As wonderful as all of this was, none of it would have happened if I wasn't attending an Internet marketing conference in Iceland. I was invited to speak, and it was actually the first conference I've ever attended outside the United States.
What an experience it was! There were so many brilliant minds present -- Google, Bing, Twitter, Spotify and others represented -- and I learned so much from all of them.
Due to the conference's location in Reykjavik, Iceland, I obviously had the chance to meet many Icelanders, but also many other Europeans, including from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, Scotland, Ireland and Bulgaria. There were Americans too, but I got the sense we were in the minority. (Nothing wrong with that, of course -- in fact, it was good to learn more about other cultures and their respective digital media markets.)
One of the best pieces of advice from the entire conference came from Elísabet Grétarsdóttir, who led global marketing for the popular social game EVE Online and is now Head of Marketing for Arion Bank in Iceland.
She said make sure you're switching things up often and trying new things, alluding to a popular saying, "Only the dead fishes swim with the stream." The biggest success happens "when you're willing to change and think differently."
Serial entrepreneur and investor Plamen Russev also gave an inspiring talk. One thing he said got laughs from the audience, but there's probably truth in it too:
"A few years ago, I would say quit your day job, follow your dreams," he said. "Now I would say, keep your day job, keep working outside of it, never sleep. It's much easier that way."
Here are some other key takeaways from the conference, encompassing five major areas: search, user experience, social, content and mobile.
A common theme at the conference was that there's a lot of talk about search fading in the shining light of social, but the fact is, search overall drives more traffic and it remains dominant in the online ecosystem.
Duane Forrester, a senior product manager for Bing, boiled down the goal of a search engine as to answer a single question: "What's the user's intent?" Are they looking to gain information? To make a purchase? Search engines are constantly tweaking based on search patterns and analytics to answer these questions.
While Forrester said half of search sessions last for longer than 30 minutes -- people will continue to search for information related to something they're interested in -- oftentimes users will spend maybe two minutes on your website and that's it. You have to give them what they're looking for, prominently, and think about, "What can I do so they spend more time on my site?"
"If they don't find the site easy to use or see what they want right away, they'll leave," she said.
In her "State of Search" presentation, SEO consultant Julia Logan (AKA IrishWonder) said that Google is becoming smarter. It's increasing its knowledge base and becoming a toolbox for definitions and references. This trend is impacting how people are searching and the results they're finding.
For better or worse, Google remains the biggest search engine, by a large margin, she said, so you'll want to be on good terms with Google and not spam it. In the future, she said she'd love to see more than one really powerful search engine, but the current space is what it is.
Thurow added that a creative human touch and voice often means higher quality content which users will spend more time with. This goes into the next major theme of user experience.
Thurow emphasized the importance of site design and information architecture to deliver an experience that keeps users on your site longer. She added that usability studies have found that links at the bottom of content can actually perform well, but only if they're presented cleanly and nicely visually.
She quoted Jacob Nielsen on the importance of quality user experience: "Once you have lost a user, you almost always lose them for good."
Thurow also encouraged the use of wireframes and mock-ups. "It's far easier to change a wireframe than to change a fully-coded site," she said.
Your website should be remarkably simple, said Kristine Schachinger, who works as a digital media consultant and writes for searchenginewatch.com. "Don't put everything on the homepage," she said, adding it's a common mistake. "People can only handle 7 or 8 things in the nav."
She added that you can't forget about page speed and page weight for your websites. Again, that helps with user experience, which was so heavily talked up at the conference.
One type of user experience you can offer is games. "Games are simply getting people to behave repeatedly in a certain way," Grétarsdóttir said.
Users build up reputation or honor points in games. As they become more popular, people will respect them, and they're more likely to play more games and get more challenges, Grétarsdóttir said. Games are also often social, which goes into the next category.
Search may still be huge, but there's no doubt about the growing significance of social. No one denied this. There were differing opinions on how big social will become, but that's another matter.
Google+ is evidence of the growth of social. Interestingly, speakers seemed to agree that Google+ is just as much an identity system, which ranks reputations of authors for example, as it is a social layer over Google's products. In fact, it's probably more so an identity system than a social network, Schachinger said, citing Google chairman Eric Schmidt himself who suggested that.
Schachinger also had excellent advice on how to approach social media.
"Social media is like going to a party," she said. "Give information, be funny at times, engage, THEN talk about yourself."
Spotify's General Manager Europe and VP Ad Sales Jonathan Forster said people love to socialize around music, and his service has observed a rise in users sharing specific songs related to moods they are experiencing. Whether they just went through a break up, or another significant life event, they are documenting it with accompanying music.
Bruce Daisley, director of Twitter in the U.K., highlighted some recent trends that social network has seen.
"We're seeing a rise of Twitter with smartphones," he said, adding that was the case worldwide. Twitter has observed a rise in people using the @ as their identity online, putting it on business cards, websites and elsewhere. He also said that Twitter is sometimes described as a "chat room," and "that's absolutely true." He noted 40 percent of all Twitter traffic, peak time for the social network, is around live television.
Daisley advised Twitter users to incorporate at least two of the following three options for their accounts: be fun, be helpful, provide information. That's where Twitter users often see the most success in terms of growing their accounts.
For example, a mobile network in the UK @O2 responded with jokes and sarcasm to tweets complaining about their network going down. "It's being fun and helpful," Daisley said. It turned the negative sentiment into largely positive sentiment based on its activity on Twitter.
In terms of Facebook, Marcus Taylor, founder of Venture Harbour, said Facebook apps are sometimes underrated. The viral potential on the platform alone provides reason to experiment with them and they're not particularly expensive to create. He also recommended experimenting with Facebook's advertising platform to target exactly who you want to target.
Social is particularly important for search because it's a signal for topical authority, Forrester said. Algorithms can look at what a person is posting about, their follow-to-follower ratio, and other metrics to find "voices in demand."
"If someone is popular, we want to figure out why," Forrester said, adding that artificial popularity can be just as easily determined. You can look at what they're tweeting about and why, who they're following and that they are engaged. If someone is engaged with others, it's another signal of good service.
There's also the commerce element of social. Some 80% of people about to make a purchase will first ask a family or friend whether it's a good idea or for a recommendation, Forrester said. "This is why social is huge," he added.
The ever-growing importance of mobile was referred to throughout the conference.
"That whole thing, we got to do something about mobile, mobile's coming... OK, mobile's here," Forrester said.
Mobile is fundamentally changing how people search and do many things on the Internet. As a result of the rise of mobile, the Web has to be reorganized "for task completion," Forrester said.
Along with mobile's growth, there is the concept of interaction that has to be considered. People aren't just using the mouse and keyboard to navigate anymore. They're using voice, touch, gesture and vision too. Websites need to adjust for this from a search and content perspective.
Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Pierre Far emphasized the importance of page speed on mobile. You should focus on delivering users the page they're looking for in under one second.
When it comes to design, Cindy Krum, CEO of MobileMoxie, spoke highly of responsive design. It means one URL, one version of your site instead of two, it's less intensive on search engines' resources (and search is one of the biggest things people do on mobile) and you'll reduce the risk of bounce rate.
Rich Quick, head web developer at Arnold Clark, said that mobile sales in the U.S. nearly tripled year-over-year for his company from 2011 to 2012, so commerce is rising there too. He added that the majority of browsing of websites on mobile is through tablets, so that should be kept in mind for design.
Lisa Enckell, head of marketing at Wrapp, noted that many brands struggle with mobile monetization. The fact is mobile requires new ways of advertising. Wrapp is trying out one model with social gifting and in the process it reached 1 million users faster than sites like Pinterest and Twitter.
Kevin Gibbons of BlueGrass Interactive had some good advice on generating valuable content. He said you need to be agile when it comes to content, not scared to fail, and you won't get it right at first every time.
"If you create 10 posts, 8 don't work, and 2 are really successful, that's probably better than having 10 posts of average quality," he said. Similarly, he brought up a quote from Abraham Lincoln: "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd probably spend the first four hours sharpening the ax."
Todd Wilms who leads strategy for digital, social and communities at SAP, urged content producers to "connect, not pollute," as there is so much Internet pollution and noise due to content overload. He said you can actually connect with your audience through 3 C's: Content, Channel, Context. Make sure you spend time thinking about all three.
Author and consultant Rob Garner advises to closely watch trends and buzzes to see what people are talking about and opportunities to join the conversation. "You are publishing to an audience that expects a real-time response," he said.
"If they don't remember you, then you have failed," he said.
Petrescu added that the biggest problem is people only have a five-second attention span these days. You have to impress users within the first five seconds to earn the next five seconds, then the next, and so on.
"They may not remember what you said or showed them, but they'll always remember how you made them feel," he added.
Web marketer and entrepreneur Chris Mortimer said at the end of the day, content is about telling stories. He said it's important to keep in mind users' expectations as they consume your content. People are going to think about what you share with them in a way that reflects them, personal experiences and what they know. So you always want to consider your target audience. This is especially important for global content strategy; Icelanders may not understand American references, and so on.
Bing really has one message for publishers, Forrester said: "Please stop publishing crap if you're publishing crap." Search engines have to deal with that and penalize such sites.
The definition of good content, from a search engine's point-of-view, is does it generate user engagement, Forrester said. And natural engagement at that, including organic growth through social and searches.
He also offered up some advice for content publishers: "Build great content. Get people engaged. Try usability tests." He recommended the book "The Power of Habit" which looks at how brands can tap into someone's existing habit and changes it or plays off of it to fuel growth.
When you think about all of this, a lot of it is interrelated, and they're all key elements to building a successful company in the Internet age.
The advice was top-notch and hopefully others find it as useful as I did.
At the end of the day, it's important to encompass all of the above into your digital strategy. And also, as Grétarsdóttir said, a willingness to change and try new things. That's when you can reach your full potential.