Friday, August 14, 2009

Can Street Vendors Promote Higher Education?

When Maria Bucio, who works for the State of Illinois, wants to spread the word about college in Mexican neighborhoods, she goes to the street vendors who sell corn from push carts. Why? Because these guys talk to a lot of people. No, they are not “opinion leaders” when it comes to higher education, and they probably can’t guide kids in selecting their major in college. But these guys can spread the word about a meeting where you’ll learn how to apply for financial aid.

Maria discovered the power of vendors a few years ago, when she was promoting such an information session. Usually these events were attended by five to ten people and Maria was determined to get a much better turnout this time. So she walked around the neighborhood with some flyers and tape. She talked to the corn vendors, to people at the bakery, the church, the library, the grocery store. And in each one of these places, after she explained what she was doing and why it was important, she asked their permission to post a flyer. On Sunday morning at 9 AM, there were a hundred people waiting in the snow for information on how to apply for financial aid.

The Energy Factor
One (pretty obvious) point that many people miss about grassroots marketing is that execution counts, a lot! Ideas are important, but how they are implemented in the field and how much energy is put behind them can make the difference between success and failure. There is a big difference between posting 10 flyers in a local high school and putting 200 flyers all around the community. Numbers make a difference. But it’s not only about numbers. Maria is passionate about what she promotes and it shows. She talks to everyone around her about college—kids on the street, in elevators, in line. “I talk a lot, I guess. So I start up conversations,” she says. Some of these incidental conversations have prompted kids to go to college.

Maria is part of a small energetic team lead by Jacqueline Moreno and Eddie Brambila of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) that has been using word-of-mouth marketing for several years now to encourage kids from low income families to go to college. Their objective is to reach the kids who need them most. Not just middle class kids who qualify for financial aid, but kids from the lowest income families—Kids from families where no one has ever gone to college. They figured that if they want to reach the kids who really need them, they need to take a proactive approach. If they limited their efforts to presentations in high schools, they were going to attract the kids who already are interested in college (typically from families with previous college-going experience). So they started going into the communities. One thing they did was to partner with a tax preparation service for the working poor, a group that provides free consultation during tax season across metropolitan Chicago. They taught about 1600 tax experts how to help families fill out federal financial aid forms. Partnering with the right network caused an increase of almost 20% in on-time filing of these forms in the lowest income zip codes.

Cloning Maria Bucio
Now ISAC is hoping to multiply Maria times 59. They recruited fifty nine highly motivated graduates from the class of 2009 who will live in every community college district around the state of Illinois to promote college among low income neighborhoods. Their goal is by 2018 to double the number of low income students who graduate from college (right now it’s around 14%)

Earlier this summer I gave a talk in Chicago to these fifty nine people as part of their seven week training (they all had to read my book). And talk about energy! You could power the traffic in Chicago for a week with the energy in that classroom. Now, each one of them is placed in a community somewhere in the state of Illinois, building buzz for college. Good luck!

This is the first in my “Good Buzz” series that is part of my fall book tour. In addition to giving a talk in each city, I'll use this blog to discuss how word-of-mouth marketing can be used to promote positive change around the world. If you have any good stories from the cities included in the tour*, I'd love to hear from you!

* Cities currently included: Los Angeles, London, Munich, Warsaw, Stockholm, Philadelphia.


  1. Thank you for sharing this information. It is always a pleasure to know about the wonderful work that individuals and organizations are doing.

    Maria-- your passion is remarkable…a true leader indeed! We need more people like you to continue helping our communities by empowering youth to pursue an education. Thanks and keep up the wonderful work!

  2. You made me blush!! It seems like only yesterday that I was writing a book review about your book and presenting it in class. Now you’re writing about some of the work that Jacqui, Eddie and I are most proud of... Wow! Thanks!!!