Crosstown Digital Communications

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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.

Hello, Meet Content!

One Sunday night last October, Rick Allen and I were in a cab from Logan Airport, having just returned to Boston from Las Vegas where we both spoke at the Stamats Integrated Marketing and Technology (SIMTech) conference. It was late, we were jet-lagged and exhausted from not just the Stamats conference but from HighEdWeb two weeks previous. October was a heck of a month — an awesome month, but an exhausting one — and we were beat.

Still, as the cab wound its way toward my house (first dropoff), something that had been on both of our minds finally bubbled to the surface — the idea for a higher education blog focusing on what we both held dear: content.

Rick has carved out quite a reputation for himself as the authority on content strategy in higher education. Last year, he launched a one-man assault on the higher ed conference scene, dropping content strategy knowledge at HighEdWeb, HighEdWeb Regional, PSEWEB, SIMTech and AMA Higher Ed. Beyond all that, he founded the Content Strategy New England meetup group, where he has lured content strategy luminaries such as Erin Kissane, Mandy Brown, Ian Alexander and Kristina Halvorson to speak over the past year.

Rick’s focus on content strategy and measurement naturally complements my emphasis on web content creation, social media content and the broader communications spectrum (video, news, etc.).  We quickly realized this and thought we had a lot to offer the higher ed web marketing world if we put our heads together. (Selfishly, I also realized I had a lot to learn from him.)

So, one week later (Halloween!), we met at a coffee shop and hashed it all out. By the time we stepped out into autumn’s tomfoolery, Meet Content had been born.

(It’s worth noting that almost every domain permutation of word + content has been taken. If meetcontent.com hadn’t been available, we may have named the site dishwashercontent.com or something.)

Why Meet Content?

As many of us in higher ed (and other fields) have bemoaned, content often gets short shrift on web projects. In social media, people get excited about their Twitter accounts without really thinking about what they will be tweeting. We craft beautiful websites with no research or measurement in place to gauge whether or not the content achieves its goals (or, for that matter, what are our goals?). For some, content is a big part of their job — or they intuit that it should be — but they are not trained content professionals.

To us, that all spoke to a need to simply get to know what content was all about, from creation to measurement, types to distribution, soup to nuts. Also, while content may seem shiny and fun, it also requires a lot of work. With Meet Content, we wanted our community to feel that they had a friendly, accessible resource available to help walk through the challenging parts.

So, this blog is a bit of an adventure for us, but we couldn’t be more excited. A little corner of the web devoted to us nerding out about web content in higher ed — too awesome! We can’t wait to hear what you think. (And won’t you follow us on Twitter and Facebook?)

A big thank you to Jeff Stevens (@kuratowa) of Union Design & Photo for creating our awesome logo.

Perusing the Back Catalog

I started this blog back in April in order to provide a publishing outlet focused solely on my areas of professional interest. But I realize I have a ton of relevant content on my other blog that new readers may have missed. For your reading pleasure and convenience, I’ve curated (hah!) the best of that content here.

The Sanctity of Publication

The proximity of the shiny blue button to our itchy clicker finger does not excuse us from reflection and revision, whether it’s an idle tweet or a serious blog post. It does not excuse us from asking the question, “What value do I add if I publish this?” In this increasingly noisy space, the more we can focus our efforts and refine our output, the better off everyone will be.

Laying Effective Idea Traps

The gap between having an idea and communicating it is wide and precipitous. We need to set up our own safety nets, to rescue our insights and ideas when they fall off the tips of our tongues or the forefront of our minds. That is writing.

What Politics Reminds Us About Communicating on the Web

The recent Mass. US Senate special election did inspire me to think about how the political foibles of unsuccessful candidates can remind us of some important web communication principles.

We Are the New Archeologists

So maybe social media isn’t so much about creating something new. It’s also about discovering (or rediscovering) something that has always been there. Perhaps we are like archeologists, brushing away the dust to reveal the rich worlds around us.

Can’t See the Forest For the Tweets

This is about understanding the context of information, and with new media, that context is changing. … We may not realize it, but in this space, we are relying a lot on savvy to help us assess the content we’re viewing. Savvy is great, but it doesn’t have its own AP stylebook.

Incremental Redesign for your Life

Success is about 90% planning. Fulfilling your innermost desires to be the person you want to be has little to do with wanting, and almost everything to do with doing. How do you “do” to the level required to effect real change? How do you self-sustain? You plan. You start an incremental revolution. You set up a schedule and a to-do list of manageable tasks that build toward the ultimate goal.

Fighting Magic With Logic

Oftentimes, what appears to be magic is really just bamboozlement. In those cases, the best weapon is a good question. Obfuscation is weakened by logical inquiry.

Recipe for Weak Sauce

I’ve been doing some blogger self-examination, and I’ve come to the conclusion that lately, I’ve been hawking some weak sauce. For future reference, I’ve compiled the recipe here.

Who Lives in our Content Village?

What was it that Hillary Clinton said? “It takes a village.” To get the most out of content on the web, ain’t that the truth.

Thoughts About ‘Tweckling’ and the Great Keynote Meltdown of ’09

This whole episode just made me think about conference etiquette — and I definitely have more questions than answers about it. What are the rules of engagement in that context? Can conferences learn a thing or two from unconferences? Does higher ed need an unconference?

A Geek, A Girl, but Not a Geeky Girl

I don’t want to be a part of a movement that focuses on a perceived disadvantage. I’d rather focus, as Chris Penn suggested, on being awesome — on continuing to be awesome, and finding ways to become even more awesome. And gender, for me, is not relevant to that goal.

Beware of the Warm Fuzzies

There’s the virtual world, and then there’s the real world, and while the distinction grows increasingly blurry, there are some areas in which the two are very much apart.

Photo by mcfarlandmo/Flickr Creative Commons

New Habits, New Horizons

I won’t be coy about it — I am definitely in the midst of shoring up my identity and tweaking my presence online. Not for any specific reason, other than my own personal branding and reputation management. This very blog is one manifestation of that effort. But what else am I doing? There are a few little changes in my online behavior here and there that I have made, and I’ll be interested to see how they bear out. I thought I’d share them to see what other people think.

LinkedIn - Spurred in part by Chris Brogan’s recent posts about efficient uses of LinkedIn, I’ve put in some time over the past few days tidying up my LinkedIn profile. (This article also gave me lots of good ideas.) This has included:

  • Reaching out for new connections
  • Soliciting some recommendations (although I need to go back and write more of my own)
  • Updating my profile (including my summary, interests and headline)
  • Beginning to use LinkedIn status updates (I tried subscribing to a feed of my contacts’ updates but there is a lot of noise. Sigh.)
  • Making sure my resume is aligned with the one on georgycohen.com
  • Making sure this new blog was being ported over via their spiffy WordPress plugin.

Still on my to-do list are diving more deeply into LinkedIn Groups and tackling some questions over at LinkedIn Answers. While we’re on the topic, do you want to connect on LinkedIn? (Use the e-mail address linkedin at georgycohen dot com.)

Meetups - A significant component of your online presence is your offline presence. For a while, I was going to a lot of meetups. Then I burned out. I think, in part, it was because I wasn’t being very selective. I also learned that meetups consisting solely of people with vaguely aligned interests in a room with a bar aren’t really my style. I like a theme, and preferably some sort of a talk or presentation. Even if I don’t broaden my network, I at least want to learn something. So, with all this in mind, I’m hitting the circuit again. This week, I attended a Content Strategy New England meetup, where I saw Kristina Halvorson speak. Next week, I’m going to “Where’s the Bus 2.0: The Wait is Over” and perhaps another CSNE event.

Public Speaking and Presenting – I’ve realized that I need to gain more experience and confidence in this area. My Ignite Boston experience really lit a fire under me, in that respect. I can’t wait for Podcamp Boston, since that is a great opportunity to expand my presenting/speaking experience. I’m also pitching a few presentations in the higher ed arena and toying with few other ideas for public speaking opportunities. I don’t expect overnight success, but I am focused on moving forward and finding new ways of getting my name and ideas out there.

Google Reader – I love Google Reader. It’s my morning (and afternoon and evening) paper. It’s my informational train station. But I’m increasingly using its social functions, in the hopes that bonding over content can build more meaningful relationships. I try to make a habit of regularly browsing through the articles shared by People I Follow (even though it can be tempting to make those the first thing Marked as Read). It gets me out of my own habits and headspace to see what interests and motivates other people. Even if it is not directly relevant to my professional or personal interests, what I read there at the very least gives me additional perspective into the person who shared the content. I’m also making a point to share more of the content I read via Google Reader. I am not a big fan of bookmarklets, but the Note for Reader one has proven immensely useful for bridging the gap between Reader and my browser.

What changes and tactics have you tried to shape your online habits and identity? What works for you, and what doesn’t?

Photo by vespar_avenue/Flickr Creative Commons

Want Blog Fodder? Audit Your Content Ledger

Now that I am running two blogs, I try to keep my eyes extra-wide open for content ideas. You never know what is going to spark a blog post. It could be something you see while on the bus, a song, or an exchange in a store.

One of my favorite sources of blog fodder is, well, myself. I make tons of one-cent content transactions every day — a reply here, a comment there, a shared item over there, even the daily automatic draw of blog posts into my Google Reader. Added up, there is a lot of value. A lot of these transactions are made in haste, without prolonged rumination in front of the blank slate of a WordPress entry. Looking back at those transactions can provide some good blog inspiration. After all, something moved us to interact with that content in the first place, right?

Here are some ways to “look within” for blog inspiration:

  • Look back at your recent tweets, @ replies, favorited tweets, DMs and shared or starred items on Google Reader. Can you do a little more thinking about why the particular content or conversation captured your eye? Can you reflect on it a little bit, or do some additional research?
  • Type a term  into your Google Reader search box and see what posts are dredged up from your archives. A lot of us, owing to the hectic pace of our days, are forced to “mark all read” more often than I bet we would all like. Go back and see if you missed any gems that are worth responding to or reflecting on.
  • Review your old blog posts. Did you make any promises (“I’ll talk more about the conference when I return from vacation” or “I haven’t listened to that CD yet, but I’ll report back after I have” — the latter is my chronic sin) that you can go back and try to keep, however belated? Have you done a 180 on something and not even realized it? Can you go back and critique yourself? You don’t have to rake yourself over the coals, but a good “Five Moments When, Yup, I Was Wrong” post can be done with self-deprecating humor and can show that you are a reflective thinker.
  • Look back in your sent mail. Do you see patterns over time in when you respond to things, how often, what issues or topics come up repeatedly?
  • If you use a service like Last.fm, what music have you been listening to lately? Any surprising trends that you notice looking back? Have you shifted where you download music, how often, albums versus songs, etc.?
  • What applications and services have you downloaded or signed up for most recently, or maybe over the past year? Which have proven the most valuable, and which flamed out almost as soon as you clicked “I Agree” on the terms of service?
  • Do you use Delicious? Have you saved any sites or articles worth commenting on? What about 6, 9, 12 months ago? What stood out to you then, and how have the ideas and points made then withstood the test of time?
  • How else can we mine our daily content transactions to fuel our own content creation?

    Photo by Le Petit Poulailler/Flickr Creative Commons