IST students rank among top teams in the world in Google Marketing Challenge

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In the past several years, students enrolled in Jim Jansen’s Google Online Marketing Challenge (GOMC) class at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) have placed highly in the international competition by creating successful online marketing campaigns for businesses and building bridges between the University and Pennsylvania companies. In the 2014 competition, which was held last spring, the IST teams delivered exceptionally stellar performances. Their accomplishments included driving traffic to business’ websites, forging partnerships, and breathing new life into a company founded by an IST alumnus. In addition, there was a strong showing by the course’s World Campus teams in their debut.

"(The Google Online Marketing Challenge) is a great way of giving students online experience with small businesses, primarily from Pennsylvania," said Jansen, a professor of IST. "It is a multi-disciplinary blend of marketing, technology and advertising."

Jansen teaches IST 402: The Google Online Marketing Challenge, which is offered in the spring semester and is open to students of all majors and focuses on online marketing of small- to medium-sized businesses. In the challenge, student teams, along with their professor, identify a business or nonprofit organization that has a website but has not used AdWords in the last six months. AdWords refers to the column of sponsored links at the top and right of a user’s search results on Google. With a $250 AdWords advertising budget provided by Google, students develop and run an online advertising campaign for a business or nonprofit organization over a three-week period. The teams that develop and communicate the most successful campaigns win prizes, including trips to Google offices. Students also have the opportunity to participate in the optional Google+ Social Media Marketing category by creating and managing a Google+ page for their clients over a five-week period.

"Not only did I have (the students) participate in the Google AdWords (competition), I also had them participate in the Social Media Challenge," Jansen said.

About 100 students participated in Jansen’s spring 2014 GOMC class — 48 students on 16 resident teams, and 10 World Campus teams. The class produced three teams in the Final Global 15 (the top 15 teams in the world), plus a finalist and an award winner in the social media competition. There were also four teams that placed as semi-finalists. Almost all of the businesses for which the students designed campaigns were from Pennsylvania, Jansen said, and several of those businesses are part of Penn State’s Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP), which engages and empowers Pennsylvania organizations through technical assistance and Penn State expertise and resources.

Teams from Jansen’s course have placed in the challenge every year for the past five years, he said. The 2014 competition marked the first time since 2006 that IST teams were selected as winners in addition to being named to the Final Global 15, as well as the first time that World Campus teams participated in the contest.

"I think the aspect of doing the online and resident courses simultaneous has an interesting appeal," Jansen said. "There’s a lot of good synergy there from an education perspective."

An interesting twist to the 2014 Google Online Marketing Challenge, Jansen said, is that it included a mutually beneficial partnership between one of the participants and an IST alumnus. Sole Protector, which was founded by Jason Streeter, a 2007 graduate of the College of IST, achieved significant sales increases through one of the IST teams’ campaigns. The company, which has a niche market of sneaker collectors, produces one of the latest sneaker products on the market -- a clear film that uses adhesive technology to protect sneakers’ soles. Nick Keesey, a returning adult student and a sophomore at the College of IST, who is currently on a break from his studies to focus on his business ventures, was the team leader for the Sole Protector campaign. The project led to a 25 percent sales increase for Sole Protector, Streeter said, and solved an "international shipping dilemma" by targeting markets and specific cities to drive website traffic.

"We created these ads and really got people to go to their website and purchase something," Keesey said.

Streeter was so pleased with the results of the AdWords campaign that he hired Keesey on a contractual basis to manage and further develop Sole Protector’s AdWord campaigns. Keesey recently left the company on friendly terms to focus on growing his own company, KNGStrategies, a digital marketing firm. He is also the CEO and co-founder of Happy Valley Tickets, an online agency that sells tickets for Penn State sports and other live events. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., where he is trying to expand his e-commerce businesses.

"It’s just really neat to see IST students putting themselves out there and finding niche markets and adding value to real-life companies out there," Streeter said. "It’s a win-win for the student, the college and the company that is represented."

Since completing the Sole Protector campaign, Keesey has received the Google AdWords certification -- a professional accreditation that Google offers to individuals who demonstrate proficiency in basic and advanced aspects of AdWords -- and has started doing AdWords work on a freelance basis.

"I would urge anyone interested in digital marketing to take the Google Online Marketing Challenge class," he said.

In addition to jumpstarting business for Streeter and boosting Keesey’s career, the 2014 GOMC marked the premier of the World Campus presence in the competition. Matt Sholly, of Souderton, who graduated from Penn State with a bachelor of science degree in IST through World Campus in August and was on a GOMC team that placed as a finalist in the Social Media Challenge, can attest to both the challenges and benefits of participating in the competition through the online course. Sholly, a technician at Apple, served on a team that also included Andrew Kim, Adam Morton and Nicholas Parker. The team’s project for the Google Online Marketing Challenge involved doing advertising and online marketing for a custom car shop in Tennessee. Sholly said it was encouraging to the team members to see tangible results of their campaign, such as the number of pending sales and people who directly referenced their work. The key to their success, he said, was the consistent communication among the team members.

"Every single one of our team members communicated constantly with each other," Sholly said. "This class, in particular, pushed me to be the best I could."

Stephen and Elizabeth Sheaffer, who graduated from the College of IST’s World Campus in May, also attested to the spirit of camaraderie on their respective team in the Google Online Marketing Challenge. The team, which was named an Additional Winner in the Social Media Marketing competition and also included Erica Brinker and Eric Pitts, designed an ad campaign for Centre County PAWS, a non-euthanasia animal welfare organization in the State College area. The Sheaffers and their teammates rejuvenated PAWS’ stagnant Google+ page and generated awareness of the organization throughout Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio.

"When we started the campaign, PAWS had 538 views and three followers on their Google+ page," Stephen Sheaffer said. "When we finished, they had 106,235 views and 13 followers."

Stephen and Elizabeth Sheaffer, who work as an Android developer and a help desk assistant, respectively, at AccuWeather, a weather forecasting company in State College, said that while it was sometimes a challenge to coordinate schedules among the World Campus team members, the overall experience was very rewarding.

"It definitely broadened our horizons," Liz Sheaffer said.

Jansen echoed the Sheaffers’ statement that team coordination was a challenge for the online teams. In addition, he said, the online teams "started out with teamwork in week one (of the course) -- that’s very challenging for online students." While the World Campus teams didn’t enjoy the same level of weekly interaction with Jansen as the resident teams, Jansen helped offset the lack of face time with Blackboard Collaborate, a comprehensive online learning and collaboration platform designed specifically for education.

The Google Online Marketing Challenge, Jansen said, is unique in that it provides benefits to the participating students, their respective academic institutions and companies in the surrounding areas.

"It’s a great educational vehicle and could be a really nice model for industry/academic collaboration," he said. "I think it’s a really interesting approach to higher education, especially using competitions as learning vehicles in a course."

Jansen will once again be teaching the Google Online Marketing Challenge course in the spring 2015 semester. The course will be capped at 36 students. Students interested in registering should email their name, resume and Penn State ID number to Jansen at 

Last Updated July 10, 2015