By Paula Di Dio, Ph.D.

How to Market to Diverse Audiences Using Ethnographic Research

Frequently, in my role as Director of Communications and Research Strategist at Interact Communications, clients and colleagues ask me to recommend ways to engage unique audiences. Those diverse audiences include Latinx, African American, and Southeast Asian populations, and they are the largest demographics of community college students in many regions, especially in California. One basic suggestion is to create marketing materials that reflect diverse ideas, messaging, and design.

Most clients will agree about this bare-bones suggestion. Yet, sometimes community colleges have unrealistic expectations about what marketing alone can accomplish. After a successful outreach campaign brings students to their doors, it is the college’s real-life, on-the-ground diversity that has the greatest impact in enrolling, retaining, and graduating those students.

When writing recommendations, I’d like to have an ideal college in mind: one that hires and promotes diverse candidates for faculty and staff positions who will then represent diverse students in the college’s policies. However, many colleges do not yet have diverse employee pools.

What then? How can marketing campaigns with a diversity lens work when an institution is only partially diverse or is acting on a preliminary intention to create equity? How diverse will the group of policymakers and leaders be within such an institution?

Digging Deeper: Creating Real Diversity

Group of cultural diverse people looking at the camera and smiling

When creating an effective marketing strategy to reach diverse audiences, we need to dig deeper. No matter how comprehensive, to-do lists and recommendations will do nothing more than create the illusion of change without real organizational change to back it up.

We can use equity recommendations as a starting point. However, we must be aware that a strategy without robust research behind it is far from addressing the reality of a significant portion of community college students.

We know that close to 70% of community college students in California come from a variety of ethnic groups. A marketing campaign by itself cannot reverse years of racism, xenophobia, and/or microaggressions faced by those unique audiences, just as a band-aid cannot cure a broken arm.

The solution is ethnographic research, a firm foundation that should inform real organizational change as well as the marketing strategy and long-term planning for engaging diverse audiences.

Ethnographic Research: What It Is and Why You Need It

A diverse young man staring at a computer while doing research

Ethnographic research is the study of people in their own contexts and on their own terms, in the form of one-on-one interviews/conversations in their homes or their workspaces.

And that crucial research can help us understand the following:

  • How do prospective students live?
  • What are their needs and aspirations?
  • What support do they need to stay on track?
  • What are their major obstacles?

In the course of ethnographic research, we often discover penetrating insights and answers to complex questions like these. These critical results will inform how to implement processes as well as the message and tone of marketing campaigns.

It’s essential to find out why certain demographics are not engaging with their classes, dropping out, or not graduating on time. To unearth the answers, we must first understand our unique audiences’ cultural assumptions, belief systems, and underlying motivations. While it’s true that algorithms can uncover some trends, they will never reveal the cultural subtleties and real answers behind human behavior. 

Inform Your Campaigns with Ethnographic Research

When we design marketing strategies without first building a solid research foundation on where students are stumbling, we often fail to highlight the tools they actually need to succeed. For example, without research, a marketing campaign might encourage a group of students to enroll with great initial success… but at the end of the day, the national 3-year graduation rates show that only 22% of students graduate. This percentage is even lower among Latinx, African-American and Indigenous students.

A campaign informed by ethnographic research insights can show prospective students the right tools and support systems at the college, then confidently aim to graduate at least 75% of the students who enroll.

When students have faced ongoing obstacles due to structural problems and other equity challenges, ethnographic research can provide tools and promote solutions.

Without this key data, even the best-intentioned outreach efforts may actually keep perpetuating structural problems. If we succeed in attracting students, yet we don’t try to understand how to retain and graduate those learners, then we fail them and make them feel that they were unable to succeed. 

Launching Equity that Lasts

In Between the World and Me, writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his adolescent son recounting his African American experience in society and education:

“Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.

“But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day (p29).”

By itself, no simple marketing strategy can change the trajectory of someone who has grown up with such an experience. Alone, no list of outreach recommendations will ever quell the fears of prospective students who were stripped of the right to feel safe, nor can it close the gap between those born in the “right” zip code and those born in the “wrong” one.

Real change must be structural, substantial, and come from our deepest understanding of what stands between those unique audiences and their dreams. A college’s admissions, counseling, orientation, and registration processes need to be informed by multiple and connected conversations with our audiences to shift the trajectory of students’ diverse journeys.

Marketing strategies should not serve as a band-aid. But, they can help start the conversation and catalyze deeper change by beginning with ethnographic research.

Want more information about Interact’s robust research offerings? Visit our services page.

About Dr. Paula Di DioDr. Paula Di Dio. Woman in a white blouse, looking at the camera and smiling

Paula holds a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been a lecturer at several universities across the country. For over fifteen years, Paula’s job has been to analyze, write, edit, teach, and interpret stories and their broader social, political, and cultural contexts.

She has conducted academic research on migrations, pop culture, cosmopolitanism, and political dissent. She brings her teaching and research skills into the marketing and communications industry as an experienced cross-cultural Market Research Strategist for qualitative research projects.



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By Published On: October 21, 2021Last Updated: April 29, 2022Categories: Blog ArticlesTags: , , , , ,