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UNT students unleash the power of digital marketing for local business

Carolyn Greig loves going to work every day.

The banking executive-turned-franchisee gets to spend hours at Highland Village's Dogtopia taking care of her four-legged friends. She and her staff of 10 groom the fancy pups, pet the playful pups and train the rambunctious pups at the dog day care.

"I used to be an executive at Bank of America, but I got laid off," Greig said. "I always said that if anything ever happened to my job, I would want to open a dog day care. I have a passion for dogs and our brand. There's not a single day that I don't want to come in."

But it's been a year since her storefront opened and, like many small-business owners, Greig is still struggling to build Dogtopia's clientele. She had tried traditional forms of advertising, but it hadn't brought in the traffic Greig was expecting.

Luckily, some University of North Texas students offered to help.

Digital retailing professor Linda Mihalick reached out to Greig and partnered with Dogtopia for a semester-long project in her digital retailing strategies class. The students were paired into groups and tasked with finding solutions to expand a business's online presence. Mihalick has been doing the project for three semesters and previously partnered with a bridal boutique in Dallas and a Nestle Toll House Cafe location in Highland Village.

"I look for small businesses that appear to mainly be focusing on the traditional physical marketing channels, such as fliers, print advertising and mailings," Mihalick said. "While these are important components of connecting with customers, the digital space just can't be ignored for any successful business."

Mihalick has a point. It's nearly impossible to gain traction as a business without being visible online. Digital retailing has become such a crucial component in the business world that UNT began offering a degree specifically for that field.

"Ninety percent of people in the U.S. have some type of smartphone device," Mihalick said. "We as consumers continue to evolve and adapt, allowing the technology to save us time, provide information we're seeking and help make purchasing decisions immediately. What presents for you or your competitors on Google and online map locators can determine where a customer chooses to shop."

As students began working on the project, they had to work around one major detail: A small business means a small budget.

"The best projects incorporate concrete actions the owners can take, while keeping in mind as a small business, they don't have $100K to invest in big ideas such as a new app," Mihalick said.

Some of the students' suggestions were free and simple. While Dogtopia has a solid presence on Facebook, the business could utilize other social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram. One group also suggested using local photos on the Dogtopia Highland Village website instead of stock photos provided by the corporate headquarters.

There's also the issue of search engine visibility. Right now, Dogtopia is the third business to pop up on Google under the search terms "dog day care Highland Village." Students said Greig should set up a Google business account to push her business higher up on the list. Some also suggested reallocating money in the company's small marketing fund for online advertisements and data metrics to track Dogtopia's digital reach.

Other ideas including partnering with local pet organizations or pet-centric people. Digital retailing student Yessenia Ramirez and her group suggested that Dogtopia co-host events with Paws in the City, a local nonprofit that helps dogs and cats get adopted. Ramirez also proposed contacting social media "influencers," or people with large followings who promote products or services, to see if they would mention Dogtopia in their posts.

"Dog day cares are a unique business, so when we came up with non-mobile solutions, there were so many ideas to pick from," Ramirez said. "The idea with the influencers is to get the name of a small company out there."

Mihalick said the project has been a success for past businesses and students. Amanda Lucas, the owner of Nestle Toll House Cafe in Highland Village, was able to expand her business online and even hired a digital retailing student to implement the ideas the class came up with, Mihalick said.

Greig said she has high hopes for her business after working with the class and hopes their ideas will bring in more fur friends.

"I'm already looking through the presentations to see what we can implement," she said. "I wanted to know what I'm doing or not doing, what's working and what's not. And I think there's definitely some improvements that can be made."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.