To combat the staggering growth of college debt, MTV has launched a Facebook-powered campaign centered on college affordability. The star of the campaign is My College Dollars, a Facebook financial affordability app for the college-curious and those at risk of dropping out. In addition to hosting star-studded videos and basic application information, the app automatically alerts users to eligible scholarships based on their Facebook profile data.
The Facebook app is part of MTV's belief that social good is also good business; many of MTV's most popular programs also have a meaningful message. "We could choose to purely be all entertainment," Jason Rzepka, MTV's vice president of public affairs told Fast Company. Yet, "we know that there are a lot of major issues that are really salient in their lives. If we can take the next step and connect with them on those issues and support them in those challenges, we're going to be a much more meaningful brand."
MTV's online approach is rooted in the 1-9-90 strategy that assumes there's a zealous 1%, an engaged 9%, and there's a passive 90% in MTV's audience.
Rzepka applied the 1-9-90 to the launch of MTV's latest major social campaign on college affordability. The vast majority of users, or 90%, will dabble in the platform's information resources: a personalized scholarship-alert system, a calendar of deadlines, guidelines for filling out federal loans (FAFSA), and a list of other alternative resources. "The message is simple: 'Click here to help find money for school,'" says Rzepka.
The app automatically curates relevant demographic information from a user's Facebook profile, since many financial opportunities are limited by race, gender, age, and location.
In addition to a central hub of information, the site is packed with videos of star-studded motivational speeches and testimonials of prototypical peers who provide counterpoint arguments to the most common excuses for not going to college.
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Rzepka's team decided to focus on financial affordability after conducting research into their audience's primary barriers to college completion. An exhaustive study by the Department of Education's research wing, the Institute for Education Science, found that providing financial and logistical information on college completion was the only effective way to impact college readiness (interestingly, academic preparation was not an effective method).
The app itself originated from a member of MTV's zealous 1%, who submitted ideas for the Get Schooled College Affordability online contest. A panel of education experts winnowed down 200 submissions to three finalists, who were then selected by popular vote (leveraging the "engaged" 9%). Is Rzepka worried about betting the farm on a crowdsourcing experiment? "I wouldn't really call it a risk. We have seen really great result from just about every crowdsourced challenge we've done," he said. "We took as a given that our audience is going to know better what it wants to navigate the financial aid office than we will."
Using MTV's Superpowers for Good—Not Just GTL
"The same people who are developing a lot of the creative around our campaigns are the same ones who work on the Teen Wolf promotional campaign," he says. "That's part of the way we surpass the afterschool special-ness."
One of MTV's ongoing issues, sexual health, since it broadcast the first safe sex PSA in 1985, is an area where Rzepka feels MTV has hit the sweet spot of profit and purpose. The highly controversial 16 and Pregnant, which chronicles the real-life tribulations of teenage pregnancy, was MTV's second-most popular show on the network (behind the ever-present Jersey Shore and its message of "gym, tan, laundry"—or, GTL). MTV says the decision to spotlight teen moms was a success, as a study shows that 93% of viewers believe that being a teen mom is harder than they'd imagined.
The entertainment hook "is something that people are drawn to as part of the human condition."
"[16 and Pregnant] is getting tremendous results from a ratings perspective, and it's also delivering the messages that we want to get to the audience that we could never do in a 30-second PSA," Rzepka says.
MTV's showcase award ceremony, the Video Music Awards (VMA) also saw an engagement bump when they introduced the "Best Video With A Message", which ended up being one of the most-voted on categories (one of the nominees, Pink's F***ing Perfect is embeded below).
For Rzepka, the ratings boost from social good programming is a validation that business and social messaging should not have distinct missions.
The Six-Year Evolution
Unlike larger networks, MTV has a small sweetspot demographic of 18- to 24-year-olds. "That means we have to shed our skin" every six years, he says. To get a glimpse of upcoming trends, MTV conducts frequent (sometimes daily) surveys into their viewers' lives, exploring deeply personal questions that are often unrelated to the existing television programming.
For instance, in only a few years, the youngest slice of the Millennial generation was caught up in the explosion of cellphone texting and social networking, which brought with it the problem of cyber-bullying. The research ended in a national campaign against online bullying, the "Thin Line" campaign and a follow-up movie, DISconnected.
The next cohort will have its eye on the 2012 election, he says. Last month, MTV shed its old "Choose or Lose" civic engagement campaign in favor a new approach, focusing on youth-generated documentaries and a fantasy football-type game.
Politicians should take note: Rzepka says one of the key issues for young people is marriage equality and describes the support as "overwhelming."
"This generation feels that it's part of one of the last great civil rights struggles," he says, partly because of the unprecedented demographic diversity and tolerance of Millennials.
Rzepka, who says his job is to "use MTV's super-powers for good," concludes, "there's no reason why we can't do well by doing good."