From content strategy to product management; career reflection with Mike Petroff of Harvard
"I love that attitude of really wanting to get a deep understanding of the problem you're trying to solve."
— Mike Petroff
On this page:
- Career history, at-a-glance
- A first formal role in content strategy
- Mike’s first year at Harvard University
- Building a social media programme with internal content
- A promotion to Senior Associate Director, Content Strategy
- A new product management role at Harvard
- Mike’s future aspirations
- Advice, recommendations and tips from Mike
- Mike Petroff: Further reading, watching and listening
Mike Petroff is a US-based content strategist and product manager with a long-established specialism in higher education. He's also a popular conference speaker and Harvard Business Publishing's (HBP) current Associate Director of Product Management.
We interviewed Mike about the world of content strategy, and asked him to shed some light on what it's like to work in this field. He also shares some brilliant tips and expert advice about taking control of your own career advancement and learning from others.
Career history, at-a-glance
- Harvard Business PublishingAssociate Director of Product ManagementMarch 2020 - Present
- Harvard Business PublishingSenior Product ManagerMarch 2019 - March 2020
- Harvard UniversityDirector, Content StrategyNovember 2017 – March 2019
- Harvard UniversitySenior Associate Director, Content StrategyAugust 2016 - November 2017
- Harvard UniversityDigital Content StrategistJune 2012 - August 2016
- Emerson CollegeWeb and Enrollment Technology ManagerOctober 2008 – May 2012
- Emerson CollegeAssistant Director of Undergraduate AdmissionOctober 2006 – October 2008
A first formal role in content strategy
Mike had been working at Emerson College for around seven years before the role at Harvard University came up. At the college, he'd been working in media production; making films, working on websites, and creating other types of marketing content.
"I was making content, but I never called it 'content' when I was at Emerson. I was in a technical role that allowed me to either manage, produce, or distribute content to students - and I loved that world.
"I loved that the audience of people were excited about education, and connecting the dots between an institution and stuff we could make. But I was a team of one, so I was kind of doing everything I could - stretching myself with every resource."
During the first half of 2012, Perry Hewitt, the then Chief Digital Officer at Harvard, was working on a digital transformation project related to Harvard's Communications and PR Team. Her aim was to create a team which could improve Harvard's online presence on a global scale, and amplify Harvard's 'voice' through their already highly-revered research and teaching practices.
When Harvard started to advertise for a digital content strategist, Mike was attracted to the prospect of moving roles.
"I decided to go for a role where I could get more exposure to amazing research in higher education. And I thought it would be great because I could stay within the sector, but move into a role that was specifically focused on taking amazing content and figuring out the best way to package, distribute and measure it - and to a global audience too."
Whilst, on the face of it, the role at Harvard might have given Mike a 'narrower' path than the job that he was doing at Emerson, the reality was that it ended up being a very 'deep' role. Furthermore, it didn't involve project work like 'can you go work on how to scan applications into our office management system?' - which appealed to him.
Instead, Mike's attention was focused on the operations of working with other teams and stakeholders at the university.
"How am I working with the writers for the news team? How am I working with the students on campus? How am I working with researchers? At the same time, this was when a lot of the platforms - specifically the social and mobile platforms - were really becoming the default way that people would view information. Our job was to create the best experience with the content we had to hand.
"The one thing that was interesting about that first role at Harvard is that I wasn't writing as much as I was in previous roles because we had more resources around writers. We didn't need to have content strategists writing - we had writers with a background in journalism, people with technical writing backgrounds, or we'd work with subject matter experts (SMEs) within the departments."
A great deal of Mike's work focused on how best to transform or 'translate' content. Not translation in the sense of 'language to language', but in terms of making 'post doctoral level speak' more digestible so that everyone could read and understand the content.
"That's where the content strategy piece came in; in the 'translation/transformation', and then the technical part came in, in regards to content management. We had to think about how we managed all the stuff we were building, and so on. So I was working in WordPress, Drupal, Gathercontent, using spreadsheets... whatever we could use that would help us manage all this stuff."
"In terms of the content itself, it was usually variations of some 'original' information. So, for example, we might take a press release that was written by someone within a department, and then write it in a more punchy way that we could then break down into different versions for a Facebook Story or an Instagram Story, a short video... or package it up so that it becomes part of an email newsletter."
Mike's first year at Harvard University
"The first year, I was nervous. I'd started working for a brand where there was more awareness in the world about it. I'd gone from Emerson College - a very word-of-mouth school - into Harvard - where everything you publish is seen, scrutinised, praised, whatever it may be."
Mike spent his first three to six months trying to figure out content workflows, and tried to learn more about the audiences Harvard were trying to reach with their content.
What is a content workflow?
Content workflows are the definition of roles, responsibilities and ownership, workflow, documentation, and training of employees to make sure they're fully equipped to do the best job they can. Content workflows help to remove the common pitfalls when it comes to producing content.source: GatherContent
"What we noticed is that our team was trying to operationalise a lot, and often, there were actually gaps, and sometimes things were left off because they just didn't make it to the next step.
"So I think a lot of 'workflow' came into place, and then also the tone of voice and how we speak to audiences was something that was really important for us to think through. We didn't want to just throw stuff at the wall and see if it stuck."
Mike found that one area that he was comfortable with pretty quickly (from his previous years in a higher education organisation) was the political environment. This included getting to grips about who needs to approve content, and who has to see that content before it finally goes out the door.
"I had to put on that cap a lot. Mainly, I was asking a lot of questions; kind of the same as what you'd do in product management - it's very similar. You ask a lot of questions, ask what's working... and what's not."
Mike spent some of his first year talking to Harvard's undergraduate students who worked within the admissions department to get a feel for things like perceptions before and after starting as a student at the University, and what stories about the institution aren't being told that actually should be told?
"Sometimes there are stories within the student organisations or students passionate about a topic that they want to get out there, but no one's ever really approached them. So I think that was important for us; that representation, the diversity of voices, those kinds of things."
In general, trying to reach Harvard's target audience groups was a significant challenge, because the audiences for Harvard are so diverse, and besides this, globally-based.
"Asks from departments would come in from everywhere, and we were 'central' Harvard, so when a user thought 'I need to apply to medical school', they're going to start with us - they're not going to go find the Harvard Medical School right away.
"So, we had to both represent all of the institution, but then have our own voice that we were trying to push out information to folks with - through our news site and social media. We wanted to share a perspective of Harvard that was a bit more global. We called it 'one Harvard.'"
Building a social media program with internal content
A favourite project of Mike's was when he and the team worked on trying to build Harvard University's presence and popularity using social media. This was at a time when Twitter was becoming very popular, Facebook was experimenting with live video, and Instagram was really growing in popularity.
"We were trying to figure out how to reach audiences, and we had amazing stories from students that we wanted to show off; things happening in the classroom that were just great. So we had the freedom to experiment with social - as long as we had a really good sense of what the outcomes should be and what the impact would be.
"We would take stories and sit in on editorial meetings with the news team/creative team, where they would essentially talk about the news of the week, or 'here's all this stuff that needs to be shoved into the newspaper of the school'. It was me and one other colleague - we would go talk to that person right after the meeting and say 'hey, if you're going to be showing off this archeological dig research, and you've got this 3D model, could we get a short video clip of that?' What was cool was they were always super willing to do it because they would realise it'd be ending up on Harvard's Facebook page."
Mike started to gain some traction on social using this approach, and soon realised that the PR department was starting to hear about the internal attention Harvard's social was getting. With their interest piqued, they approached him to find out more.
"This was 2012-14. I know we were late! I was doing this stuff at Emerson, but the stakes there were much smaller. The first two years at Harvard was a lot of that social media work, which I found really exciting and fun. Once we figured out what worked, it became all about 'how do we make this repeatable?' and 'how do we measure this stuff?' - as well as many other things!'"
Mike is one of my absolute favorite content marketers. His meticulous attention to user experience, and his inspiring creativity when it comes to authentic storytelling is entirely admirable. He is also incredibly generous with his time in helping others think better about marketing strategy as a whole. An incredible speaker, and incredible leader in the industry, Mike is one of the best.source: LinkedIn
A promotion to Senior Associate Director, Content Strategy
"The big change there was becoming a manager. You move from 90% of your work being as an individual contributor and 10% management, to 50% management delegation and 50% still contributing.
"Part of that work was trying to figure out what the structure of the department would look like if we had a digital content strategy team - what would those three positions look like?
"That was a time where I started heavily emphasising the need for an analytics focus of our work. We had no analyst on staff. If you think of the 'product world', you either have a business analyst or someone working in that area, so we ended up turning a web developer role into a strategist and analyst lead. That person was completely focused on Google Analytics, email newsletter growth, all these things that were growth areas for us that we needed."
Mike also spent much of his time delegating work, but soon found that resources had become stretched due to his previous role not being back-filled. He also realised that his new, more senior role meant that he had a bit more choice in saying 'yes' or 'no' to projects that were being proposed internally.
"My role was also about recruiting and also coaching the people that we were hiring. Really, we were trying to hire people who could tell good stories. That's what we wanted to hire.
"We were hiring people who were two or three years out of college, looking to grow their resume, and what would often happen is that they would work in our department for about two years and then graduate on to becoming a senior content producer within a Harvard school - or being associate director at a local Boston area college. So my work would be about how I 'grow' and develop this person; help them flourish, help them 'travel on'."
I was lucky to have Mike as a manager for three years during my time as a Digital Communications Project Manager working on content strategy and digital communications for Harvard's Office for Sustainability. Mike is an incredible team player whose enthusiasm shines through each project he leads or collaborates. He's always on top of the latest digital trends, and is eager to pilot new technologies, processes, and creative ideas. I was always impressed by Mike's ability to get people from across the organization on board with new ideas. As a manager, Mike was a mentor, coach, and advocate who provided productive feedback and advice and offered genuine interest and support in my professional growth.source: LinkedIn
Mike also ensured that he was always working to develop professionally too, and invested time in speaking to former colleagues and contacts who were at the same level or above, to just compare notes and find out more about their day-to-day work.
He also took some internal workshops during his time in post, where he upskilled himself on areas such as negotiation, facilitation and managing 'up'. Attending conferences such as Brain Traffic'sConfab (run by Kristina Halvorson) and Content Ed (run by Tracy Playle) became firm diary dates too.
"The conference circuit was incredible. You would meet people from every stratosphere, and these were people who were at the top of their game in digital."
A new product management role at Harvard
Whilst in his Director of Content Strategy role, Mike had started looking at what product managers worked on, and was interested to learn that you could manage digital products in a particular way. He began a journey towards securing a product management position for himself, even though he knew that it was commonplace for role-holders to hold an MBA.
"I was like, 'okay, what do I need to do?' What I ended up doing is finding people in my network who were product managers, asking them what types of skill sets I should be working on, what kind of training certificates, whatever it may be. I knew that I wasn't going to go and get an MBA, you know? So I took some training. I did some two-day seminars, got certificates here and there - whatever I could do."
Mike then met someone who already worked at Harvard Business Publishing as a product manager - working on learning products. She told him that the higher education department had an aspiration to hire someone to run their website as a product. Mike was encouraged to meet (his future boss) Ellen Desmarais who was the Managing Director of Digital at the time.
"We met for lunch, and I talked about all the work we were doing with CMS's and other things at Harvard where we were trying to strategise and organise quite a lot of 'chaos'. We kept in touch, and about three months later, she posted the position and reached out to me. I interviewed and got it."
The rest was history as they say. Mike's work as a product manager now encompassed the facilitation and creation of work that a wider team executes in order to support those that are educators in the business community.
"These people are teachers, instructors, and adjuncts looking to use our materials, case studies, simulations, online courses (and other things) to support the creation of courses for students to take.
"So my job as a product manager is to understand what their core needs are, what their pain points are, what opportunities there are for the business, and act as a sort of 'entrepreneur' figure within the company to understand where we can create value with the resources that we have."
A typical week for Mike is a mixture of working with developers and designers to bring features to life on the website, speaking to stakeholders, and planning work. There's also some 'data digging' time, where he examines performance analytics - comparing these against any live benchmarks.
"The other thing you have to do is present work. As a product manager, you need to be a good storyteller and presenter and make sure that people know what you're working on and why. The role is a lot of things; many hats!"
Whilst settling into his role, Mike occasionally came up against the minor challenge of having to explain why he was working in product management when his background was steeped in content strategy. However, this was a challenge that could be quickly overcome.
"I would go on interviews or have phone calls that would be a little outside my industry, and they would look at my resume and go 'what did you do as a digital content strategist?'
"I had to try to find a way to explain my work through the language of a product manager, but what was nice about Harvard (and staying within Harvard) was they knew that I could do this type of work because they saw my portfolio and they knew the type of work you can do on a website. That was the difference there."
Mike's future aspirations
Mike, like many others, noticed the major shift to online teaching/online classrooms after the recent global pandemic first emerged.
"What had always been seen as a 10-year curve in higher ed suddenly became a 10-day curve and 'we need to figure this out right away'. I think there's a lot of opportunity for us because we have the tools for them to use - so I'm really, really intrigued at what the future of teaching in the business environment holds.
"The other piece I'm thinking about for the future is just 'working with a website'. There are almost unlimited areas to explore. I think one of the things that I look at as a big opportunity, but then also I kind of freak out a little bit is like, 'what are we at Harvard doing a year from now? What are we doing two years from now? And what are the capabilities we need to build getting up to that point?' Um, so that's fun. That's exciting.
"I'm also at the point where I'm like, 'ok, I'm a product owner on one team. Could I possibly be a managing person again with two product teams or three product teams in a year's time?'"
Advice, recommendations and tips from Mike
What would you say are the key skills and capabilities you'd look for if you were hiring a UX writer or a content designer into a product team?
"I think softer skills, like 'curiosity' is one thing. You know, that idea of the 'five whys', whenever you're trying to work through a problem. I love that attitude of really wanting to get a deep understanding of the problem you're trying to solve, because if you're creating solutions and it's not the 'right' problem, then you're not going to be successful.
"Also, like I mentioned before, having a 'problem-seeker/problem-solver' type of personality, so someone who is always thinking things like 'how do we make this better?' and 'why do we do it this way?'
"When it comes to the 'harder' skills, a good portfolio of copywriting. I would usually look for user flows and things like that. Demonstrating things such as...
- how you're bringing a user through this journey
- why you made a decision at a certain point
- why copy was introduced at a particular point
- what you were trying to do with a particular aspect of your copy
"I love tearing apart user interface (UI) copy for some reason. I just love that world because it gives me a sense of 'are they detail-oriented? Why did they make this decision?' and so on.
"The other thing I'm noticing more and more is that it's important to have a good working relationship with content producers that are not just writing copy, but also doing multimedia work too - so video, data visualization, other things which help tell stories.
"You also need to be able to understand what is feasible with your work. I think coming in with a grandiose, super-complicated thing, and then having a developer tell you 'there's no way you can do that', that's a hard stop. But if you come in with 'hey, I've seen something like this before, would it be possible to work together to maybe try this out, bring this type of personalisation in here? And just generally understand what code can do, even if they've never touched code in their life."
What's the best piece of professional advice you've received?
"In regards to content strategy, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got is to 'live through the thing that you're trying to explain. Try to figure out the entire flow. Don't just come into it from the organisational side; come into it from the customer side and go through it with this lens - or try it this way.'
"That was a game changer in a lot of areas at Harvard, because what you start to notice is you have so much 'built-up knowledge' about how you think everything works, that it's just assumed that your audience has it too. And a lot of times your audience is not even paying attention to what they're trying to do; they're just quickly flipping through on their phone to try to get to some answer, and they're finding they can't get to it quick enough."
If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of personal advice early in your career, what would you say to yourself?
"I've found something I'm really passionate about, and especially with this change to product management. I almost wish that I discovered it a couple years earlier and that I knew what it took to get this type of role. So, I would probably say, if anything, it would be 'do less, and do a better job of the stuff you do work on'. I'm just thinking of side projects or other projects that were a sketch and then thrown away... or I'd buy a domain for a new project, and dropped it a week later.
"I wish that I had had a better prioritisation method in my head for those types of things. It's tough then when you work in the content world and the website world, because your ideas are infinite. It's just a struggle that we have as creatives.
"Also, I'd say that if you're in a role and you're really excelling/over-performing, you should either be writing your next job description within the organisation and trying to secure the right support to move up, or look for that role elsewhere - but it's good practice just to write out the job you want. I wrote my director job description, and I basically said 'this is what I want to do - will Harvard support it?' Harvard supported it, which was great (I felt great in that role for three years, and then I just felt like I wanted to make the move to product management)."
Are there any expectations you've personally had about the career paths you've taken that you've found have differed to what the reality was, whether that's in a good or bad way?
"Yeah. The thing that was a surprise to me was how little content strategy work I did as a director of content strategy. Instead, there was a lot of organisational strategy; it was illustration, facilitation and negotiation. It was all of the things that you do inside of a project if you're a content strategist, but I was doing these things within the wider organisation; I was trying to make their work possible. So, it was a very different type of role.
"I think what happens is, you get excited about a promotion, you think 'wow, I'll have more responsibility, more money, more opportunities... this is great', and then you immediately discount the extra work that that entails and what you think you could bring on into the next role. I think that's why people get burned out at either that four-year mark or seven-year mark, as they hit a point where they've 'leveled up' one or two levels, and have carried all of that work with them. And that's what I realised that Emerson. That's what I realised in my first position within Harvard; I hit that point in both areas where the amount of managerial work and the amount of production work was just not sustainable at that point - but it does create other things to jump into, and you kind of start afresh again."
Which industry professionals should people be following right now on Twitter?
Is there a particular book you'd recommend to someone for early in their career?
Transitions are a critical time for leaders at all levels. Missteps made during the crucial first three months in a new role can jeopardize your success.
Ok, this is a bit of a plug for HBR maybe(!), but The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins. It's a really incredible book that you could bring into any type of new job. And it's like this skill set, right. It doesn't matter what type of job you are in. I was handed that book when I started, and I was like: 'This is it! This is my roadmap'— Mike Petroff
Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus public-health scares circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas-businessmen, educators, politicians, journalists, and others—struggle to make their ideas “stick.”
Another book that I'd recommend is Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, and it's about how you use content to connect with audiences.— Mike Petroff
Is there a particular site or product that you think does content particularly well?
"There is one recent one that I've been totally intrigued with, and it's called Whimsical. It's a unified suite of collaboration tools, and there are some really interesting choices they've made with their content when it comes to how they present their app. And when I say 'content', I say it liberally, so not just words, but everything that they're doing.
"Everything that they're doing, I'm kind of just paying attention to it over time, as it's a very intriguing tool. I feel like I'm almost an advocate for it without even really being a designer! That's one that has been really, really interesting for me."
Are there any courses or workshops that you would recommend people look into?
"I would highly recommend some type of analytics or business analytics course for folks, because I always thought I knew web measurement and A/B testing and other things...and then I took a course!
"I was lucky enough to get placed into an online business analytics course within Harvard Business School; so it was a true on certified course, and it took six weeks.
"I knew nothing about statistics or optimisation methods until I took this course. Everything I thought I knew was really just me kind of faking it. So I feel like anyone that works in content, and who cares about measurement in any way should take some sort of course; to teach them statistical methods or at least about how to gather qualitative and quantitative data more successfully from audiences.
"You'll always think to 'improve your writing' through practice - but analytics is not something that you just know innately. It takes a lot of time to understand."
Mike Petroff: Further reading and watching
- Mike's website A portfolio website, featuring details on his career history, some speaker dates (and Mike's drumming skills).
- Mike's LinkedIn profile Connect to Mike on LinkedIn.
- Mike's Twitter profile Keep up to date with what Mike's up to at HBP, as well as the articles he's reading lately.
- Developing a distributed content strategy A short video extract from Mike's 2017 talk at Converge 2017.
- Harvard Seeks Authenticity Through Video (w/ Mike Petroff) A short video with Helix Education about how video helps make Harvard appear more attainable, and Harvard students more accessible.
- Thought Feeder: Episode #18 A podcast chat on product strategy in Higher Education.
- Optimizing Your Content for the Social Feed Mike writes about the steps you need to include in a content strategy in order to control how web content displays on social
- Adapting Harvard University's content for a digital audience A written interview where Mike shares how one of the USA's top universities thinks about using digital and content to reach the world.
- The Content Strategy Podcast (Episode #23) Brain Traffic's popular podcast features Mike in this episode, where he (and colleague Aaron Baker) discuss data-driven content and empowering content creators.
- Social strategy: Thinking beyond today's posts Mike's full talk at Confab 2014; focused on building a social strategy that is collaborative, scalable, and goal-oriented.
- Building an editorial analytics dashboard with purpose A deck which Mike presented at Confab 2019.
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