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MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Marketing

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career. In this post, I’ll look at the Warton School’s course on marketing.

Course Overview

Businesses can’t survive without marketing, which means companies must establish a strong brand, discover and focus on customer needs, and develop interaction strategies to aid product and brand growth. In their course An Introduction to Marketing, professors Barbara E. Kahn, Peter Fader, and David Bell presented three-week mini-sessions on those broad topics.

Branding

Professor Kahn started with an analysis of branding, from both the perspective of the company and the consumer. I took particular note of her strategies for brand leadership, which measure a brand’s positioning along three axes: product differentiation, operational competence, and customer responsiveness. The goal, she said, is to lead on one axis and offer fair value on the other two. Of course, companies work to mitigate other firms’ advantages, so what represents fair value changes over time.

The remainder of the first unit examined the customer decision-making process, noting in part that too many choices can lead to customer indecision and inaction (a result that also received significant attention in Dan Ariely’s course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior). This sequence also addressed effective brand communication and repositioning strategies. Professor Kahn’s take on familiar topics such as the brand mantra and elevator speech provided insights well beyond those in the seemingly infinite paraphrases of the same five talking points found online, making Week 3’s hour of video worthwhile within five minutes.

Customer Centricity

Professor Fader’s section addressed customer centricity, which shifts the focus from the firm’s products to customer needs. It’s a subtle shift, but changing to a customer-centric orientation opens firms to meeting and, in many cases, anticipating customer wants and needs. By listening to and observing customers before and during product development, companies can better understand customer motivation and combine their product and market insights with their customers’ insights to create better products.

I also appreciated Professor Fader’s note that you should focus on the lifetime value of your customers rather than just the current sale. If you sell suits and offer discounts to frequent customers, it makes sense to allow customers who are away at an elite MBA program or working abroad to retain their preferred status until they return because of the long-term benefits from their patronage. It also means some clients aren’t worth your time and should be fired.

Go to Market Strategies

The final segment, Go to Market Strategies, examines the process of introducing a product to the public. Professor Bell discusses the role of offline and online interaction, identifying lead users, encouraging the spread of a product or service (“virality”), and targeting one’s message. I thought this part of the course introduced the concepts well, but suffered the most from the time and scope limitations imposed by the MOOC format.

Companies try to establish network effects, by which the value of their product increases as more people adopt it. Facebook would be worthless if the majority of its users stopped sharing information on the site, as has occurred with MySpace. Bell offered excellent background information on finding influential users, targeting messages, and establishing prices, but this general information begged for statistical analysis of social media and other data.

Production Notes

The three professors adopted different presentation modes, which added excellent variety to the course. Professor Kahn presented as if standing at the front of a classroom, but without a podium. With her slides projected behind her on a green screen (or, when appropriate, taking up the full screen), her presentations had a more intimate, seminar-like quality.

Professor Fader appeared in several locations, including a company’s distribution center and a Philadelphia street corner. The editors had B-roll sequences of car and pedestrian traffic to break up the shots, but they re-used the same clips numerous times. After a while I had a side game of counting how many times I’d seen the same guy turn to look at the camera as he walked by.

The final section showed Professor Bell in the classic “talking head” mode, where his upper body or slides filled the screen as appropriate. Bell is a solid presenter, as were his colleagues, so I had no trouble maintaining interest in his material.

Final Thoughts

Every institution balances the desire to share knowledge through MOOCs with the need to preserve the value of their on-campus students’ investment. While I enjoyed An Introduction to Marketing and gained substantial value from the professors’ presentations, I’m left with the feeling that there’s a lot more out there. The good news is that I can apply social network analysis skills I learned from Lada Adamic’s Coursera MOOC of the same name to Facebook and Twitter data. Also, if I look a bit further, I can surely find a textbook on marketing data analysis to further my understanding of that topic.

The Wharton School’s An Introduction to Marketing provides a solid conceptual framework for marketing in the connected economy. I found this course to be the easiest of the four Wharton offerings through Coursera, mainly because the quizzes called for students to recall main points from the lectures and readings rather than perform difficult analysis. Even so, I got a lot out of the course and recommend it without reservation.

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