Last year, Sprint gave students in a marketing class at Emerson College 10 smartphones with unlimited wireless access. In return, Sprint received free marketing work for their budding 4G network in Boston from students who blogged and tweeted, and more importantly were able to record firsthand how social media could be effectively used at the company.
Unbeknownst to many, companies have increasingly turned to universities for research on social media. This isn’t highly unusual, as traditionally manufacturers have given financial support to universities conducting research relevant to their companies. In the past though, support has been given to “hard” sciences, for example to the research of pharmaceutical drugs. Companies had never partnered with universities to better understand social media.
However, this appears to be changing. Programs at Northwestern, Emerson, Arizona State, and the University of Florida have been partnering with businesses to specifically research how social media can be used effectively. “It’s allowing for a new kind of research that just wasn’t even possible a few years ago,” says associate professor Dmitri Williams, the Wall Street Journal reports. In a world where social media continues to be a buzz word, businesses are looking for every advantage they can get.
As an example of how social media is being examined, the Wall Street Journal reported that at one class at Arizona State University, the students divided into teams to generate buzz around FoxSportsArizona.com. Fox Sports Net, a group of regional sports channels, will be working with 10 schools as part of a program it calls Creative University.
Despite the successful results from the companies thus far, is it a good idea for companies to conduct social media research at the university level?
Although there are advantages, as seen above, there are hidden costs as well. The time needed to establish a partnership with a program and the commitment the company gives to a university and its students; these may not always be financially related, but they are important nonetheless. Even with this commitment, in return the company would receive students who spend a limited amount of time per week on the project and who have multiple sources competing for their attention. As creative as students can be, they are not working 9AM to 5PM on these projects.
The lack of time and attention is particular true in the examples above, where businesses partnered with undergraduate programs. Traditionally, companies that have lent financial support to “hard” sciences have supported graduate programs, namely PhD students, and these students, in addition to having more time to spend, are under strict supervision. A PhD student, it could be argued, is more similar in their commitment to a project to a full-time employee than to an undergraduate student.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, and perhaps the costs, hidden or explicit, of conducting social media research at the undergraduate level outweigh the benefits.