How Intercom’s blog stays relevant: Scaling content without losing your core readers

This is the Part two (part one here) of a three part series with John Collins, Managing Editor at Intercom. We chatted with John to learn about the topics that he knows best — managing content at a SaaS startup. You can listen to the entire conversation on the What I Know Best podcast, be sure to subscribe to learn from other experts across the Quibb network in coming weeks.

Intercom’s blog is one of the most respected startup blogs today. Their content is highly relevant across product, design, and marketing, and is looked to by people at companies of all stages. Their approach to content means that what they wrote years ago is still highly relevant — even as both they themselves and their customer base has grown and evolved. How have they managed this difficult task? We chatted with John about what this process has looked like, through his eyes running Intercom’s content for the past two years.

First principles

With all of the buzziness of content and content marketing these days, it’s important to start with the basics — including exactly what ‘content’ is. John has a very unique definition of content, which is the foundation for his amazing work at Intercom. For John, “…content is anything that has editorial value that can be read, consumed, viewed, and independently…. it’s not tied to a product”. What’s compelling about this definition is that the key component is ‘editorial value’, via a variety of media. This is essential to how they’ve been able to create top-notch quality that has become required reading for people in roles across product, design, operations, sales, content, and all other functional areas that Intercom’s content touches on.

John’s definition is also unique because it doesn’t mention any directives with respect to the company creating the content. There’s no mention of driving customers or leads, words like ‘conversion’ or ‘engagement’ are noticeably absent. John believes his journalism background informs this understanding of the value of content, as created by a company. It’s also one of the things that he finds most tech companies forget when creating their content — it’s oftentimes too focused on the ‘me’.

“No one actually cares about you. They want to know how to do their job better. They want to know how to make themselves look good in front of their boss. There are the kind of things that people care about. Are you producing content that helps them do that? If you’re not, I think you’re wasting your time.”

Spotting gold

John’s role at Intercom is almost like that of an embedded journalist. He has exclusive access to people, conversations, and decisions that no one else does. His ability to identify and create compelling narratives from these interactions is one of the core reasons behind Intercom’s content success. Drawing from his experience as a journalist, John can recognize the components of what makes for an interesting story.

“ It’s my job to get to know the organization, get to know what’s going on inside of Intercom, know what’s going on the product roadmap and go, “Hey, this is interesting. We should be writing about this. We should be sharing this with our customers.” ”

In 2015, John worked on a post on Intercom’s blog about an internal decision process on whether to use folders or tags for a feature they were designing. It’s done incredibly well, even though at first glance the idea of ‘folders versus tags’ appears incredibly dry. Being inside of Intercom, John was able to recognize that this decision a designer had made related to a much broader, more compelling conversation, one that had been buzzing across the company and with designers working in tech, many of them new/current Intercom customers. There was an opportunity to share an interesting case study and story around how Intercom was seeing this in their own work, and add to the conversation in a meaningful way with broadly applicable lessons for any reader.

“I suppose the universal takeaway from people is, okay, design patterns. Do you just default to what the current hot design pattern is, or how do you actually go back to brass tacks, go back to first principles and think about what our customers are trying to achieve? Then designing something in the product that’s going to help them achieve that. I think because we tried to make it so relatable, because we tried to make it so universally applicable, that’s why it was so popular. It goes back to that thing about I’m not a subject matter expert, but I know a good story, or I know an interesting story when I see it.”

Holding your team and content to high standards

The only real way that your content can last, and become the solid foundation that you need over time, is if the core characteristic you’re optimizing for is quality. This has always been a core tenet of how John has run content at Intercom, and is one of the main reasons why he believes that the content Intercom puts out is so well respected — and also why it’s been such a successful strategy.

The standards that John and his team hold themselves to are not always easy to reach. On several occasions, the editorial calendar was ignored because the team wasn’t satisfied with the quality of a certain piece compared to the standards they’d set for themselves.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to be one of those companies that’s going to be putting out 2 to 3 posts a day. I think we have a nice cadence at the moment. We try and publish 3 or 4 times a week. If something isn’t of the quality that it needs to be, we’ll actually hold back, rather than saying, “Well, we have to publish today.” That’s a key, just keeping that quality bar. ”

These standards aren’t simply given lip service either. In order to be actionable and to give people guidelines around what is expected of the content that Intercom creates, there’s an internal document that everyone on the content team refers to. It also explicitly states the editorial values and mission of Intercom, core components of defining what the company defines as ‘quality content’. This document has been — and will continue to be — central to how Intercom has scaled their successful content today, and hopefully into the future.

“ Editorial values are the key to scaling, as far as I’m concerned. Knowing what your editorial mission is, what’s your bar for quality. We’ve pulled posts that we’ve put a lot of time in, because we just said, “This isn’t working. It just feels wrong. It just doesn’t feel Intercom.” We have a document internally for our content team in terms of the quality and standards we expect. ”

Beyond blog posts

One of the key activities that John has been involved with has been to explore different formats for Intercom to communicate with their customers and readers. Again — quality and a clear understanding of what represents ‘quality’ has been key to their successful launches of other content types:

“I think what we’ve done is we try to have the same values and same bar for quality in terms of our content. Then what we’ve done is we’ve obviously gone into new channels, new media. When I joined, we just had the blog. ”

This is obvious in Intercom’s first book, titled Intercom on Product Management. This format is notorious for being abused, often lazily mashing together blog posts from across years, with different perspectives, different authors — leading to something that may generate clicks, but not necessarily praise. John noted: “ I see a lot of books being produced, e-books, and they’re just a collection of blog posts. They feel like a collection of blog posts and they look like a collection of blog posts. I question how much value they have after people download them. We were key that we didn’t do that.” The format has been successful for Intercom, with the launch of two other books in a similar format as the first. The quality standards continue to be applied to these publications, with all three receiving overwhelmingly positive responses after their release.

Reaching their audience beyond the written word is another strategy that has worked well for Intercom as they’ve scaled their content operations. This has led to the launch of a podcast, focused on conversations with product managers, designers, marketing, and other startup professionals. There are also some live events that Intercom has done in the past, and it’s a piece of their content puzzle that John is hoping to expand in 2016.

When your customers grow and change

As Intercom has grown, so has their audience. The types of people that now use Intercom has expanded, as have the features that those new customers require. This has meant that John and his team have had to expand the type of content that they work on, to ensure that they’re delivering value to all Intercom customers across a broad spectrum of stage of company and role.

Early startup folks formed the initial core of people who really loved Intercom’s content. That group was the one that many of their early blog posts spoke to directly, and it was their guidance and tone with that group that led to the solid foundation of readers that led to the blog’s success.

“Initially it would have been early founding teams. It was startup people. It was our peers and product people as well, I suppose. They were product builders. That’s why they wanted to use Intercom. That’s why they were interested in lessons that Intercom had learnt along the way in terms of building a product or managing a product.”

While this relationship has been great, it’s also been challenging. As Intercom grows and expands their customer base, how do they satisfy the content needs of those new customers while not alienating this early core group? The way they’ve tackled this problem has been a bit meta — as Intercom itself has grown and expanded, they’ve been able to draw upon their own experiences and create content for their growing customer base.

As an example, previously Intercom wasn’t overly focused on the sales function inside of the company. Once this became a core role inside of Intercom, it made sense to share the lessons of that new role, as they had done with all other roles across the company.

“Russ, our VP of sales, wrote a lot about how sales was changing and how the model of sales needed to change. Obviously, that’s the model we’re using at Intercom. Kelly, who heads up our ADR team on the sales team, our account development representatives, she wrote about the crazy growth that her team has gone through, and how do you actually hire people rapidly? How do you compensate people in this world where you want sales to be much more about a relationship, not about selling the product and run for the hills?”

It’s a difficult challenge. John notes, “As we’ve grown, there’s been more happening in the company that we can write about. I suppose that the challenge for us is how we write about, being at the stage we are at as a company, but also still writing content that resonates with those early stage people.”. Understanding how to make progress on this problem has impacted how John and the other people on his content team work day-to-day. It’s common for the content team to map out, explicitly on the Editorial Calendar, which functional role a certain piece of content will target (i.e. this post will be focused on sales, this one on customer service, etc.).

This overlay of these types of focus areas is important, but is supplementary to the foundation content that Intercom has created over its lifespan — writing for “…people who are interested in the journey and the challenges that you face building a software company, building a great software company. That’s really what we’re trying to do at Intercom. We’re really happy to share what we’ve learnt along the way.” Irrespective of which exact role someone is in, what size company they’re at, what stage that company is currently in, John and his team work hard to share detailed insights on what they’ve found works for Intercom, sharing the knowledge that they’ve worked hard to amass.

The best (unintended) bit of feedback John has received on a piece of Intercom content came from someone else at the company, clearly reflecting a sense of value that John and his team work so hard to build:

“Actually, it was really interesting. One of the comments someone left on that post when we were working on it in the Google Doc stage was, “Wow, I wish someone had written this article 3 years ago when we were starting Intercom.” It’s something that stuck with me. It’s a great piece of advice to think about when you’re looking at an article.“ ”
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