Your Next Great Employee Could Be Your Intern

In less than two years, SEER has turned four of our interns into full time employees (45% full time hiring rate). When factoring the cost we put in (hours spent training, paid internship wages, etc.) this is without a doubt a positive ROI system we have in place.

It took some time, but we have built a successful program where every intern has an opportunity to gain full time employment within as quickly as four months.  Our future stars sure look brighter than the Philadelphia Phillies’ prospects (although Cliff Lee will probably be dealt just as I post this).

Things are firing on all cylinders in Philly, but I have relocated to SEER’s expansion office in San Diego and I realized we need to replicate the program as closely as possible. As I started outlining what made our Philly operation so successful, I figured why not share it with you?

Define Your Goals

Six months into the job I was asked by an employee to take the reins on our internship program.  She knew I had a passion for teaching, and given her new role she thought it would be a good time to hand it off to someone who actually wanted to run with it and take it to the next level.

Some of the foundation was already in place, but I certainly had visions of growing our intern program to be what major league baseball teams would call a “farm system.”  Today’s students have little exposure to SEO/PPC/Analytics in the classroom; this knowledge gap helped us set three equally important goals for the program:

  1. Attract the brightest students in the area by educating them on a fast-growing industry primed with entry-level job opportunities
  2. Build a program that gives each intern an opportunity to earn a full time position with SEER
  3. Forge strong relationships with universities so that we have continuous access to high profile students

Get Buy In (Show the Benefits)

If you’ve read this far, you already see the benefit of building a program and want me to just give the recipe already.  But you may face roadblocks: other decision makers may refuse to allocate budget for a program.  You’ll need to run your own numbers to prove a positive ROI, but hopefully these benefits will help prepare you in your argument:

  • Ability to train young, eager minds to fit your company culture:  It’s a sad truth, but people aren’t always who you think they are when you go through the interview process.  Some people know how to turn on a charm and hide the warts, but once they are hired you see their true colors.  When you miss on an employee's character, it takes significant time, money and resources to replace them with someone who is a better fit.  When you bring in an intern, it’s a low-risk decision if they don’t work out or they aren’t who you thought they were.  Furthermore, they’re eager to impress because this is an audition for a full time job, so they’re more likely to form to the mold of your current culture.
  • They don’t come in with “bad habits” from previous employment: This is similar to the previous point that you want people to be the right fit. Interns are coming in with minimal experience, thus decreasing the likelihood that they picked up bad work habits from a company that didn’t spend as much internal resources on creating a high-performance workplace.
  • Smaller curve for getting up to speed in an entry-level position: When you find those interns that you know have star potential, you see the big picture of what these next four to six months will be: you are going to get them to understand the industry and the company in a low-pressure setting.  So when they are ready to move into a full time position, they’re less prone to make mistakes that “new” entry-level employees are likely to make.  Shortly after our promoted interns start their full time positions, they are assigned to client accounts.  And they are assigned with confidence.

The Secret Sauce

These are the steps SEER took toward building an effective program.  This was by no means a one-man show.  Our program wouldn’t be half of what it is today without the support of an amazing, dedicated team where everyone worked toward the same goals.

1.  Invest time into training

This is the most critical step, because this is where you are making the biggest investment.  The cost of an internship program isn’t the hourly wages;  it’s the amount of hours your full time employees are putting in to help train interns.  It will add hours to their work week, but the employees who see the big picture are willing to make the investment of their time.

Simply put, you will never fully see the benefits outlined above if you don’t have the best of your best helping your interns to grow and be successful.

Takeaway: Expect between 20-30 hours of training for their first 2.5 months.  If you plan on having more than one intern, make sure they start the same day and keep as similar schedules as possible (this will keep your trainers from having to re-teach an exercise 1 day later). Lastly, if you already have a training process in place for new full time hires, use it to your advantage as a guide (HUGE thanks to our new hire trainers who paved the way for a process :) )

2. Don't ask for volunteers within the company (solicit great teachers)

Being part of a training team is a real commitment.  Depending on your company’s size, emailing your office for volunteers probably won’t move the needle.  When people see it go out the entire team, it’s a natural feeling to “skip” it with the intent to check in on it later because you are busy at that time.  But you will continue to be busy, and then you just forget about it completely.

When you approach people individually to help for a task like this, it does a few things: You are addressing them directly, making it harder to ignore completely.  Even if they tell you they can’t participate, at least you have an answer.  It also shows people that you are thinking of them, and that you know this is a role that they’d really excel in and add value to the company.

Takeaway: Identify a sample group of people in the company you know are strong teachers or have a passion for helping others.  Approach them individually.  When you have your group in place, if you still need a few more, that’s what you can email the entire team and let them know who already is working on it and how many more people you need.  

3. Create a low risk/high reward program that benefits the intern, the company and the community

If the goal is for an intern to become a full time employee that can manage a client campaign, step 1 would be for that intern to understand (then apply) the process of account management. Unfortunately, having a student work hands on with a new client project from the start is not always feasible and could negatively impact your client relationship (and the student’s confidence).

This is the part of the process that was already in place at SEER, and I think the founders of this idea really nailed it.  Students choose a non-profit they’d like to work with, and they go through an abridged version of how we kick off a client (with the guidance of team members).  It teaches the student our process of creating/managing a campaign, it builds their confidence for how to be successful in our industry, and it helps a charity or non-profit in the community earn a little more online recognition to support their cause.

Takeaway: Find a way that interns can learn with hands-on application that can build confidence and help the community.

4. Give interns client work

Eventually you are going to need to see whether or not an intern is going to be a long-term part of your team.  Once they’ve gone through and applied some of their training to their non-profit project, you need to take it to the next level and put client work in their hands. We spend the time needed to give instruction on the task, and the account manager will also review the work and make necessary changes before sending to the client.  Keep the tasks research oriented in the beginning.  Some examples include: prospecting industry-related sites that may want to share your client’s digital assets; research and fact finding for infographic ideas; analysis of competitors’ digital assets; keyword research for long-tailed opportunities.

Takeaway: Build your interns level of confidence, and then allow them to work on low-level client deliverables. Always provide full instruction (yes, invest some time here!), and always double check the assignment before ever sending to the client.

5. Tap your company’s connections to local schools/alma maters

This is no different than how you network for other business goals. Create a Google Doc, ask your training team to add any connections they have.  Then ask the rest of your team (give them a deadline and remind them of importance).  Once you have a list, ask your co-workers to make the introduction, and you can take it from there.

Takeaway: Create some type of working document and always check in with new hires on whether or not they have professor relationships.  A direct line within a university is critical to having a continuous stream of students to evaluate. 

 6. Treat professor relationships like you would client relationships

Once you’ve connected with the professor/department head at a university,  take the time to understand how you can help them.  Professors want their students to graduate with jobs, and they love all the help they can get from digital marketing professionals who can teach students about a growing industry.  SEER went as far as inviting local professors to the Search Church to teach them about digital marketing, the direction our industry was headed, and how it impacted students.

Why invest time in this step? Professors have access to students for entire semesters.  Why does this help you? Here’s how:

Ryan: Hi Professor X, we’ve had three of your students apply for an internship, but only have room for one.  Scott Summers, Jean Grey and Hank McCoy all seem like great candidates, but can you tell me who has impressed you the most in the classroom so far?

Professor X: They’re all special students, indeed, but Scott has really shown leadership amongst his peers and his work is always timely and organized.  He really sees things in a different light than most students.

Takeaway: Set up coffee meets and lunches when you can. Check in from time to time via email.  Ask professors questions about their current programs and where they see weaknesses.  The more you understand how you can help professors, the stronger the relationship becomes and the more opportunity you have to gain direct access to top level talent.

 7. Plan events for students to visit your office and for you to visit their classroom

Take a push and pull approach here. It’s great to have “career days” at your company (especially if you have an awesome work space like the Search Church) to give students a taste of agency life. Let them see what it's like to work for your company. Give them a tour so they can feel the energy and get a better visualization of a day in the life.

Consider the fact that students have to volunteer to come to these events.  That’s always great because you get the eager students who really want to learn more about digital marketing.  But sadly enough, students don’t fully understand our industry and may not be interested to attend.  So make sure you plan events where you are speaking in the classroom where they are required to attend.  You’d be surprised how many students will approach you after the lecture or email you saying “I had no idea how interesting your industry and company was! I’m so glad you came in today.”

Takeaway: Plan on having students visit your company, but don’t underestimate the value of visiting them in the classroom.  Both approaches have their benefits.

8. Ask interns how you can improve the program for future students

We’ve made multiple iterations to our training program, largely in part because we ask students for feedback to make the process more efficient.  Are we moving too fast? Too slow? Are we overloading you with training courses? Do you feel like you are making an impact?

Takeaway: Check in with your interns regularly. Make sure they are giving you feedback on the program every few weeks, and a more formal type feedback upon completion.

9. Ask interns who have been promoted to be involved in the intern program

If an intern is promoted to a full time employee, you should consider asking them to play a mentor for future interns.  They know what it takes to be successful and that knowledge should be valued by your company.  Consider it one more person to help in the training program.

Takeaway: Empower past interns to play a mentor role.  It puts current interns in a better position to be successful; it allows past interns to further evolve in the company; it adds more people to your training team, giving other team members back some time.  Everybody wins.

What to Look for in Your Interns

Last year I polled 40 digital marketers (SEER employees and other folks in our circles) and asked them to identify the characteristics they felt were most important for a student to possess to be successful in our industry.  When interviewing your candidates, consider asking questions that will you determine if a potential intern has the following:

  • Analytical
  • Problem Solver/Decision Maker
  • Creative
  • Strong Research Skills
  • Goal Oriented
  • Project Management Skills
  • Strong Communication Skills

Have you had similar success with your company's intern program? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments below.


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Ryan Fontana
Ryan Fontana
Director, Paid Media