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A Look Back: 20 Years at mStoner
A Look Back: 20 Years at mStoner


A Look Back: 20 Years at mStoner

Nov 30, 2021By Michael Stoner

We knew that 2001 would be a historic year because of what happened on September 11th. But Thursday, November 1, 2001, was just another day in other respects. George W. Bush was president. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a top-ranked movie. Apple stock opened at $17.65.

But November 1, 2001, was notable to us because that was the day we launched mStoner.

You may know that our (nearly!) 20-year run as an independent agency ended in October 2021, when mStoner became part of the Carnegie family. We wanted to grow mStoner so that we could better serve our clients by offering world-class research, brand development, creative services, top-notch CRM services, and digital marketing, to name a few. And guess what: now we can. 

But this post is meant to share a few perspectives on mStoner’s history. You’ll read more about our future in next month’s post. For now, here’s a look back at the top insights I’ve gleaned from the last 20 years at mStoner.

The importance of  “digital-first”

mStoner’s adventure began when Voltaire Santos Miran and I, who worked together at a Chicago marketing firm, decided that we wanted to create an agency that helped clients to become digital-first. From our first-hand experience, we saw that agencies with great strengths in one area, such as print design, had a hard time coaching clients on how to navigate the world of digital communications, which was beginning to be incredibly important. 

To help our clients be “digital first” meant that we would work with them to make the website their institution’s central communications and marketing asset. Because it would be the hub around which other communications revolved, it had to be planned and managed, designed to meet the needs of visitors, and able to inspire them to take meaningful actions. And it had to be able to evolve over time. For these things to happen, we had to help our clients evolve an attitude toward their website that focused on process, not product, as Voltaire dubbed it.

We were confident enough and unique enough in our vision that we were very busy from the first day, taking on assignments from college and university clients, nonprofits, and for-profit businesses. We broke even within six months and added team members over time. We focused our work on higher ed exclusively because that’s where we had the most experience and where we believed we could make the biggest impact.

The importance of human connection

One of the major reasons we’ve been successful is that Voltaire is a great leader. And although we knew each other fairly well when we launched, we got to know each other a lot better over the years. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner, and I learned quickly that Volt possessed a lot of skills that were incredibly valuable in running our business. Perhaps his greatest gift, one I valued time and again, is the genuine desire to work toward a win-win for everyone involved in a negotiation.

I’m also thankful for Bill McLaughlin, who became part of mStoner when we acquired our technical partner, Global Image, in 2009. Bill became an owner in 2016. His relentless focus on refining our processes — our internal business processes and our consulting processes — helped us to become a better and more profitable company.

In the past five years, we’ve been able to recruit and retain an outstanding team, our best ever. I’m delighted that our talented staff will find a home at Carnegie and be able to collaborate with smart, innovative new colleagues.

The vision for our work: Put visitors first

When we launched, we had very few competitors. Over the years, though, other agencies have developed services that are similar to ours.

What’s distinguished us?

Other than our digital-first approach, we weren’t just interested in designing cool shit or using interesting technology. Anything we did had to make it easy for people to find what they came to the site to find (we were heavily influenced by Steve Krug’s classic Don’t Make Me Think).

We also understood that to be successful (i.e., get results), a website had to be deeply integrated with an institution’s brand (though, in those days, we couldn’t say that because “brand” and “marketing” were concepts that respectable colleges and universities dared not embrace!) and to its other communications. It had to tell effective and powerful stories.

And we realized that in order for our products to look good, we had to help our clients keep their websites up to date. That meant attention to management and governance and technology. As far as I know, we were the first agency to build and launch a higher ed site on a content management system (CMS) and to promote the value of content management systems.

We focused on fundamentals in our consulting, design, and technology. We tended to stay more attuned to accessibility and user experience than opportunities for short-term glitz. One example: remember Flash? You could do a lot with Flash but it required a browser plug-in. So if someone without the plugin visited a site built in Flash, the site didn’t work. Unless the designer provided an alternative. And guess what? That was time-consuming and expensive, so most people didn’t bother. I’m proud to say that we built very few Flash sites — and designed alternatives for the ones we did build.

This became really important after the iPhone launched. Steve Jobs hated Flash and it never worked on an iPhone. When we began designing mobile-friendly experiences, we embraced responsive design rather than apps as an approach to rendering our sites on a range of devices.

Overall, I’m proud of the fact that in our 20 years, we designed and launched more websites in higher ed than any other single agency. And of course, today a great website is more important than ever.

Educating our colleagues

From the first, we viewed our team and the people who worked on staff at our client institutions as colleagues. To achieve the best outcome for everyone, we all had to collaborate to ensure the successful completion of a project. We brought experience in solving problems for many different kinds of institutions, using our increasingly in-depth knowledge of processes and tools. But we knew that our on-campus partners had much deeper knowledge of their own institutions than we did. Working together leveraged both skillsets and resulted in a successful outcome.

In that spirit of deep collaboration, it just made sense that we would share freely what we were learning in our practice with our colleagues across higher ed. In the early days, that sharing took the form of conference presentations; interviews with reporters in the higher ed press; and articles and op-eds for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Inside Higher Ed, CASE CURRENTS, and others. I’d begun doing this from the earliest days of my exploration of the internet and web, when I wrote and talked about the implications of this incredible new technology for higher ed communications and marketing. 

We began to take greater ownership of sharing our ideas in June 2003 when we launched our blog. It was one of the earliest and now one of the longest-running blogs focusing on topics in higher ed. We invited our colleagues to join in the conversation and contribute their views when we launched EDUniverse in February 2012. By November, more than 600 people shared their insights in more than 1450 blog posts, presentations, thought pieces, and other ideas.” That’s the month when mStoner acquired Higher Ed Live from Seth Odell, its founder, and merged it with EDUniverse. In 2020, Higher Ed Live moved to PlatformQ Education, where it thrives today.

At the invitation of the editors of Inside Higher Ed, we worked with TVP Communications to launch and curate the Call to Action blog in 2015. The blog, still going strong, enables leaders to share their insights on higher ed communications and marketing issues and challenges.

We also published two books. Social Works: How #HigherEd Uses #SocialMedia to Raise Money, Build Awareness, Recruit Students, and Get Results showcases 25 case studies that share how higher ed professionals leverage social media to get results for their institutions. #FollowTheLeader: Lessons in Social Media Success from #Higher Ed CEOs is Dan Zaiontz’s excellent primer for higher ed execs who wanted to be effective at using emerging social tools.

Over the years, we began to explore how we could conduct research on topics of interest to us and to our colleagues in higher ed. Three projects come to mind.

  1. Benchmarking Digital Advancement. A partnership with CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) where we explored how institutions were using social media in their advancement activities. Our first survey established a benchmark and we returned to this research regularly for nearly a decade as social media grew in importance in our lives, channels evolved, and new ones emerged. Higher ed grew more sophisticated at using social media and our questions focused on topics such as how leaders were using social media, how institutions were using social media in fundraising, and how higher ed approached advertising on various social channels. We published five white papers reporting on our findings. A sixth, published in 2020, concluded this series with a framework for thinking about how institutions were taking advantage of digital tools in their advancement activities. 
  2. Digital Admissions. We explored social media again in 2019. This time, in collaboration with our friends at TargetX, and focusing on student recruitment. We learned what content is important to prospective teens, when and where to focus digital enrollment marketing time and energy for maximum ROI, digital tools with the highest impact throughout the entire prospective student journey, and what prospective teens think when they see institutional digital ads. 
  3. Mythbusting Series. We worked with Niche, Chegg, and NRCCUA on a series of studies that compared the responses of professionals in higher ed with those of prospective students on a series of questions around college marketing, web design, and digital marketing. Our goal was to explore the gaps between what our colleagues knew about what their prospects liked—and didn’t like—about enrollment marketing, higher ed websites, and admissions. We could use some of these findings to help clients understand where to spend their investments in website implementation, social media strategy, and digital marketing — and where to save money.

One more big change in 2021

In 2022, our team will integrate as the web development arm Carnegie. Except for me. I’m retiring at the end of December.

We planned this transition several years ago, recognizing that one of the biggest challenges for a small company is a transition in leadership. We began preparing this transition, and I’ve been working half-time for the past two years, anticipating that my role in the company would end in December 2021.

I’m writing this post right before the Thanksgiving break. Gratitude is an important practice — the Buddha counted it among the highest blessings and neuroscientists have confirmed its value for our wellbeing. I’m feeling particularly grateful this year as I look backward at the past two decades — and ahead. 

In balance, it’s been a great twenty years.

I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to work for the past 20 years with my thoughtful, hard-working mStoner colleagues. And to have had the opportunity to interact with so many people from campuses around the world. You’ve all inspired me in so many ways: thank you.

Finally, I’m very happy indeed that my partners and colleagues at mStoner have found a home at Carnegie. I’m looking forward to seeing the great work that you all will do in the years to come.

Author’s note: 

We often get asked why we named the company mStoner. I was fortunate in that when I worked at Princeton, I had early access to the internet. I began using email in the late 1980s and “mstoner” was part of my email address at Princeton, later when I joined the College Board, and later still at several consulting firms where I began thinking, talking, writing, and consulting about the internet and web. We thought we could leverage recognition in “mstoner” for our new company and we could easily acquire the domain name. So mStoner we became …

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?