About Chad Mezera, M.S.: Chad Mezera is the Assistant Dean of Online Programs for the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. As Assistant Dean, he oversees all online programs within the College, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He oversaw the development of WVU’s Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications, Master of Science in Data Marketing Communications, and Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications. He currently works closely with other members of the leadership team at WVU to ensure that all online programs offered at the Reed College of Media remain relevant and engaging in the rapidly evolving marketing industry. In addition, he manages and supports over 100 faculty members and adjunct instructors who teach online courses in the Reed College of Media. Under his guidance, the graduate programs within the College have expanded their course offerings substantially and earned multiple awards for the quality of their instruction, including from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and the West Virginia University Board of Governors.
Mezera has numerous years of experience in corporate communication strategy development for government IT organizations. He earned his B.S. in Advertising in 2000 and his M.S. in Journalism from West Virginia University in 2002.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program? How was the fixed curriculum designed to ensure students have the comprehensive and versatile skills to work on a diverse set of digital marketing projects and strategies?
[Chad Mezera] I’ve been at West Virginia University for over 16 years, and over those years, my colleagues and I have seen the marketing and communications industry change a great deal. We’ve primarily seen a massive change in how companies and professionals approach strategic communication, public relations, advertising and related forms of business communication. Our College has remained very focused on the needs of marketing communications practitioners, and as the industry has changed, we look for opportunities to deliver relevant and leading-edge courses to our students.
WVU’s online M.S. in Digital Marketing Communications is designed to focus students’ expertise on digital communications tools and functions that they will need to excel in the industry, and to provide hands-on training and experience with many of the tools that they’ll be using in their jobs. Therefore, we have integrated a number of industry certifications, including ones from Google and Facebook, within the courses, allowing students to gain key knowledge as well as making themselves more marketable. In terms of curriculum themes, students look at application and technologies, content and production, as well as strategy and campaign planning as the main focus areas. Many of our students are digital natives who already understand fundamentally how the tools work and how to use them strategically, so our job is to give them the expert-level skills so they can engage their customers and target audiences effectively.
We have a mobile marketing course, which is a really important study of how people are utilizing mobile technologies and how you can reach consumers through them. The social media marketing course focuses on the primary social media platforms and how to utilize them to connect with your target audience. And we make sure to train students in a platform-agnostic way; social media platforms are continually evolving —today, it’s Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. But in subsequent years, there will be other platforms and students should be able to continually utilize what they can through social media to engage audiences. We also have courses in web metrics and SEO, setting up a digital storefront and managing your website and all of your owned media assets.
The courses in the content and campaign planning curriculum theme focus on message strategy and how to create content for digital audiences. Students learn about digital storytelling and how to tailor stories based on the platform they are using. They learn how to get the best message through and engage with the digital video production process. We are also developing what will be a course in the podcasting space for students. That way, students can choose between video production and podcast production, depending on their interests. Our strategy and campaign planning courses discuss audience segmentation and understanding ROI.
The customer engagement ethics and strategies course looks at the question, “Just because we can do things, should we?” For example, privacy is a huge issue in the digital space, and all of these companies and brands have incredibly broad and deep access to our information. What we do with this information, how we use it and what we should and shouldn’t do with it is certainly something that digital marketing communications professionals need to examine and discuss.
The final capstone course wraps up everything that students have learned and focuses on utilization of multiple tools within the digital space to create a large-scale campaign for a client.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications uses to facilitate students’ interactions with faculty and peers? What learning management system does this program use? Are the online classes mainly asynchronous, or do some have synchronous components?
[Chad Mezera] The platform that WVU uses is Blackboard and all of our online courses run through this learning management system. Within each course, the technologies that each instructor uses can vary, whether they are Google tools, Facebook tools, Adobe or some other platform appropriate for a particular course. For the courses that do require specific software, WVU has partnerships with several platforms, making these applications either free or available to our students for a very low cost.
In courses that require a student to purchase software, the discounted purchase of said software is considered in lieu of a textbook. In fact, in this space, things move so quickly that there really aren’t many traditional textbooks that we use. Aside from a few foundational textbooks on key principles in the space, we more often use trade publications or other forms of literature that are more rapidly updated and thus are more relevant to today’s industry.
In terms of synchronous versus asynchronous, all of our courses are asynchronous. We have students from all around the world, so we expect our instructors and course developers to ensure our courses remain accessible to students around the globe. This doesn’t mean that there are not synchronous elements to courses — there certainly are. Our faculty frequently incorporate live video sessions, but the key is that they capture that content and build it back into the course. That way, if a student is running late or cannot attend due to work and/or family obligations, they don’t feel the pressure to attend the live session as they know they can access the content later.
In terms of how group work is handled in the online, asynchronous environment, we don’t want students’ experiences in the classroom to be focused on trying to schedule with their classmates as opposed to really delving into the work at hand. While much of the work in the industry is indeed team-oriented, we wanted to make sure that Student A in one country wasn’t reliant on Student B for part of a project they would get graded on. As a result, group activities tend to be more discussion-based and critique/feedback oriented, and not so much developing deliverables together. The technologies within our system are constantly improving, and as they do, there are additional ways for us to engage our students with one another as part of the learning process.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students in the Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications must complete a Digital Marketing Communications campaign for a selected client. Could you elaborate on this requirement, and what it entails?
[Chad Mezera] When designing the capstone course, we sought to do what we have done with both our Data Marketing Communications and Integrated Marketing Communications programs, which is to help students apply the concepts they have learned in the classroom to a real industry challenge. This year, we are using a case study client rather than a live client, but in the coming years, we will consider connecting with real industry clients for our students’ final project.
Our goal is for students to demonstrate their understanding of the content of the program and their ability to utilize these tools strategically. Students are utilizing Hootsuite, a social media platform management system, extensively in the campaign class to build out a digital marketing campaign for the case study. The goal of capstone is for students to have a portfolio piece that they can show to employers. It is framed not as an academic project but rather as an industry-level client proposal, coupled with an executive summary that can be showcased to client leadership. The capstone project represents what students have learned and accomplished in the program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on the faculty expertise that enriches this program, and the role that faculty mentorship plays in West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications? 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] To answer this question, let me talk a little bit about our overall philosophy for instruction. In all our programs, we are a practitioner-focused school, which comes from our journalism roots. We are a college that focuses on what people do in the strategic communications and journalism industries in order to succeed. Even our full-time faculty on campus are, in most cases, maintaining a balance between academia and industry work — in other words, they are practitioners with academic credentials.
I think that the industry focus has only increased when we began developing our online graduate programs. As we moved these programs into the fully online, asynchronous model, we weren’t limited to instructors in a particular geographical area. The result is that we can recruit expert faculty from anywhere in the country and this enables us to identify industry leaders who are doing amazing things in their professional roles, and who can also talk simultaneously in an academic space about what they see working, what doesn’t work, and how the industry is evolving. In many ways, our instructors with whom students engage from the very beginning and throughout the program are folks who are at the cutting edge of their fields. They have been in their careers long enough to see how things have progressed and where they will likely go next.
For example, one of our mobile marketing instructors is a gentleman named Bob Bentz, who is the President of Purplegator, a successful mobile marketing firm that is headquartered in Philadelphia. Being able to go out and identify these folks who are doing great things in the industry and then bring it back into the classroom is one of the things that I think really makes our program stand out. We know that our students need to use what they learn in our classes immediately in their jobs to positively impact their career and sustain long-term differentiation and competence in their space. The best way that I think that can happen is by ensuring that students have mentors throughout their time in the program, mentors who are currently leaders in the industry and can help students reach their professional goals.
Faculty-to-student mentorship is not the only type of mentorship that occurs in our program. Students also mentor each other. Each student is an expert in their own right, within their own professional space, and there is a great deal of engagement that occurs within student-to-student relationships as well.
For illustration, in our IMC program early on, we were concerned because we had some students who had 10-15 years of professional experience, alongside folks who were just coming out of undergrad. We were worried that there would be too much of a difference between these two audiences for them to be comfortable with one another. What we found, however, was that the more senior people really enjoyed their engagement with the younger students, as it got them thinking in fresh ways. And in turn they became de facto mentors for the younger students in the program. There is this invaluable networking element throughout our programs, and it’s expanded beyond students’ company or region — it’s on a national and even global scale.
In addition, we also do a formal mentorship program once a year where we bring industry mentors, typically alumni, who work in specific areas of the industry and match them up with current students who also aspire to work in those areas. For instance, in our last mentorship round we had a student who wanted to work in sports marketing, so we connected her with someone who works on the digital media team for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Once we match students with their mentors, they engage with each other in advising sessions under our guidance for about six months. This has been a very popular program amongst our students. It provides another layer of mentorship and support through which our students are not just working with faculty but also with someone who is an alumnus and who has accomplished what the student wishes to accomplish. We’ve seen a remarkable growth in terms of how many students are taking advantage of the mentorship program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application? How diverse is each student cohort, and how would you describe the ideal student(s) for this program?
[Chad Mezera] The application process for all our programs is holistic. What I mean by that is we’re looking for students who have a passion and an intent to succeed in a very competitive industry. Sometimes this motivation is the result of an earlier professional or academic failure. We focus our admissions selections around students who clearly present to us that digital marketing is their passion. We want to see a commitment on their end to see it through, that this is the career that they want and that our program can help them get there.
From a philosophical, pedagogical standpoint, undergraduate education is comparatively and intentionally broad. Very few undergraduate programs lead to a single direction. Graduate education, on the other hand, is highly effective at helping students specialize in a narrower focus area within a particular industry. For the M.S. in Digital Marketing Communications, we are really looking for are people who have a passion for marketing and want to dedicate their career to applying digital tools to creating effective campaigns. Our students are from all over, with varying levels of experience and backgrounds.
While we do not require the GRE, we do consider a student’s undergraduate performance, their resume and professional experience, and their personal statement. To apply, we require a personal statement, résumé, and official academic transcripts, and we also accept optional letters of recommendation. We want to make sure that the students we admit will have a constructive and productive time in the program. Therefore, the admissions process is about more than just deciding whom we will admit.
During our review of applications, we discuss within the admissions committee about which instructors are best equipped to be ideal mentors for each student we admit. That way we align the instructors that we believe can best support students at the beginning of their journey in the program. So even though all students are taking the same course in their first term, the individual support and advice they receive is tailored to their needs.
One more thing I want to note is that, if prospective students engage with one of our enrollment specialists, we will waive the $60 application fee that the University charges. We highly encourage this route as it helps us better know their intent in the program and for us to design a journey specific to their career goals.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Chad Mezera] Our M.S. in Digital Marketing Communications is hyper-focused on the digital space, and how students can succeed in advanced careers within that space. The coursework is hands-on, so students are really engaging directly with the tools that they will be using in their future jobs. They complete numerous industry certifications alongside their coursework, ensuring that they are building knowledge of current industry tools, and earning additional credentials to make them stand out to prospective employers.
But our program isn’t just focused on the tools of today, it also does an excellent job of giving students both tool-specific and tool-agnostic training in all key digital communications technologies. In other words, once students finish our program, they are prepared to dive into current projects that utilize the latest social media and digital media production platforms, but they also have the strategic perspective to translate their knowledge and skills to new platforms as they develop or become the industry standard. In the capstone experience, students use a myriad of tools specific to the digital media space, and they learn to be true specialists.
In developing this program, we identified specifically the direction that the industry is moving, and where the jobs are. This program is for students who are really committed to working in the digital media space, and who are anticipating correctly that the industry will essentially become entirely digital-focused in the coming years, and want to prepare for that.
Thank you, Chad Mezera, for your excellent insight into West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Digital Marketing Communications program!