Customer Journey Mapping in the online world: hanging in the Penn State Virtual Quad

30 September 2016

A favorite marketing principle of the Metia Strategy team is that great customer experiences (CX) and marketing campaigns are created from insight collected, analyzed, and presented in the anatomy of execution. If you’re in the business of building online experiences, you need to be in the business of collecting and analyzing data in the same way.

To explain why this matters, let’s think about Penn State University, which defines itself through excellence in academics together with a rich student lifestyle in a spectacularly beautiful learning environment. No one can argue about Penn State Quad being an unforgettable place to ponder art, science, philosophy, or politics.

If you are still unconvinced by the vista, look anywhere on social media and you’ll find alumni waxing lyrical about their time spent reading, chatting, and relaxing on the lawn. Legions of young people post pictures of themselves cheering wildly for the Nittany Lions. Groups celebrate their lifelong friendships. Penn State couples tie the knot on the historic college grounds and families come back on pilgrimages to see where their parents first met. Frankly, the alumni do an excellent job of institutional marketing.

But what if your Penn State learning choice means you never walk through the Quad? What if you never sit next to another student? Or you attend all your classes in your slippers, PJs, and dressing gown?

This is the reality for more than 100,000 online students who are enrolled through Penn State’s World Campus.

Building and driving lifelong loyalty and emotional connection for these students is inevitably different. They are more mature. They are more likely to be combining study with work. They are worldly wise and have commitments to balance.

This raises a fundamental customer experience question: How should it feel to hang out in the Virtual Quad?

Like many established bricks-and-mortar brands, Penn State was faced with designing a student experience that could appropriately re-create that same, lifelong emotional connections that are built when people experience the Penn State brand in person. 

Designing emotion into online experiences requires new insight methodologies and data sources that deliver deep, ethnographic insight created, interpreted, and analyzed through customers’ eyes. Old school surveys and focus groups with a pane of mirrored glass between you and your audience simply don’t work in this scenario. 

This is where user-generated visual data becomes a powerful tool for virtual experience design. It reveals so much more about a person or group than any survey will. It reveals emotional tendencies and triggers. Personal priorities are consistently visible. Color preferences for material design emerge organically. Desired social and virtual environments are reflected in the way that people record and express their real-world experiences.

Our team uses GlimpzIt, an innovative visual analytics platform that provides an infrastructure for targeted audiences to post photographs or share images that represent their response to research questions. The images posted are validated by a panel of demographic peers and their accompanying commentary is subject to machine-led linguistic analysis—a perfect combination of qualitative and quantified insights delivered quickly online.

We used the tool to ask World Campus and other online students to visually explain their decision to study online.

Initial analysis showed four motivations for choosing online that were pragmatic and based on fitting education around life rather than making it a lifestyle:

This hinted strongly at potential challenges for Penn State to inspire online students to remain connected with World Campus once graduated.

This is where Semiotics come in – a rigorous research approach that allows you to systematically look beyond the obvious surface rationale given for image choice and descriptive language. Phrased simply, we rigorously identified the common symbols, rituals, and visual cues that were defining the culture and ecosystem of the online student population. 

This hybrid insight process resulted in the development of colorful, meaningful student personas and a visual journey map that fully inspired the university to think in a radically different way about what it means to be a World Campus student. Most importantly, the visual language revealed the key moments of truth that drive lifelong commitment, which the university’s innovation, alumni relations, and marketing teams could use as a blueprint to guide their future activity.

Building lifelong loyalty begins the moment that World Campus students choose online learning, and with the correct engagement, delivery of excellence at key moments of truth in the journey, will lead to lifelong support of the university. The map below highlights the emotional heat map and core drivers of lifelong loyalty as the online students move through their time with Penn State World Campus.

In summary, the journey revealed four overarching experience design components. These are equally applicable for any high-touch online brand that wants to build deeper connections with its customers. Life long loyalty is earned through a continual cycle of a fair exchange of value based around creating meaningful, resonant and inspiring experiences.

So what happened as a result of the insight?

This project drove a change in approach to online student relationships. It delivered a series of new tools, thinking, evidence, and insight around a unique student population that is growing in importance both culturally and financially for the university.

The innovation director has integrated cutting-edge best practices in the university’s marketing infrastructure, course planning processes, and alumni relations.

Now, all key stakeholders have a clear and shared vison of the investment priorities needed to deliver an online student experience that rivals Penn State’s leading on-campus experience and is expressly designed to deliver long-term loyalty among online alumni.

The university’s innovation director states, “The journey mapping connected me deeply with the priorities of online students. The personas we built have become a key decision-making tool, and I now have a clear pathway to evolving our online learning experience. We have created a vison and mission to secure lifelong commitment from students who may never walk through our quad but most definitely will continue to pass through our digital doors.”

Contact us for more information about this project and to find out how Metia can help you view the world through your customers’ eyes, develop innovative CX strategies, and execute resonant marketing campaigns.