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Digital marketing grads tackle needs of small businesses during pandemic

June 15, 2020

As their culminating experience at NIU, five digital marketing graduate students helped ease the burden placed on small businesses during the pandemic-related shutdown.

Mya Groza

The students in MKTG 684 – Capstone Application in Digital Marketing taught by Mya Groza, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Marketing in the College of Business, provided businesses with the digital transformation they needed to stay relevant.

To earn Master of Science degrees in Digital Marketing, seven of Groza’s 11 students took a client-based approach to their capstone projects, as opposed to a more research-based approach.  

Five students worked directly with small businesses this past spring to develop websites and social media campaigns.

Their efforts took on added meaning as the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic hit and most small businesses had to physically close their buildings.

“The importance of digital technology was just amplified,” said Groza, a member of the small business task force DeKalb County UNITES (DeKalb County University and Neighbors Investing Together for Economic Success).

The task force of NIU and DeKalb County leaders formed in response to the pandemic to help small businesses remain viable during a period of restrictions and economic uncertainty.

Recently, Groza and fellow members conducted a survey to help gauge consumer sentiment right here in DeKalb County. One finding highlighting the importance of digital tools for small businesses is 70 percent of consumers either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that small businesses without websites are viewed as less credible. 

Groza is happy NIU graduate students were able to give small businesses the essential tools they needed to connect during a time of isolation. While beneficial to small businesses and entrepreneurs, the experience was engaging and educational for students, she said.

“There were so many benefits,” she said. “They helped small businesses in a time of need and also have something to put in their portfolios. When they’re applying for jobs, they can point to these websites and say, ‘I did this.’”

Graduate student Kristen Killian, the enrollment communications coordinator in the Division of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications at NIU, redesigned a website for Big River Hardware in Sugar Grove. The small business has a product line involving antique radio restoration and unique guitar parts.

Along with transforming the website, Killian provided the business with resources to maintain the website for years to come.

“Although the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the middle of this project, it allowed me the extra time to dedicate to re-designing their website,” she said. “Because of that, it made me feel like I helped a small business that could possibly be affected by economic effects of the pandemic.”

Awarded the outstanding graduate student award in digital marketing this past spring, Kellsie Mohr of DeKalb worked with Wired Nutrition of DeKalb to create a new website for the business.

Opened in 2019, the business previously had marketed itself solely through Facebook.

A customer of Wired Nutrition, Mohr asked owner Kimberly Zepeda if she’d like to collaborate.

“I was super excited,” Zepeda said. “A website was something we wanted, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it. Because we had built a connection through the customer base and had become friends, I knew what kind of person she was and I knew my website would be done to the best of her ability…

“It was amazing. She really listened to what I wanted and created it. I love it,” she said. “It was definitely an asset we were missing.”

Along with finishing her capstone project, Mohr found it rewarding to help a small business. With an undergraduate background in sociology, she said helping people always has been a top priority.

 “Especially during all of this, with everything so uncertain, it was definitely something that brightened my day,” Mohr said.

Among other graduate student projects, Faiza Aslam created a new website for Ashley’s Pizza in Rockford; Milan Brown worked on a social media campaign for Crème De La Brim; and Jeremy Johnson helped Opticways with the creation of a website (no longer active).