Step 1: Preliminary Research and Goal Setting

General information

Identify the problem, target audience, attitude or behavior you are trying to change, and intended outcomes

Effective college access marketing (CAM) campaigns start with a clear understanding of the problem they’re tackling. Why is the problem so important? What are the benefits of solving it? What behaviors are behind it?

Remember, college access is a complex issue with many facets, so one marketing campaign may look very different

Begin with a clear and succinct statement that describes the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve and how your marketing campaign can help solve it. It can be as short as a couple of paragraphs or more detailed.

Picking the Right Solution: Marketing versus Policy and Process

Marketing alone doesn’t solve social problems. If it did, there would be no more litterers, drunk drivers, or solo commuters. Policies and processes play important roles in what social marketing campaigns can achieve. Eliminating the pull-top soda can, imposing tough penalties on drunk drivers, and creating HOV lanes put real muscle behind messages that are all too easy to tune out.

In the college access field, policy and process changes that create incentives or remove barriers may be necessary before marketing makes sense. For example, while CAM campaigns can increase student demand for financial aid or AP courses, they alone can’t increase the amount of grant money available or the number of teachers in high-poverty schools who are qualified to teach AP courses.

Problem Statement

Develop your problem statement by asking these questions:

  • Why is college access important to your state, community, and/or organization?
  • What are the main obstacles to improving college access in your state or community?
  • Which are the best fit for a social marketing approach, and why?
  • What problem is your campaign going to focus on? For example:
    • Eligible students not applying for financial aid
    • Students not taking college-prep courses in high school
    • Students not graduating from high school
    • High school graduates not enrolling in college or particular types of colleges

What is the campaign’s purpose – what is your overall goal? For example:

  • More students from low-income families enrolling in college
  • Lower high school drop-out rates for children of immigrants
  • More young adults prepared for higher wage jobs
  • More African-American men completing four-year degrees

Use Multiple Sources

Never draw conclusions from only one type or piece of research. Different methods and sources of information to consider include:

  • Interviews with experts
  • Demographic data
  • Focus groups
  • Public opinion surveys
  • Behavior surveys
  • Academic studies
  • Literature reviews
  • Anecdotes and informal surveys
  • Direct observation


Research is a key component to revealing the depths of an issue within a community. Once you have clearly identified your problem, you may collect your own research or use existing information to help inform your campaign. The more sources you explore, the more confidence you can have in your conclusions. In designing a campaign, you might find both qualitative and quantitative research helpful.

Qualitative research involves:

  • Listening to and observing people one-on-one or in small groups
  • Trying out new ideas or messages with a sample of the target audience to hear what they have to say

Examples of qualitative research are interviews, focus groups, open-ended survey questions (e.g., “What did you like about that poster?”) and direct observation (e.g., watching a high school class in action).

Quantitative research involves:

  • Collecting numerical data with larger groups, ideally large enough to represent a whole audience or segment, and
  • Analyzing data in the aggregate. That is, you’re not interested in what one person thinks, but in what the target audience thinks as a whole.

Surveys are the main form of quantitative research used in marketing, and they can help you test the ideas that emerge from qualitative research. For example, if a handful of middle grades students in a focus group all said they intended to go to college, a well-designed survey could determine if that was true for most middle grades students in your state, or only for certain sub-groups.

What to research?

Good research can be costly. To keep costs down, tap into whatever relevant research is available in the field. When conducting your own research, be sure to identify the best method to discovering the information you need. It’s always a good idea to save some part of your research budget for use down the line. As your campaign plan evolves, new research questions will almost certainly arise.

“You want the research to help you make decisions, not just give you information . . . If you don’t have enough money to afford mass media, don’t research media habits. If your boss has already decided the audience he or she wants to address, then learn more about this segment, not other audiences. – ” Social Marketing Lite, Academy for Educational Development, Social Change Group, July 2000.

Campaign Context

Once you’ve defined the overall problem, the focus and purpose of your campaign, consider the context in which your campaign will be operating. Ask these questions:

What internal strengths and what weaknesses of your campaign?

  • Make an honest assessment of your access to resources, expertise, leadership support and partners, and how each could advance or hinder your efforts.
  • Also consider the strengths or weaknesses of your partners and funders.

What are the external opportunities and threats? 

This includes the overall social, economic and policy context as well as conditions in your specific state or community. Consider threats and opportunities in these different areas:

  • Cultural (trends affecting social values, preferences, actions)
  • Demographic (trends in population ethnicity, age, location)
  • Economic (trends affecting family and student financial resources, including access to and availability of public funding)
  • Political and legal (government actions and policies that could affect the campaign and its audiences), and
  • Outside organizations (groups, including businesses, that could have an impact on your target audience or serve as partners or allies).

What does past experience tell you about this problem and how to solve it?

  • Study previous campaigns and public health efforts, commercial marketing strategies and behavioral research for lessons that can help you build the strongest possible campaign.
    • How did others succeed or fail?
    • What approaches have been effective at changing similar kinds of behavior or reaching similar audiences?

[Adapted from Social Marketing: Improving the Quality of Life, by Philip Kotler, Ned Roberto, and Nancy Lee. Second edition, 2002. Sage Publications, Inc]

Use Research to Define the Problem and Estimated Benefits of Solving it

Formative Research Publications and Reports

Looking for research related to college access? Get information on graduation rates, education level and the public perception of higher education in the Formative Research section of the Resource Center.

Look for relevant information both inside and beyond the education field. Possible sources:

  • Government agencies
    • U.S. Census (
    • U.S. Department of Labor (
    • National Center for Education Statistics (
  • Regional Education Compacts
    • Southern Regional Education Board (
    • Midwestern Higher Education Compact (
    • New England Board of Higher Education (
    • Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (
  • Social Marketing campaigns targeted at an audience similar to your own:
    • Anti-smoking campaigns
      • Truth (
    • Teen pregnancy prevention advocates
      • The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (
    • Youth-serving community organization
    • Colleges and universities
    • Companies that sell products to your audience