Tag Archives: web communication

#hewebmi top takeaway: technology is nice, but collaboration is key.


HighEdWeb Michigan (#hewebmi) staged an outstanding conference earlier this week, and the theme I took away from it more than other involved the importance of collaboration.

Perhaps that sounds a strange takeaway from a conference about web communication in higher ed, but then I’ve always viewed the web as a huge gathering of people moreso than a mosaic of technology. Perhaps Ron Bronson of Eastern Wyoming College put it best in “Unboxing Yourself: Reaching Out for Professional Growth,” when he encouraged everyone at the conference to share what they know with others. At its most basic level, isn’t higher education about sharing knowledge, about collaborating? Whether it’s teachers sharing what they know with students, students sharing helpful information with each other, or teachers sharing what they find works well with other teachers, collaboration’s roots run deep in the history of American education … the trend of establishing specialized departments and info-hoarding silos is much more recent.

A wonderful keynote speech by Kristina Halvorson (co-author of the much-cited Content Strategy for the Web)  set the tone, emphasized many times, that working together on anything from creating great websites to telling compelling stories to attracting marvelous students (which, come to think of it, are all related) is the true key to success in this business. Christopher Ankney of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business discussed how to build engaged (and engaging) communities; Shawn Sieg and Matt Snyder, from U of M’s human resources department, probed using social media to motivate internal audiences; Aaron Rester from the University of Chicago Law School pondered the dream web org chart; while Nick DeNardis of Wayne State, Kyle James of NuCloud and I explored how colleges and vendors can work better together.

Other fine sessions looked at tools and tactics — such as Wooster College’s Alex Winkfield on how to launch a video operation on campus and #pancaketweetup co-creator Lane Joplin on social media analytics — but even these pointed out how no one can do their job alone. Bronson also noted a need for clarity in our jobs and how we see ourselves, with two of my favorite quotes from the conference: “There’s no space in the calendar for doubting yourself” and “You don’t have to be the best ________ in the world. Just be the best YOU.” Fantastic advice.

Coming back from the conference, I already have two collaborative blog projects in mind, plans to finally launch our use of Vine in a way that connects our huge Oswego family to campus plus designs on creating a group that will champion better web content across our ecosystem. I’m also more determined than ever to get folks across campus to work together on not just their piece of the puzzle but the bigger lifecycle picture — the journey from prospective students to alumni — and how to make that more seamless.

“Don’t think about how you’re communicating as channels,” Halvorson said in the opening keynote, but instead as “touchpoints across a lifecycle.” Let’s all collaborate on making the lives of today’s prospective and current students, today’s and tomorrow’s alumni and everyone working on campus as successful as possible. Let’s tear down the silos and make this a huge barn-raising instead … where we work together to build something awesome.


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Awesome Mitten: How 1 website gives Michigan a high 5

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 9.22.39 AM

If you’re even looking for a great example of how a website can celebrate and promote an entire region or state, you can point to AwesomeMitten.com. So with HighEdWeb Michigan (#hewebmi) coming up in a few short weeks, I wanted to delve into the site more and ask a few questions of Alex Beaton, who founded and leads the Awesome Mitten team.

1.) How did this site come about?
Alex Beaton

Alex Beaton

The Awesome Mitten was born when I moved back to Michigan after spending my first year post-college in Nashville. One of the reasons I moved back is that I felt so much was happening here. I saw the economy tank when I graduated, and while the unemployment rate wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as I had hoped, people were doing things. The first month I was back, I attended TedxDetroit. I left the event feeling so inspired by these people who weren’t just sharing ideas, they were sharing actions. I went home that night, and bought the domain name AwesomeMitten.com with little or no idea what I was going to do with it. I set up social accounts immediately, and for the next few months I went through several different iterations of what The Awesome Mitten would be. Eventually, by a suggestion of someone I connected with on Twitter, it was decided that the first campaign would be called 365 Days of Awesome. We would feature one cool person, place, band, business, etc. in Michigan, every day for an entire year. The campaign launched on June 6, 2011 and things took off from there!

2) Where do the content/content ideas come from? 
Our content comes from a team of volunteer feature and contributing writers from around the state that are insanely enthusiastic about the state of Michigan! (We refer to them as “Team Awesome.”) I can’t even begin to express how amazing they are, and how The Awesome Mitten would cease to exist without them. We accept one-time submissions from contributing writers, or monthly columns. What does it take to be a part of Team Awesome? Send a pitch to our amazing Managing Content Editor, Erin Bernhard (erin@awesomemitten.com), with a few writing samples, and we’ll talk! Content ideas come from everywhere — writers pitch us with their ideas, and businesses and organizations are constantly letting us know what they are doing that is “awesome”! We welcome ideas through a variety of media (social media, email, etc), and encourage readers to let us know what is happening in their neck of the woods. (PS: We’re desperately seeking writers and ideas from the Flint, Midland and Bay City areas — our content from that area of the state is pretty meager.)
3) Many of us working in web and social media are trying to promote something, often on a more micro level. How does the Awesome Mitten team do such a great job of celebrating a whole state?
Thanks for thinking we do a great job! It definitely has its challenges. Like I said, we’re aware of some of the glaring holes in our coverage, and we’re doing our best to fill them. I think coming at it from such a broad angle as the entire state of Michigan has a lot of advantages, because we’re never lacking for content: There is always something going on somewhere. After two years, we’ve developed great contacts with people who keep us regularly updated on the happenings of their town or organization. We also go through phases; for example, in the summertime, we have double the content from Traverse City that we do during the winter months. Even though TC is a destination year-round, people REALLY want to read about it in the summer. Grand Rapids is another area where we have a lot of content from, and that is because that is where our largest readership is based. Now were they readers first, so we developed our content to GR — or did we have a lot of GR content, therefore attracting more West Michigan readers? I’m not sure. 
We really took a lot of flack in the beginning for not covering the UP (Upper Peninsula) very well, but quickly remedied that with a partnership with Things to Do in the UP. Jesse Land, founder of that site, reached out to me pretty early on, looking for ways for us to work together, and we’ve been promoting and supporting each other ever since. I think that is a crucial part of how The Awesome Mitten has reached where it is today: We want to work with other sites promoting Michigan, and other such sites supported us from day one. Occasionally, we run across people that are very competitive, and don’t want to work together, and while I can respect that, I don’t understand it. Our site is about promoting the great things that are happening in the state of Michigan, and the awesome things that Michiganders are doing; I want to share my experiences thus far, what worked and what didn’t. I want others to succeed, because by doing that, you’re helping make our state a little more awesome! But, I’m rambling. Bottom line: we are able to cover the whole state by partnering with awesome people and organizations!
4) Do you have any really awesome examples of successes or feedback with the site?
I think our greatest success, the one thing that really put us on the map, was “Mitten Gate.” Back in December 2011, Travel Wisconsin unveiled a logo that depicted their state as a mitten. *GASP* How dare they!? Naturally, when I happened upon this, I tweeted about it, and hilarity ensued. The Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive contacted me later that evening asking for quotes. The next day, (Dec. 7), the Associated Press picked it up, and I took the day off from my day job. The Awesome Mitten appeared in 400 online publications: everything from the Huffington Post, Gawker, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune even did an editorial on it. I was interviewed by several radio stations, including WGN Talk Radio out of Chicago. My little website went from 700 pageviews a day to 40,000 a day for a week straight. Pure Michigan jumped into the game, teaming up with Travel Wisconsin to determine what was “The Real Mitten State”. A website for voting was launched and a “mitten drive” began in both states to collect cold-weather clothing. It was insane. Almost a year later, on Aug. 29, 2012 (my birthday!), MLive ran another article detailing the debacle and how it won Pure Michigan a US Associate Travel Mercury Award. It was also estimated that the controversy earned $17 million in free media coverage. 
This past January, we ran a fun campaign to celebrate Michigan’s 176th Birthday. We kicked things off with a Bake Off where we encourage local bakeries to create a Michigan-themed dessert. We then asked our readers to vote on their favorite, and awarded the winning bakery a cash prize. We wrapped things up with “tweetups” that took place in seven cities around the state of Michigan: Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Metro Detroit, Traverse City, Marquette and Ann Arbor. We encouraged people to tweet their birthday wishes all day long using the hashtag #176YearsofAwesome. Overall, the campaign was picked up by several media outlets, and grew our social fan base by almost 20 percent. The campaign also won the public relations firm we worked with, Grand PR (a student-run organization from Grand Valley State University), a PRoof Award from the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America.
The Awesome Mitten is constantly evolving. Right now, we’re working on two programs to better engage our readers. One will focus on finding great resources, or experts, in different communities around the state, and the other will focus on bringing Michiganders who live out of state together. We’re not afraid to try something and fail (we’ve done that) — we want to do whatever is necessary to be a valuable resource for those looking for awesome things to do in the state of Michigan, and we want to do that in a fun, relateable way.


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on curiosity, real-time web and shared experiences.

Millions of people around the world just gathered on their computers, tablets and mobile devices to share an amazing event, for many of them in the wee hours of the night. That it was not a sporting event, award show or tragedy but instead the triumph of science — the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars — is heartening to those who wonder about the human condition. But it was significant also in how NASA presented it and we consumed it.

If the event represented a test of how to use the real-time web and social media, NASA passed with flying colors. Their main webstream at nasa.gov functioned well and was filled with interesting content. No babbling talking heads or ads interrupted a flow of informed, yet accessible, commentary on the project, the science involved, the goals of the mission and every step as Curiosity approached the surface of Mars. The page featured an embedded social media feed for additional context. And the @CuriosityRover Twitter feed was friendly, funny and engaging. Perhaps even a bit cheeky, judging by the tweet that marked it landing on the surface:

And yes, even though it happened at an hour many reasonable people are in bed (around 1:30 a.m. Eastern), as of this morning it had 61,046 retweets and 10,582 folks favorited it. Its use of the “I am in you” meme and the first images being sent with cute notes like “You asked for pics from my trip. Here you go!” gave it more personality than most brands even develop in social media.

Its juxtaposition against NBC’s disastrous delayed-broadcasting Olympics coverage and resistance to use adequate webstream resources was best summed up, just before the landing, when the satirical @NBCDelayed account Tweeted: PROGRAMMING NOTE: We’ll be showing the @MarsCuriosity landing on Tuesday at 8PM local. The real network had time-shifted the opening ceremony well into the night (refusing to webstream it) and faced criticism for its announcers making derogatory comments during the Parade of Nations. It doesn’t take, well, a rocket scientist to see how much better NASA’s execution was than NBC’s hamhanded, outmoded coverage.

The idea of a shared experience — such as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon or our communal horror at the Challenger explosion — seems almost outdated because the content we consume and the distribution channels are more diverse than ever. Between all the cable channels, web pages and gaming systems, audiences are increasingly fragmented. And yet to check out Facebook or Twitter during this time was to see a robust community celebrating this momentous achievement through observations ranging from snarky to sublime.

With the Curiosity landing, the shared social element added so much to its appeal. My two brothers and I, three space geeks separated by the miles, all watched, interacted and reminisced about launching Estes rockets in our neighbors’ field. Whatever your adult responsibilities, it’s hard to watch this and not feel like an 8-year-old with wide-eyed wonder and a sense that anything is possible.

For all the technology involved, the sights many will remember involve humans — all the scientists hugging, cheering and exchanging high-fives. Victory is not confined to the sporting arenas by any means, and the authentic emotion washing over these people, seeing years of work come to fruition, was beyond heartwarning. If that can convince more youngsters to go into the sciences, to pursue and achieve even more ambitious dreams, that will be a true win for us all.

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1 page speaks volumes on how web has evolved.

Last week I finished working on a new landing page for our Admissions Video, and it made me realize how far we have come — which I mean globally as well as locally.

Here was the old site in our old design, hosted by vendor, created several years ago:

And here’s the new one, presented (via YouTube embed) on our site:

First and most obvious, the new one represents our cleaner, sparser redesign which makes content more user-friendly. Did you notice anything else? Like that visitors no longer have to download/use RealPlayer or QuickTime to view the video?

I really think this transition reflects larger web trends over the past few years.

  • Better sharability. YouTube was not the commonly trafficked site back then, and its cloud-based platform that can be easily embedded is (overused phrase ahead) a real game-changer. Paying for outside hosting of static web video is less necessary also because of …
  • Improved metrics availability. One of the reasons I’m told we went with this vendor was the ability to track number of visitors, plays, etc. Which we easily can now do on our own site via Google Analytics as well as YouTube’s own metrics. We could also set up funnel reports to see how many people go from this video to fulfill other tasks … which, since this video is currently a conversion tool, will be increasingly interesting come next admission cycle.
  • Increased in-house web knowledge. I had only minor involvement in (and less knowledge of) the web when Admissions set up the previous system. We had limited awareness of what other options may have existed and certainly did not have access to the awesome collective resource of Twitter #highered folks. I love that Admissions will come to us now for web solutions that we can provide at no or marginal cost with greater functionality. I think (or hope) colleagues at other colleges have similar experiences.

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2011 goal: become a better five-tool player

In baseball parlance, a five-tool player is one who does many things well (batting average, power, speed, fielding, throwing). In today’s workplace, where we need to perform many, many different tasks  — how many folks get to specialize any more? — flexibility and improving several skills is at a premium.

In that way, I’m studying my major skillsets, or desired skillsets, to examine where I want to grow and improve:

1. Writing. This has been my bread and butter. I started writing poetry when I was 4 (didn’t say “good poetry”) and have been paid to write since I was 20. But improvement is always possible. The character constraints of Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) reinforce the most important writing tip ever, Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words.” I think sometimes, with my general writing, I’m too satisfied with a first or second draft when I really need to keep trying to make it better.

2. Web communication. This could represent several tools in itself, but for the sake of keeping it to five, I’ll consider this a mashup of social media, analytics and website management. This is an area I’ve had to learn on the fly, but often with the help of reading and expert advice — much of it free from colleagues. Analytics, which I just started getting into after last year’s SIMTech Conference, represents countless opportunities for improving our web presence. Not included in this list but related is …

3. Content strategy. Thanks to the awesome book Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson (a later blog post), I gained more of a handle on, and case for, better institutional content strategy. This has resembled the Wild West in our decentralized web presence, but combining analytics with rolling content audits and content strategies could work wonders. Or so I hope …

4. Video. My communication degree had a broadcast concentration, so I know the basics. And they sat dormant for many, many years until I had to start supplying more video content a few months ago. I started using iMovie — so much easier than the analog editing I learned on ginormous machines — and now look to improve my camera work, which requires better equipment as much as anything. But I know that, underlying it all, sits a basic desire for storytelling that I cherish.

5. Management. I’ve read books, had training, but what does it mean in the real world? I supervise two full-time workers (who I view as colleagues, never subordinates), a small student social-media team (interns and volunteers) and student bloggers. I’m trying to track, prioritize and document things better, but don’t want to make it a chore. As a discipline of the Tom Peters empowerment strategy, I sometimes wonder if I’m too permissive … but my hope, especially with students, is to put them in position and with the tools and opportunities to succeed.

So, what about you? What skills would you like to gain or improve?


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the eye-opening world of google in-page analytics.

To hear Avinash Kaushik, one of the world’s foremost analytics evangelists, speak — as I was fortunate enough to do at SIMTech10 — would make anyone with a pulse want to dive into researching more about their website traffic. The hitch, of course, is finding the time to do so. But with the recent rollout of Google’s In-Page Analytics Beta, you can get eye-popping measures on your key pages in an instant.

If you have Google Analytics linked to an account, you start by logging in, selecting View Report, clicking Content (upper left) then choosing In-Page Analytics [Beta]. It will then pull up your top page in a window with various traffic metrics as well as which links visitors clicked. Like so:

Screen capture of Oswego home pageOn some browsers, if you open up another tab within your analytics account (for me, anything on oswego.edu), pages will have in-page metrics superimposed … which means you can surf various areas of the site for a quick read on how users interacted.

Of course, this brings other contextual considerations:

1. All bounces are exits but not all exits are bounces. I want to say Hubspot‘s Kyle James made this summation at HighEdWeb10, the best definition of it: A bounce is when someone hits their first page on your site and next leaves your site, while an exit means they have visited one or more pages of your site before departing. If someone surfs a bunch of pages, finds what they are looking for and then leaves, then this exit is not necessarily unglorious. Generally, you’d wince at a high bounce rate — do you want people visiting just one page of your site? — although there can be mitigating factors … if your home page is the default in computer labs when a machine is turned on, you could expect a high bounce rate.

Where do you want a low bounce rate? For specific landing pages meant to steer people to find more information or take actions. Thus this page having a bounce rate of 0.0%, presuming it’s not an error, is outstanding:

I mean, about a week with 274 visits and every one passes along to either a desired action (apply, check out majors, schedule a tour, see costs and scholarships) or another navigational element — and none leave — is that even possible? I guess so, but it brings us to another key consideration:

2. Sample size. You want to see what works and what doesn’t, but a day or two does not a pattern make. Especially if any of those days is a weekend, when our traffic is decidedly lower, results may be atypical. But if you see patterns emerge on a well-trafficked page for a week or two, you can draw more reasonable conclusions. For instance, over the course of a week, I’ve seen that home-page news items listed as having video tend to draw 5 to 6 times more clicks than those without. That’s a fairly remarkable difference, though one next wonders if the content itself is more compelling, with or without the indication video is available.

3. Be prepared to be wrong. We all make assumptions about our websites all the time. “People often skip to our A-Z Index instead of navigation.” “Topic navigation is more useful than audience navigation.” “Users won’t scroll.” Wrong, wrong and wrong. Maybe it’s because we installed drop-down accordion menus on our home page (among others), but our A-Z Index generally draws less than 5 percent of traffic there, and much less throughout the site. Topical navigation sees much higher clickthroughs than A-Z, but audience navigation (especially Prospective Students, Current Students and Alumni) appears very strong in some areas. As for scrolling, long pages with good content get just as many clicks farther down as they do above. People will indeed scroll for content they want.

These are only a few thoughts and tips. I have to admit jumping into analytics — especially a tool as rich as In-Page Analytics — is a bit overwhelming, and certainly a learning process. But so far, I definitely think it’s worth it!


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when a website goes live, it doesn’t go dead.

Over the weekend, we began rolling out the new web design for oswego.edu to a pretty good reception. The design portion of the project — from first comps to launch — took less than three months, an exceedingly short window in higher education, so it has been quite a rush. But throughout the process I’ve emphasized that the new look is only a first step.

Screenshot of new home page

What we really wanted was a look that was cleaner and less cluttered than the previous design, which had a lot of colors and tables and suffered the misfortune of aging the way anything does in seven years web time. The new look is a skin we’re putting over pages migrated into our new content management system, Ingeniux, which topped some 200 other contenders (when the CMS team started) in large part through ease-of-use for our nearly 300 campus editors. But it’s also a powerful CMS we’ll tap more in the future.

As we were tasked with having the new design up before the Admissions cycle heated up this month, and since we have a huge site with a short window to get this far, some of our old pages remain in our old look and CMS. We continue the migration, but people can still find pages with this look:

old career site

In the new site, we try to play up the use of large photos (500 px by 205 px) first proposed by the freelance designer who did the makeover. Feedback from more than 200 incoming students pointed toward a preference for simplicity and a strong visual sense. Adding components (reusable blocks of content) in the right side can help make our pages more dynamic:

new academics homeBut there’s much left to do. We had to make some hard decisions about what we could complete before relaunch, and what we knew would still need work. We don’t want to throw everything into Tales From Redesigned Land’s mythical Phase 2 black hole; we’d like to keep working hard to make the website better on a daily basis. Stewart Foss of eduStyle calls it incremental redesign, and I’m a big believer.

The phrase I use, blunt as it is: When a website goes live, it doesn’t go dead. Everyone working in the web, imho, should think that way. We’re always tweaking, editing, looking to improve. Every day is a new opportunity to make things better than the day before.


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new title, new focus, new directions.

As noted in various social media outlets, I’ve been promoted to director of Web communication for the college. The shiny new title continues much of the work I do but also features an acknowledgment of the key role of the Web in communicating and a new institutional focus on using the Web to better engage.

These things never happen overnight. I started working professionally on these Internets in 1996, when I did content and planning as my employer of the time went online. (What? You don’t believe I was 11 years old?) I taught myself basic HTML, set up a (not too attractive) personal site, read a lot, surfed a ton. I started blogging before it was called blogging. I served as online editor for a daily newspaper. Then I got swept up in Web 2.0, and the years since involved plenty of research, trying (and occasionally failing) new ideas and interacting.

That last part is important. I’ve seen what interaction can do, and thus its power in planning Web operations. Setting up and shepherding our fan page or Official Class of 2014 group are like seminars in communication studies — how people transmit and receive information, conversation/reaction patterns, formation of digital relationships. I’ve learned so much from friends on Twitter, Facebook and conferences that informs what I do. This is an amazing medium with so much potential.

My biggest project is redeveloping our Web site. I’m calling it Refreshing Oswego (title is a work in progress too), and it’s about making our presence more user-centered and engaging. The project includes a six-person team — our reconfigured three-person Web communication office working with three key Campus Technology Services staffers on migrating to a new content management system. The players bring a variety of skills in the necessary but not-too-glamorous process of building everything that powers our Web site. But I now have to start tackling on the design aspect — the look of this car whose engine, drive train and chassis we’re building. Our CMS is skinnable, so while the design process relates to functionality, it proceeds on a parallel line.

The promotion included my first presentation to our President’s Council, as I discussed the refresh project. They were more supportive and receptive than I ever imagined, and showed interest in visiting eduStyle.net and .eduGuru after I name-checked the sites. At the end of the presentation, our president said: “Sounds like a lot of fun.” I agree!

So I hope you’ll tolerate any future posts on the progress of the project. Perhaps we’ll figure out some things of value to others. And maybe even have a little fun along the way.

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stamats sim tech takeaways: goals first, content always.

The recent Stamants SIM Tech conference was, quite simply, one of the most amazing I’ve ever had the honor of attending. And while I took 4,959 words of notes, my main takeaways are 1) goals first, then tools; and 2) it’s (still) about quality content.

Yes, many of us jumped, and/or took our colleges, onto social media just to figure out the lay of the land. But as the social media landscape keeps sprouting new shiny objects, we have to remember goals first, then tools. It’s a no-brainer that, by now, your college should have official presences on Facebook and Twitter. Given the propagation of Facebook misrepresentation, actual representation remains important. But before we spread ourselves (thin) across every platform, we have to stop and ask ourselves: What are we doing and why are we doing it?

When folks on the New Paltz campus come to Rachel Reuben hoping to start a social media project, her best way to help is a form where they articulate what they want and why. Sometimes they learn that the ideal social media solution for them is not what they initially thought. Kyle James counseled schools to put their own house in order before going too heavily into social media: know your goals, audiences and stories first. And if you spend a lot of money driving people to a bad landing page, reconsider your priorities.

I was also pleased to hear repeatedly that it’s (still) about quality content. You can throw up the fanciest pages, platforms and schemes, but if you don’t have quality content to fill these outlets, you’ve bought a $1,000 frame for a 5-cent painting. This came up in pretty much every presentation, whether Robert Brosnan detailing how educated contributors create campus content pipelines, Raven Zachary on making iPhone apps that innovate instead of imitate or Scott Leamon reminding us that technology and channels change but great stories are timeless.

On another note, my cherished mantra of less is more came up in such sessions as Kati Davis championing usability and simplicity, Karlyn Morissette discussing how the best e-marketing gets to the point with a call to action and Stewart Foss saying that bombarding users with too many links/too much cramped copy can be a turnoff.

The conference also brought the present into the future. Matt Arnold noted we’re heading into a post-homepage (search making every page a homepage) and post-mouse/post-monitor (mobile) era. Frittz McDonald explained that 2/3 of world’s Web users visit social networking and blogging sites and that, by 2012, more than half of Internet users will be content creators. Small wonder David Armano points to a world where we are no longer brand managers, but facilitators of brand advocates whose own stories join with the greater narrative.

I tried, with great difficulty, to narrow down to Top 5 Takeaways for each session. It only presents a flavor, the tip of an iceberg. But thanks to Stamats SIM Tech, I now feel more confident that I can avoid the icebergs as we navigate the thrilling waters of the Web and new communication.


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