Using a Virtual Simulation to Create Next-Gen Marketers

Muzzy Lane software screenshot

Every year thousands of students enter college with a focus on developing skills, and ultimately a career, in marketing.  This subject presents special challenges for instructors to teach, since no small amount of marketing is trial and error, or making a judgment based on past experience.  So how does a motivated student leave school prepared to take on a role which, until that time, has been purely academic?  How can these students apply the various elements of marketing they’ve studied and see how they come together to make an effective marketing strategy?

Our answer was to create a virtual simulation that would allow students to apply the knowledge learned in their class.  “Practice Marketing” was developed by Muzzy Lane Software for McGraw-Hill Higher Education.  It’s aimed at college freshmen majoring in marketing and was developed using marketing subject matter experts to align with the curriculum of a typical “Marketing 101” class.  Students become the marketing manager for a backpack company.  They are responsible for choosing a target market, designing a pack to best suit customer needs, implementing advertising strategies and choosing distribution channels.  The metric for success is the most net revenue generated over the course of the game.   Students can play against computer opponents or compete against other students in multiplayer: either together in a classroom or online for out-of-class play. Gameplay is turn-based, so students can play asymmetrically (for example, as a homework assignment) or manually where the game ends when all players have ended a turn.  This allows great flexibility in how the teacher chooses to implement the game.  Additional interaction can occur if several students are assigned to control one “company” within the game and discuss among their group what actions to take.  This further mirrors how the student might function as part of a team in an actual company.

The game world is a 3D interface that connects the principles and practices of marketing using a 3D Conceptual Map,an interactive view of the elements of marketing: Market Segments, Product, Price, Place, Positioning, and Competitors.  Investigating each area gives players a chance to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy.  Targeting Outdoor Enthusiasts?  Be sure to have thick straps, durability, plenty of capacity, maybe even a built in GPS. Then get that pack into the High End Outdoor store.  Other market segments like Commuters, Students, Children, or Fashion Trendsetters would each require a unique design and implementation strategy.  Then players choose their positioning and weigh whether to focus on a singular message for clarity or risk multiple messages to broaden appeal.

As in the real world, pricing is a multifaceted and complex decision that affects what channels are available.  Practice Marketing uses a simplified model for Price Sensitivity based on the Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter, an industry standard for addressing pricing issues for 20 years which continues to be used widely throughout the market research industry.

Channel management adds a new layer of complexity to decision-making as players carefully evaluate each retailer, looking for the optimal places to sell their products. This leads players to think about questions real world marketers typically ask:

  • Where does my primary target buyer typically shop?
  • Where will my pack attract customers at the price point I have set?
  • What channels will broaden my pack’s appeal to secondary market segments?
  • Where are my key competitors’ products sold?

Players then make their choices and respond to the results.  Each turn represents a quarter, and when ending a turn they review a chart detailing how they fared (units sold, net after total spend, etc.).  They can build on successful results or alter strategy if required.  Relative success depends on a number of factors, including how well the product meets the needs of consumers, how consumers feel about the price, what other competitors are selling in particular outlets, and overall product awareness.

One great lesson from Practice Marketing is that even when you do everything right, you might not win.  For example, perhaps the chosen target market is “Students” and two other students chose that group as well.  Even a well-run campaign will divide market share by three, and leave the chance for the single student who chose “Commuters” to finish with more net profit.  Of course, they all win by being exposed to results they could well face in an actual job, which is the point of using Practice Marketing in the class.

Is it successful?  Recently students at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio were asked what class made a difference in their life.  One student detailed her experience playing Practice Marketing.  She said: “[Practice Marketing] was very enjoyable and rewarding in that it helped me develop my interactive skills, leadership skills, and communication skills. I learned how to be accepting of others’ decisions, patient and open-minded.  In the beginning I didn’t know what to expect, but in the end, I was pleased and enlightened and fulfilled.”

Try learning all that from just a lecture!

Chris Parsons is a product manager with Muzzy Lane Software (@muzzylane), an edtech firm.

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