NPP Projects

Social Marketing Strategy for Low SES Communities

Lead University: Queensland University of Technology

Lead Researcher: Rebekah Russell-Bennett and Maria Raciti

Research Team: Mary Kelly, Sandra Bridgland, Kate Flynn, Gabrielle O’Brien, Laura Boers, Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Judy Drennan, Gayle Kerr, Cathy Cupitt, Diane Costello, Lynne Eagle, Maria Raciti and Rachel Hay

Year Funded: 2014

Funding Received: $580,000


This project aimed to synthesise best practice social marketing and widening participation to design an effective, national social marketing strategy for low socioeconomic status students, families and communities. The specific objectives of the strategy were to: increase awareness of, and aspiration to, tertiary study; increase knowledge of pathways to tertiary study; and increase numbers of applications to tertiary study and pathways courses.

Project outline

  • The project approach was to build on the knowledge arising from existing practice and research; ensure the diverse perspectives and insights of the cohorts and their influencers were incorporated across the spectrum from urban to remote; maintain a holistic, strengths-based view of the cohorts’ needs, in the social context of poverty and racism; and incorporate careers development knowledge.
  • Social Marketing is defined as “a behaviour change approach that seeks to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good”.
  • The first phase of the project developed a summary of research and practice-based knowledge and insights relating to both widening participation and to social marketing. The Position Paper is a comprehensive overview and analysis of the dual areas of widening participation and social marketing, including the commonalities and differences in their underpinning theoretical frameworks and a thorough review of literature and practice in both domains, with a particular focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Apart from informing the fieldwork element of the project, the Position Paper stands alone as a valuable resource for practitioners, researchers and policymakers.
  • The second phase of the project was fieldwork and consisted of:
    1. a survey of expert proxies — a national online survey—completed by 228 experts working closely with the target cohorts—gathered information about their knowledge and experience of the motivations, barriers and influencers affecting decisions about participating in tertiary education.
    2. individual interviews, group workshops, and further interviews to validate and test the findings with people from the four target markets: high school students (Years 7 to 12); recent school leavers (adults who have left school in the last five years, with or without completing senior studies, and have not yet enrolled in tertiary education); school staff (those who advise students and their parents about post-school options); and “key influencers” (parents and community members who support young people in their post-school options).

Within each of the cohorts, there were different dimensions of “place” which included urban and outer urban areas, and regional and remote areas.

A number of personas emerged from the interview data. A persona is a research-based profile which represents a target group with distinct motivations and behaviours.

In the subsequent service-design workshops, participants self-identified as one of the personas and were asked about: their motivations; engagement preferences (people-rich and digital); their decision-making stage (Stages of Change Framework); and their preferred types of support and engagement (Social Support Theory).

Workshop findings were validated via interviews designed to test the personas, the associated stage of change, and the mockup homepages of a portal/website for each persona.

In all, 211 participants were engaged in the field research, with 39 individual interviews, 121 in workshops and 51 in validation interviews. All target markets were represented at each location and 20 per cent of participants were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

Key findings

  • Motivations to participate in tertiary education are common across cohorts: have a better life; follow dreams, passions or interests; have more work choices; earn a good income; prove capability.
  • Barriers to participation in tertiary education are common across cohorts: financial costs; study does not guarantee a job; family (not wanting to leave family or having family commitments); did not think they met the entry requirements; lack of awareness of alternative pathways into tertiary education; concerns they would not fit in; do not know what to expect, as they are likely to be first in their family to go to tertiary education; limited career aspirations, in that tertiary education is not needed for the work they want to do; and complexity and effort of finding relevant information.
  • The value proposition for participation in tertiary education is a balancing act between the barriers and motivations; when the motivations outweigh the barriers, the value proposition is in favour of applying for tertiary study. However, when the barriers outweigh the motivations, people do not apply. Based on current statistics in tertiary education by the disadvantaged cohort groups, the value proposition is currently in favour of not applying.
  • The focus on motivations provides a positive frame, being more specific than the generalised idea of “aspiration”, and providing a foil for a focus on barriers alone.
  • The idea of the “value proposition”—tilting the balance so that the motivations outweigh the key barriers—provides an enduring metaphor for practitioners’ efforts, one which does not concentrate on what the prospective students “lack”, but on what is important to them.
  • Persona-based approaches allow for tailoring of programs to respond to the different engagement preferences and value propositions/motivations of the four “learner” (high school and recent school leaver) personas, four “parent/caregiver” personas, and three “school staff” personas identified in this project.
  • The Position Paper confirmed that the best practice approaches:
    • have clearly defined, education-positive objectives
    • recognise the value that different groups can bring to outreach programs and higher education, and building in pathways for their voices to be heard
    • tailor programs to particular cohorts of students who are at similar stages of educational development
    • build students’ confidence, aspiration, engagement, academic achievement and a sense of belonging
    • work collaboratively via cross-sector programs that begin early in the student journey and are sustained over time
    • work in partnership to build positive educational cultures within schools and communities
    • develop effective transitions and pathways
    • use the technologies and communication streams relevant to particular cohorts.
  • The fieldwork confirmed the best practice approaches as programs that:
    • disrupt deficit notions and take a strengths-based approach
    • tailor for local needs and audiences
    • partner with communities for community-wide capacity-building.
  • The report explored three areas of particular significance: aspirations and barriers; place; and influencers.
    • Rather than lack of aspiration, it is a lack of social and/or cultural capital which forms complex systemic barriers for prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds of all kinds. “Place” can be conceptualised as a mechanism that reinforces socioeconomic status (SES), creating a complex nexus of place, SES and identity.
    • Influencers, such as parents and peers, have a significant influence on students in relation to decisions about education. Positive parental and peer expectations can ameliorate significant background disadvantage. However, parents and peers are also products of these backgrounds, and low expectations or alternative expectations have just as much sway.


  • From these findings, three strategy options were developed (they can be implemented together or individually depending on strategic fit and resource considerations):
    1. Create a persona-based national portal.
    2. Create a national strategy focused on just one of the target markets — parents as influencers.
    3. Embed social marketing project findings into existing resources and strategies.

Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.

Posted 9 October 2018