The following borrows heavily from Chip & Dan Heath’s Made to Stick (specifically pages 89–93). The concept itself is nothing new, however, the idea and its implications are unique to McCombs and its website.
In the 1960s, ABC signed a contract to televise college football games nationally. This was a previously unheard of notion, as college football was a parochial game. Why would Longhorn fans care about an Ohio State game? And why would an Alabama fan ever watch a game from Corvallis, Oregon? Roone Arledge, a young up-and-comer at ABC, had an answer, and he wrote it in a memo:
“Heretofore, television has done a remarkable job of bringing the game to the viewer—now we are going to take the viewer to the game!”
He goes on to explain that the problem is context. You have to give the viewer a sense of space, history, and perspective. Only when they understand the game in its context will they care about who actually wins it. In short, you have to fill in the gaps between what they know and what they don’t know.
Applied to McCombs, we have done a decent enough job bringing McCombs to our users. We have failed to bring our users to McCombs. In terms of imagery and language, we don’t give our users enough context to show them how they will fit into the school. We miss the opportunity to let them see themselves in our environment and explore it, and in turn become comfortable in it. This is an important psychological opportunity missed as they decide which school to go to.
Take for example, the first time you visit a restaurant or bar. You walk in the door and immediately look around, trying to orient yourself. Is there a host? How are the tables arranged? Is it quiet? Loud? What’s the decor like? You begin to make some choices that affect whether or not you like the place. Over time, you become familiar, and you don’t even bother looking around. The place has become familiar and comfortable.
I argue that we have an opportunity to make people familiar and comfortable with McCombs before they get here, while they are deciding which college to attend. To do that we have to give them some context. Certainly, the school visit gives a prospective student some context, but could the visit be enhanced if the student were already familiar with the surroundings and people, allowing them to spend less time acquainting themselves with McCombs, and more time asking questions relevant specifically to them, and in turn becoming more and more comfortable with the school.
Going back to Made to Stick, we have to fill in the gaps between what they know and what they don’t know. We do a good job of talking about our rankings and our programs and departments. That’s the stuff most students can learn with a minimal amount of research. It’s also not a tremendous differentiator. We need to give our prospective students all that info up front and be honest about it: “Here’s what you know, but now let us show you what you don’t know.” That’s when we knock their socks off.