I have the luxury of working in an area full of colleges and universities. I suspect that’s true of most small business marketing consultants. After all, why plant your business out in the middle of nowhere?

Whenever I talk to city officials who work in economic development, the issue of workforce readiness comes up. Many businesses, small and large, decry the scarcity of qualified knowledge workers. Yet in their midst often sits a college with a marketing department!

For five years I taught a graduate level marketing course at the University of Akron, and the marcom students I came to know had the smarts and ambition most companies crave. All these students needed was an opportunity to get a foot in the door, to take on a project that would let them show their mettle.

If you own a business, here are three ideas to stoke your imagination about how to use students to further your own objectives.

1. Use them to gain market intelligence about your competition, or about attractive locations you might explore for a business expansion, or about the state of your industry. Hire one or two and charge them with getting you the market intelligence you’ve always wanted. This will cost you a tiny fraction of what a consultant will cost you, and the students will get it done more quickly. Have them present their findings to your senior management team.

2. if you’re a retailer, use them as secret shoppers. Send them into competitive stores and ask for a report detailing the shopping experience. Have them note the brands carried, price points, amenities, customer service, etc. If you aren’t sure what they should test for, ask them – this subject is routinely taught in basic marketing courses. Again, the cost is minimal for the intelligence you gain.

3. Conduct market research. Have them survey your customers, or do a segmentation analysis of your customer base. For this type of work, specify to the college that you want students with a strong background in research. This could be a couple graduate students or upper-level marketing majors who’ve completed several research classes.

There is a wealth of information available that can be used to make your business decision making less risky. Market intelligence is a valuable business asset, and you can acquire it any time of the year by employing the best marcom students in your area. You’ll gain useful knowledge, they’ll get some real world work experience, and you’ll have a chance to test drive some possible new additions to your staff.

That’s what I call a win-win.

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