A-to-Z Index

2009 Google Challenge


JMU Marketing Students Top in Americas

Rachel Bruton, Brandon Sockwell, Meredith Rauh

Americas region winning team: Rachel Bruton, Brandon Sockwell and Meredith Rauh

In their final semester at JMU, three marketing students tackled a challenge of international proportions: The Google Online Marketing Challenge.  Rachel Bruton, Meredith Rauh and Brandon Sockwell didn't earn course credit or even internship credit for their design and execution of an AdWords campaign for MobileTours.org, but they did earn bragging rights. When their results were pitted against some 2,100 other collegiate teams from 57 countries, they were winners. Now, their resumes are padded with the title "top team in the Americas," branding them experts in the hottest advertising medium yet devised.


What is AdWords?
The innocuous text is Google's main revenue source ($21 billion in 2008), and savvy marketers use the product to pit Mom & Pop shops against multinational juggernauts. Businesses bid on a spot in search engine results, paying only when their ad is clicked. With the option to target ads by search terms, geographic area, time of day, and other parameters, AdWords has quickly become one of the most effective advertising media.

Volunteering for the Team
Like so many great college experiences, it all started with a beloved professor. Theresa B. Flaherty, professor of marketing in the College of Business, recruited a group of seniors for the Challenge. She split her "Fab 15" into five teams of three, meeting with them every Friday afternoon to get through the phases of the competition—partnering with real companies, outlining a strategy, assessing and changing the tactics daily, and submitting a final report with recommendations.

Why do all this? Because the students wanted to learn, Flaherty said. "It was one of the best experiences of my entire career," Flaherty said. "It was a highly motivated group of individuals with an extremely positive attitude towards learning."

Bruton, the Google Challenge team captain, says she didn't hesitate to sign up, adding this to a heavy course load and duties with Student Ambassadors and Safe Rides. "I loved having Dr. Flaherty as a professor and wanted another opportunity to work with her," she said. "I [also] believed the key to being a successful marketer was learning how to capture people's attention online. I wanted to learn how to use AdWords so that I would have a competitive edge when I entered the workforce."


Team Dynamics
Bruton's teammates had worked with her in other courses, and they were confident they made a good team. "We had a clear understanding of our individual strengths and weaknesses," Rauh said. "Brandon was our data analyzer, using information provided by Google Analytics and other online data. Rachel would start the creative process by looking at the big picture. I would take that big picture and focus on what would work best. I would edit, compile, and concentrate on the details."

Rachel Bruton, Brandon Sockwell, Meredith Rauh
"This afforded me the opportunity to put my marketing know-how
to the test in a real life setting," Rauh said.

The larger concern was scheduling, with Sockwell on the water polo team and Rauh an active member of Alpha Phi sorority. "We were all managing rather intense extracurricular activities," Sockwell said. "Finding consistent time to meet was often difficult and stressful."

To squeeze this into their schedules, priorities had to be altered. "Instead of a nap or happy hour, we would spend a couple hours restructuring a campaign or writing copy," Sockwell said. Bruton agreed that time management and task delegation were the skills she honed the most during the Challenge. "We found that dividing the work into independent parts and then getting together to put it all together worked best for us," she said.

Technology helped, too. They used Google's Docs and Google Chat applications to have virtual meetings and be "constantly in touch with each other," Rauh said. "So whenever something went wrong or someone did not understand a concept, it was very easy to ask one of the teammates."

In the end, Bruton estimated the threesome spent about 95 percent of the semester together, almost always working. "On one occasion we were stuck in a computer lab because of a huge snow storm. Although this would have been the perfect opportunity to work on the project, we were all too worried about how we would get home to concentrate. Thankfully, we did get home safely, and we were all able to work remotely."

Real Client, Real Money, Real Advertising Campaign
Their first group decision was which company to approach. Google's rules require a small to medium business, defined as fewer than 100 employees. The company must have a website, but cannot currently be running AdWords campaigns, and the budget is limited to a $200 voucher from Google.

JMU Dominates Competition
In addition to the first place win in the Americas, two other JMU teams were semi-finalists, ranking them in the top 50 in ther Americas region. In 2008, JMU placed five teams in the top 10 percent globally.

The team of Jessica Jacklin (team captain), Stephanie Scheper and Nicole Thornton earned a semi-finalist spot for its work with James McHone Jewelry in downtown Harrisonburg, Va. Since graduation, Jacklin has earned a position with a digital advertising agency. "In interviews, talking about AdWords and my experience with the Challenge helped me stand out as a candidate-and land a job," she said.

The team of Nancy Woody (team captain), Kye Swenson and Tim Seher, also a semi-finalist, partnered with Gentry Photography, also in downtown Harrisonburg. Woody initially volunteered after prompting from her sister. "She worked for a marketing firm where she often used Google AdWords," Woody said. "When I told her about [the Challenge], she said to absolutely do it." Now, she feels more confident going into interviews. "I don't think many other college graduates will have had this type of experience," she said. 

MobileTours.org fit the bill, and Bruton had previously met the owner while shopping for a summer job as a D.C. tour guide. It was a young company, founded in 2007, offering walking tours of Washington D.C.—guided theme tours, podcast tours, and unique phone system that allows tourists to receive historic information by calling a number while standing in front of a monument.

"We knew a lot of people would be interested in taking tours of D.C., especially during March, because of the Cherry Blossom Festival and the recent Inauguration," Bruton said. Sockwell liked that they could tweak the campaign geographically, targeting tourists nationally and on the eastern seaboard.

When MobileTours.org owner Richard Zielinski got the call, he viewed it as a great deal. "Not only did we get free advertising, but we also got a campaign that was custom built for our needs," he said. Initially, he was expecting just a few new site visits a day.

Working with a real client and budget were challenging, but it proved to be a highlight of the project. "I was looking for a hands-on approach," Rauh said. "This afforded me the opportunity to put my marketing know-how to the test in a real life setting." She lists establishing trust, communicating decisions, and coordinating with a Web developer living overseas among the obstacles.

Learning the Art of Google AdWords
The team developed three major goals for the campaign: 1) increase website traffic and sales; 2) achieve a high Click-Through-Rate (CTR) at a low Cost-Per-Click (CPC); and 3) allocate the $200 budget effectively. They designed two major campaigns, national and northeastern, and monitored the two campaigns daily to make adjustments as necessary. They achieved all three goals, including a 20 percent increase in sales for MobileTours.org.

In the post-campaign executive summary sent to Google, they outlined some of the lessons learned along the way: "how to maximize ad exposure by geo-targeting a market, budget management for an online marketing campaign, and insight into how people search through Google. We also learned to use the tools provided by Google such as keyword generator, dynamic keyword insertion, and traffic estimator to make ads more effective. During the competition we learned how to utilize long tail keyword strategies to more specifically reach a target market and how to use broad and phrase match effectively."

Help from JMU Alumni
The teams networked with JMU alumni working at The Rimm-Kaufman Group and Search Mojo, two Charlottesville-based search engine marketing companies.

JMU marketing alumna Rachel Cook ('07), a senior analyst at Rimm-Kaufman, said she enjoyed coming back to campus to explain the "real world" of Internet marketing. "I thought Internet marketing was all about coding and that you had to be an IT guru to make it. Not at all."

Communications alumna Janet Driscoll Miller ('93), president and CEO of Search Mojo, said her firm actively recruits JMU graduates. She recently hired Paige Payne ('09), a participant in the 2009 Google Challenge. "To our benefit, the ramp up time for him to begin working with accounts hands-on has been greatly reduced," Miller said. "Unfortunately, many colleges and universities, unlike JMU, do not offer Internet marketing as a course...[JMU stduents] know the lingo and the basics of Internet marketing so that they can speak intelligently about it in the interview process and hit the ground running."

JMU marketing alumnae Ashley Kennedy ('05), Avelyn Austin ('07) and Amanda Chaney ('08) also met with students.

Impressive Results
Zielinski was very impressed. "They knew the ins and outs of Adwords, how to target the audience, how to set payment limits, and which key words to use. Because Adwords is so popular, it is very competitive. To make your ads stand out, you need to set up a sophisticated campaign; the students at JMU knew how to do that, and now we are set up for the rest of the year."

Google was impressed, too. A proprietary Google algorithm, considering 30 different factors, determined the top 150 accounts in the world. Google AdWords experts then applied an extra level of rigor to select the top five in each of three global and regional winners based on the quality of two written reports: the pre-campaign strategy and post-campaign strategy. As the top team in the Americas region, the students and Professor Flaherty win a trip to the Googleplex in California and a new MacBook Pro.

Perhaps best of all, their experiences are opening doors to new opportunities. Bruton is now an intern at UBS in London, where her employers told her it was the Google Challenge participation that first caught their eyes. Rauh works for GSI Interactive, a part of GSI Commerce where they manage and maintain retailers' online stores. She is an interactive marketing specialist with a concentration in paid search marketing for retail clients. Sockwell is working for Invodo, a startup company in his hometown of Austin, where AdWords is a vital part of his daily responsibilities. "Without this," he said, "I would not have had the knowledge necessary to do what I am now fortunate enough to do professionally."