Designing Touchpoints: How Creating Exceptional Experiences Influences Higher Ed

This week I had the privilege of returning to the classroom to teach again at Notre Dame. Dr. Elizabeth Moore, my colleague in the marketing department of the Mendoza College of Business for many years, occasionally invites me back to speak in her classes. Interacting with bright future marketers lifts my spirits. I love hearing their questions, and watching their eyes as they make connections and absorb the lessons.

As part of my agenda for the classes this week, I addressed customer experience, journey mapping and charting touchpoints that influence decision-making and sales. We talked through examples from RHB’s work in higher education relative to these topics. We discussed the significance of the touchpoints within a customer’s journey, such as a prospective student’s choice to attend a particular school or a donor’s decision to make a gift to a university.

Our conversation turned to the importance of designing exceptional touchpoints that yielded positive response and action from the customer. One student asked me how we’re sure we have landed on the right solution and how we even arrive at workable ideas to move a customer to action. And my answer lead to a discussion about the beginning steps RHB takes before starting creative work for our clients.

At RHB we have developed our I-I-I-I (pronounced “ay-yi-yi-yi”!) process. We begin with solid data garnered from our Three Big Questions research strategy. The Input (our first “I”) of this data is presented and accessible to our entire team—especially writers and designers who may be called upon to implement a solution. We host an Ignition meeting that starts a free-thinking conversation about directions we might pursue. At this early stage, all ideas are considered and little evaluation comes into play. We keep the wheels turning by using affirmative words like “yes” rather than “no” and “and” instead of “but.” This Ignition meeting is a type of creative briefing (sidenote: a creative brief is a paper; a creative briefing is a meeting) where we address the essential facts that will lead us to the right creative choices. The three facts that must be established are:

  1. What the touchpoint is (and where it occurs in the customer’s journey).
  2. Who the (potential) customer is.
  3. What we want to make happen.

If you cannot achieve a clear definition of each of these three facts, you will fail. You must be specific about the definition.

  1. It’s too broad to say that you are working on a campaign. A campaign is not a specific touchpoint. It’s better to ask: what is the moment and experience you are shaping, and what has happened prior to that moment or experience? What will happen after this experience if you’re successful? Or, if you’re not?
  1. It’s too broad to say the audience is your donors. Donors represent many smaller segments or individuals, and what matters to some donor groups may differ from others. Moreover, the kinds of actions you’ll want your different donor groups to take part in will vary (maybe it’s clicking through an email link to make a $50 donation, or maybe it’s something more substantial). It’s also too broad to say the audience is prospective students. Prospective students are not all the same, so the touchpoints you create will not resonate with all prospects in the same way. Decide what specific audience segments you are addressing with this assignment, and shape touchpoints to be particularly significant to them.
  1. It’s too broad to say you want to raise $400 million. While coming up with a figure might imply specificity, it’s not meaningful enough to clearly define the outcome you’re looking for. With regard to the moment or experience you are designing, what specific action are you intending to prompt? Writing a check? Making a gift through automatic deposit? Completing a form? Making a call? Clicking a button? Or, perhaps there are broader but equally meaningful goals you’re aiming for. Are you needing to inform an audience that is unaware of you? Are you hoping to inspire those who are interested in you? Are you reassuring those who are intent on supporting you?

Knowing these details will serve as the foundation for your design (function + aesthetic) choices and without them, you will be stymied to measure both purpose and success.

As a marketing and design consultancy, RHB continues our I-I-I-I process by allowing for a period of Incubation following the Ignition meeting. Giving the creative team time to percolate on the ideas generated in the Ignition meeting promotes the critical thinking that allows the best ideas to rise to the top. Sometimes the Incubation period is a matter of hours; other times it can last a couple of weeks, depending on the scope of the assignment. Regardless, the result is always an Inspiration, the coherent solution that will be implemented.

Let’s use recent work on behalf of the University of San Francisco as an example of how design for a touchpoint (or series of touchpoints) emerges from careful evaluation. We began our work by gathering marketing research data, some of which USF provided us, and some we conducted as part of our engagement. With useful data on hand, we studied these resources (Input) to ready our team for designing touchpoints. At our Ignition meeting we were able to build a useful foundation of responses to the essential facts I listed above:

  1. What’s the touchpoint? Creating what might be the first encounter a prospect has with USF. It’s possible some perhaps know something about USF, or have at least heard of the institution, but we have no record of any previous engagement with USF.
  2. Who’s the audience? High school sophomores and juniors who meet the academic criteria for admission within defined geographic parameters. Again, we assume no previous engagement and little, if any, awareness.
  3. What do we want to happen? Pique sufficient interest by introducing USF and inviting students to participate in conversation with the University.

Armed with information garnered through market research, we know what prospective students do not know about USF. We know what is important to these students in their search for a college. And we know which colleges and universities are in their consideration sets. In this instance, we also know in some detail about their perspectives on studying in a city (specifically, San Francisco), attending a religiously-affiliated school (specifically, what they feel about Catholic faith and Jesuit values) and the level of importance they place on using their lives to make a difference in the world.

This data equips us with many possible creative solutions that we analyze, scrutinize and test. At the end of this process, we arrive at a strategy for USF’s student search that begins with an introduction of USF’s values that may align with the prospect’s. Then, we invite the prospect to take part in a conversation where they can further express those values in a shared forum. Using USF’s tagline (Change the World from Here) as a foundational idea, students are invited to click a link and complete a sentence stating how they will change the world, the answer of which is posted alongside the thousands of other responses from students.

Many schools are asking us for more information about the framework of this search strategy, which in most cases, can be carried out using resources that they likely already have at their disposal. We’ve had the pleasure of embarking on this process with many clients, all with differing aims and objectives, but with the common result of success (and in many cases, well-above their original goal). You may wish to visit to see examples of this as you consider how this strategy could be applied at your institution.

In every case, clients achieved success because of carefully crafted and developed touchpoints that created positive experiences for their desired audience and enticed them to take action. The initial hard work of avoiding generality while carving out specifics to best design exceptional touchpoints is the key to achieving the results you are after, an approach that will pay out (quite literally, in situations where enrollment increase or fundraising is the goal) in the long run.


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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.