Innovation Lab Prepares Next Generation of Social Media Practitioners

At Gatorade, it’s called Mission Control. Target knows it as Guest Central, while the American Red Cross deems it the Digital Operations Center. Regardless of the name, social media command centers are quickly becoming essential to marketing and communications departments at some of the country’s largest and most innovative organizations. The College of Communication (CMN) now joins their ranks with the opening of the Innovation Lab, or iLab, which was based on Gatorade’s pioneering model. The iLab provides hands-on experience in social media listening, analytics and insights, as well as the tools and techniques used to obtain that data for students across programs.
“This idea came directly from what we were hearing about changes in the professional world,” says Matt Ragas, associate professor and director of the Public Relations and Advertising graduate program, who has been instrumental in conceptualizing, creating and establishing the iLab. “As more and more companies rely on social and digital media to learn about their clients, customers and audiences, it was a natural evolution for the College of Communication to provide this experience for our students.”
One of the college’s computer labs in the Richard M. and Maggie C. Daley Building was transformed into the iLab during spring break. With 12 new large-screen TV monitors, students can easily track different analytics, while faculty members will be able to conduct demonstrations for large groups from anywhere in the room. The front walls were knocked down to fit large windows, allowing the space to be transparent and observable, and the iLab’s Mac computers will soon provide access to Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight, the same social media software platform used in many professional command centers. Comprehensive and intuitive in design, the ForSight software and other social media programs will prepare students for careers in social media analytics and related disciplines.
“The iLab is equipped with hardware and software that will enable our students to get hands-on, real-world social-listening experience,” says Salma Ghanem, dean of the College of Communication. “With help from our talented professors, students will become knowledgeable and up to date in the latest trends in communication research and will have a competitive advantage as they enter the workforce.”
Alumna Krysten Gibson (CMN ’08) agrees that the iLab will be a critical learning tool for communication students. Gibson works for VML, the full-service digital marketing and advertising agency that staffs Gatorade’s Mission Control, where she has been assigned for the last five years as the supervisor of data insights. Gibson also acted as an unofficial consultant for the iLab and was instrumental in developing it in a way that will allow students to gain the most relevant professional experience.
“If I saw job applicants who had experience with this software and knew how to glean insights from data, hiring those candidates would be an easy decision,” Gibson says. “Right now, pretty much everyone in these positions learns on the job. It’s a gap in the industry, and DePaul is taking a leadership role in implementing the iLab.”
As social media becomes increasingly vital to industries across the board, classroom application will broaden with the expectation that CMN students in all programs will benefit. “Command centers are the future of digital communications,” Gibson says. “Establishing the iLab now is a huge advantage for the university and future College of Communication alumni.”

 iLab in Action
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