In the spring of 1996, William Koty, director of Internet studies for the University of British Columbia's continuing studies program, outlined a concept for an Internet marketing course.
It took him six months to get the university, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, "to agree that it was important for marketing people to actually understand the Internet," he said. But he got the go-ahead to create a 200-plus hour Certificate in Internet Marketing program, which debuted at UBC in September 1997.
Likewise, a few years back, GotMarketing.com Inc. President Teri Dahlbeck realized Internet marketing was a subject that needed to be taught. Dahlbeck was a marketing consultant for several Silicon Valley start-up companies that were chock full of technologically savvy employees but lacked marketers who understood how to take advantage of the Web.
"What I found over and over again," she said, "was I was spending a lot of time educating."
So 18 months ago, when she co-founded Saratoga, Calif.-based GotMarketing.com, a Web site that acts as a "virtual marketing department," Dahlbeck decided education would be one of three areas on which the company would focus--and GotUniversity was created.
GotUniversity and the UBC course are two of a new breed of online educational tools marketers can use to learn about the biggest new development in their field: Internet marketing.
What's out there
The UBC program makes students practice what it preaches by offering classes in what Koty calls a "mixed mode" of media. Originally, two-thirds of the content and classwork was presented and completed online, with the other one-third offered as face-to-face guest lectures and student work sessions.
Although this program is still offered, the UBC also began offering a 100% online version of the course in January. The fully online course costs U.S. $3,200, about $150 less than the hybrid version.
Yet even with successful programs like the UBC's (which currently has approximately 245 students, 135 of whom are signed up for the all-online course) and promising start-ups such as GotUniversity (which thus far has offered a couple of classes and intends to be fully operational by fourth quarter this year), online Internet marketing education appears to still be in its infancy.
"At this point in time the concept is way the heck ahead of the reality," said James Narus, the business marketing section editor for the journal Marketing Education Review.
Although he is aware of a handful of universities that offer such programs, Narus said, b-to-b marketing "is kind of a subspecialty at most schools. And when you talk to anyone that puts together these courses, there's just not enough volume potential at this point in time to justify
putting in all the time and effort to develop [specialized courses]."
So for now, Narus said, many online Internet marketing courses are largely generic.
A lot of universities do have programs in e-commerce, Koty said. Often, however, the curriculum includes a wide range of topics, including Web page design, programming and Internet marketing.
"The students coming out of these programs," he said, "are amazingly confused about what their jobs are. Because all those things are different jobs."
So UBC stresses to its students that first and foremost, corporate Web sites should fulfill a marketing function, Koty said.
The UBC coursework focuses on what Koty calls "participation marketing"--where a company needs to integrate not only its customers, but all of its business partners into its marketing initiatives.
And UBC forces students to find tools they need on the Internet. For example, instead of offering student teams the environment and technology to share files, the students must find a Web site where they can do so.
Dahlbeck is currently conducting a search for a dean to help develop a permanent curriculum for GotUniversity, but she envisions a tiered program--with all materials available online.
Tier One would offer courses free to GotMarketing.com members--who also join for free--with each course requiring about 15 minutes to complete. Tier Two would have seminars that cover topics such as the strategy to move from a business plan to a marketing plan to a branding campaign.
A Tier Three course would be similar to a chat session, perhaps with industry experts available for a 30-minute talk and 30 minutes of open Q&A. The session might cost students about $500.
GotUniversity also plans to work with partner companies such as Forrester Research Inc. and Jupiter Communications Inc. to incorporate real-world material into course content.
Why do it?
Many students, such as Kyle Kramer, a strategy analyst for American Airlines Inc., in Dallas, already work in the industry. Kramer had been working in the airline's development group, which increasingly involved the use of the Internet. A couple of colleagues recommended the UBC program.
"I sort of figured, `Hey, there are enough people out there with the technical skills,'" he said. "So my interest was to explore [the marketing] side because, even for very large companies, the great challenge is to not just create a Web site but to make it attractive and make its presence known and try to carve out your niche."
Kramer paid the course fee himself. And although he just finished the program in April, the investment has already begun to pay off. Within a few weeks, Kramer will begin a new job as a strategy analyst within American Airlines' new e-commerce group--a promotion that he attributes directly to his coursework.
"I just knew that it would help me to be able to leverage myself internally with the company," he said. Several classmates have also used the course either to steer themselves into new jobs at their current companies or to other companies, Kramer said.
Companies can receive rewards as well, by having student-employees work on projects relevant to the company. For example, Koty said, students are required to complete competitive analysis and marketing plan projects.
One company, an ad agency with several employees enrolled in the UBC program, had its student-employees study other ad agencies and some of its own clients. Thus, "not only can the students learn about the Internet and e-commerce and e-business," Koty said, "they also produce things that are of value."
Online vs. offline
The nature of online programs allows for a wide dispersion of students. Beyond Canada, the UBC course has enrolled students from Hong Kong, France, Spain, Columbia, Venezuela, Japan, Malaysia, India, Dubai and the U.S.
Then there is the convenience factor. "You can look through the entire curriculum and pick what you want when you want it," Dahlbeck said. "So it's not just one class that's being offered this quarter--you can take any that are in the archive."
Yet there are drawbacks, according to Kramer, who took UBC's hybrid course."I'll be frank--it's still pretty tough to do it online," he said. "They put a lot of good information on there and there's a lot of good course content . . . but one of the strengths of the program is the speakers--to see that they are just ordinary people like you."
Dahlbeck agrees the human touch is hard to replace. "Often in a classroom setting you get an interaction of questions that normally you wouldn't think of [online]," she said. "That's just a natural, obvious lack of human intervention."
There are also inherent challenges when a course's subject matter changes rapidly, as with the Internet. Both UBC and GotUniversity will retool content as marketing needs change. The UBC program also allows its alumni to access a new-course materials archive site for one year after graduation.
Koty foresees future growth toward online Internet marketing courses. Thus far, UBC has licensed its program to two other Canadian universities and is in negotiations with a number of educational institutions in the U.S., China, Germany and Italy.
And as long as there is the Web, marketers will need to learn how to use it.
"What is so important is that the Internet requires innovation and creativity--and that is usually the marketing department," he said. "So it's critical for companies first and foremost to make sure that their marketing people understand this new marketplace."