Leadership, shoveling snow and great communities

If somebody said that leaders getting out and shoveling snow was a hallmark of a great community, you’d say that’s crazy, right?

Think again.

A delightful story came through Twitter the other day about Michael Benson, the president of Eastern Kentucky University, showing up to shovel a student’s driveway in response to a tweet. It’s not a new service EKU offers, just a good-natured good deed from Benson, who regularly interacts with students via Twitter and responds to challenges for things like ping-pong games and dodgeball. But this little act of kindness was so on target that it inspired others to take up shovels to help their neighbors and it rightfully earned plenty of media attention.

ekuAfter I shared it, friends at other colleges helped put it into the context of a larger narrative and trend. A friend at Cornell noted that Berea, Kentucky, is considered one of the 20 coolest towns in U.S. Then another colleague from Cornell, Mark Anbinder, recalled how Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick once went around the city with a shovel and some friends to help those who needed it. Ithaca also happens to be considered the Best College Town in America by Business Insider, among many other awards for being an awesome community that occupy a long list on VisitIthaca.com.

Coincidence? Maybe less than it seems.

The best communities and campuses are powered by a spirit where everybody is involved. When the person on top rolls up their sleeves — or tucks them into a coat to take up a shovel — how powerful a message is that? If the college president or the mayor take up shovels and take time to look out for the community, what possible reason could you have for not helping others when you have the opportunity?

I’m not saying your president or mayor needs to go out and shovel — it’s not a very enjoyable opportunity unless you it’s something you like doing — but the act is more metaphorical. It is not the specific actions but the attitudes that are significant.

I still remember so many years later when I was unemployed and unhappy and fresh out of college, visiting my alma mater of Brockport. A dean had a brief exchange with me that suddenly made me feel human again, lifted my spirits and bolstered my beyond-sagging confidence. It wasn’t anything in particular she did or said, nor anything she would ever remember, but just a brief moment where her message to me was simply: You matter.

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We all matter. And just the reminder of this means a lot. Our star student blogger Alyssa Levenberg, of “Alyssa Explains It All” fame, has always wanted to meet our college president, Deborah F. Stanley. After a hockey game, seeing President Stanley there but not feeling like she could just walk up and say “hi,” Alyssa tweeted that she’d like to meet the president. A meeting was arranged, and President Stanley told Alyssa she was a fan of her videos and they talked and Alyssa came out more than impressed. “She really shows why @sunyoswego is awesome,” Alyssa tweeted after the meeting.

But you know what, let’s take this one step further. You always have the ability to make yours a better community. You always have the ability to show others that they matter. Say a kind word. Go do something good. Make somebody happy.

When it comes from the top, the message is strong. But it doesn’t mean that anybody, everybody can’t step up and become a leader of making their community, their world a better place.

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Make somebody happy

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Colleges do a lot of activities in social media — generally driven by goals, if you’re doing it right — but sometimes the most rewarding thing we can do is make somebody happy. On what’s become Random of Act of Kindness Week, social media is a great place to show you care.

We had an opportunity last week through a request from the family of Judy Letvak, a longtime dedicated alumni volunteer who passed away in 2013. A member of our alumni board and often the first person to like one of our Facebook posts and offer encouragement, Judy made a large impact reflected in her memorial overlooking Lake Ontario. Judy’s niece Allison told us via Facebook post she’d love to see the spot in winter. “Judy Letvak’s memorial overlooks the lake in the most beautiful spot I’ve ever seen,” Allison wrote. “It felt like magic up there and I could truly feel her spirit there and understand why her heart never left Oswego.”

How can you not answer that kind of request, even when the last several weeks have proven less than ideal for a trek to take a picture on a cold and breezy lakeshore? But a friend of the family and a former outstanding student of mine, Danny Distasio, reiterated the request via Facebook message at about the same time we had the sun break through for a while. The time was right.

The resulting picture won’t win any composition awards but, posted the next day as our Friday #oswegram, it resonated with those who loved Judy or the picture or the campus. As of Monday, 73 shares shows many people wanted to pass along this little tribute, which warms anybody’s heart. Perhaps the more important metric was a happy family, Allison saying: “Thank you to everyone who took the time to do this for me and my family! Hope to come up and visit Judy’s spot soon!”

(And if you’re hung up on ROI, there’s even something for you: The post generated at least one request for more information on how to get a memorial on-campus for a loved one.)

So you can be kind and create great content. Making somebody happy is always worth the effort.

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Without content strategy, even a great CMS won’t help much

We’re in the process of redeveloping oswego.edu — which includes a switch to the Drupal content management framework and migration of 10,000 pages — but we’re also trying to redefine why our website exists: for our users and why they come to our site.

Rick Buck, our web technical lead, and I gave a Winter Breakout session that we thought would attract maybe a dozen or so people … only to learn it was moving to an auditorium with more than 60 people anticipated. Yowza! But this definitely means we have many stakeholders very interested in the process, and that’s a great thing.

While the new content management system is one attraction, our presentation also focused on what’s most important: content. As I like to say, “A content management system creates neither content, nor management, nor a system.” The other two involve a lot of work but without good content that helps the people who come to your site do what they need to do, you’re really limiting how many improvements you can make, no matter how great your CMS is.

To start the journey toward content strategy, we sent the editors of 140+ accounts a web content brief (below), a Google fill-in document that asks four important questions:

  1. Who is/are the audience of your pages?
  2. What are the most important tasks your site(s) visitors want to accomplish?
  3. What are the primary actions you want site visitors to take?
  4. What are your top priorities for your web presence this year?

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(Disclaimer: We borrowed ideas for the above from other colleges, because they are awesome.)

Since we sent the form on Monday, we’ve been quite impressed with submissions. Editors are putting a lot of thought toward audience, tasks and goals … some of the foundations for content strategy. We haven’t been in a position or had the staffing nor time to go with this approach previously, so I expect it to change a lot of the site’s content going forward. And that’s a lot of work, but worth it in the long run.

We’ve already started content audits on various accounts — identifying what’s there, if it’s working, if it’s relevant — that we can share with site editors and then collaborate to see how it all lines up with the web content brief. We’ve also introduced questions — the 5 Ws of reviewing web content I’ve posted previously — to ask while evaluating every page and/or deciding whether to create a new page.

We’re still very early in the journey toward sitewide content strategy and a more awesome oswego.edu. It includes a CMS, yes, but we hope that it’s ultimately defined by improved content. How will it go? Stay tuned.

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Year in music: Top 20 albums for 2014

Male-female duos were all over my top 20, but who reigned supreme for music in 2014?

Male-female duos were all over my top 20, but who reigned supreme for music in 2014?

Every year, I’m part of a collaborative effort across higher ed to list the best music of that span. Every year, I struggle. For 2014, I kept shuffling most of the top 10 right down to the deadline … although my #1 was pretty much set the first time I heard.

And now, as the late great Casey Kasem once said, on with the countdown …

20. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager. The two things this album has going for it are Lewis’ voice and Ryan Adams producing. Overall the material is decidedly less interesting than her recordings with Rilo Kiley.

19. Bad Suns, Bad Suns. With a little more verve, variety and exploration, Bad Suns could have been this year’s Imagine Dragons or Bastille, but instead they’re a pretty decent act that produced a very catchy single in “Cardiac Arrest.”

18. Beck, Morning Phase. When you’re in the right mood, this is a great album. When you’re not in the right mood, it’s kind of a downer. Sorry, Beck fans.

17. Gemma Hayes, Bones and Longing. The Irish songstress creates albums that are very good in the moment yet largely forgettable once you’re done. Which is unfortunate, since she has a gorgeous voice.

16. Afghan Whigs, Do The Beast. File this under mildly disappointing. Greg Dulli and the boys can still put together some interesting songs but it’s nowhere near the power of their older material since it’s missing the angular guitar riffs of Rick McCollum that so perfectly complemented Dulli’s alternately lovable and loathsome characters.

15. Dex Romweber Duo, Images 13. The former frontman of pscyhosurfabilly duo Flat Duo Jets has successfully reinvented himself in a duo with his sister Sara on drums. It’s mostly rockabilly, blues and jazz with the occasional shreiks and howls and guitar flourishes that remind you of Dex’s mercurial talent.

14. David Gray, Mutineers. Gray’s music is like an old friend — comfortable and reliable. Bursts of impressive songwriting notwithstanding, many of his latest records are somewhat interchangeable yet always charming.

13. Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker. Set-opener “Violent Shiver” starts with a rockabilly guitar riffs, trudges through swamp blues and a taste of grunge before even completing a verse. It’s that kind of unpredictability that makes this album remarkable and surprisingly fun.

12. U2, Songs of Innocence. Once you get past the army of hipsters whining that — gasp! — an album by a legacy band had defiled their iTunes playlist, you find a pretty decent album. Probably their best since 2001’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” it yields plenty of catchy moments yet the band didn’t stay embarrassingly away from what it does best.

11. Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. Talent has never been the question with Fleck, perhaps the greatest banjo virtuoso on the planet, but instead how accessible his material might be. But the sweet vocals and additional banjo work of Washburn — who also happens to be Fleck’s wife — makes this one of the most engaging effort in Fleck’s impressive canon.

10. Shovels & Rope, Swimmin’ Time. Married duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst continue to get better and better playing foreboding folk that casts a dark atmosphere dotted with glimmering and shimmering riffs and harmonies.

9. Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin. Bob Mould can do no wrong. He just plain knows how to rock out or present a steady slow burn, lift you up or break your heart. Like his previous record, “Silver Age,” he does wax reflective on growing older but it’s Bob Freaking Mould so anybody can enjoy it.

8. Twin Forks, Twin Forks. Best known for his work with Dashboard Confessional, Chris Carrabba ventured into folk and Americana with his new band. Call it what you will, but few vocalists have the effortless ability to craft vocal hooks Carrabba does — emo, folk or polka, it just plain works.

7. Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge, Avalon. A seemingly odd couple — “Critter” Eldridge better known for bluegrass and the Punch Brothers, Lage for modern jazz — blends sensationally through interpretations of the Great American Songbook and some improvised originals. Their collaboration, especially live, crackles with talent and chemistry.

6. Big Wreck, Ghosts, After the colossal disappointment of Big Wreck’s second album “The Pleasure and the Greed” in 2001, I’d never think a baker’s dozen years later to have a new record in my top ten. But “Ghosts,” like 2012’s “Albatross,” is a pleasant return to form. Once known as Canada’s answer to Soundgarden, Big Wreck’s comeback material easily eclipses any of Chris Cornell’s recent output.

5. Little Hurricane, Gold Fever. With a White Stripes formula — frontman Anthony Catalano and drummer Celeste Spina — playing a kind of retro rocking blues, they first made a splash with “Homewrecker” (notable largely in providing a soundtrack for Taco Bell ads). Their latest shows an even tauter, tighter take on love and loss and lust.

4. St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Half the City. “Close your eyes and listen, and you might imagine someone who looks a bit like Otis Redding. Open them, and you’re likely to see someone who looks more like your neighborhood bank teller,” said Bob Boilen of NPR. Can’t say it any better, other than that the whole excellent band and the material make this an outstanding listen.

3. Rural Alberta Advantage, Mended with Gold. When RAA first showed up, they seemed a bit of a novelty — perhaps a cross between Neutral Milk Hotel and fellow Canadians The Tragically Hip. But “Mended with Gold” is such a solid, compelling disc that it’s time to re-evaluate their skills and staying power.

2. Blondfire, Young Heart. This is simply a relentlessly catchy record. The highest of five male-female duos in my top 20, siblings Bruce and Erica Driscoll have shown flashes with their previous recordings, but “Young Heart” is really a stellar non-stop parade of hypnotic pop/rock gems.

1. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams. Adams’ prolific nature (including three full-length albums in 2005 alone) overshadowed the fact that as catchy and engaging as his material was, his songs always felt a bit more sloppy and incomplete than you’d hope. Then he slowed down, mellowed out (a little) and the results are stunning. “Ryan Adams,” his first disc in three years, features the kind of thorough songcraft and loving arrangement that shows just how much talent he has in full flower. In my opinion, nothing even came close to this for best album of 2014.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 3 rules for web content

OK, FDR probably never met the Internet, but he would give three rules for public speaking that also apply to creating web content: “Be brief. Be sincere. Be seated.” (Note: This has also been ascribed to Winston Churchill, but the same rules apply.)

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Be brief. Be succinct. Omit needless words. Say what you need to say (in a conversational manner) and keep moving. Users scan the web more than they read anyway because they’re pressed for time. If you need to send readers elsewhere for more information, give them a phrased link. (Don’t say “CLICK HERE!!!!” Ever.)

Be sincere. Say what you mean; mean what you say. Use a friendly, encouraging tone. Be honest. Don’t exaggerate, overpromise or mislead. (“Several Oswego physics students earned internships at NASA, some with job offers.” = good. “Getting a physics degree will get you a job at NASA!” = not.)

Be seated. Even for people who’ve created hundreds of webpages, it isn’t always easy to know when you’ve finished a page. But you don’t want to get caught in the 90/10 trap where you spend 90 percent of your time trying to figure out the last 10 percent of your task. Don’t let indecision lead you to just adding more images, more links, more needless words just because you feel you need to do more. It’s often a good idea to set a webpage aside and come back to it later to see if it needs anything.

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Confab Higher Ed and the rise of student storytelling

2014-11-14 13.22.02 The recent Confab Higher Ed, the largest gathering on web content strategy in North America, provided an abundance of awesome people and information, but perhaps most notable is how it placed an unprecedented spotlight on the use of student storytelling in social media.

In addition to our SUNY Oswego session co-presented with our star student blogger Alyssa Levenberg, “Student Stories and Content Strategy: ‘Alyssa Explains It All’ to Prospective Students,” Meg Bernier of St. Lawrence University discussed “User-Generated Content: Empowering Students to Tell Stories” on the excellent student-run @herewegosaints Instagram account and Oberlin College’s Ma’ayan Plaut and Ben Jones showcasedstudent storytelling in “A Tale of Two Projects: Relationship-Building Through Legacy Content.”

It’s a long way from around a decade ago when I first started researching student blogging because of the success my social media mentor Rachel Reuben was having with it at New Paltz. The idea met with plenty of skepticism, doubt and even discouragement. Asking other colleges who had student bloggers led to one of my enduring principles of empowerment: We don’t approve blog posts, we approve bloggers.

It took years, but when we cleared the last technical hurdle when our then-new web developer Richard Buck set us up on WordPress, we finally debuted the blogs — to amazing traffic and feedback — in fall 2008. I was proud of all the initial bloggers, with the journal of Erin Scala, a legally blind student with a keen sense of humor, downright inspirational. Not everything went perfectly, but it represented a work in progress that surmounted the skepticism and drew many positive reviews from our most important audience — incoming students. Screen shot 2014-11-14 at 8.39.23 AM Students kept the project moving forward but we hit a new level after an unassuming tweet from Twitter user @lysslyss15 to the @sunyoswego account in fall 2012, saying she made videos and asking if we needed help. Alyssa didn’t even really expect us to respond, but when I looked up her videos, I immediately realized she had the “it” factor that would resonate with students. We met and our discussion turned into “Alyssa Explains It All,” a series of talking-to-the-camera video blogs offering advice to incoming or new students.

The inaugural installment on time management debuted in September 2012, and Alyssa later became an intern and full-scale ambassador whose responsibilities included making videos answering questions received from incoming students via social media.

In the years since, this project has been mentioned regularly at national and international conferences, but this was the first time Alyssa presented at a conference of this magnitude. Alyssa was a rockstar at Confab Higher Ed, her videos very well received and people stopping her to ask questions throughout the conference. You can watch the video of our presentation or see the slides below.

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Meg’s great presentation on the student-run Instagram account at St. Lawrence also included a very nice detail: Her initial proposal to do it was rejected. She kept believing, went back and analyzed what students were already posting and presented it again to finally earn approval. The result has been not only fabulous content but an inspiration to other colleges taking the lead, including the #lakertakeover we do from time to time on the @sunyoswego Instagram account.
Ben and Ma’ayan have built the Oberlin Stories Project — a sort of student blogging on steroids resulting in hundreds of student voices sharing their tales of why they love Oberlin — as well as ongoing regular student blogs. My favorite is a podcast series by student musicians Hannah and Davis that turns the spotlight on other talented conservatory students. That’s how you empower current students to show your music program can hit the right notes for prospective students.
Beyond those presentations, we drew inspiration from Boston University’s Dean Kenn Elmore who presented the amazing keynote “New Major: American Cool.” Many of us web folks consider ourselves nerds, but Kenn showed that by taking risks with a sense of dignity, patience, intelligence and a sense of control, cool things can happen. Empowering student stories involves yielding some of that sense of control to allow them to shine — and Confab Higher Ed celebrated the awesome results.
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I don’t have enough words to say how amazing all the presentations were at Confab Higher Ed, but I thank everybody who made it possible and participated. And here’s hoping that by showcasing the rise of student storytelling, colleges and universities everywhere will allow student voices to show how cool pursuing an education can be.

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Customer service: even technology can’t replace a good attitude

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This is currently my favorite hat, and not just because Arius looks adorable in it. This hat is a reminder that you don’t need oodles of technology and listening strategies to provide good customer service — sometimes all you need is the right attitude.

With Arius’ birthday coming up and also needing to update his wardrobe, I made a recent Saturday trip to the Great Northern Mall (and its outbuildings) and engaged in consumer activity. When I got home and unpacked the bags, I noticed that one item I bought at the Children’s Place was not in its bag. I wasn’t sure if I’d dropped the hat or lost it in the shuffle and while it wasn’t all that expensive (because they have great bargains), I was a little bummed.

But.

Then I checked the answering machine to my landline (which gets little action beyond robocalls) to find a message there from the Children’s Place. I’m a member of their rewards club, so an associate called that number apologizing profusely that the hat somehow didn’t make it into the bag.

While I wasn’t sure what could be done — Great Northern is out of town and not something I visit every day — I called back, and the associate offered to mail it. She apologized that it may not be there immediately because that Monday was a postal holiday (Columbus Day) but I responded that as long as it made it to Oswego before it was too cold (insert expected weather joke), I’d be happy. Lo and behold, the package was waiting on the porch when Arius and I got back from daycare on Tuesday.

I’ve worked retail and I know it’s not always a barrel of fun, especially as the holidays approach. With any transaction and follow-up, there are any number of break points where somebody has reasons not to provide added service, let alone go the extra mile. Yet consider this associate:
1) Realized the packing error
2) Looked up my phone number
3) Found time to call
4) Cheerfully took my return call
5) Suggested mailing it (taking on additional duties and expense)
6) Mailed it right away

If you don’t think that kind of customer service is extraordinary, then you probably haven’t been shopping lately. I commend the Children’s Place for empowering this kind of service and for following all the way through. The store now ranks even higher on my future shopping list.

Now we’re just hoping Arius won’t actually need the winter hat for a while, but if he does, seeing him in it will remind me that simple, good old-fashioned customer service is alive and well.

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