John Collins says Intercom had a pretty successful blog when he brought his journalism experience to the company in 2014. As Director of Content, he now manages a team that’s split between two continents and works with Intercom employees around the world. He spoke to Wonder Shuttle about having the content investment come from the top and breaking through the noise of the content marketing industry.
How has Intercom’s content evolved since you joined the company?
I came in with a lot of my background as a journalist, mostly covering tech and business for close to 20 years. I inherited the blog and social media. I added podcasts to that, when it was kind of like, “Oh, will people be interested in a branded podcast?” Slack launched their podcast the same day as we did. It’s almost like the podcast is the new blog these days, but five years ago that wasn’t quite as obvious.
Then I also added gated content. There was definitely an era where almost everything was gated. People would produce a spreadsheet-macro-template thing and it would be like, “Give us your email address, and your mother’s maiden name, and all this information if you want to get it.” And it just didn’t feel like a fair value exchange.
So we didn’t rush into gated content, we wanted to establish the quality of our content and trust with the people who were reading and using it. We started to do books, which have been huge for us. One of our books is not a 30- or 40-page PDF, it’s a 20,000- to 30,000-word publication. It’s something that we spend probably three to four months working on. It’s got an ISBN number, it’s available in multiple formats, we do print versions. And then we feel like, “Well, OK. To get that, give us an email address and let’s actually start some kind of relationship that hopefully, if there’s a good fit, will end up in you becoming a loyal and happy customer.”
We are a team of 11 now, split between San Francisco and Dublin. In the last year, we’ve started to add more things behind the scenes. We now do a lot of work like sales enablement and supporting campaigns that the broader marketing team would be doing.
It sounds like there’s a lot on your team’s plate as far as content.
I think everyone has this problem in content marketing, where you have to define it very quickly: what does content do and what doesn’t content do? Once I made the joke, “If you want short content, if you want a small number of words, we’re not your people. We’re the people who write 1,200 words or more.” And it kind of started as a joke but then actually, it’s not a bad rule of thumb for what the content marketing team does.
One of our consistent topics is how companies are investing in content by hiring journalists and editors. It sounds like you’ve really developed a specific system where you focus on the long-form editorial and other departments do the other types of writing.
I feel a little bit of imposter syndrome sometimes when people come in and they go, “It’s such an amazing content program you’ve set up an Intercom.” The major, major advantage I had coming in here was that the founders got it, understood it and did it. So it wasn’t just a case of co-founders Des Traynor and Eoghan McCabe saying, “Let’s do content.” They were writing it. Des wrote 93 of the first 100 blog posts on Inside Intercom.
Not only that, but I think it was very easy then to get people to see that actually creating content was a core part of their job and actually benefited the business. It’s really, really weird that content is the only type of marketing that people are going like, “Oh, I’m just going to do that in my spare time. I’m going to do that on the weekend or in the evenings.” When you say you have to invest in it, they kind of balk.
That’s never been a problem here at Intercom. Because it came from the top, it really opened so many doors for me here.
I read your piece from a couple years ago on the term content marketing, and I found it really interesting as I transitioned from journalism into my first marketing-related job. It was nice to read about people who want to put the content first. Is that still going on?
It’s the only way I know to break through the noise, particularly on the consultancy side. It’s in very good faith, but consultants can finish their engagement and the content program dies in some way or fizzles out. The reality is that a lot of the content that gets created as part of that process never sees the light of day.
A big issue is that a lot of people are worrying too much about the marketing that goes around it, like distribution hacks or almost shortcut techniques to create a lot of content. I’m not suggesting that you just create cool content and everything’s done. You still have to do all the marketing work, but it becomes much easier if you put the content first.
It’s hard work. You have to invest in people, either on staff or freelancers or contractors. You need to give them the time to create good content; that is expensive. But the great thing about content is it has compounding returns and it continues to deliver, even after you stop creating it. I don’t think any other kind of marketing pays off like that.
With the structure of your team and the development over the years, have you moved up into more of a managerial position? Or do you still get to do a lot of the hands-on work?
No, I don’t. As the joke goes, as you get more senior in an organization, you spend your time creating presentations and decks. For the first year, I was the content team. I edited every blog post. The first two books were definitely written by myself and Des.
There were 60 people at Intercom when I started in April 2014, there’s over 600 now. If you’ve actually done it and been there as the function has grown, you have such a huge advantage. Even though I don’t get to do much writing or editing day to day, having done it before and knowing what works and what resonates is hugely valuable for me.
Other than metrics, what are you looking for in terms of successful content?
We do tend to write longer, but I feel that there’s a respect for the reader, there’s a respect for people’s time. It’s hard to get people to write or read stuff, we’re a B2B SaaS company. The worst thing you can do is waffling on and not getting to the point.
We have a bunch of brand attribute that we apply to all our marketing. But it’s that kind of authenticity that we’re really keen on. Don’t pad something out just because you’re effectively trying to fill a space or you feel like you should. Say it in as many words as it needs and no more than that.
We also like to make sure there’s a little bit of a spark to what we do. We still do an awful lot of content about product and design, and we don’t sell to product managers or designers, but that’s our heritage. We are product-first, or traditionally have been product-first, and so it just feels on brand. That’s something the elaborate KPIs or metrics will not tell you to do.
A lot of the writing is actually bylines throughout the company. Does your team work with Intercom employees to write about the topics they specialize in?
Absolutely. As I always say, no one really cares what marketers think about something, unless you’re writing about marketing. If it’s about sales techniques, they want to hear from the sales team.
What that looks like will vary widely. We have some people who are just fantastic writers. It’s almost like when I was back working as a desk editor in the journalism world where, when you’re working with a good writer, it’s a dream. You get in a piece and you don’t have to do that much to it, and it really shines.
We have other people who are 100% experts in their job, but they’re just not great writers, and so we might interview them and write up a piece. We might literally come into a room and whiteboard something. We’re the experts in communication and writing, so we bring those tools to bear. How can we support them in getting the best article or the best podcast or whatever it is we’re producing out of them? But they should be able to focus on what they know and what they’re comfortable with.