Incorporating Social Media in a Required Research Course for Advertising / PR / Strategic Communication Majors

By Joe Bob Hester, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

JOMC 279, Advertising and Public Relations Research, is a required course for students majoring in advertising, public relations, or strategic communications in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The primary goals of this course are for students to learn 1) to conduct research and evaluate information by methods appropriate to the advertising and public relations professions, and 2) to apply basic numerical and statistical concepts.

During the spring 2010 semester, I integrated social media, specifically Twitter, into all aspects of the course. I had previously used local/regional businesses as "clients" for a research project in the course. However, the benefit of working with real clients carried with it some fairly serious drawbacks, particularly the difficulty in finding appropriate new clients each semester. A previous instructor in the course had always used Super Bowl advertising as the topic for the research project since the course was usually taught in the spring semester. Now that the course would be taught year round, I was looking for a research project topic that would be appropriate regardless of semester.

Social media fit the bill for four primary reasons: 1) the growing use of social media in advertising/PR, 2) there's an actual need for research on the topic, thereby providing a publishing opportunity for students, 3) advertising and public relations students may not be receiving enough information about social media in the regular curriculum, and 4) the topic is sustainable and can be used for many semesters.

Students were required to learn to use Twitter as one of their personal and professional social media tools. They used Twitter for class communication, both student-to-instructor and student-to-student. Industry research reports and studies about social media were used as examples in the course when discussing a variety of research topics such as content analysis, questionnaire construction, data analysis, etc. The public relations coordinator responsible for the Pizza Hut Twitter account, the company's "Twitterologist," was a guest speaker in the course and discussed Pizza Hut’s use of third-party research services and development of social media strategies. In addition, class exercises and projects all revolved around social media in some way, with a particular emphasis on how brands use social media for advertising, public relations, and other marketing communication purposes. These exercises/projects included an original research project examining brand use of Twitter and a research proposal building on past social media research. Specific exercises/projects from the course are detailed in the following sections.

Creating/Using Twitter Accounts: At the beginning of the course, more than one-half of the class did not have a Twitter account, so the first Twitter exercise was to create professional Twitter accounts (or to improve their existing accounts). Class discussion focused on the importance of using a real name and photo, providing location and web info, the bio section, and even a custom background. Selected resources:
  • Michael Hyatt’s Beginner’s Guide to Twitter
Data Collection / Analysis with Followers: Once students had created accounts and followed each other, they began a 4-week exercise in which they were required to find and follow a minimum number of Twitter accounts while keeping detailed records about these accounts (# following, # followers, # listed, # Tweets). The students kept similar records on any accounts that followed them back. Once collected, the data were used in several assignments that introduced spreadsheet use and data analysis concepts.

Reliability in Content Analysis: Students read a report by Pear Analytics, which concluded that 40% of tweets are "pointless babble." Using the methodology section of the report, students attempted to recreate the coding scheme used in the report and then coded a random selection of 100 tweets from the Twitter public timeline. Coding reliability (percent agreement) ranged from a low of 65% to a high of 95% (mean = 80%), levels that would typically not be considered reliable for a content analysis, and lead to a spirited discussion about the need for clear operational definitions and coder training. Resources:
  • Twitter Study Reveals Interesting Results About Usage – 40% is “Pointless Babble”
  • Pear Analytics Twitter Report: Criticisms of the coding methods
Investigating Brand Activity on Twitter: Students read several research reports that described the growing prevalence of Twitter usage by brands (for example, "The Fortune 500 and Social Media: A Longitudinal Study of Blogging and Twitter Usage by America’s Largest Companies," The majority of these reports do not go much beyond a simple description of the number of brands using Twitter.

This class research project was a content analysis of a sample of brand Twitter accounts to determine how brands in particular product categories use the social media tool. Students collected and analyzed the 500 most recent tweets from 35 different brands. They developed operational definitions and created coding criteria for a set of measures of brand activity on Twitter: volume, constancy, and participation. Data analysis was not complete at the time this summary was written. However, because the data set is now available, students in the summer session of the course will be able to analyze them and publish the results on a blog created for the project.

Research Proposal for a Future Class: It is not unusual for students in a research methods class to be required to write a research proposal. However, in this instance, the proposal was required to be a social media project that the next group of students in the course could use as their research project. For this semester, the research proposal was required to investigate the followers of brands on Twitter. Proposals were not limited to a particular research methodology, and students submitted proposals for surveys, content analyses, focus groups, and in-depth interviews.

Results After One Semester
Overall, I was very pleased with the results of integrating social media into the course. Once the Twitter accounts were set up, students readily used them. For example, a Twitter hashtag (#JOMC279) was assigned for the course. Students used the hashtag to ask questions and get answers from the instructor.
  • @jbhester can we use third party websites like Twellow, Twitalyzer, etc. in our #JOMC279 proposal?
  • Bring something to write with. RT @student: #JOMC279 Do we need to bring anything to the final?
Students also used the hashtag to connect with other students in the class.
  • starting to get worried about this #JOMC279 Final. We need to make some serious study groups. Anyone interested?
  • RT @student: Can't help but smile at the #JOMC279 tweets today about our Twitter research proposals.
Sometimes students just made comments about the class.
  • ...I have "United Breaks Guitars" stuck in my head on loop... ....thanks @jbhester ...#jomc279
  • Arrrgh, struggling through research proposal for #JOMC279 - at least it appears I'm not alone :)
  • Although my research question is slightly difficult for #JOMC279, I'm actually really interested in it! :) Hope this doesn't take TOO long.
My personal favorite:
(NOTE: In the previous examples of actual tweets from the class, student Twitter account names have been changed to @student.)

Assessment of student projects indicates that in addition to learning the traditional research components of the course, students also learned a great deal about Twitter and social media. Informal discussions, online and offline, with students confirm this. At least two students interviewed for and accepted social media internships during the semester, and many others expressed interest in jobs working with social media.

In terms of student-instructor interaction, reading the students' tweets allowed me to get a better feel for how well the class was going each week, whether students understood readings and lectures, etc. In one instance in particular, the stream of tweets after class indicated that many of the students did not understand the day’s lecture material (sampling distribution). I used these tweets in the next class period to promote class discussion, answer questions and clarify concepts.

However, it should be noted that Twitter is like email on steroids. Once students begin to use it, it becomes a 24/7 tool for them, and their expectations for instructor interaction increase. Instructors who want to add Twitter to their course need to be prepared for dealing with these expectations.

In the coming semesters, I plan to to refine the course content, exercises, and projects to continue to incorporate emerging social media practices and technologies into this course. The research course is a natural fit for introducing students to the world of social media for both today and tomorrow.

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