What We Learned from “Get Schooled” About Putting Research in Action

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Guest Post: Amy Sutnick Plotch and Alexander Kopelman

It’s a long-held belief among foundations that sharing knowledge learned from grantmaking and from funded research is a key element for advancing social change. However, to have meaningful impact, it’s not enough just to inform people–instead knowledge has to be turned into something that touches the heart and offers a specific course of action.  Knowledge—in this context—must be used to engage, inspire, educate and motivate.

How do you do that?

A good example is the Get Schooled Foundation, an initiative created through a partnership between Viacom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which relies on knowledge-based social marketing to encourage young people to stay in high school and to graduate from college.

Get Schooled used market research tools to understand how young people spend their time online as well as to discover what content they were passionate about.  From there they developed a strategy that paired the data on kids online habits and interests with a targeted message that could be delivered right where kids are.

From Get Schooled’s home base online – a website featuring bright, attention getting information on the benefits of school alongside kid-authored testimonials and celebrity messages – the campaign uses social media and mobile apps to reach young people squarely in the context of their lives and their interests.

“You look at the numbers,” says Carol Rava Treat, the director of strategy and technology at Get Schooled, “and it’s easy to be judgmental, because kids spend an awful lot of time on things adults don’t think are worthwhile.  But if we want to reach them, we’ve got to put aside those judgments and talk to them in ways that are meaningful for them.”

Having the data helped Get Schooled get specific about what intrigues and motivates young people. One of the most heavily trafficked pages on the platform is the celebrity profiles area.  What they realized, explains Rava Treat, “was that for us to hook kids, we need to lead with celebrity sizzle.”  One of the outcomes of this observation was a section of the site called “Celebrity” where students can sign up for celebrity wake-up calls to help them get to school on time. The idea is to pay as much attention to the messengers as to the message. Treat says, “this fall we have the boy band, One Direction, doing a wake-up call for us.  They have seven million Twitter followers.  We’ve tapped their influence to deliver an important message to kids: show up!

While the goal of Get Schooled is to ensure that many more young people graduate from high school and from college, its basic call to action for youth is very direct and simple:  “Show up at school.”

Once Get Schooled reaches a young person with that simple message, its second goal is to engage him or her to stay connected through the activities and information on the site, including celebrity profiles and messages, games and resources.  The purpose is to get individual youth really thinking about their own education and to offer them actionable knowledge.

The approach has proved extremely effective for Get Schooled.  Since its inception in 2009, the organization has reached 156 million young people and has engaged over 1.4 million in taking an active part in their education.  These remarkable numbers are translating into real behavioral change.  In the past two years, schools that partner with the organization and take an active part in its initiatives have shown, on average, a 3 percent improvement in attendance.

“In building and refining our model,” Rava Treat says, “we have also challenged ourselves to use information to be more responsive and effective. We monitor our reach and engagement numbers on a weekly basis and analyze the response to all our activities very closely.  If something doesn’t appear to be working the way we think it should, we adjust until it produces the results we want.  We feel that to keep our audience engaged, we need to understand how quickly they move and be able to respond.”

From a grantmaking perspective, Get Schooled offers an exciting perspective on the power of social marketing to leverage knowledge to affect behavior directly.  The Gates Foundation contributed its world-class research on educational attainment, and Viacom brought its leading-edge expertise in market research.  Together, they created a winning initiative by:

  • Focusing on a specific issue to address: Completing high school and graduating from college
  • Clearly identifying the target audience: Young people in middle- and high school
  • Identifying the necessary behavioral change: Not skipping school
  • Fostering engagement: Meeting youth where they are online and using messengers that appeal to them
  • Delivering a clear, accessible call to action: Don’t skip school
  • Reinforcing the behavioral change using the same student-centered techniques

Amy Sutnick Plotch and Alexander Kopelman are partners at Stir Partners, Social Marketing for Social Change

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