Marketing Society team of student-athletes aims to boost business for Lowell boutique

Students pose with Humanity store owner in Lowell Image by Ed Brennen
Humanity Boutique owner Ani Vong, center, is getting marketing help from students, from left, Kelly Mankowich, Christa Doiron, Elima Ahzi and Katie Luchino. Not pictured is Colleen Frank.

By Ed Brennen

As Division I student-athletes, Elima Ahzi, Christa Doiron, Colleen Frank, Katie Luchino and Kelly Mankowich are used to competing at the highest level.

This semester, the River Hawks quintet is applying that competitive drive to a different type of playing field by taking part in the Google Online Marketing Challenge, an annual global contest in which college students create and manage an online advertising campaign for a business or nonprofit organization.

“We wanted to get some hands-on marketing experience in a real-world setting,” says Ahzi, a senior business major (with concentrations in international business and marketing) and middle blocker on the River Hawks volleyball team. “It’s a chance to work with an organization and learn how to help them build from the ground up.”

Ahzi and her Google Challenge teammates, who entered the competition through their membership in the UMass Lowell Marketing Society, are working with Humanity Boutique, a women’s clothing store in downtown Lowell owned and operated by Ani Vong.

“Her fashion is very distinct and unique, and we’d love to help her get more people into the store,” says Luchino, a junior business major (with a concentration in marketing and a minor in graphic design) and midfielder on the field hockey team.

Elima Ahzi talks with Humanity owner Ani Vong Image by Ed Brennen
Senior business major Elima Ahzi, right, goes over the Google Online Marketing Challenge plan with Humanity owner Ani Vong.

Luchino says working with Vong on her online marketing strategy has added a new dimension to her classroom learning.

“You can read about marketing in class, but it’s different when you see the emotion of someone who’s put their life into building a business. She’s trying to make a living off of this, and it’s her passion,” Luchino says. “Once you get into that real-life setting, you understand marketing in a whole new way.”

Contestants build a marketing campaign using Google AdWords, the search giant’s online advertising service that sells the top search results labeled “ad” to businesses. Google provides each team with a $250 budget to develop a three-week campaign for the clients.

“If you type in ‘local boutiques near me,’ that’s an AdWord — boutique — that links to the Humanity Boutique online,” Luchino explains. “So she’ll get more views for her website, which means more foot traffic into the store and, at the end of the day, more revenue.”

Google then uses an algorithm to determine the most successful campaigns and five winning teams (regional winners from the Americas, the Middle East and Africa, Europe and the Asia Pacific, along with a global winner) receive trips to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Students work with Ani Vong in Humanity Boutique Image by Ed Brennen
Using Google AdWords, the students competing in the Google Online Marketing Challenge hope to boost traffic for the Humanity website.

Last year, more than 10,000 students from more than 60 countries competed in the Challenge, which is now in its 10th year.

“It’s a competition, and we want to win,” says Mankowich, a junior philosophy major (with a minor in marketing) and a back on the field hockey team. “We picked a business that we’re all passionate about, and helping her succeed and grow would be a win.”

The team also includes junior business majors Doiron, a forward on the field hockey team whose concentrations are in marketing and supply chain management, and Frank, an outfielder on the softball team whose concentration is in marketing.

“It’s a really interesting project for us because we can market to our friends, to our teams and to our school,” Doiron says. “We are her target market.”

This is the second year the Marketing Society has fielded teams in the Google Challenge. Its faculty advisor, Manning School of Business visiting instructor Joan Crooker, also serves as the required faculty representative for the three teams entered this year.

Vong, who has owned Humanity since 2014, could hardly believe it when Ahzi and several of the team members presented her with the idea before winter break.

Reflection of students working in Humanity Image by Ed Brennen
Team members meet at Lowell's Humanity Boutique to discuss their marketing plan for the Google contest.

“It was a like a Christmas gift to me,” Vong says. “I run most of the business myself, so this is a big help. And it’s really great to have the students down here. I hope this helps to bring more business into Lowell.”

“She was so grateful when we first met with her, but in reality she’s helping us as much as we’re helping her,” Luchino adds. “It’s great to be part of the community, and this is what we want to do in the future, so it’s exciting to get that started right now.”

As the lone senior of the group, Ahzi plans to move away from Lowell after Commencement to travel and pursue a master’s degree in international relations. But she hopes this project, and others like them, can help strengthen the university’s ties with the businesses downtown.

“A lot of students know about the restaurants downtown, but the city has way more to offer than that,” says Ahzi, a native of San Diego. “There’s a lot of great history in downtown Lowell that students should know about. We want to help connect the city to the university and make it more inclusive.”