Harvard University’s Mike Petroff on building more sustainable content management platforms


Harvard University Digital Content Strategist Mike Petroff gave a fantastic interview last fall with Jeff Eaton on the podcast Insert Content Here. Mike works across social, content and analytics to help support Harvard’s digital strategy and communications from within the central Public Affairs and Communications department.

The interview dives into details on empowering authors, using analytics to inform content strategy, and the approach to redesigning the Harvard Gazette website. There are insightful take-aways for any organization managing large-scale complex CMS projects and working with decentralized content contributors.

I specifically liked the part where Jeff asked what the one CMS problem Mike would make vanish if he could snap his fingers.

Mike pointed to reigning in the sprawl of features and administrative cruft within content management platforms.

This is the challenge of “building one-off [features] that handle something for two weeks and then disappear” or are only used in one part of the site. Over time, these add up and make a system harder to work with.

In his role as a digital content strategist, Mike is always looking for opportunities to reuse components and wrap one off features into larger and more sustainable additions to the CMS. This is a smart approach and hits on similar themes to what David Hobbs writes about on the idea of website product management.

Mike goes on to discuss how during the Gazette redesign project they spent considerable time going through the backend of WordPress and looking at the administrative options that are now outdated or Harvard is no longer using. That sprawl muddies up the system and isn’t the job of the CMS author to find and fix system-wide.

A great way to find these areas, he says, is to pay attention during end user training on which fields authors are skipping or not using and ask them why and what it does.

A big focus for Mike and Harvard is on empowering users to better understand and own the complexity of web publishing.

“We spent a lot of time explaining to our editors and content creators what happens when they make changes to a page,” he said, giving the example of which metadata social media properties use for sharing content.

It was a great interview by Jeff and generous insight from Mike. I highly recommend adding Insert Content Here to your stream if you are not already a regular listener.

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

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