What’s an experience?

Drinking beer and watching ESPN.

Chris Barbie and Don Kamentz found themselves sitting in a bar in Houston. Just chillin.

Trying to recuperate from another 14-hour day running their start-up charter school.

Wach ya’ lookin’ at

On the screen in front of them, ESPN was covering National Signing Day. That’s the day high school football players publicly sign a letter of intent to attend a particular college.

Not exactly the most action-packed sports programming.

No big deal

And yet, Don couldn’t get over all the hype, ceremony, and attention it received.

“It blows my mind that we celebrate athletes this way,” he said. “But no one celebrates academics like that.”

A really big deal

In the bar that night, inspiration struck. A worldview, shared by two men, came in contact with the need for change and the passion of purpose.

It started with a passionate belief that the students at their school deserved celebrating, too. After all, the majority of them were kids from low-income Hispanic families. Most of them would be the first in their families to graduate from high school.

“So,” wondered Chris, “what if we created our own Signing Day.

And so it began

They would call it Senior Signing Day. For that one day, graduating seniors would be treated with the same enthusiasm and adulation as athletes.

Six months later, 450 people crammed into a community center. They were there to see 17 graduating seniors make their announcements.

“My name is Eddie Zapata, and in the fall, I will be attending Vanderbilt University.”

The heart of it

Later, the students would sit at a table, with their families crowded around them.

There, they would sign letters of matriculation, confirming their enrollment in the fall.

Chris was struck by the emotion that surrounded the signing. “It hits home – all the sacrifices everybody made for their kids to get there.”

Two years later

The third Senior Signing Day filled an auditorium at the University of Houston.

Somewhere in the crowd was sixth-grader Mayra Valle. It was her first Signing Day experience and it made a lasting impression.

“That could be me.” Mayra thought. “No one in my family has ever gone to college. I want to be on that stage.”

Six years after that

The senior class had grown to 126 graduates. Signing Day took place in the basketball arena at Rice University.

In front of 5,000 people.

Ninety percent of the graduates were the first members of their families to go to college.

And there, in the crowd that day was a familiar face.

“Good afternoon, everybody, my name is Mayra Valle,” she said, breaking into an enormous smile. “And this fall I will be attending Connecticut College.”

The crowd roared.

Experiences are powerful

They emotionally connect people.

They drive people to action.

They build tribes.

And the stories that they generate are monumentally more powerful than messages.

How experiences work

As that little story illustrates, people come together around a common belief. A shared passion about something that needs to be changed in the world. (A shared worldview.)

Their reaction to that change emotionally connects them to a purpose. A cause that connects them together as a tribe.

In this context, experiences help the tribe to act. They bring people together to make the change they seek.

Going beyond ourselves

The most powerful tribe experiences allow us to do things together that we can’t do as well individually.

Experiences also enable tribe members to reach out to others who might share their worldview and passion. They do that as tribe members tell stories to themselves and others about their experience.

The principles of powerful experiences

Experiences are not about rules. Or about platforms. Or best practices. They come in many different shapes, sizes and forms.

But there is something that unites the most powerful experiences.

They are driven by principles. Principles that give them the power to make a difference in the world.

Principle One: Purpose Drives Experience

Having a purpose behind why you do what you do is a powerful driver of action.

So take time to get this right. (This may help.)

Because everything after this can be adjusted and improved over time if need be.

But replacing your core purpose would need a complete reboot.

The problem is

Your purpose means different things to different tribe members. It offers them value that’s specific to their needs.

While who you are deep down is key, who you are to each tribe member is what counts.

So the key questions are:

  • How does ‘who you are as a tribe’ make their life better?
  • How does connecting with you and the tribe make their life better?
  • What can you offer them to help them achieve their own purpose?

These are the factors that will drive tribe action and loyalty. So they must drive tribe experiences as well.

Principle Two: Experiences Are Empathetic

The fact is:

So successful experiences start with an intimate understanding of the tribe’s worldview.

Feel what I feel

A worldview is a shared belief about how the world works, what’s important, what’s of most value.

An important part of worldview is the belief that something in the world is not right. It needs to be fixed.

This shared view of the world is the thing that connects tribe members together.

And it connects them through a shared cause. A common purpose.

Makin’ change

And that purpose revolves around changing what is not right with the world.

So experiences worth sharing are based on a deep understanding of three things:

  • The tribe’s view of the world as it is
  • The tribe’s view of the world as it can be.
  • The change that is necessary to make the world what it can be

Once you understand those three things you can focus your experience on the change that the tribe seeks to make. The thing that will move the world from what it is to what it can be.

Hey, thanks

For example, the Thank List experience takes on its tribe’s concern for the lack of civility in the world.

When you add a person’s passion to a tribe’s shared worldview you can create an experience that connects with them. That’s because it leverages people’s biases instead of fighting them.

This gives those who lead tribes a huge opportunity. An opportunity that’s bigger than messaging ever was.

Opportunity knocks

That opportunity is to help people. To create experiences around their passion. Experiences that help them connect to others and together fulfill their common cause. And the change they seek.

It is accomplished by enabling the tribe to act. Through experiences. Not by telling them what they should believe or what they should do.

Principle Three: Experiences Help The Tribe

They should be focused on the change the tribe seeks.

They exist to help the tribe move from the world as it is to the world as it can be.

Inside and out

An experience reaches inside the tribe to give members something meaningful to do.

Something that connects them together.

Simultaneously, it reaches out to those who share the tribe’s worldview. It invites them to come in. To join the action. And, as a result, it connects them to people who share their purpose.


The Unforgotten experience gets members of their tribe deeply involved in creating an art installation. A very special art installation that is staged in different neighborhoods at different times throughout Chicago.

The clothing of their lost loved ones, so lovingly curated and donated, keeps their memories alive. And through the experience, they speak to those outside the tribe. And bring them in.

To that extent, these experiences are utilitarian. They help the tribe do something. Something they cannot do by themselves.

Principle Four: Experiences Move People To Share Them

Experience is whatever moves you.

Whether it’s Senior Signing Day or stunning architecture. Or an interactive art installation. Or interacting with a vending machine. An experience makes us feel something.

And because they move us, these experiences are shared with friends. Shared so we can include them in these emotional moments.

Emotional connections count

These shared moments of shared experience form a unique bond. A deep, emotional connection, between those in the tribe.

They bring people together through conversations, reactions, stories, and of course, more sharing.

Of course, we don’t only share the good things. We also share the bad experiences. We share when something doesn’t go our way. When we’re made to feel less valued.

At some point, all these shared expressions influence the impressions of others. Over time, they make up how people perceive your organization.

Spinning interconnected webs

Experiences are at the heart of our online engagement with our friends. But what we share extends beyond that, too. We all have a network of tribes… who have tribes… who have tribes…

Through these connected webs, what we share also connects with strangers. Especially when they ask questions. Or search for options. Or look to their online communities for guidance.

Principle Five: Experiences Propel Stories

Experiences are the things that people share when they share stories. That is, the story they share is about what they experienced.

These real stories, narrative stories, are powerful.

They connect people and forever change those people for the better.

Great stories exist outside time. They live in people’s hearts.

And they fuel their actions.

The language of the tribe

That’s why stories are the language of tribes. And as such, they hold the power to emotionally connect people. And to define and spread experiences and movements.

Just as a great film can move people to action, so, too, can storytelling. Because stories transcend mere messaging.

Instead, they engage the audience’s emotions and senses. They reflect their hopes, dreams, and desires.

They take them on a journey of discovery and self-reflection that makes them act.

Like the colorblind experience

Principle Six: Stories Propel Experiences

Every story that has the power to move people to action makes a strong value statement. A moral.

Part of that moral is a call to action. Implied or explicit.

The most powerful calls to action drive tribe members to a tribe experience. Most often these are interactive platforms that help the tribe do something they want to do.

For example

What really propelled Valspar’s colorblind experience were thousands of homemade videos like this.

Each one was shared on YouTube by people touched in some way by color blindness.

Around and around we go

When your story moves people and then directs them to such a helping experience it begins an action loop.

A loop that works like an engine to drive the movement forward.

It goes something like this:

  • A story connects tribe members to each other. It connects them their shared purpose. And it does it through their shared worldview.
  • Their purpose is reflected in the moral of the story.
  • The moral drives them to an experience that helps them do something related to their purpose.
  • The emotion and value of the experience makes them want to share it.
  • Tribe members share their experience by telling stories about it.
  • Those stories reflect their shared purpose.
  • And around and around and around again

Principle Seven: The Best Experiences Become Memories

They are meaningful.

They make a difference. They make each person feel like they are making a difference for good.

But most important, they make you feel something.

People are going to have experiences whether you design them or not.

Why not try your best to make them engaging and meaningful.

People are going to feel something, so why leave it to chance?

Why not design experiences that add up to something meaningful, sharable, and irreplaceable?

Like this little girl

The future of purpose-driven organizations will be shaped by experiences.

And, experience design is the path toward developing more empathetic and relevant tribes. Tribes for a new generation. A generation of connected people who share stories.

So the key questions for those designing experiences that propel a movement are:

  • What is your tribe’s worldview?
  • What does your tribe seek to change?
  • With that in mind, what is the enabling experience you want people to have and share?
  • Does the answer align with your tribe’s purpose?
  • Does the answer align with the experiences people are sharing about you right now?

What now?

The future of experiences is bright and expanding. New technologies will allow us to create more immersive, even breathtaking, experiences.

But no matter where they take us, the seven principles of compelling experiences will remain.


Every experience you create is the opportunity to have an impact on someone. And an impact on the world.

And best of all, you get to experience for yourself what that impact will be.

But that’s just my opinion. The important thing is, what’s yours?