It’s a win-win: Pairing students with real clients in social media courses

I made two important observations after joining the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia in 2015 to lecture in public relations and social media.

The first: Some graduates were finding it challenging to begin their careers, because they did not have enough practical experience. Only completing one internship as part of their degree no longer made them competitive. Juggling part-time or full-time work and family responsibilities with study made it impossible to gain extra experience in their limited spare time, and this left them at a disadvantage.

The second: There is a dearth of social media support for small businesses and nonprofit organisations on the Sunshine Coast. My inbox was inundated with requests for students to assist with social media activities on an unpaid basis. It is important for students to gain practical experience; however, such arrangements need close supervision to ensure they are not exploitative.

The solution: Embedding Work Integrated Learning activities into coursework. I recently chatted with leading social media educator and author, Associate Professor Karen Freberg from the University of Louisville about how the idea originated.

In 2017, as part of USC’s new social media minor, I delivered a course called Social Media: Content Curation and Creation. Assessment Task Two involved students developing a social media strategy and Assessment Task Three required students to develop five pieces of content (including at least one video) to support the tactics proposed in the strategy.

Rather than having students complete these tasks for a hypothetical client, I matched each student with a local business or nonprofit. The student liaised with their client to develop a strategy and content to support two goals nominated by the client at the beginning of the process.

It’s a win win. The client receives the strategy and content at the end of the semester to use at their discretion and the student gains practical experience that they can include on the CV and real-world examples to include in their portfolio to show prospective employers. Dennis Yu, CEO of BlitzMetrics visited USC Australia recently to see the initiative first hand. We discuss his thoughts about in the video below.

For this initiative to work it takes careful planning and responsive communication. There was a class of 55 students the first time I ran this initiative in 2017. In 2018 there were 77. This year in 2019 we ended up with 102. Each semester I keep refining my processes as I learn more with each delivery. Here is my process at its latest stage. Please feel free to use it and ask me questions if you need to. My details are at the end of this post.

Step 1: Preparation

Student: Client Ratio
Having a larger number of clients than students can result in disappointment if a client cannot be matched, so the client to student ratio needs to be as equal as possible.

Check in with your University’s Work Integrated Learning Department
It is essential to have your Work Integrated Learning Department aware and on-board at the very beginning of this initiative so that they can organise any assess any possible risks and organise insurance forms if required.

Client Registration Form
Use Google forms to develop an online client registration form. Include the following fields:

  • Organisation
  • Organisation Type
  • Contact Name
  • Phone Number
  • Email
  • Website
  • Goals (2 max)

I also include the following statement that must be checked before the registration can be submitted:

  • I understand that if my business or organisation is selected, that my assigned (INSERT UNIVERSITY HERE) student will need to communicate with me and possibly visit my premises as part of this initiative.

This ensures that the client understands the nature of the tasks and their possible contribution.

Change the link Google generates to a customised Bitly link. This will make it easier to share on social media.

Write a brief blog post
Write a brief blog post explaining the most important details about the initiative. For example:

  • The scope of the activities (client expectations need to be managed from the outset),
  • What is in it for the client
  • What the client will receive
  • The time-frame
  • How the student will benefit
  • The client’s contribution (timely communication, providing guidance on the content etc.)
  • How to register (include a link to the registration form)
  • Your contact details

Use a compelling image, a brief and catchy headline and change the link using Bitly.

Step 2: Promotion

Promote the initiative on social media. I seem to receive the best response from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter in that order. Tweak the post to suit each platform and include the links to the registration form and the blog post. Running a Facebook ad or boosting the post helps to target local business owners and nonprofits.

Email the article and registration form to any relevant contacts.

Also, see if your University’s media office may be interested in sending out a release or posting it on your university’s social channels.

Step 3: Registration

Your Google registration form allows for the real-time monitoring of registration numbers. Watch this closely as you may need to turn off the form once you have an equal ratio of students and clients. Once you achieve this, post about it on social media, say thank you and explain that there will be future opportunities.

Step 4: Communication

Clear and timely communication is the key to this initiative’s success. This task was made so much easier with Mailchimp, because I could import the client’s registration information directly from the Google form to create a client database. It will need some cleaning up at the beginning, but it means that you can write a personalised email to each client when you need to send the same information. It also means that you have the database there for future courses.

Email clients:

  • The day after registrations close to thank clients, explain the timeline, their level of participation and their allocated student’s contribution.
  • In the days leading up to clients being matched with a student, inform them that their allocated student will soon be in touch and to contact you if they don’t hear from them.
  • After each assessment is due to explain the timeline once again.

The final email
The final email to each client includes their allocated student’s work. Be sure to check each piece of work for spelling errors before sending it, and offer assistance to the client if necessary.

Student Communication
Incorporate student communication with clients into class activities. For many, it will be their first time liaising with a real client, so it is important to supervise the communication until students feel confident and learn what is appropriate. Regularly repeat in all course content the necessity for students to engage with their client.


  • Students applying theory to practice to gain experience and produce artefacts to increase their employability.
  • Local businesses and nonprofits receiving social media assistance and helping students to learn.
  • Positive relationships being formed and strengthened with industry.
  • In some cases, students being employed by their client at the end of the activity. Consider running a networking event for students seeking freelance opportunities and clients willing to pay for assistance (see the photo below from our first USC Social Media Networking Event).
  • Once you have refined your process, you can apply it to other courses. I now use the same process in my social media analytics and Transmedia Storytelling Campaign classes.
USC’s Social Media Networking Event


  • Managing client expectations. Be very clear what the activity involves and what the student will and will not do.
  • Lack of communication between client and student (and vice-versa). You may need to step in at some point to initiate communication between students and clients.
  • Clients who are time-poor and students who leave their work until the last minute. Build assessment work into class activities to encourage students to make progress each week and to give their client enough notice to contribute where necessary.
  • Students who drop out of the course. I offer clients a free social media coaching session and to be top of the waiting list for the following semester to make it up to them. This is still manageable at this point in time and helps strengthen the relationship.
  • Ensuring that students do not post any content publicly without their client’s permission. Encourage them to use AdParlor instead.
  • Your workload. Careful planning is essential. Also, seek help from other staff teaching into your course to lighten the load.

My next challenge will be scaling this initiative if student numbers continue to grow, but that is a wonderful challenge to be presented with.  Please feel free to comment below if you have any questions or would like to share your thoughts on this process, or contact me on my social channels or via email.

Find out more about studying social media at USC Australia.

F: /drkarensutherland/
T: @kesutherland777
I: @karenesutherland
L: /karenesutherland


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