Today’s marketing students are looking for hands-on learning experiences that can give them an advantage in the job market. A unique project spearheaded by Annika Abell, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, provides that opportunity while also raising money for the Knoxville community.
WearKnox, a student-run e-commerce store, specializes in Knoxville-centric apparel, accessories and home goods. Abell and her husband set up the store’s website in 2020 using free tools such as WordPress and WooCommerce, and created the first 10 product designs themselves.
To avoid conflict of interest as the class instructor, Abell invited the United Way of Greater Knoxville (UWGK) to be WearKnox’s official owner and receive all the proceeds. Using a drop shipping provider eliminates upfront costs. When a customer places a WearKnox order, UWGK receives the payment, pays the drop shipping company to produce the products on demand and keeps the remaining profit.
Access Enhances Understanding
In fall 2020 and spring 2021, about 100 students total from three sections of Abell’s strategic digital marketing (MARK 465) class participated in the project. The students set up and ran the store’s social media accounts, conducted market research, wrote blog articles and marketing emails, practiced search engine optimization and analyzed website data. They collaborated with typography students from the UT College of Architecture and Design, who created 15 additional T-shirt designs for the store.
With funds from a college teaching grant, WearKnox ran ads on Facebook, Instagram and Google Ad Manager, greatly improving the project’s reach and garnering local news exposure. Abell felt it was particularly important for her students to have access to ad management tools.
“Social ads have become a major tool for companies, and students are exposed to these ads on a daily basis,” she says. “Seeing the other side of these tools, not just in a theoretical context, helped them understand important concepts related to targeting methods, budgeting, social media metrics and return on investment.”
Previously, Abell used simulations and business partners in her class, but found those arrangements less than ideal.
“Simulations obviously don’t provide real numbers, and business partners are hesitant to share access to important platforms like analytics data and social media,” she says. With WearKnox, she says, “Students have access to an online shop with the freedom to control everything.”
Preparing Students for the Future
With the knowledge and experience gained through WearKnox, Abell wants to help her students become attractive job candidates who can directly impact a company’s bottom line. Students have responded positively to the project, enjoying the practical experience and being excited to contribute to the store’s success.
“The biggest things this class taught me were putting traditional classroom material to the test and learning through trial and error,” Valentina Rezk (HCB, ’21) says. “I think the fact that Professor Abell took a very hands-on approach shows the value of these skills once you graduate and enter a job.”
Going forward, Abell says the project will continue to evolve so she can create an optimal learning experience for her students. This might include housing the ad management tools in a different course where students could receive more in-depth instruction than is possible in MARK 465, which offers an overview of numerous digital marketing channels. As sales increase, Abell hopes WearKnox will be able to re-invest 50 percent of its profits in ad campaigns while sharing the remaining half with UWGK.
While the project is still in its early stages and may benefit from some changes, it already has proven to be a crucial teaching tool for Abell.
“Having a real e-commerce store available to teach digital marketing is invaluable,” she says. “WearKnox provides a unique learning opportunity, and when we sell products, it benefits our Knoxville community.”
Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, email@example.com