Core Principles
College Access Marketing


Guidance compiled from past social and college access marketing campaigns

Know your audience and look at everything from their point of view.

Effective social marketing starts with thorough research into the likes, dislikes, beliefs and aspirations of your target audience. What appeals to them may be very different than what appeals to you. Make sure you really understand what matters to them, what they want, what they fear, whom they trust and how they react to different kinds of information.

Use research to test your assumptions.

Effective campaigns make extensive use of research. Demographic analysis, focus groups, and other kinds of research help social marketers develop the most appropriate messages and tools for reaching their target audience.

Be very clear about what you want your audience to do.

Going to college involves a complex set of choices and activities that can often overwhelm students and parents. Try to break down the process into smaller steps and focus on a single, specific action, like taking college-prep courses in high school, completing a financial aid application, or visiting a college campus.

Remember that success depends on getting your audience to act.

The most important measure of success is that the people you’re trying to reach actually do the thing you want them to do. Monitor your results and be prepared to change course if what you’re doing isn’t working. What matters is whether more students take a step toward continuing their education, not how many people get a brochure, see an ad, or know the name of a scholarship program.

Make doing it as easy and attractive as possible.

Do whatever you can to remove barriers – real or perceived – between your audience and the action you want them to take. Appeal to your audience’s interests: what they care about right now and how they see themselves, not what you want them to care about. 

Desired behaviors should be clear, realistic and measurable.

Be clear. Make sure the message is clear enough that your target audience understands exactly what you want them to do and how to do it.

Be realistic. Don’t try to solve every problem in a single campaign. Think about what you can achieve within your budget. Focus on a single audience and the single action you want them to take. If you spread yourself too thin by trying to convey different messages to many different audiences, you run the risk of using resources ineffectively without any measurable results.

Make sure the desired actions can be easily measured so that you can monitor the progress of your campaign. This will allow you to make changes along the way, report on incremental successes to key stakeholders and evaluate your campaign’s impact over time.

Define the behaviors we’re trying to change.

While increasing awareness about financial aid and changing attitudes toward higher education are important, the main goal of any social marketing campaign is to get people to change their behavior. College access marketing practitioners have learned that while most students understand the benefits of going to college, they don’t always know the steps to actually get there or believe college is possible. Focusing on the actual behaviors that move a target closer to high school graduation or college enrollment will help you achieve campaign goals.

Here are some examples of behaviors that could be the focus of a marketing campaign.

  • Get students and parents to apply for financial aid.
  • Get students to study harder and get better grades.
  • Get young people to finish high school.
  • Get high school graduates to enroll in college full time instead of part time.
  • Get teachers to change instructional practices.
  • Get school leaders to promote higher-level courses to students.

Here are some examples of objectives that are not behaviors. While worthwhile in other contexts, they are not appropriate goals for a marketing campaign.

  • Building a common understanding of the goals of higher education.
  • Talking about issues of accountability in different ways.
  • Increasing respect for teaching as a profession.
  • Getting opinion leaders to understand the importance of financial aid.
  • Getting young people to see the benefits of doing well in school.
  • Creating a shared sense of urgency around the need to improve outcomes for low-income and minority youth.

Combine “in the air” and “on the ground” approaches.

When students hear a message on the radio, they will need real, easily-accessible support services to help them take the action you are promoting. Target audiences will need somewhere to go for more information, social support, and tools and resources to help them take action.

Use tactics appropriate to the problem and target audience.

The best techniques aren’t necessarily the flashiest, but the ones that make the most of available resources to reach the right people.

Use professionals when necessary.

Don’t think that just because you are a nonprofit that you don’t have the resources to hire marketing experts and that you have to do everything yourself. Having a media agency, program evaluator, or focus-group consultant at your disposal can actually save time and money by helping you use your resources most effectively.

Consider the broader policy environment.

Perhaps the most significant lesson is that social marketing works best when it is not an isolated strategy. Policy plays an important role in what social marketing campaigns can achieve. For example, while college access marketing campaigns can increase the number of financial aid and college applicants, they alone can’t increase the amount of grant money available or the number of Advanced Placement classes offered in low-income schools. Those who care about college access should carefully assess the policy environment before embarking on a campaign, and should consider how a campaign could support broader policy goals.