The Role of Experience Mapping in Communications Planning

Creating an experience map of a problem provides a nuanced way of exploring your challenge and developing a dynamic model for addressing it.

May 24, 2018

In Vermont, where I live, it’s fun and eye-opening to go for a walk or a drive without a destination in mind for the sheer joy of discovering where a road goes.

But that’s not a productive approach to many challenges in life. As J.R.R. Tolkien observed in a BBC interview about writing The Hobbit, “If you're going to have a complicated story you must work to a map ….”

That suggests why so many institutions now rely on experience mapping to help develop and refine their approach to redesigning a new website or a new marketing strategy.

Experience mapping evolved as marketers and designers realized that personas didn’t go far enough toward understanding the multiple considerations involved in making decisions about buying complex products. Developing an experience map encourages you to explore a problem in a broader, more nuanced, and more open-ended fashion. And it can result in a model that lays out an overall plan and how to address specific challenges that are identified during the process.

Here’s an example.

Where to go to college is one of the most complex purchasing decisions anyone makes in a lifetime. The more each institution understands about how its prospects go about choosing and applying — what specifically they look for, what they’re feeling, who they contact at each stage of the process — the better the institution can reach, inform, and motivate those prospective students, their parents and other influencers.

This is a common need in higher ed and we’ve worked with many of our clients on developing an experience map for their institution focused on this exact problem. Recently we led an experience mapping exercise for an institution around international graduate student recruitment. And e’ve also worked with institutions to create experience maps of alumni and donor engagement.

Creating an experience map

Here are three key elements to consider in creating an effective experience map.

1. Identify the problem.

It’s not an accident — the more clearly defined the problem is, the more effective model the resulting experience map becomes.

A typical experience map might explore the journey a prospective student makes during her college search and choice. When we work with our clients, we break that journey down into four stages: Understand and Explore; Narrow Choices & Apply; Decide & Accept; Commit & Transition. At each stage, we’d identify thoughts and feelings a prospect might have during that part of the process. Then, we’d identify the actions they might take and trusted sources they might consult.

The resulting model reminds everyone that these prospects are making complex decisions and that there are complex motivations behind their decisions.

2. Engage the right stakeholders.

An effective experience map shouldn’t be a thought experiment among a couple of marketing staff or web team members. It should involve a mixed group of stakeholders who can challenge and inform each other during the process.

As a group exercise, developing an experience map helps create empathy and understanding among members of the group for each other — and for those whose motives and behavior they are trying to understand. It also helps members of the group share institutional knowledge with each other. And it’s a reminder to all that the problem has an institutional impact and that solutions likely require input and involvement from individuals and departments across the institution.

3. Rely on data to inform stakeholders and augment their opinions.

One of the benefits of an experience mapping exercise is that participants come away with a shared sense of ownership of the resulting model — and to do so, it’s important for participants to share their unique perspectives.

But don’t rely on their perspectives alone. Qualitative and quantitative data provide a much broader perspective for internal stakeholders in creating a map and can furnish continuing validation of the resulting model.

For example, in building an experience map of the prospective student experience, you could conduct a series of interviews with students who’ve been through the process to see what insights they could provide. And you could use surveys and studies to provide further understanding. If you were developing an experience map as a foundation for redesigning a website, you’d want to look at the current analytics from your current site.

A dynamic guide

The outcome of a carefully developed experience map should be a dynamic guide to strategy and action.

In our web redesign projects, an experience map helps to guide many aspects of development of the site. It can help guide creation of a more carefully messaged narrative and thereby guide storytelling.

But the experience map also helps institutions in three other ways:

  1. Integrating the new site into their content strategy and, therefore, into their broader marketing and communications.
  2. Aligning touchpoint across the institution and identity messaging gaps, forming the basis for a more effective messaging strategy.
  3. Helping to refine communications strategy by aligning the right communications from the right people, with stages in the college choice/decision process for converting desirable right-fit applicants.

In short, an experience map provides a strong foundation for a website — and for ensuring that a new site is tightly integrated into other institutional initiatives and priorities.

Michael Stoner is president and co-founder of mStoner Inc., a digital-first marketing agency.

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