Translating Customer Experience to Meaningful Marketing: The Value of Interpretation

This is part three of series of insights that aims to articulate when an institution should judiciously consider an outside expert. You can read the introduction here and pieces that outline the value of objectivity and broad perspective here and here.

Customer experience (CX) as a discipline takes two primary forms for our enrollment clients. The first are the experiences that institutions design for prospective students and their families in order to compel that family to choose the institution. The second are the experiences that are designed for the customer once they’ve made the decision to enroll, that is, the student experience. As you might suspect, the former informs the latter as evidenced by the opportunities for prospects to sit in on a class or attend an overnight program. These experiences are designed to simulate “what it will be like” to be a student. Notably, campus visits have (finally) become an intentionally designed experience, a blend of both introduction and simulation.

You can find our guidance on customer experience and campus visits here.

The process of simulating the reality of being a college student offers a case study in experience design. Although the discipline of CX is relatively new, modern undergraduate residential education has been—by definition—a  manufactured customer experience. Every aspect is designed and oriented toward intended outcome. Where a student lives, the curriculum, the accoutrements are all created events. This is one reason why marketers are (now) being brought to the table: specifically, to apply their expertise on the design of “signature” student experiences to curricular restructuring. SUMMIT at Agnes Scott College is key example of this. According to Mills College Provost Chinyere Oparah, recently featured in the Chronicle, “what was trailblazing about Agnes Scott was they got us to think about what would happen if you got faculty, student-support staff, and marketers in the same room” (my emphasis).

The common challenge is how to take the student experience and translate it to specific and compelling messages to prospective students and families. Often, this takes a set of eyes from the outside.

Getting to the specifics

Compelling support for your market position lies in the specifics, not the generalities. For instance, you might know that Lawrence University has a conservatory. And Lawrence can tell you that their conservatory is different by saying it’s in a liberal arts setting, or they could tell you that the dean is a didjeridu player and former manager at Microsoft. The first description describes a handful of great colleges with conservatories, the second describes one: Lawrence.

Compelling support for your market position lies in the specifics, not the generalities.

So in addition to listening well, how do you find specifics within the student experience? One technique is what we call student journey mapping. As the name suggests, we guide students through an analog exercise that aims to create a list of touchpoints (or intersections with designed experiences) within a four-year journey toward graduation. We collect 10-12 students and have them each produce and present their journey (to whichever academic class they are in). With that input (and from several groups), we analyze the touchpoints both individually and in the aggregate over time. What is visible in the individual entries are specific experiences as viewed through the lens of the student. So, while a recruiter might describe the first days on campus as “orientation” (or whatever name your orientation has), a student may well write, “I got on a bus with 30 strangers and we had the best time.” This is a signal about where to find the specifics within the generic (orientation).

When you look at the aggregate or many student journeys together, you will inevitably see clusters of activity. Because we’ve conducted many of these, we know that there will be a high volume of touchpoints during the first and second years and a small volume within the third and fourth years. Although this appears to suggest that students are less able to articulate many touchpoints, what you’ll actually find is that the touchpoints documented are more significant in terms of the investment of time and focus. For instance, at Agnes Scott, every student journey is designed to include a travel-away experience in the second semester of their first year, while internships, study abroad and discipline-focused research tends to happen around the third year. So, while you won’t find the dispersion of touchpoints that you would see in the second year (eg, a specific class, declaring a major, joining a social club, volunteering, etc.), you do see “big” experiences like travel, student research, internships, graduate school applications, capstone projects and securing employment.

After we’ve sought this detail, the next task is to interpret it: that is, to communicate the value of the journey to families so that they are prepared to make a decision about your institution based on specifics rather than categories. For example, nearly every institution will have an orientation program. Categorically, you will be similar to your competitors, but, specifically, it will be more difficult to make a comparison. After you have the specifics in hand, you need to determine which of the experiences best suits the needs of the prospective students throughout their college search journeys.

Categorically, you will be similar to your competitors, but, specifically, it will be more difficult to make a comparison.

One way we think about the needs of prospective students is to delineate the process of college seekers into three phases. The unaware are those who know nothing or very little about your institution. The interested are those who have in some way indicated that they are aware and open to investigate you further. And those with intent, who by virtue of their activity are intent on pursuing your institution.

The goal of messaging for the unaware is to inform. This is the beginning of the conversation, where we look into the specifics found in the student journey that educate the prospect just beyond the superficial. The earlier example of the conservatory dean at Lawrence is an appropriate way to address students with musical backgrounds or other academic interests about Lawrence’s offerings.

The objective for those who are interested is to inspire them to take the next step. Typically (but increasingly less so), this means moving the student to apply. In this case, you’re presenting something inspirational about the near future—like preparing in your first semester to travel to another culture in just your second semester—included in the cost of tuition. Not only is this an extremely rare offering, it’s within a future that the prospect can picture.

For those with intent, generally admitted with a high-volume of inbound communication and other good predictors and/or deposited, your job is to assure them they have made a wonderful, reasoned decision. This is where two specifics from the student journey come into play. First are the deeper and more focused, such as faculty-student interaction or specific academic examples with an explicit relationship to student interest. The second is that the outcome of the student’s journey will result in a picture of success that matches the student persona. This may take the form of graduate schools or employment that alumni have achieved.

Not only do these stages have a direct relationship to the types of experiences you communicate to prospects, they also are clues for the tone of communication. You’re listening and teaching at the beginning, inspiring in the middle and assuring and welcoming at the end. In my experience, colleges and universities are so busy offering what they have that they often overlook what the buyers (students and families) believe to be valuable. In a higher-ed version of the sentiment, “you can’t read the label from inside the jar,” (David Baker) institutions can benefit from seeking outside interpretation in order to translate student experience into value propositions that speak directly to the needs and concerns of prospective students and families.

In a higher-ed version of the sentiment, “you can’t read the label from inside the jar,”(David Baker) institutions can benefit from seeking outside interpretation in order to translate student experience into value propositions.

Arching over all of this is the notion that the student experience is definitively the “product” you seek to promote. Documenting the journey is the first task, followed by discerning the relative distinction of categorical experiences (the curriculum) and individuals ones (joining the Quidditch club). All of these insights are critical to creating a market position and all of them require interpretation to be fully effective. Translating that rare student journey to creative expressions will set you on the path to presenting the best case for families to choose you. Or to not choose you, but for the right reasons.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.