Rose Cameron, Director of Innovation (Outreach and Online Education), Penn State University, is profoundly passionate about her job, placing brand loyalty and customer experience at the top of her list of priorities.

Penn State is a major, public, research-I university serving Pennsylvania and the global community. Penn State comprises 24 campuses, 17,000 faculty and staff, 100,000 students, a teaching hospital that provides care to more than a million patients a year; more than 500,000 active alumni; an online World Campus that empowers anyone to pursue an education—anytime, anywhere; and the largest student-run philanthropic organization on the planet.

But, translating the essence of its famous campus experience to online students is an ongoing challenge at Penn State and Cameron’s core responsibility.

As a cultural anthropologist, global brand strategist, and chronic puzzle solver, Cameron is intensely driven by human nature.

“My job is to open the windows and let the fresh air in,” Cameron said during a session titled, “On Campus, On Brand: Lessons from Educational Disruption on Aligning Consumer and Employee Brand Experiences,” at the 6th annual Engagement & Experience Expo presented by Loyalty360. “I’m very passionate because the student really is our product.”

Penn State formed an agency-client working team tasked with understanding the differences in mindset and emotional drivers between online students and their campus counterparts.

The university regularly conducts traditional surveys among students and alumni, and while it has strong, loyal campus alumni, the team acknowledged a need for deeper understanding of online students to drive the same lifelong advocacy. Its existing data sources and research methodologies could only take them so far.

As a result, the team recognized the need for innovation in their research methodologies, concluding that to create and design truly meaningful online experiences, the foundational research needed to be conducted in the same online world.

“If you construct the questions and answers, you bias the survey,” Cameron said. “Listen to your consumer and don’t put them through a filter I’ve created. If you’re going purely for discovery, go out there with an open mind.”

Penn State officials set out to deliver deep, ethnographic insight, created, interpreted, and analyzed within the anatomy of the experience execution—the diverse, digital world of the online student.

The resulting hybrid methodology involved a carefully selected suite of innovative software packages, social media data collection methods, and cutting-edge analytics to create, visualize, and quantitatively validate the emotional learning journey of online students. 

This combination of rich data sources and ethnographic understanding resulted in the development of colorful, meaningful student personas. What’s more, these are now used to create and communicate highly differentiated and resonant messages that lead students along personalized alumni nurture paths and ensure that content and interaction experiences are rooted in what really matters to students.
Ultimately, the research and subsequent experience design initiatives are connecting the institution and online students more emotionally, delivering an experience that transcends tactical study goals and is explicitly designed to drive a life-long learning passion and pathways to ongoing institutional support among online alumni.

A core component of the approach was operationalizing an emerging insight technology platform that facilitates creation and curation of user-generated images.
The platform used email to recruit the student and alumni audience, providing access to an app facilitating visual responses to research about online learning motivation, desired experiences, and motivational triggers to continue to stay connected with the university after graduation. For example: Please take a picture or find an image that sums up why you chose online education over campus learning.
In addition to posting the image, respondents write a personal explanation of their image choice and the rationale behind it. This creates a unique visual and linguistic expression of the collective psyche that makes up the online student body.
Penn State officials believe that the truly unique part of the team’s approach is the combination of machine learning and analytics with human semiotic analysis. Machine and human combine their skills to look beyond the obvious surface rationale given for image choice. While the tool applies machine learning to the image explanations—defining and quantifying common themes—the research team apply human semiotic analysis to get to the deepest meanings contained in the images. This innovative approach of machine learning and human understanding provided a unique and deep foundation for the online student experience design process.

As a result, the team built recommendations on strategy, marketing, and experience design around each journey stage using student sentiment to measure current performance.

The quantitative overlay supporting the rich qualitative insight now shapes the alumni communication program. It helps prioritize the investment strategy for the online learning experience around the most important moments of truth.

This project drove a change in approach to online student relationships, delivering 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.

Cameron believes that the journey mapping connected her 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,” Cameron said. “We have created a vision and mission to secure a lifelong commitment from the students that may never walk through our quad, but most definitely will continue to pass through our digital doors. Innovation is about iterative development. It’s not about invention.”

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