About Chad Mezera, M.S.: Chad Mezera is the Assistant Dean of Online Programs for the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University (WVU). As Assistant Dean, Mezera oversees WVU’s Online Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program. He joined the program in 2005 and manages its administration. Under his leadership, the Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications has grown to be the largest graduate program at WVU serving almost 500 students, and in 2015 it received the Outstanding Online Program award from the Online Learning Consortium.
Mezera’s responsibilities within the Reed College of Media include faculty support, student mentorship, curriculum development, management for the College’s online courses, and the organization of extracurricular offerings such as the program’s INTEGRATE conference and networking events. In addition, he oversaw the development and launch of the Data Marketing Communications master’s degree program, as well as undergraduate minors in strategic social media, entertainment media, and event planning for the Reed College of Media, and currently oversees those minors, as well as online minors in public relations, advertising, sport communication and health promotion.
Prior to his position at WVU, Mezera worked in internal corporate communications for a government information technology organization. He also developed and implemented marketing campaigns for an influential think tank focused on improving workforce performance and propagating organizational best practices in federal, state and local government. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Advertising in 2000 and his Master of Science in Journalism in 2002 from West Virginia University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of West Virginia University’s online Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Chad Mezera] The Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications program is comprised of 11 courses, totaling 33 credits. It is not cohorted, meaning that students are able to complete courses at their own pace and in any order. It’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” model, giving complete control of both pace and course sequence to each student, empowering them to work with their advisor to design a plan of study that will most effectively balance personal and professional responsibilities. Because most of our students are working demanding positions, we give them the option of whether to complete the program as rapidly as possible (~one year) or over the course of a few years.
The WVU IMC program runs on an accelerated term system, featuring five 8-week terms each year. Once a student completes the intro course, they can pace their studies to align with their lives – doubling up when they can, taking a single course or taking the term off entirely. If a student takes a break, they can jump back in at any time without penalty or having to wait for the next cohort.
The intro course is the only prerequisite course in the program. It provides an overview of the university system and preps students to succeed by explaining our approach to the study of IMC, providing time management strategies and setting expectations that will be upheld by faculty of future courses.
After the intro course, students can take all remaining courses (four core courses, two specialty courses and three electives) in any order until there are ready for the capstone course, which all students complete in their final term prior to graduation.
There are four core courses that all students complete: Marketing Research and Analysis, Audience Insight, Brand Equity Management, and Emerging Media and the Market. Core courses are offered every single term, five times every year. This gives students the flexibility to take whichever course will have the biggest impact as early as possible.
Specialty courses are a unique aspect of our program and cover three topics: Creative, Direct/Interactive Marketing and Public Relations. To complete the specialty course requirement, students select two out of the three available options. We encourage students to opt out of the specialty course that most closely aligns with their current experience and/or education and focus on building their skills in the other two areas to round out their IMC knowledge. Like the core courses, all specialty courses are offered every term.
In addition to the core and specialty courses, WVU IMC students select three electives out of the 26 course options currently offered. Options include social media marketing, web metrics and SEO, crisis communication, diversity and inclusion, virtual & augmented reality, advanced creative concepts, video production, entrepreneurship, media analysis, sports marketing, multicultural marketing, healthcare marketing, political marketing and many more. And we’re always adding to the elective options as the industry changes and the needs of our students evolve. For instance, we are currently working on three new elective courses in disruption and innovation, higher education marketing, and executive communications and PR leadership to be offered in the next year.
The final course that students complete to earn their degree is the Capstone course. This course is also unique to our program. WVU IMC students have two options in completing their capstone experience – they may choose to work on a client that they select or on a major national client for which all students in the course will develop a campaign proposal.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications must complete an Integrated Marketing Communications campaign for a real-world client. Could you elaborate on this requirement, and what it entails?
[Chad Mezera] After they finish their core, specialty and elective courses, students take the Capstone course in their last term. We have two versions of the capstone experience.
The “Provided-Client” WVU IMC Capstone Experience
The first version of the course is what we call the “Provided-Client” version, which is where we bring a national client into the course and all the students in that section work on the client’s marketing communications challenge. This option is best typically for students who are early in their careers and are less connected, or maybe don’t have access to a major brand or organization. For these students, we do the work of establishing that client connection and managing the client relationship throughout the course. In the past, we have worked with major brands, including the American Red Cross, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Nature’s Bounty.
Through the Provided-Client version of the WVU IMC capstone experience, students get the benefit of working with real client issues and interacting with representatives from the organization to determine their needs. As all students work with the same client, their assignment is to understand their current marketing communications need, fully research their category, and develop an IMC campaign proposal to help the client achieve their stated goals. For this version of the course, students still work by themselves to produce a full campaign proposal that they could present to a prospective client to improve the client’s marketing and communications business.
The main distinction is that for the Provided-Client option we do the work of courting and maintaining the client relationships. Oftentimes the clients we work with will do live sessions with the students, where students can come in and ask questions. This kind of model, where each student in the class develops a proposal that meets the client’s desires, is very similar to the pitch process that is one of the hallmarks of advertising and marketing, in which a client hears multiple pitches from different creative teams and can select which one they like the best.
At the conclusion of the course, the instructor will select the top student campaigns and students are offered an opportunity to present their ideas directly to the client.
The “Selected-Client” WVU IMC Capstone Experience
The second version of the course allows students to bring their own client into the course. This option is ideal for our students who have worked in the industry for a few years and who are still working as they complete their degree. Some of our students are even enrolled in an employer benefit program or employer tuition reimbursement program, and this version of the Capstone Course provides an opportunity for them to use their current employer and develop a campaign project that benefits their company and helps them advance their careers directly. Most students choose their place of employment or their most recent employer since they have established connections with these clients. That said, students can also choose a client that is not their current employer. Prior to being accepted into a section of the selected-client option, students present information on their client and the lead instructor will review and approve them for the course.
While students can choose their client and the nature of the marketing project they complete based on their client’s current needs, there are still parameters they must follow to successfully complete the capstone course. Students are required to submit preliminary information about the client before they are given access to that version of the course. In general, we expect them to develop a strategic marketing communications campaign in order to demonstrate the learning outcomes they have obtained in our program. However, once students receive approval to work with a particular client, they have a great deal of flexibility. We have had students work with a wide variety of organizations including for-profits, non-profits, smaller agencies and Fortune 500 companies. This option is ideal for those students who are little more senior and have a clear focus on their own career goals. This version of the course has been exceptionally well received because they are able to work with a client they care about.
More on the WVU IMC Capstone Experience
The outcome of both options of the WVU IMC capstone experience are the same – the student will develop a complete IMC campaign proposal for an actual client. Student campaigns demonstrate what the student has learned in the program – how to design, implement, evaluate, and modify strategic marketing campaigns for a client through a deep understanding of available media and how to identify and target an audience. For either version of the course, students generally produce a marketing strategy proposal that tends to be 50 to 100 pages, along with a digital presentation that presents key aspects of their proposal. They also complete focus group research during the development of their concept.
The Capstone Course is very exciting and challenging; it is highly intense and requires a lot of focus, but the value of the deliverable is excellent. Many students have told us they used their campaign to earn a promotion or as a key part of the portfolio that helped them land a job. Even though it is a challenging course, many of our students also find it to be one of the most rewarding in that it directly connects them to industry and demonstrates what they can do.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on how West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications uses online technologies to facilitate students’ interactions with faculty and peers? Are the online classes mainly asynchronous, or do some have synchronous components?
[Chad Mezera] All WVU IMC courses are delivered through a Blackboard-based system, a learning management system with a great deal of functionality. The discussions in our courses are all asynchronous, but occur within a dedicated window of time. In other words, we do not have set class times in any of our courses because we have students from all around the world, but we do have an established deadline each week in all courses for assignments and class participation. Students must provide their input and participate before the deadline.
Graduate students engage in an online discussion with their course instructor and peers every week. The professor presents a prompt or a set of problems for students to research and respond to over two days of active discussion. Students are required to post a minimum of four research-based and/or professional responses to their peers, but there are often hundreds of responses as students engage in multiple dialogues and delve into a variety of IMC issues ranging from the ethics of communication in politics or health to the evolution of human interaction and the latest communication technologies. Many of our students are working professionals, and therefore have a rich background of experience to bring to their discussions, which enriches their peers’ perspectives as well.
Faculty are also expected and in fact required to participate in the discussions they oversee in their classes. While it is not a synchronous environment in terms of the faculty and the students all being in the same space at the same time, it is a dynamic message board interface that results in an incredibly robust learning space.
That being said, we embrace the opportunity to bring in subject matter experts and professionals in the industry to delve into a topic that is important to our students or faculty. We typically host these presentations via Adobe Connect, but we have a couple of different systems that we can use, especially if we want to archive a recording of the presentation for students who are not able to attend.
Accessibility to quality education is one of our primary missions. We have sophisticated online learning technologies and are able to offer a myriad of resources students can leverage to supplement their academic experience.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?
[Chad Mezera] In any graduate environment I believe an apprenticeship model is ideal, where students learn from experts in highly specialized areas and benefit from close, productive mentorship relationships that connect them to their desired industries. The importance of mentorship is one of the reasons why we keep class sizes as small as we do.
We do not have a formal mentorship program in that we do not align students with a particular faculty member who then keeps track of their progress and advises them on their final research project/marketing campaign. We have an administrative team that provides that level of support in terms of helping students navigate their program of study. Our faculty are very interested in teaching because they have a passion for their area of expertise and for helping people develop. I think every course is really a mentorship opportunity, especially for the students who engage positively with the faculty.
I have spoken with many students and graduates of our program who mention specific instructors and talk about how these professors have taken an active interest in their career and in supporting them. We have students and faculty all the country and their connecting with one another over shared topics of interest is a natural extension of the design of the program.
Almost all our faculty are senior-level industry professionals who have both a strong understanding of current developments in their space, as well as valuable connections that can serve students in their academic work and careers. For instance, we have a faculty member who works in public affairs in Washington, D.C., and he is the most dedicated, amazing professional networker I have ever met. Students often opt to take his class because they’re interested in the government space, public affairs, lobbying, and other areas of political communication. As a result of his mentorship and ability to teach and guide students with tangible information, advice, and connections, these students have been able to forge successful careers in the political and public affairs arenas. When we do student surveys and exit surveys for the program, one of the areas of feedback that stands out the most is the productive relationships that are formed between students and faculty.
In addition to faculty mentorship, we have an internship coordinator who is also an alumnus of our program, and our administrative team is equipped and eager to help students make connections with both faculty and career/networking opportunities.
Our students also support one another and serve as useful connections, using our program’s online technologies to seek and receive help. We have a Dashboard where students can introduce themselves to their peers and ask the community questions about course content and career support. For example, a student residing in San Francisco could post to the Dashboard about her desire to find an internship opportunity and whether any of her classmates have any leads. We also have a Marketing Communications Network, a platform that is only open to our students and graduates and includes a directory of everyone in our program with contact information. Through this network and our social media assets, our student and alumni community is global and robust, helping graduates professionally long after they earn their degrees.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Chad Mezera] Our committee conducts a holistic review of each applicant and we look for several key qualifications. Primarily we look at undergraduate GPA to assess their academic potential and give us some insight into how they might perform in the classroom. Writing is the critical skill that we look for in all application materials, especially in their statement of purpose.
We also consider professional experience. Students provide resumes as part of their application. We expect them to connect their professional experience to the degree and their goals for graduate education. In their personal statement, students should explain how the degree will positively impact their careers. We really want to understand applicants’ motivation, what drives them and what makes them passionate about what they’re doing. People who are passionate and care about the outcome of their graduate school experience have a greater level of grit and determination to get through the parts that are difficult or more ambiguous.
The personal statement is a way for us to get to know the applicant, so we encourage students to use it as an opportunity to speak to us with a genuine voice. We also use personal statements to place students with an introductory course instructor who we think will best support them as they make the transition into their graduate education.
Letters of recommendation are optional, though we advise students to submit them if there are concerns in another area. We generally like to see a balance between academic and professional references.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Chad Mezera] We are a program that, from the beginning, has stressed the importance of the impact we want to have on the lives and careers of our students. We do everything in our power to ensure that all students have a valuable experience and learn skills and insights they need to be competitive. And they need to learn at the pace of the industry, not the pace of higher education.
We also strike an excellent balance between foundational concepts and skills that translate across disciplines and in-depth training in specific fields. Students get a holistic education where they look at integrated marketing communications from a leadership perspective. We have aspired to develop and maintain a program that trains students to be leaders within their organization, and shows them how different communication strategies can promote better organizational workflow, a stronger client base, and a stronger brand.
We often get questions from students who are deciding between an MBA and a master’s in communication. Both are certainly legitimate ways of advancing one’s career. An MBA is going to focus on administration, finance, the supply chain, and the other important business functions, but does not focus on communication specifically and how it is crucial to all elements of an organization’s operation, as well as its relationships with clients and customers. This is knowledge that our program focuses on in-depth. If you are looking at the C-Suite, our program is specifically focused on the Chief Marketing Officer or Chief Communications Officer function. And I think that this focus makes for a very specialized and powerful degree.
Another key strength of our program is that we work diligently to remain on the cutting edge of communication developments and technologies. For example, we launched an augmented reality and virtual reality course, which is I think a little bit ahead of its time and certainly ahead of the industry. Curriculum development and improvement is a constant process that we are committed to and that dedication prepares our students to be effective in the workforce immediately.
We completed a survey of all our graduates about a year-and-a-half ago and had a 97.9 percent net promoter score, which really blew us away, but also showed us that we are doing things right. Our graduates almost entirely feel that their education in WVU’s IMC program not only had a positive impact on their promotability, but also on their career path and their understanding of where they wanted to go and how to get there.
The flexibility of our program is also something that makes our program ideal for students at varying points in their career. Most of our students will take one or two courses in a term and be done with the degree in about a year-and-a-half to two years, but there are students who will save up and take a course as they can afford it and take longer, or students who really want to earn their master’s in a short period of time and can complete the program in as little as one year. If a student is on a federal reimbursement or a financial aid program, they can tailor their progression through the program according to their needs. As long as a student in our program takes a course within a two-year period and completes the degree within eight years we’ll keep them active in our system and give them the flexibility to come-and-go as their personal and professional lives allow.
Finally, even though we are one of the largest graduate programs at WVU, we are committed to small class sizes which optimize students’ ability to connect with their peers and their professors. All of our classes cap at 20 students, but most of them run around 15 to 17 students, which is a great class size in a graduate environment. There are enough students to foster diversity and a variety of perspectives, but not so many that the instructor isn’t able to engage with every one of his or her students. Faculty mentorship, as mentioned, is something that we’ve really focused on, and we believe is it one of the reasons why our students feel optimally prepared for the workforce when they graduate. They leave with a combination of great connections and a solid foundation in advanced integrated marketing.
Thank you, Chad Mezera, for your excellent insight into West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications program!