Mike Petroff from Harvard Business Publishing joins Joel and J.S. to discuss bringing Product Management techniques into colleges and universities.
Product Strategy Mentality for Higher Education Transcript
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Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast. This is episode 18. With me, Joel Goodman, as always, is the formidable Jon-Stephen Stansel. And we have a special guest this week, Mike Petroff. We’re glad to have you here. Mike is at the Harvard Business Review. What’s your official title, Mike?
So I’m a, now Associate Director of Product Management for Harvard Business Publishing.
Your title changes all the time and always in better ways. And. we’re very happy to have you on the show. Thanks for coming on. Today we’re going to talk about, the concept of product and how we can integrate product design and product management and product thinking practices into higher education.
Hopefully — I think this is a topic and I think this is mode of thinking that universities can use, especially in a time when they’re faced with all kinds of challenges, all kinds of shifts in how they need to do business. So we’re excited to talk to you, Mike, cause I know you’ve been, you’ve been thinking and working in all of this for a long time. and especially with your background in higher ed, I think it’ll be a good conversation. I’m super excited.
To kick this off, I think that the concept, of Product capital P in higher ed, is not one that I think there are probably fewer people that know exactly what that means than there should be. it’s something that kind of lends itself to the startup, the tech, the business world, and maybe not so much to what we traditionally do in higher education, even though it’s important. So can you give us just kind of a basic rundown of how you view know, product design, product development, product management uh, within organizations? And, and then we’ll dive in and talk about how you’ve kind of implemented stuff in higher ed and what you’ve learned since moving to kind of the periphery and all of that.
Yeah, totally. I think the kind of the most basic definition of Product that I’ve heard, that I like, is that it’s basically, you have something to offer customers that they are willing to pay for. Is one way to think of it. I think some of the pushback in higher ed, I’ve been in higher ed now, you know, 15 years or so and typically within a Marketing or Communications shop, which is where I’ve worked in the past or even a web team is, a lot of times you, you push back on product because you’re not selling “widgets.” I’ve heard that phrase before. Or you’re kind of selling learning, you’re selling, the value of the school. You’re selling things that are not necessarily a thing that you’re shipping out to a person.
So that’s why product sometimes gets a little pushback, but I think the product mentality around making sure that you’re providing value to both the customer and the business at the same time is the most important thing. And if you seem to want to move in that direction, I would definitely advocate for a product mindset.
Along with that comes things like you said, product design, which is, a combination of visual design, user experience, content strategy, you know, all those types of folks. If you have those types of roles, product design is an area that you could think about looking at.
And then the product management side is really kind of making sure that you’re always getting the most value out of a team that’s working on a product. So you’re kind of the voice of the customer in a lot of situations, and you’re not directly managing a lot of folks, but you’re managing the service or the product that you’re working on.
So it’s kind of product in a nutshell. Higher ed, I think mirrors a lot of large tech companies. If you think of, you know, Instagram, for example, under Facebook, You know, you might have a Product Manager that’s solely focused on onboarding, you know, within the product. So that’s their service. Higher ed you can think of it the same way where your service is Enrollment or your service is Alumni Relations or your service is online teaching. So it’s kind of broken up in the same way. And you know, there’s not one huge czar of the entire school that’s the product.
And I think one of the things that higher ed kind of gets hung up on is, well, I think two of the things they get hung up on is the customer/business verbiage that gets used, right? It’s like, well, students aren’t our customers, but they’re paying you money and in exchange, they’re hopefully getting an experience and a degree that’s going to pay dividends for them down the road.
And, “we’re not a business!” Well, you are a business. Look at what’s happening right now during COVID and trying to like start up again in the fall. You’re obviously a business cause you’re worried about cash flow and revenue and everything else.
So that’s the first thing I think is a problem. And I think the other thing is just this idea of product has real teeth, as you realize that product, isn’t just one product. It’s like a lot of different, small products. It’s like each experience of is a product. So the website, while yes, you’re, you’re selling or you’re communicating or trying to persuade people that the programs that you offer at the school are valuable and, and try to get them to buy that product, your website is also a product in itself because it encompasses a whole experience. that sort of end goal is you have to sell the experience first before you can sell the thing that makes the larger organization money.
So like with all that in mind, there ends up being a lack of focus because there’s a misunderstanding that does encompass a lot of micro-products, tiny products. So how can we start approaching this idea of owning the product experience in our little kingdom or fiefdom, or whatever you want to call it, and kind of instilling purpose into that, like setting goals, figuring out what it’s supposed to do, and then how that connects to the larger, the larger body that you’re a part of?
Yeah, totally. I think of it in two different lanes. One is strategic and one is operational. So on the operational side, a lot of folks have heard the term Agile or Scrum. Or, you know, other terms like that, I think that covers a lot of operational bases on what type of team members you may need, what type of roles they carry, what type of methodology you use for events, meaning, like your weekly meetings or, the ways in which you run sprints or time periods where you’re releasing new work.
So that’s one side that I won’t get too deep into, but you know, there’s a lot of, pros and cons on different types of strategies, but we run Scrum in our team. and then on the strategic side, I think this is where there’s a big disconnect sometimes because, you know, in higher ed, we deal with, HiPPO (Highest Paid Person in the Office) mentality and sort of people telling us what we should do. And we’re just kind of charged with executing on their vision.
To truly move into Product and be a Product Manager, you have to be empowered to have a vision and be able to sell it to stakeholders within higher ed and also to your team. So you need to really know what your customers want and be able to measure that as an outcome.
So I think what, what needs to happen is both the operational side needs to take a turn for like forming teams around products and give them individual focus rather than, you know, a mile wide and inch deep across every single thing that they could be working on. But I think, you know, if you’re a manager out there and you’ve got, you know, a couple of employees that are really excelling, if you can start talking to them about the KPIs of the website, what you’re really trying to drive. Is it, you’re driving applications, you’re driving inquiries, you’re driving, you know, event registrations? What are those KPIs? And then your conversation is about how do you continually improve that? So you’re both talking about the same numbers. You’re empowered as a Product Manager to find growth somewhere. And as a manager you’re clearing any blockers, in the way of that person, trying to grow that number.
So I think if you can steer in that direction for both strategy and operational, you might have a chance of saying that you’re a product team rather than a communications team or marketing team, but, I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen, you know, a marketing group have sort of a mini product team where there might be a person that’s really on the marketing tech side, that’s working on, you know, building a lot of the email flows or web forums or other things.
Handling data analytics and bringing that kind of, those metrics into the decisions that are being made.
Absolutely. And then, you know, you stick with it. So, your value is only as good as how good your product performs. So if you can think of that, way of approaching work every day, you’re no longer trying to just get done what people are telling you to get done. You’re looking at the numbers and saying, you know, am I making an impact or not?
It’s hard, you know, you come to work with a little bit more pressure every day in that respect. but at least it creates a shared conversation that you can have with your manager.
So in your opinion, what does the ideal product team look like? And then on top of that, so many of us are teams of one. So, you know, how does, someone who’s an individual, look at themselves as a product team? And, and how, how does treating, a website or social media account, or these other services, like a product help those individuals as well?
No, it’s a really good point because I, in my years in higher ed, I’ve probably spent more years as an individual within a group versus having a team. I feel really, uh, I feel lucky. Yes, no, we, we could commiserate.
So I think, you know, I was thinking back to Emerson college and when I was there, I was, you know, within the enrollment team, I was one of the admissions counselors that handled, you know, the office management and technical side of the house.
So basically just reached out to a developer lead within the IT office and said, “Hey, do you want to partner on a side project?” And that’s kinda how I got my first taste of Product, where I had to come up with what the outcome was going to be. And he had to help me see that through and execute it.
So that was the first experience where it wasn’t formal, I did not manage him, he didn’t work under my team, but we basically just proved the value by saying: Here’s a proof of concept. Here’s what it would do. Here’s the amount of hours we’d save. Can we go do this?
And we got the green light and we built it. And then all of our, admissions letters were going out through that, the responses for withdrawals or waitlist and all that stuff went through that and we immediately limited the amount of paper we were seeing.
So, it doesn’t take more than like one or two people. You basically just have some, have someone that’s really hard focused on the vision and the outcome, and can step in and fill whatever need is there. And then you probably have to have some sort of engineering and technical expertise to go along with it, to build the thing if you’re talking about building digital.
The ideal team I would think is that the team is somewhat, consistent, meaning you don’t have people that are all 25% on four teams, because what happens is just whatever project is highest priority takes precedent over everything else. So you try to keep the teams, at least like, you know, each person to one or two teams total.
And then you try to stick to some regular cadence of events and meetings and sprints, because as soon as you start, saying, Hey, this thing’s coming in six months and aren’t showing any progress toward it, that’s when things start to fall apart. So I would say, try to keep the teams consistent, try to keep someone that’s really dead set on the vision and numbers, and then make sure that you have the right technical components all filled out because what will then happen is that nothing’s feasible. You always want to look for the things that are valuable and feasible and as soon as you start coming up with ideas that, you don’t have in your tool belt, then you’re going to run into a lot of over-promising to stakeholders.
So you know, I’ve seen both sides and from an individual level, if you really can pull together the people that maybe even aren’t in your department, but have the same hunger for creating better things. Um, if you are in a larger team, it’s about staying consistent and trying to really make sure that the team has all the elements you need across engineering and design.
Yeah, I think that’s a really good point about pulling in people from out of your department that may have that hunger. I definitely feel that with social media of, you know, I’ve got my GoTo folks who are running social around campus that want to do a good job and they understand how difficult it is and they’re not going rogue and creating off-brand graphics and things like that.
And pulling them in to, deliver a better, a better product and kind of leaning on them for extra help as being a team of one. I think that’s one of my biggest weaknesses is I sometimes want to take control of everything and do it all and not lean on those others for help. And you’ve got to do it, or you’re just gonna burn yourself out and deliver a poor product.
No totally. I, when I joined Harvard and in a previous job, I was running the Harvard social accounts and one of the biggest partners we had was the students. So the students in the undergrad area, you, you knew that I immediately befriended everyone that worked in the visual arts department and had a video camera and knew what they were doing.
And, you know, we’ve worked with them to cover events and get behind the scenes looks at student groups and other things. And they were incredible. And my job was about kind of steering them in a direction and letting them decide the best creative way to cover it. so once we had that bond and the partnership and the trust, then I think, you know, we weren’t a product team necessarily, but they were stakeholders that were actively giving us great content to work with.
And we had a small team, you know, we had one or two people running the at Harvard social accounts. So there’s no way we could be running around campus doing everything, but we tried to utilize, like you said, a network of people that also had that same hunger, of being creative and producing great content and being the true voice of the institution.
I think another real big benefit of being able to reach across whether it’s the students, whether it’s like you were saying to, you know, someone in your IT Services department, to even just like, content subject matter experts in different departments, is you start building these cross-functional relationships in your organization.
And in higher ed, everyone complains and we’ve talked about it and it’s come up on this show. We talk about how siloed higher ed is. Silos, silos, silos. In my experience, the way that you start breaking those down is like reaching out and creating relationships, creating friendly relationships with other people.
And I don’t think there are many better ways to create those relationships than coming together on a project, a unified goal, right? a unified product that is going to be a win win for both sides. And, you know, it keeps people invested in it. And so, that’s a real, just like a small tip, I think kind of in there is like, those relationships are important regardless, and you can complain about being siloed and I’m sure you will, and it’s not going to solve everything, but going out and making those relationships is, is a way to, help with that and to help kind of bring some continuity and unification to the whole institution in a lot of ways.
Yeah, I totally agree. And I mean, stakeholders for me are most of the job, honestly, because you’re constantly trying to find what the next thing is that you’re going to work on. And most of them, I work with sales, I work with marketing teams and they’re out there talking to customers and hearing every day. Customer service, if you ever want a really good sense of how your company’s performing, talk to anyone who picks up the phone when people are calling a general number. I mean, those are the folks that know the pulse of what’s going on.
But I will say one of the best things that you can do, that I would recommend if you are curious about working with other departments is, you know, you’ll find the people who are like you and respond to emails when you reach out. And if you present a problem and just get together, I mean, in this environment, we’re talking about like whiteboarding over a WebEx, Miro is a great tool or Whimsical is another great tool, and usually you just kind of put a problem statement up at the top and say like, how might we improve X? And bring together three or four people and basically you just start a whiteboard session and say, what are all the different ways we could improve the way in which, uh, you know, a person can sign up for an event?
And you start to hear all these cool ways that people have, all these new ideas and you start to really bubble up some opportunities. And then if you all look at it and say, okay, what might we need to enable us to build that thing? Let’s just say, it’s, it’s aware of your geography and will recommend events to you in your geography. That’s where you might need that technical lead to kind of come in with you. And if someone says, Oh yeah, that’s totally possible, we could do this in Drupal, that’s great.
Then all of a sudden you have like a product you’re working on, you know? That’s kind of the cool part is it’s not one person, it’s a bunch of ideas, but one person really, separating out all of the ideas that you won’t work on and just really focusing hard on the one that won’t take six months, but might take three weeks to get out the door.
A lot of it is about empowering people to go out and do those sorts of things, you know? And, we talk a lot about the problems in higher ed and, sometimes I think, you know, we ourselves are guilty of only seeing the problems a little bit, but it’s not because these people are being negative or whatever. They see the problems and they want to fix it. And you have a lot of very motivated people who are self-starters, who want to take on new projects and fix the problems but they need to be empowered to do so. And I think approaching things with a product mentality can empower those people to take the lead and, and start solving some of these problems.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the major things that I learned is you always lead with what the outcome will be, not what the outcome will look like. So a lot of times we’re thinking, how do we improve the website? People just immediately go to like redesigning it. Rather than like, what would happen if we redesigned it?
What would the change be? Would we see an increase in conversions? Would we see less phone calls? Would we see, you know, more people willing to participate in an online community that we have? Whatever that may be, it’s always good to tell that story first and then talk about multiple ways to get there.
Cause you know, that’s the other thing about Product is you never really know what the solution might be, yet. You try things, you see what works, you start going in that direction, you pull threads. but yeah, I’ve learned that a lot in presentations is you always start with the “why,” not the “what,” and, that gets people on board and will definitely make people more willing to give you resources if you can prove that outcome, versus give you resources because you want to change what the website looks like.
You know, it’s, it seems like a sunk cost. If like we just did a redesign three years ago, why would we redesign again? That’s usually what I would hear in different communications and in teams and environments.
And I think that’s very true. I think a lot of times that’s kind of guided or, or at least, you know, over the last 10 years, it’s been the guiding factor in when to redesign or what to do with the website. It’s less about, what specific things do we want to accomplish, organizationally. And then that helps to kind of drive what the solution is. It’s just, well, the website’s what we have and the website’s supposed to do this, and then you redesign it with still with like very fuzzy goals too.
So within that, how do you, how valuable do you think very focused, defined goals are to ensuring what happens is the right thing? I guess I kind of, what I’m getting at is like, how do you, how do you figure out what to make when it’s less of just an idea, you know? Like, say you’ve had that random idea and you get something built and now you’re like, well, geez, this worked! We had a targeted goal, and now we wanna, we want to keep the momentum going. What, what have you found works well, to think through some of those questions? Or, where do you start when you’re, when you’re sitting down, like, okay, we need to take the next step. What is that next step?
Yeah, I would, if you don’t currently have posted on every wall in your house, as a product person, any sort of user journey or user flow, that’s where I would start first. And take it as a holistic approach. So, currently in our product team, we work on the parts of the website that get people ultimately to, use the learning products that are created by Harvard Business School and other partners. So they’re teachers.
So teachers come into our site, they try to navigate through, they decide if they want to register or not. And then they decide if they want to put everything together in what we call a Course Pack and deliver that to their students in their course.
So what I would start with is, you know, what’s the ultimate end goal? It’s to convert them to a paying customer, right? Like what, when are they paying? And then you start to backtrack from that. You go upstream. And you say like, you know, where is the first starting point? It might be a Google search that they’re doing. It might be, they got hired as a faculty member. You might go as far upstream as that, because then ultimately what you can do is every single milestone moment along that journey, you can place a KPI on to it. It could be a conversion metric. It could be a volume. Um, you know, you need X amount of anonymous traffic to end up converting so many users to be paying customers.
Then, what you’ll start to notice is that you start to make improvements along that journey. And you’ll see maybe an uptake in conversions on registrations, but they’re not converting into paying customers. So then you start to focus on that slice of the user journey and say, what’s happening between registration and, you know, paying for the product?
Maybe it’s our pricing strategy. Maybe it’s the catalog that we have, maybe it’s we’re missing personalization. So that’s the way I always focus on it is, you kind of look at the longterm view first, and then you start to make subtle changes. The challenge is when your product ends and another product begins, is you look at those gray areas and you start to go like, ah, is that my problem or that other team’s problem?
Which, that’s a good problem to have because you are fine-tuning what you’re going to be working on. and there’s a lot of gray areas, but yeah, I would say user journey, user flows, really the first place to start.
It seems, especially from a lot of what J.S. talks about, that there isn’t necessarily a ton of focus in higher education social media or I guess a lot of strategy around what those social media accounts are supposed to do.
And it’s not necessarily on the part of the social media manager, whoever’s behind the handle. Sometimes it is. I mean, sometimes they’re just powerless to do anything or they are the sort of person that has just come up in terms of like, I need to have a good voice. I need to, you know, this is brand recognition/generation versus anything that’s measurable from a business goal perspective.
But for the two of you, I guess, like how can institutions start to think about the way those sorts of, communication channels can work better for, for actually supporting business goals and not as things that are just kind of like throwaways, you know?
I see J.S., like, wheels turn right now. I want to hear what you have to say first.
Like, how much time do we have?
Well, I mean, it goes back to, The social media manager doesn’t set the goals and this, but the social media manager needs to know from higher ups, what those goals are, what they want, where the ship is heading, where, we’re being navigated to. Cause they change so frequently, and social media just kind of gets thrown to it like, Oh, it’s a month till, fall, we need to get enrollment numbers up. Social media! Hit it, you know?
Rather than Well, we needed to be having that conversation this time last year, or, I’ll give you an example. When I was at, a previous institution, I sent a survey to everyone at C suite level, like “what are the overall goals for, this institution?”
And I got them all back and every single one was dramatically different. Like there were no two that were identical. And I had a meeting with them and said, you know, anonymously showed, these are what the answers were and what can we focus on? And give me just three solid goals that you want me to work on delivering to you via social media. And, that helped out a lot. Uh, getting that meeting was really difficult.
No, I can absolutely commiserate with you there because running central social media accounts for such a large institution, you end up having more than what you could ever even possibly handle in one day.
And I love how you said, like let’s focus on three. Because then it gives you some achievable goals. You never want goals that are not even realistic at all. In my previous experience, Emerson College, trying to get out the gate and be recognized as a school was tricky. And how do we compete with, you know, NYU, and, you know, UCLA, these other huge film schools, performing art schools?
And a lot of what we did was realize that our students were the best voice for us. So we really, you know, went a hundred percent all-in on our students being the voice of our social accounts. And that was kind of unique thing because then we could tie it to very specific goals as an institution around brand and voice and message.
And, we were able to achieve things that other outlets weren’t because we could kind of just amplify students, which if you’re creating a brochure to get a student, to show up at a photoshoot, do an interview and all that kind of stuff was really tricky, but we realized students are out there doing this for us every day on their own accounts and they love when they get amplified. So that was kind of the early days of social, that worked pretty well.
At Harvard, it was actually more of a, a lot of times like risk mitigation and just a strategy around like how we’ll do we act in a voice that can allow us to play in the space of social media and not seem like an outsider there? But we’re also not going to try to seem like the coolest kid (laughs) on the, in the playground. So, you know, we had great messaging around research and teaching and, other areas of growing knowledge. And that was a really unique situation because when something did flare up where there was something that happened on campus, we immediately needed to turn into a team that could relay very critical, important information, very quickly and we couldn’t, sit back and let everything else happen.
So it was kind of, we had to be on both teams. We had to be both on like the emergency team and really make sure that we were locked in with PR and at the same time, be more on the marketing and branding side and say, yeah, we want to push, you know, this new research that we just got out the door and coordinate with all these different journalists online and make sure that they’re amplifying our message too. So, when you have the brand recognition, then you immediately have other things that come along with that, and you really need to be careful of you can never really hide when you’re in plain sight of everyone online.
And I love that you, you know, recognize you don’t have to be the coolest kid on the playground. Like, I, I wish, I want to remove cool from social media. Social media is not cool anymore.
And it doesn’t have to be that’s okay. It’s good. You know, I think Zuckerberg, somebody once asked him like was, he worried about Facebook not being cool anymore? And he was like, electricity used to be cool. Now it’s just electricity. Like that’s, it just becomes a part of your daily life and you don’t even think about it anymore. And I think we’ve kind of hit that, point with social media.
No totally. I think just with, any product that, so a delivery tool for messaging, you really need to find the right balance of what the audience expects of you and what you’re willing to do because if you’re willing to do things that your audience would never expect you to do, they’re kind of surprised and shocked and they might step away.
But if your audience is expecting you to do things that you’re not willing to do, maybe it doesn’t make sense to be on that platform. Then, you know, like that’s the deal with, you know, every new platform that comes out is, Harvard would experiment with things like Giphy, where we knew we had great visuals. And I remember we were the first higher ed institution to be a partner with Giphy and we were uploading a bunch of GIFs and we’re like, this is cool. This is new, it’s different. We’re using them on social. But then as soon as kind of the language of Giphy changed a bit to be like a little bit more out there, it just didn’t make sense for us to be as active as we once were.
We kind of got it started, but then it was like, ah, let’s, let’s look at other things that are more newsy than sort of reaction GIFs that are in your keyboard. so it’s just, it’s you really have to have your, like a sense of the pulse of the customer on that platform and know what they’re expecting you to do.
I’ve seen a lot of brands, just become a social media brand and, you know, I’m sure there’s a lot of thought behind that. A lot of agencies are really seeing the outcomes and saying we should do this. but the hard thing is it’s, it’s really hard to then navigate away from that. If you, if you’re going in that direction with your product, then to steer away from that as a huge pivot and people immediately notice that you’re no longer the same.
So on the side of higher ed social media, higher ed content strategy, like who do you, who do you think the Product Owners should be? Like, in an ideal world cause this, you know, this would be different for every institution or at least will kind of change a little bit. But in an ideal world, like who would own those and be, the person guiding it and, leveraging their, insight over, that product?
Let’s just say you’re in an environment where you can have multiple people on a team. I think if you’re an individual, you ultimately become the Product Owner, no matter what, say you’ve got three or four people that are within your realm, that you can work with I would say the person that is the Product Owner.
So “Product Owner” is a term used in Scrum when setting up sort of a Product Owner, a Scrum Master, and a team. The Product Owner is really there to provide value to the customer. The Scrum Master is about keeping the team moving and getting velocity out of the team and then the team is producing the work.
So really the Product Owner or Product Manager, if you want to go a tier up from that, would ultimately be the one that would control the future vision and the backlog. Meaning, they are the ones combing through everything you could possibly do and choosing the things that are providing the most value.
So if you have someone that’s willing to go out there and talk to customers, so they’re out there talking to students, they’re talking to parents, they’re going to the events on campus and saying, tell me what we could do to improve. It’s that type of person that’s willing to put in that as their effort, and then translate that into user stories or potential features that could be built.
I think that is the Product Owner and you don’t want that person to also be a team member 100%, because what happens is they’re going to decide their time between, should I work on this code or should I work on my backlog and customers? So if you can sort of remove yourself from the daily work, that’s where I think that the huge value comes in.
But yeah, I think the challenging part is a lot of people that want to take on the Product Manager role have been an everything person in the past in some way. It’s the type of person that in group projects, you sort of just by default become the leader of the group and say, let’s, let’s do
Oh, it’s me. It’s me.
Yes. So that type of personality works pretty well. it’s about persuasion. It’s about consistency. It’s about empathy. It’s about, listening to your team and also at the same time, listening to stakeholders, it’s never, being a person that immediately places blame on any one group. Like you really need to take ownership right away, on everything. So, those are the qualities that you need to have, but if you have a person that’s just really, really dead set on, like bringing back customer feedback and saying, we need to do this because I’ve heard X, Y, and Z, that’s the type of person that would immediately try to elevate.
Could we also touch a little bit on specifics of the user journey map, or these journey stories that you kind of create? Especially between social media strategy going into website content strategy, like all the connected pieces there, you know? Like you were talking about earlier, the gray areas between like where products kind of overlap or, start to connect to each other.
I think that’s one of those things that can be confusing in, especially in organizations that don’t take a Product mindset normally to what they’re doing. And I think it would be very helpful for the higher ed crowd, especially listening to this podcast, but, but folks that want to start moving that direction, like what’s a good way to think about those kinds of connected areas? Like starting at social media, which, you know, in some cases, you could say is like the doorstep to the front door, which is the website, which is, you know, eventually leads to a hallway that is the admissions funnel and you know, that sort of thing.
How do we start to think about those connected areas and how to incorporate all of those different channels, micro products, different experiences into a cohesive, larger strategy?
The most common user journey that I’ve seen specific to marketing, which I’ll just start there, typically starts with some sort of awareness into consideration, into conversion. And then into a purchase, most likely, and then it usually ends with some sort of loyalty step of a return visit or advocacy, something like that.
So if you just take that as kind of an overarching view of where your product fits into that, you could take anything you’re doing on social media or on a website and apply that and start to think at each step. There’s kind of a model of at each step, you try to think of what your customer is thinking, doing, and feeling. And if you say, Hey, for our social media account — let’s say Twitter, for example — you can kind of build that model and say, you know, why would our customer be on Twitter? Like, what are they thinking, doing feeling at that step? That’s kind of the consideration phase. and then maybe they might see a tweet from you. And what you think about next is like, what is a conversion on that? Is it a, like, is it a reply? Is it a follow. And then that’s your conversion.
And then you might say, Hey, now we’ve got a follower. What is the purchase step? And maybe a purchase is you’re sharing some sort of article and it’s a full read of the article. Maybe it’s an event that you’re promoting and it’s a registration.
So it doesn’t necessarily be to the exchange of money. You can just think of what that, that purchase might be. And then you could think of loyalty is like, you know, what are those users doing continuously? So what type of return traffic are you getting to your website or what kind of repeat behavior are you seeing from a very specific cohort in your follower base?
So I think, even if you’re only dealing with a small segment of your website, I used to work with the Harvard Gazette news team. So it was a news website for the school, but we had a huge audience and we would think through, you know, what’s our way in which we can gain awareness?
So then we would start to use email newsletters, we would use social media accounts, we would use partnerships, we would use influencers. And then our conversion was really signing up for our email newsletter. Meaning, like it would hit their inbox every single day at that point. But then we actually had a really tough time thinking of what that purchase behavior is. Like, if you’re a blog and you’re not selling anything, it does get really tricky to try to think of what’s a valuable reader versus a casual reader of your site. So there are areas that are tricky.
When you’re in an eCommerce site like I’m working on now, it’s a little bit more clear. So I actually deal with about half of that funnel and another product team deals with more of the eCommerce side of the purchase and delivery.
So it’s a little bit clear there, but, the other thing I’ll throw out too, is this concept of “jobs to be done.” The first model that I talked about was more of like the customer-centric side. But if you think of anything you’re producing from a product side, you think of the job to be done of that thing. So if it’s a piece of content on your website, You immediately need to go to, well, which part of the journey is this helping the customer through? What job is this serving for that customer? You can think of every single social post in the same way. What’s the job to be done here? If you’re telling a joke online you should really think about what is the job we’re trying to do here with this joke?
So that’s the way in which I think of the flow states and the gray areas. Uh, it’s tricky, but, it can be done. I’ve pressure tested it across web, social, email newsletters, all communication channels. You can really force it when you’re pushed in that direction.
Yeah, and I think that’s an important way, to look at it, especially, you know, you just mentioned it like the joke on Twitter, something like that. I always try to illustrate that to stakeholders. Like when you see something that seems kind of frivolous on our social media accounts, that may seem frivolous to you there is a legit reason I’m doing that. I, I have a goal and a purpose for that. And I say this to the smaller accounts, like, don’t do that without a clear purpose for doing that. And I think it’s important that every single post has a job and it’s important in the greater overall scheme of things, not just a post in unto itself. We’ve got to step back and look at the entire story that we’re telling on our social channels.
No, it’s tricky. And it’s also, you know, behind every social account for the most part is a person, and that person has needs and wants too. And it’s hard to disconnect, you know, what that person feels they want to say versus what they should say as the organization. And, um, a lot of times you can kind of hide behind a product when it’s big and complex, but when whatever you hit “send” on goes directly to hundreds of thousands of people, you’re acting as the business and you always have to put your head in that mindset and say like, what is the job this is doing for the business? Not necessarily what is this doing to make me want to see a bunch of mentions in my account in a couple of hours?
I think what’s interesting also about this sort of cycle of awareness, consideration, purchase, and loyalty. When you look at the way institutions tend to run all of their products, I think they separate this out. And so instead of applying that entire cycle to each and every step of the thing that they’re doing — so instead of applying that to social media, and then also applying that same thing to the website, and then also applying that same thing to their email drip campaigns — they say, well, social media is the awareness side.
And I’ll be honest, like, I don’t think that this is, in general, the people that are running these things. I think it comes more like mandated how institutional-level, folks that maybe aren’t marketing folks tend to think about this stuff. But it’s, you know, social media is the awareness, it’s pure advertising. You’re just shouting into the void sort of a thing. And then the website is that consideration part with a little bit of the purchase in there. And then, the loyalty coming back and tying in is once you actually get to the point of being a student.
But it’s important to think that, this can and should be applied to each and every step of the product that you have. Otherwise you just kind of watering down the entire, the entire system there.
Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, the other thing that I think about is content too. Like people tend to treat content as a kind of single-serving thing and don’t see it applying to a whole user journey perspective. So, you know, you’re writing something for social media, a lot of great content strategists are taking a message, J.S., as you said, kind of that first idea of you’re being told what the priorities are. The talent of a content strategist is trying to think how that message could be related at each phase of the user journey and how you can walk someone through a cohesive journey. Hearing similar messaging all the way through, from the time in which they’re told that on social media or a Google search through to the time in which they’re moving into their dorm room.
If you have that ability and are empowered to do that work, it’s really great. But when you’re only focusing on one sliver, you’re kind of trusting every other department to also follow it through. And that’s where it gets really hard and you have to break silos. Um, yeah, it’s, it’s a tough thing.
So within all of that, can we end with maybe some thoughts around how to measure the success or failure of the product that you are building or, or launching? Cause I think that’s where a lot of institutions tend to get a little bit lost, you know? They might have some very smart people on their staff that are saying, Yeah, we need to hit these metrics and, you know, and they’ll achieve it, and that’s great.
But other times it’s just like, what’s valuable or how do you determine kind of what’s valuable enough to say like, yeah, what we did was successful or what we did was not as successful as we wanted it to be. So how do we get it to that next step?
No, it’s, it’s, it’s a great question because that’s really what the whole job of a Product team is, is to show value. So, what I would typically point to, I mean, in normal business practices, you’re looking at a cost-benefit analysis of the thing you’re building. Where I caution people to really travel down that track too far is around like the number of staff hours it takes to work on a thing and trying to calculate that number, ultimately to see like what the value back in is. In higher ed, there’s so many, things that a student experiences before they decide to come in. So, think of how, how hard, like first and last attribution is in Google Analytics, like multiply that by a hundred and say, here’s how a person interacts with our institution before they decide.
But you can get concrete though, um, just a previous experience that I’ve had is, on whether or not to integrate a CMS into a website. And we’re trying to figure out, like, does it make sense for us to do this? What’s the business case to implement a CMS, which could carry costs and could delay, you know, other projects, but ultimately what that will give us.
So I just did a, kind of a, a business case on what that would be. And I looked at things like, what is the amount of developer time dedicated to each content publish, right? So not the fact of like, do we need developers or not? It’s, how much time are they dedicating to that? And if they weren’t dedicating, you know, four to six hours per week publishing content, where could we reuse that energy?
Same thing for like, should we host this on-site or should we, you know, buy into a headless, SaaS tool out there? And look at the pros and cons of each one of those, and you start to weigh the costs and what the benefits would be. And you pretty much present the case in a way that shows that there’s an outcome that at worst is an even split and at best is a very noticeable change, a significant change statistically. But I would say even down to things like say a conversion on a form, you could start to look at, well, how much work do we need to put into this to increase the conversion 10%.
And you might not know what that thing is. It’s never gonna increase to a hundred percent conversion rate, but you could look at your pros and cons and say, look, this one field that people get hung up on. If we were to remove that, what negative impact would that make? Let’s say Marketing, can’t send that one drip campaign, but what would the positive impact be? And that might be, Hey, our conversion might increase 15%.
You run an A/B test. Do you see if it converts and then you go, wow, we were willing to make that trade-off? So I think sometimes you have to go outside of costs, as value is, and sometimes just the outcome value and the trade-offs there. We start every project with, what is the change that this will make, and then is it worth it, and is it feasible to go down this road?
So I think everybody’s going to be in product teams. I will say, the reason I have now become like an evangelist for this is I went to a Scrum training because we were doing a website redesign where the agency that we worked with wanted to work in an Agile, Scrum fashion where I’d sort of be the de facto Product Owner. And I went to a two-day training and I came back to the team and I said, everyone, we’re Scrum. We’re going to do this where we’re all Agile. You’re the Scrum Master on the Product Owner. And I, you know, immediately started like making a Kanban Trello board for everything that I did in life.
And I don’t know. It’s like once you kind of drink the Koolaid a little bit, it just, all of a sudden permeates every aspect of how you want to get things done. So, it’s like a lot of people are doing it, they just don’t know they’re doing it. And once you kind of learn the patterns and learn the thought experiments and other things that you can apply to your work every day, it really, really helps you kind of gain some clarity on what you’re doing every day.
Yeah. So if you want to start working a product mentality into how you do your university work, get your professional development dollars to pay for a two day Scrum training.
Absolutely. No, I have. And if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. And then you’ll know, but, um, yeah, give it a shot. See what, see what works, and let me know on Twitter, if, it’s totally the wrong path and you think that I’m crazy.
All right. Thanks for listening to Thought Feeder. Please give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts that really helps us, promote the show. And we wanna thank Mike for being with us. Mike, do you have any plugs? Where can people find you?
Awesome. Thanks again, Mike.
Thank you guys. This was a lot of fun.