Crosstown Digital Communications

How Not to Make a Website

In the quiet days before Christmas, revered marketing guru Seth Godin excreted this pile of words, in which he purported to offer marketers tactical advice on how to make a website.

Needless to say, among the web professionals I know, the article caused a bit of a stir. Godin introduces the piece as a guide to “how marketers can work with their teams, their bosses and their developers to get the site they want built with less time and less hassle.” This, in theory, would be great. Increasingly, we are finding that we need to look at the web holistically in order to build successful user experiences that drive business objectives. That includes developers, designers, content professionals, clients, stakeholders and, sure, marketers.

But he proceeds to offer no such guide. Instead, Godin gives the marketer a guide to how to go in a cave, surf the internet, and vomit the things one finds and likes into a developer’s lap before scurrying away.

The tips Godin recommends — browsing websites to find site features you like, mocking up site concepts using a medium with which you are familiar, refraining from diving into code — are not terrible as parts of a process, or as complements to or inspirations for parts of a process. But as a process in and of themselves? Absolutely terrible advice.

In creating this stellar guide, Godin neglects a couple of important things:

1) GOALS. This omission is kinda funny, given that he is supposedly writing this for the “goal-oriented non-professional.” See, a website is not an artistic exercise. It is not purely a visual creation. It is a means to an end. It is a strategic business asset. With that in mind, why do you need a website? What are you hoping to achieve for your business or organization? With whom do you wish to communicate? What actions do you wish for these people to take? These are the questions that the “goal-oriented non-professional” should be answering, not “which shopping cart module do I like the most?”

2) CONTENT. Content is the vessel in which we encapsulate our best answers to the above-listed questions. You can’t find the best content for your website by browsing other websites. And the developer to whom you hand off your Keynote arts-and-crafts project is not going to have it, either.

Just a couple of minor things, you know?

The Elders of the Internet Would Never Stand For It

Breaking news: making internet is hard.

Related news: I am fairly confident that Seth Godin has never actually been within a hundred yards of a modern website development process.

The day after Godin published his screed, Robin Sloan wrote about his realization that writers like himself cannot be tasked with making websites that will succeed in today’s mobile, multi-screen web world.

Today I don’t think the amateur’s best effort is good enough. We as internet users have less patience and less charity for janky, half-broken experiences. (Which is quite an evolution, because the whole internet used to be a janky, half-broken experience.) That’s unfortunate for me, and other amateurs of my approximate skill level, because that’s really the only kind we can muster.

But you know who can totally craft an experience that works flawlessly on a phone, a tablet, a laptop, and a rice cooker? The team that made Medium. Other teams like it. In a word: professionals.

Sloan is right on. In crafting a successful web experience, everyone holds a piece of the puzzle. The answer does not solely live in one person’s brain, be it the marketer or the designer or the developer. Now more than ever, the web is the result of a partnership of skills. That partnership thrives on collaboration, mutual respect, and ongoing learning.

A week and a half before Godin’s post, digital marketing luminary Mitch Joel blogged about the importance of minimalism in an online marketing experience.

As complex as marketing has become, it is the simplicity of the brand message and product that wins. … The brands that are triumphant in the online world, are scaling back and making the experience as minimalistic as possible.

Thus, the marketer shouldn’t be clicking around websites, browsing functionality options. The marketer should be identifying (and ruthlessly refining) the core messages and the top goals, then working with the web professionals to create a website supporting them.

“Marketers are going to have to adjust their attitudes and perceptions as to what marketing can be in this world of the new digital minimalism,” says Joel. “Think minimalism. Think bare. Think simple. We often toss these words out into the marketing zeitgeist without really appreciating the amazing opportunity that we have – as a marketing industry – to truly add value to the consumer’s life.”

Now, that’s twice I’ve mentioned a “partnership of skills” or “working with the web professionals.” But what shape does that collaboration take? I recently published an article for HighEdWeb LINK about responsive web design (RWD), and one of the themes that came up with each person I interviewed was the fact that the traditional waterfall approach (design, development, content) was quickly falling by the wayside.

RWD – which is arguably becoming the standard for developing a modern web experience – changes how developers, designers, content professionals, and even clients work together. The process is much more collaborative and concurrent, and the heart of it lies with the content. What are we trying to say? What are we trying to get people to do?

These are questions essential to the development of a modern website that someone like, say, our infamous marketer is well equipped to help answer. No coding required (though sometimes it’s fun and even useful to learn), but they will have to sit down with the designer and developer and, together, figure out how to make the website reflect those messages and goals.

In her response to Godin’s post, Amanda Costello phrased it well:

Building sites is usually a team project, and making an effort to understand what your teammates do and what they know will make the project go a lot smoother. You’ll build respect for each other’s specialties and knowledge. Respect doesn’t prevent conflict, or remove all misunderstandings, problems, and barriers. But it makes working with them, and building awesome websites, a whole lot better.

Working with developers and the like is apparently a scary prospect for Seth Godin. But I promise, Seth, it’s not that bad. It’s actually kind of awesome.

And Another Thing…

It wasn’t enough for Godin to share these blessed insights. Despite the lack of comments on his blog or a meaningful Twitter presence, word of the criticism must have reached his ears, because the next day he filed a retort entitled “True professionals don’t fear amateurs.”

“The best professionals love it when a passionate amateur shows up. The clarity and intelligence of a smart customer pushes both client and craftsman to do better work,” says Godin. “If you’re upset that the hoi polloi are busy doing what you used to do, get better instead of getting angry.”

(Also, says Godin, “Talented web designers don’t fear cloud services.” It’s true. I don’t know a single front-end web developer who lives in fear of Netflix’s shift to on-demand streaming movies. Related: what?)

So, what Godin says is very true, but I would be careful in how we characterize “passionate.” If you mean someone who has thought through their goals and knows what they want their website to achieve; is curious about how things work, willing to learn, and asks smart questions; is committed to measuring the effectiveness of those solutions; is willing to work with and learn from fellow professionals in the digital space; and who knows what they don’t know, then yes, bring on the passionate amateur.

But if you mean someone who thinks they know all the answers better than anyone else because they filled up their browser cache with click-around “research,” then I think you’re working with the wrong definition of “passionate.”

You know what else true professionals don’t fear, Mr. Godin? The things they don’t know. The things they don’t understand. True professionals never stop learning and are never afraid to admit when there’s something new to learn. In fact, it energizes them. True professionals are both eternal students and eternal teachers.

To this end, Mr. Godin, you would be best served asking a few questions about how exactly websites get built nowadays. I am sure that this knowledge would serve your business well. But until you start asking those questions, I kindly ask that you step away from the internet. I’m sure there’s a keynote to give or a book to write somewhere in the meantime.

2012 in Review

On Nov. 29, 2011, I walked out of the stable, comfortable job I had held for more than seven years and toward an uncertain future that would become whatever I made of it.

While I loved Tufts and the work I did there, I reached a point where I needed a “what’s next.” For a variety of reasons, the best option available was to create it. So I started my own consulting business, Crosstown Digital Communications.

I wish the song “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons had been out when I made this change, because it sums up my perspective at the time perfectly:

So this is what you meant when you said that you were spent
And now it’s time to build from the bottom of the pit
Right to the top, don’t hold back
Packing my bags and giving the academy a rain check

I don’t ever want to let you down, I don’t ever want to leave this town
‘Cause after all, This city never sleeps at night

It’s time to begin, isn’t it?
I get a little bit bigger, but then I’ll admit I’m just the same as I was
Now don’t you understand that I’m never changing who I am

Truth be told, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I had a bunch of solid leads and a couple of initial projects — plus, I was still part-time at Tufts through mid-January — but despite this cushion, I still felt overwhelmed. Did little ol’ risk-averse, change-fearing me really just throw away all of my security and take this huge leap? What on Earth was I thinking?

December was not easy, I admit. I was learning a whole new way of working, and I came down with a cold that I would fight on and off until the spring. I was dispirited, at times. But I kept plugging ahead, closing out the year with a restorative week in England visiting family for Christmas.

When I came back, 2012 was a blank slate, and I finally began getting my bearings in the strange new world in which I had planted myself. So, what follows is the breakdown of the year in which I would turn my life upside-down — and perhaps right-side-up again

  • I visited 16 states – New Hampshire, Nevada, New Mexico (twice), Texas (twice), New York (four times), California, Maine, New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Illinois, Arkansas, Ohio, Wisconsin and Rhode Island — plus the District of Columbia.
  • I spent 68 days away from home – that’s 18.6% of the year on the road. Only 13.2% of that time (nine out of 68 days) was personal/vacation travel – the rest was for professional reasons.
  • A few of the vacation days were spent with Rick in Las Vegas, as part of a contest he won via Twitter from Old Spice. A unique experience, to be sure, and probably the nicest hotel accommodations we will ever have.
  • I attended SXSW Interactive for the first time since 2006. The conference changed a lot in six years, and while its was both over- and underwhelming at times, I had a blast and am glad I got to give SXSW one last hurrah.
  • To date, Crosstown has worked with 11 colleges and universities on projects including social media strategy, online news assessment and strategy, editorial consulting, copywriting, and group presentations/workshops. I’m so proud of the work I got to do and in awe of how much I had the chance to learn.
  • Meet Content continued to grow. We launched a newsletter, began hosting webinars (both free and paid), hung out at Confab, spoke at a few conferences, announced Confab Higher Ed (coming in November 2013!), and churned out some content I’m really proud of.
  • I spoke at 12 conferences: PRSACHE, NCSRMR, EduWeb, HighEdWeb, PSUWEB, NERCOMP, SUNYCUAD, UTexas System Seminar, edSocialMedia Summit, Content Strategy Summit, Gilbane Boston and TEDxSomerville. That doesn’t include talks developed and delivered for clients. So, yeah. Lots of public speaking. I still love it.
  • That’s right – I gave a TED talk. While I emerged from the experience somewhat disillusioned with the TED mystique, I am still very proud of the talk I delivered — while in the throes of a relapse of my never-ending cold, no less.
  • I developed and delivered workshops for the first time. I created four workshops for one client, delivered over the course of two days, and I gave another workshop at HighEdWeb. It was a uniquely challenging experience, and one I would love to repeat in the future.
  • I wrote a book chapter! mStoner’s “Social Works” comes out later this year, but being asked to write a chapter for it was definitely a highlight of 2012.
  • Um, I GOT PREGNANT. Woohoo! Baby’s due April 2 — we’ve got a blog and everything. Interestingly, I found out I was pregnant at a HighEdWeb regional conference, and I’ll be attending another regional two weeks before my due date. Such is my life.
  • And, in the end, I came back to higher ed. In mid-October, I began a job as director of online content at Suffolk University. Lots of challenges and lots of opportunity. It’s great to be back at an institution, especially one going through such a transformation. Good stuff lies ahead.

Sure, the year was filled with leads that didn’t work out, proposals (for both projects and speaking) that didn’t get accepted, and jobs I applied for but did not get. But it was also filled with more than I ever hoped or expected to learn — about my field, my industry, and myself.

I have a deeper understanding of my experience at Tufts, and working with a range of different types of schools has given me a broader perspective of higher education. These realizations, I believe, are serving me well at Suffolk and will continue to serve me well as my career progresses. And it was an education I could have only received by jerking myself away from my stable, reliable job and into something untested and new.

Coming Home Again

I realize that I am fortunate. My first year of consulting was successful, not just in terms of experiences and takeaways but also financially. I did not go back to work at a university because my business was failing — in fact, it was just the opposite. I went back because what I learned the most in my year of consulting was not so much about communications, but about organizations, leadership and strategy. And in order to go where I wanted to go in my career, I needed to be back at an institution, to apply those lessons and keep learning new ones. I wanted to belong to an institution again so I could feel tethered to a mission and do it justice by effecting change from within.

And, truth be told, as much as I suffer from chronic wanderlust and love traveling, I realized that spending 18.6% of the year away from home was not sustainable — not right now, anyway. I remember deplaning at Logan after returning from HighEdWeb and realize that, for the first time in a long while, I did not know when I would be back. It was an odd feeling.

Pretty Good Year

I look back through my Google Calendar for the past year, and I feel tired — it’s hard to believe I crammed that much into 366 (thanks, leap year!) days. But I did it. And it’s not just the volume of destinations or workload, but the context in which they transpired.

I started Crosstown having no idea what the hell I was doing, and to be fair, I don’t set Crosstown aside thinking that I’ve become some sort of expert consultant and business owner. Far from it. But I figured it out as I went along. I tried new things, I did old things better, and I did things that scared the shit out of me. I made a few mistakes, and I notched a few wins. I learned. I grew. I changed. But I kept moving forward — and ultimately, I succeeded.

In short, what 2012 taught me is that I can do anything. So bring it, 2013. I’m ready for you.

A Change of Direction

Me wearing a Suffolk University t-shirt in high school. The pic is worn from being in my husband's wallet for years during high school/college.

When I left Tufts University last fall and started Crosstown, it was because I wanted to help other universities improve the way they told their stories on the web. I felt there were tremendous opportunities to learn and do good work just waiting out there. So I set off in search of them.

Boy, did I find them. My brain has been stretched six ways to Sunday, both by reflecting on my experience at Tufts and tackling new, challenging projects for clients. I’ve also had the opportunity to see how a range of universities, large to small, manage their communications, which has been incredibly enlightening and informative.

It’s been a successful, fulfilling and rewarding year, to say the least.

But while I have been blessed with the opportunity to learn and do good work, there’s been something missing. Indeed, a lot of the learning I’ve been doing has been not only about the subject matter of my field, but self-discovery around what makes me happy, challenged and fulfilled as a professional.

I soon realized what I missed. I missed being part of a team, sure. But more importantly, I missed being part of a community. I missed feeling invested in a mission. I missed feeling invested in a project — or a strategy — beyond the end of a contract.

In short, I missed caring about something bigger than myself.

A Homecoming, of Sorts

While I grew up in South Florida, I was born in Boston, spending the first two years of my life living on Beacon Hill. Before we moved to Florida, my mom finished up her bachelor’s degree (yep, she was an adult learner) in English at the school just down the hill, Suffolk University, located in the heart of downtown. Class of 1981. In high school, I often wore a Suffolk t-shirt and sweatshirt — people didn’t know how to pronounce the name!

My mom tells me she used to wheel me down in my stroller to the classroom buildings, where I met her classmates and professors. In fact, one professor — Prof. Stuart Millner — met me and declared with certainty to my mom, “I can tell she has English major blood!” (Journalism, but close enough.)

They say we all go home again, and I guess this much is true, because next month I will begin working at Suffolk as the Director of Online Content.

I am beyond excited to be returning to the higher ed fold, and I couldn’t be happier to be doing it at Suffolk. It’s a dynamic school with a smart perspective on the web, a savvy staff of communicators, and a ton of opportunities to do good work and learn new things — and that’s a magic combination. Suffolk is home to a community I am thrilled to join and a mission I am honored to serve.

As for Crosstown, that obviously takes a backseat, though I’ll still have limited availability for work or speaking engagements. And don’t worry, Meet Content will continue to grow and publish unabated — after all, we’ve still got a lot to talk about when it comes to web content in higher ed.

But right now, my main focus is on helping Suffolk tell its story. I look forward to walking around and beginning to learn what that story is. One of my stops will certainly be Prof. Millner’s office — no stroller necessary, this time around.

Retaining a Sense of Awe in Research News

One of the themes of my presentation “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing” is that we in higher ed are in the business of celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The feats of the NASA scientists who orchestrated last night’s landing of the Mars Curiosity rover certainly fall under that category.

What’s remarkable – beyond, you know, lowering a rover to the Martian surface with a skycrane – is how NASA told that story. They did it with amazing content that informed, entertained and engaged a rapt online audience (even at 1:30AM EDT on a Sunday night) with not just personality but also humor and drama. (Tim Nekritz wrote a great blog post this morning talking about how they expertly leveraged shared experiences and the real-time web.)

But most importantly, their content had a heaping dose of awe. Through videos, tweets, live-streams and blog posts, NASA conveyed unabashed acknowledgment of the fact that the events transpiring were absolutely amazing, reflecting a very human longing for knowledge and thrill of discovery. And that, to me, was one of its strengths.

Why So Serious?

I couldn’t help but think about higher education (as I often do) and how we talk about research. We want to own our research accomplishments. We want to be noticed because of them, in order to attract funding, faculty, students and partnerships. In doing so, we often think organizationally, clinging to journal citations, jargon and internal priorities in shaping how we communicate about research. Research, after all, is a very serious thing.

But as I read about Curiosity – a highly important scientific undertaking with not just societal impact but also very real, hard science behind it – I wondered why we in higher ed can’t talk about research with the same level of personality, (appropriate) humor and downright inspirational quality that NASA employs. Research is serious business, sure, but it’s also important and awe-inspiring and creative and, sometimes, beautiful. We could be covering a technology that will help save lives on the battlefield, or a treatment for a rare disease that gives thousands of sufferers hope, or environmental analysis that will renew a community. These are amazing things that matter, and our faculty and students are diligently pursuing these solutions every day in the lab across the quad.

Sure, we need to write for the grant funding agencies, and sure, we need to write for the tech transfer partnerships. But if we’re trying to convey to the world how we are relevant, essential and innovative, can’t we find a way to retain that sense of awe in our communications? To capture some of the secret sauce that kept people up way past their bedtimes last night?

Telling the Story of our Research

Employing some of the basic elements of storytelling can help enliven our research coverage while embracing that sense of awe. Just look at the drama pervading the above “Seven Minutes of Terror” video (while still conveying the science and showing off some of the engineers behind the mission) and the quirky character of the (absolutely awesome) @MarsCuriosity Twitter account. Even NASA’s tagline for the mission, “Dare Mighty Things” (borrowed from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt) brands the initiative with historical significance, making it feel like just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative of American ambition and accomplishment.

As if we needed more drama, NASA is facing major budget cuts. Their need to demonstrate relevance and value is urgent. And what is one of their key strategies for doing so? Telling (and owning) their story, of course, through smart and savvy use of various content tools at their disposal, while making it something in which we could all participate and be invested. For a cost of $7 per American, they gave us a hell of a show – and the curtain has really just gone up.

True, we may not be landing rovers on Mars at our university. (Or maybe we arehat tip to Kyle Judah.) But we’re doing things that matter. Can we find a way to inspire and engage in our research coverage the way that NASA has done?

Do you have an example of higher ed research coverage that not only informs and educates but also inspires and engages? Please share in the comments!

A Framework for the Thoughtful Creation and Maintenance of Social Media Content

On July 25, I was pleased to present “Where Strategy Meets Serendipity: A Framework for the Thoughtful Creation and Maintenance of Social Media Content” at the Noel-Levitz National Conference on Student Retention, Marketing and Recruitment (NCSRMR). The slides are below.

Where Strategy Meets Serendipity: A Framework for the Thoughtful Creation and Maintenance of Social Media Content from Georgiana Cohen