The Professors of the Education Partner Program

  • Debra Zahay-Blatz

    Debra Zahay-Blatz

    Professor and Chair of Marketing + Entrepreneurship Depts.

    St. Edwards University

  • Courses Taught

  • Digital Marketing
  • Social Media Marketing
  • Principles of Marketing
  • Interview
  • Introduction
  • Twitter Stream

Interview with Debra Zahay-Blatz - St. Edwards University

Hey everyone. Thanks for tuning into The Teacher's Lounge, Hubspot's podcast for the education partner program. I'm Isaac Moche, your host for the podcast. Today we'll be talking to Debra Zahay Blatz, Professor of Marketing and the Marketing Entrepreneurship and Digital Media Management Chair at St. Edwards University. Thanks for joining us today, Debra.

Thank you very much, Isaac. Don't forget to say we're in Austin, Texas.

In Austin, Texas.

That's right.

Love that city. Why don't you kick things off by telling us a little bit about who you are and what you do at St. Edwards?

Well, as you said, I'm a Professor of Marketing and I'm Chair of Marketing Entrepreneurship and Digital Media Management. So, in my role, what I was really brought here to do was to infuse digital marketing in the entire curriculum, and we've also been including elements of that in the other majors that are under my direction, as well. But, the first thing we did was, we redeveloped the digital marketing, the whole marketing curriculum, to focus on digital marketing. So, there's digital marketing in every aspect of our program. We also have a new digital marketing minor, but you don't have to be a digital marketing minor to get digital marketing experience. The idea was to keep what was good about the marketing curriculum, which was a strong emphasis on theory and on the frameworks that we use in marketing to analyze problems and make decisions, but to also include some practical application.

When did that transformation begin?

Well, I came in two years ago. This is my fourth program, I think. So, I've done this at other places. But, what really intrigued me about St. Edwards is that they were willing to make some really radical changes. And I think it's just that they realized that the whole education landscape is changing and that we as academics need to change rapidly with it. So, it was actually quite refreshing. We had a whole process. We interviewed the students. We interviewed the people who were going to hire the students. We interviewed people in the administration. And we came up with a program that I think is really going to meet the needs of everybody. We did some research, as well. We found out that about 25% of all digital marketing jobs in Texas are in Austin, so it was a good fit for us to focus on digital marketing. And we did things like, take some of the traditional marketing classes out of the core and replaced them with digital marketing and analytics now as a required course. I don't think you see that at too many places.

So, a lot of it was the shift in the core curriculum. But, the second thing that you mentioned was applied learning, and I know you're incredibly passionate about that. So, how has that been integrated into both the minor, but the marketing program and the entrepreneurship program and the digital media program?

We looked at the skills that were required for each of these areas, and we actually put certifications where applicable in each one of the classes. For example, in digital marketing and analytics, they get certified in HubSpot inbound marketing, as well as in Google AdWords. They also get certified in the sales and relationship management class in the HubSpot inbound sales. But, in social media they're getting certified in the Hootsuite platform. In the marketing metrics class, they're getting Google Analytics, so there's a certification where possible and there's also, for practical experience, a simulation. So, we were even doing a simulation in principles of marketing, so students can get that applied skill.

There's one that we do in the digital marketing and analytics class. There's also the one that we do in the sales. I'm sorry. Not in the sales class, but in the retailing class, which is now called, Principles of Retailing and eCommerce. So, we kept a lot of the same titles, but we put eCommerce or digital marketing in them, and then put practical applications. We also do projects, so I would say certifications, simulations, and projects are probably the three ways that we get that real hands on digital marketing experience.

You've been teaching internet marketing for almost 20 years. How has the way that you teach changed over time when it comes to that applied learning? Has it always been that mix of those three things that you just talked about? Has one of them grown over time?

What has happened is that we're able to give students not only that theoretical background and have them produce plans, but we're also able to have them practice what they are learning, whether that be through a simulation experience or through an applied project. And just supporting all of this is the certification effort that companies have done, like yourself and Hootsuite and Google and Bing. I mean, they've really tried to help out students and give them the background that they need in order to get jobs in digital marketing. I always view these certifications like a driver's license. When I got my driver's license, I couldn't really drive. It was just a license to practice, and the certifications are kind of like that. You get a chance to understand what is available in Google AdWords, but you don't really practice it until you do a campaign.

I love that analogy. I actually use it with folks all the time. I think you had written it in a blog post. Your students get the driver's license. How do you teach them to drive? What's that next step? I know simulations are the step. What's that applied learning look like, those projects where they're actually practicing driving?

Well, for example, in digital marketing and analytics right now, this is really top of mind. With me, we're actually getting certified in HubSpot inbound marketing. And I twist it around a little bit. I start with blogging because I ... They're doing a blog in that class. So, I've kind of learned over the years that it's great to do projects with live companies, but there are some risks inherent in that, which I think we're going to talk about later.

Oh, yeah.

Yeah. One of the things you can do is have the students really use themselves as a project. In the digital marketing and analytics class, we're getting the certification in HubSpot inbound and learning about blogging. And then, we're creating a blog. And then, we link Google Analytics to that blog in Blogger, which is really easy to do. It's just copy and paste a UA code and you're all set. And then, you can see what happens to your blog as you make changes over time. So, you start out promoting the blog, then you do some videos, add videos to it. You do a short post, a long post. You promote it by email. You promote it over social media. And you can go into both Blogger Analytics and Google Analytics and see how things have changed. You're actually running a campaign promoting your own blog through the course of the class.

What's the trickiest part of that whole process for students?

I think sometimes the trickiest part is finding out what they want to blog about because their interests are still unformed, so that can be a little tricky. And then, I think from my point of view, sometimes the students don't really believe me that they're actually going to be able to do this. And they're often quite surprised when they see what happens, for example, when they do a long form blog post and have more engagement and less, fewer bounces from their ... On their blog. More time spent on the site. They're kind of surprised that they can see the results, and that's the beauty of digital marketing, because it's all immediate real time and you can make changes really quickly if things aren't going well. So, students will also say, "Oh. I wasn't getting that much traction on my blog, but I have changed some of the things I was writing about or how I was writing, and then I saw a difference."

What are some things that you've changed, whether it wasn't a fundamental change in yourself, but in the learning digital marketing that ended up into the classroom, where maybe you found a nugget as you were learning something or you learned along with the students, where it kind of ... You said, "Okay. I am going to have to learn this stuff." What did that evolution of teaching folks something that you were learning change about ...

That's a really great question too, because if I'd like anybody to learn anything from this podcast, is just do it. That's the Nike theme, the tagline. That's always been my philosophy. If you're going to teach this stuff, you just have to jump in and do it. My background was, I was a direct and database marketer, so I know a lot about the computer. And I convinced people when I was coming out of grad school that I could teach internet marketing. But of course, I had never been an internet marketer. That all happened during the years I was in graduate school, so I had to find out ways to learn this myself. So, one of the great things was the Google Online Marketing Challenge, which they've actually just discontinued, but I've also done it just as a regular company project. There, the students did search engine marketing campaigns, and I must've coached over 40 of these. And I really got a chance to see what happens when you make certain changes in AdWords ads, and changes to the website to associate with that ad. All these things that I'd learned about from reading about it, I got to see in real life.

I also got a chance to run a few marketing events and I did digital marketing for those events, so I did social media campaigns and AdWords campaigns for those events. And for social media, I think the most important thing was getting on social media for myself. So, I decided about four or five years ago, my students really needed expanded social media. And I was teaching a class called Marketing Technology. Half was search. Half was going to be social. I didn't go anywhere for spring break and I just sat in front of the computer for a week and I called all the people I knew who knew this at the time. And at the end of the week, I knew how to teach social media, so I created all these online profiles for myself and blogging, started blogging. It was the best thing I could've done because now I have a really strong online profile. But, you can't really teach about it, I think, until you experience it. And so, I guess what's changed over the years is that there's more opportunity to experience it because it's easy now to actually get online and experiment with some of these things.

Any mistakes you made during that learning process?

Yeah. There were a lot of ... I don't know if they were mistakes. I like to think about them as learning moments.

Yeah. I like that.

Yeah. Insights. Moments of insight. But, one of the things that's a real challenge is that, if you're working with real life companies, for example, sometimes they don't want to really participate. They say they will do the project, but then the students can't get ahold of them. So, you might want to come up with a process whereby they sign a contract and they agree to come a few times in class, because I've had some projects that weren't that successful for the students just because the company said they were going to work on it and then didn't.

The other thing is, I've had companies where they've been a little protective of what's going on. They don't want the students working on their website or suggesting changes. And so, that was a learning moment or insight for me. I had companies calling me on Friday night at 8:00 wanting to know what we're doing with their website. And so, I think it's really important to communicate with the company upfront and get a contract or some kind of written agreement in place, and a timeline for how this is really going to happen.

All right. That was my first question. I think there's a lot to unpack there, and this is really the meat of where professors get scared, is the volatility and the uncertainty of bringing businesses into the classroom. And I think you've got a lot of experience there, so not to bite off too much, but starting with the accountability. How do you create accountability for those businesses?

In addition to some kind of written contract or agreement is, I have conference calls with them and say, "This is what's going to happen." I also started working with companies with which we had a longer term relationship with the university. We may have had alumni there for a few years, or somebody was a donor, somebody who really had a stake in working with the university. And it definitely helps to work with a company that's large enough that they can sponsor a couple of projects in class. That actually worked out the best because the last couple times I taught that marketing technology class and we had the search project, there was one or two companies that were sponsoring projects. So, just it makes it easier for you as a professor to manage the relationship, because you're not trying to do it with 40 companies or 20 companies. And because they're committed, they have hired some alums and, or made donations, and they're committed to the university, they tend to be more committed to the project.

So, I would say that, that's one of the key challenges that I face, or mistakes that I made. And how I corrected it was getting buy in from more committed companies. And then, the second way was really streamlining the whole process so I didn't have to talk to a lot of people.

Did you find a component of expectation setting was important too? I always find it so fascinating when professors are like, "Oh," and the company was surprised that this was not the greatest work of all time. It's like, the kids are 20.

I make it very clear that I am assessing the students on how much they learn from the project. I am not assessing them on how they performed. It's great if they performed well, if they got a prize in a competition, for example, because competitions like the Google Online Marketing Challenge or the Marketing Edge Echo Challenge are really important, another important element of all this. It's great if they win a prize, but I always have them write a paper saying what they learned. And in their presentation, they have to talk about what happened and what they learned in the process. And then, I make it clear when the companies come in and we're assessing them, that we're really assessing them on their final presentation, on their ability to convey what they learned. But, actually the students often come up with very good results. We had one student group working on a search project for a photographer, and in the first three days of the campaign, the photographer got a $25,000 project.


Yeah. So, that was really nice. And so, we've also had other search campaigns where we did really well, and certain of the groups did really well, and the company was very pleased. They tend to come up with a lot of really good ideas. They tend to think out of the box because they don't work for the company full time. So, I set the expectation that this is a learning experience, but the benefit ... There are other benefits that might incur. We also had a ... At St. Edwards here, we did a social media marketing plan for a company, just a plan. But, the companies were free to implement it, and so this one company started implementing the plan on Facebook and started making money. And they came in at the final presentation and said, "Hey. It was great. We were sitting at home, eating Thanksgiving dinner, and our Facebook ads were making money for us while we were sitting eating dinner." So, they definitely see advantages. It's not like they're not going to get anything out of it. But, it just is not guaranteed.

Another thing that I think you mentioned, I'm curious if you think it forces companies to recognize they have skin in the game, is that you actually have them pay a small stipend.

Yeah. It depends on how you would like to structure it, but I haven't really charged for campaigns, but I have done something like the Google Online Marketing Challenge, but without involving Google. The companies just give each group a $250 budget. This actually works really well because the company comes in and presents the project to the group and gives them their $250 budget. And then, we usually have a halfway point presentation, and if the students think they need more money, they can go and present to the company and ask for more money.

That is really cool. I mean, that's as real as it gets. Have you had anyone nail the pitch?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. A couple of groups have gotten more money.

One other thing that you mentioned that I thought was interesting was that phone call you had got, where it was like, "What are these students doing on our website?" How do you convince companies to let students take the driver's seat, or at least be guiding real life things?

The students weren't actually on the website, just to clarify. They were making recommendations.

Got you.

Because, in order to do well in search, you have to, if you're pointing your ad to a website and the website or mobile site and the ad don't have enough in common in terms of language, you're going to get a low quality score. So, you have to, in some cases, improve the website to have an effective search campaign. And I have to commend the students. They usually get this right away and they ask ... Part of what I do now if we're doing search is, I ask the company, "Are you willing to make changes to your website for us to improve your campaigns?" Usually, what's happened when there've been problems, is that the executives say, "Okay." But then, I have to go to the technical person. And the technical person then wonders, "What are these students doing? What is the role? Are you going to be involved? Am I still going to have a job?" Things like that. So, there's often a little bit of work that needs to be done with the technical people.

And do you overcome that by engaging those folks before it starts, saying how are changes made? Is there a little bit of due diligence with the companies?

Yeah. I think that would be ideal. It often doesn't happen until we decide that we really need to make changes.


Ideally, we would involve them from the beginning, but that doesn't often happen.

Cool. And so, do you have them do the, let's say, the AdWords certification, or the inbound certification, or the Hootsuite certification? Are those concurrent with the projects? Do they do them first to get the foundation? How does that all weave together?

In digital marketing and analytics, they will get AdWords certified and then in the advanced marketing management course, they'll do a project where they apply a paid search. They'll also do a little bit of a simulation beforehand to practice. But, in the social media marketing course, they get certified in the Hootsuite platform, and they actually work on their own personal brand and how they are seen on social media. So, they do that in the same course.

That's a really nice benefit of having a minor and having a school that's really invested in digital, that you can stack the theory in one course and then the application in the next one. What have you found is the benefit of having a minor in helping students prepare and learn? What, maybe, are some of those talking points for professors who are trying to lobby for more education in this area?

That's a really good question, Isaac. We just did a research survey with some professors, kind of a preliminary study just to see where digital is being taught. And we've found that it's still primarily being taught within the core courses, or a few dedicated courses. So, I think a lot of people are grappling with this issue. But, the real benefit to the students is that they can have a specialty and they're more likely to be attractive to employers, because one of the ways that we developed our programs, we went through job descriptions and we just looked for what people were looking for in marketing majors. And it's not the ability to do a swat analysis, or some traditional marketing tools, or to identify the elements of the marketing mix. Those are important, but those are table stakes. You have to have that. What really distinguishes students in the marketplace is: Do you understand how search, social, and website and mobile design all fit together? Can you put together and then analyze campaigns and can you tweak them to maximize the results? Do you know the tools? Do you have the certifications?

What's the business response been like?

It's been very good so far. This is actually just our first full year. We just completed our first full year of developing the classes, and now we're starting to see more people take the minor, and we'll have more response from that. But I can tell you, in prior places, we've had upwards of 40% growth in the number of people taking the classes. And I have hundreds of students working all over the country from my prior positions in these areas.

And here at St. Edwards, we just had somebody go work at Facebook, got a job at Facebook last spring. People are working for other companies in the digital marketing area, and it's been really rewarding so far. But, I have students that are database managers and website developers and working for ad agencies as account managers, digital account managers, so just about every aspect of this area.

When you think about it, those things that you mentioned that are focused on applied learning, which are the simulations and marketing themselves, the certifications, the applied learning experiences are three things that go into a really robust portfolio that a student could graduate with and say, "Here are my capabilities, both for marketing myself, for the knowledge that industry has certified that I know, and also I've applied it. I've applied it for a real business."

That's a good point, Isaac. I have students who tell me they're still talking about their search engine marketing project in job interviews, for example, because they have been able to overcome a particular challenge. That's always a question in job interviews. Right? And so, they talk about those challenges and how they overcame them, so they're still using our students projects in their portfolio. We've had students pick projects where it looked great, and then it turned out that, that particular subject matter was one that Google found to be sensitive and they had to jump through hoops to try to sell the product, but not really offend Google's screening process. That's a learning process in and of itself. That's real world.

Yeah. Any other examples, funny or otherwise, of stumbling blocks that students ran into, and maybe how they overcame them?

I always think, it's funny from my point of view because I worked in industry. But, I always think it's funny, for example, when we're working with a company and we're doing an email campaign, for example. And we get pushed back a week or two in the email, because the company has something else they want to send out. I always think it's amusing that the students initially find this really frustrating, but it's so real world. I was a marketing manager and director of marketing. It's so real world because in a company, you're competing for resources. Right? And if a company thinks they're going to make more money out of another email blast other than yours, they're going to put that one up there. But, the students find it initially kind of frustrating, and then that's another learning opportunity. How can we communicate to them? How can we explain to them how important our campaign is and why it should be run next?

That sounds eerily similar to the personal branding. There was a lot of soft skills that you've baked into this course, it sounds like.

I think what I hear all the time is that students lack critical thinking skills, but when I really research this and ask people, "What do you mean?" They said, "Problem solving." So, that's what we're doing. You're running a campaign. You come up with a problem, whatever it might be. The ads are being rejected by Google, or you're not able to deploy it at the timeframe that you thought, and so now you're behind schedule. What do you do? How do you make it up? So, problem solving. These are the things that I think employers are looking for and the kinds of skills that you just don't get from a book.

Yeah. I love that. I can't think of a better sentiment to wrap up on. I just want to say, Debra, thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your perspective on teaching applied learning and growing the digital marketing program at St. Edwards. It's been great.

Well, thank you, Isaac. Thanks for inviting me. It's really been fun to talk to you, share my experiences. It was also fun to reflect on the last 20 years and think about what went well and what didn't go well and how I can improve, because this is constant improvement, you know.

I think that's a great way to put it. Folks, this has been The Teacher's Lounge, HubSpot's podcast for the education partner program. The education partner program provides colleges and university professors with everything they need to teach leading courses in marketing, sales, entrepreneurship and communications. That's software resources in a community of professors, all for free. Until next time, folks.

Debra Zahay-Blatz

I am Professor of Marketing and Chair of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Digital Media Management. I am also responsible for the undergraduate Digital Media Management program.. I currently teach Digital Marketing at the undergraduate and graduate level Social Media Marketing and Principles of Marketing to undergraduates. Our goal is to integrate digital concepts throughout the entire curriculum and we are be building a team and redesigning our curriculum to do so.

My research is in the area of customer information management practices in the firm and their ability to create performance differences between firms, known as "Big Data" or "Broad Data." I have authored many articles on customer information management. Recently, I have focused on the area of customer data quality and its relationship to firm performance. Our paper in this area won the Best Paper Award 2014 for the Journal of Interactive Marketing. I have published in many journals, including Journal of Interactive Marketing, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Decision Sciences, Marketing Letters, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Advertising Research, Industrial Marketing Management, Journal of Database Marketing and Interactive Marketing.

I also have my own consulting practice in Data-Driven Digital Marketing (Zahay, Inc. shown below) I am the co-author of the fourth edition of Internet Marketing, Integrating Online and Offline Strategies in a Digital Environment, Cengage, with MaryLou Roberts as well as a solo-authored book by Business Expert Press: Digital Marketing Management: A Handbook for the Current (or Future) CEO. I have also written Social Media Marketing: A Strategic Approach (2e) with Roberts and several other co-authors, also for Cengage. A list of research citations is available from Google Scholar at and more information is available at ResearchGate

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