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All honors programs face the problem of making their institution’s student body aware of the program’s existence, its eligibility requirements, curriculum, and benefits. Directors who are already comfortable with the number of the program’s members and applicants do not need to think much about awareness, publicity, and advertising. For example, the college’s admissions department assists many honors programs in their recruitment. However, some directors must think hard and carefully about campus-wide awareness. These directors will naturally consider some type of advertising method. However, both before and after turning to advertising, directors need to address two important questions. Before embarking on an advertising campaign, they need to know why eligible students are not applying. After the campaign, they need to know how effective the advertising methods were. We will provide a template for other honors programs to use in answering both of these questions by describing a planned marketing research evaluation of a program’s image among the student body and of our advertising efforts.
Advertising is defined as the communication of persuasive information about products, services, or ideas by identified sponsors through the various media (Bovee & Thill 9). Typical examples of advertising seen on campuses include advertisements from external sources (soft drink and credit card companies) and advertisements from internal sources (the registrar’s office), and they may take the form of fliers, posters, displays, informational tables at school events or in common areas, or announcements on campus closed-circuit television. Daniel Starch explained in 1923 that, regardless of the medium, advertisers historically have recognized that, to be effective, advertising must be seen, read, believed, remembered, and acted upon.
Since Starch, researchers and practitioners in advertising have developed advanced methods to understand the target audience’s attitudes about a product or brand and also the effects of exposure to advertising. These methods are called, respectively, brand equity research and advertisement tracking.
Brand equity is a measure of the strength of a consumer’s attachment to a brand (Feldwick 37) and includes measures of brand awareness, perceived quality and other consumer associations with the brand (Aaker 27). In the context of honors, brand awareness is an important marketing measure. We can ask students to recall the program name if prompted (“What programs for academically gifted students exist at York?”), and we can ask them to recognize the program name from a list (“Which program, from this list, requires a thesis for graduation?”). Measuring associations to an honors brand is another element of brand equity. A list can be developed of suspected selling points of the program (“classes with only other honor students”) and also a list of fears concerning student beliefs (“only nerds are in the program”). Students can then be asked to select all statements which they feel are advantages of the program and to select all statements which they feel are disadvantages of the program. Honors brand quality can be measured by statements regarding the benefits of the brand (“The honors program improves the image of the college to the public” and “The honors program encouraged higher academic standards for the entire college”) and by asking students to respond to Likert response scales (one-to-seven-point numerical scales).
While brand equity methods generally examine pre-existing attitudes about a brand, ad tracking research determines the effectiveness of advertising by examining the consumer’s response to advertising (McDonald 119). Useful ways of measuring consumers’ responses vary and include recognition of advertising (McDonald 120), recall of advertising, awareness of brand, perceptions of brand, attitude toward brand, and reported consumer behavior (Feldwick 114). In the context of honors, ad tracking can be measured by asking students how often they heard their instructors talking about the program or whether they remember an honors student coming to their class to speak about the program. Another way to measure student awareness would be to question students about the content of advertisement messages. For example, students can be given a list of statements about the program (“Honors students take special classes just for honors students”) and asked how confident they are that the statement is true.
These marketing research techniques can be applied to the publicity work of any honors program but are especially useful for those that must rely on self-generated advertising.