products to be resolved through social media.

Nelson King, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut who has a doctorate in Industrial and Systems Engineering and a background in information systems, worked with Hanna in developing the course from an analytics perspective. Hanna and King believed the course had to be taught jointly to blend their professional experiences in technology, social media, and marketing for the benefit of the students in a collaborative classroom setting. However, team teaching is still the exception, at least locally, because of the difficulty in allocating workload credit to the professors for joint effort. Now, after finishing their fourth semester together, the professors each believe they could teach the course independently but students would benefit the most from a jointly taught course.

Hanna and King used chapters from the Social Media Management Handbook, to provide a framework for the course. However, interaction with students and hands-on exercises in the classroom moved the course away from dependence on lecturing from a textbook. “Textbook publishers and their authors are wary of the rapid changes in technology and the challenges of updating so few textbooks exist, especially with an emphasis on [social media] strategy,” said King.

The key thing students learn is not the details of social-media platforms, such as how to open a Twitter account, but to think strategically about using social media. “Students mentor us on platform usage,” Hanna said. “We mentor them on how their expertise fits into the business.”

Hanna says the strategic focus goes beyond creating social-media campaigns. “Educators in social media should be facilitators more than teachers.” In each class, students always work on analytics-based studies of celebrities’ social-media presences and food-and-beverage industry marketing. In addition, students are assigned a comparative case study in other industries such as hotels, fashion, and banking.

Hanna and King employ a number of digital alternatives to traditional teaching. Hanna has used social media in her marketing classes, with both students and teachers tweeting during the class and using a “hash tag” for the class. Hash tags help to categorize tweets and make searching for tweets easier. She also involves other forms of social media to make the interaction more personal and more interactive with the students. “Students that are actively involved in social media,” she says, “consume more content than students who are not, in the form of curated articles from their social feeds.”

Before the social media course even began, Leila started branding her courses on Twitter with the hash tag #mktg225. Her students tweeted knowledge from the classroom, links to campaigns related to classroom discussions, and course logistics. When the Social Media for Digital Business course began, hash tag #mktg250d (now #mentoringsm) was born. “We continued this unstructured use of Twitter,” said Hanna.

The course has also tried to use other online platforms to share knowledge such as, an educational social network, to practice curation and promotion of content. “It’s a place to store our links that sat unused in our Moodle (learning management system) and add new content,” said King. In December 2012, Hanna and King established the website to bring together social-media practitioners with the students.

Beyond refreshing material every semester to reflect the rapid changes in social media, Hanna and King are looking forward to a follow-on course, “Digital Branding and Content Creation,” that will help businesses to support their brand online, in ways that go beyond the initial use of social media.

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