For more marketing insights, visit MarketingTrends.com or subscribe to the Marketing Trends podcast. This article was created in partnership with Campfire Labs, a content marketing agency on a mission to tell stories that inspire.
UX strategy consultant Nathalie Crosbie isn’t a writer. But her writing is featured on Inside Design’s blog and distributed to InVision’s millions of subscribers. And that’s because InVision knows that people don’t want to read about design from content marketers — they want to read about design from designers.
Since they launched in 2011, InVision’s blog properties — Inside Design and DesignBetter.co — have become a go-to source of content, insights, and digital tools for over 2.5 million subscribers around the world. Their content regularly gets hundreds of thousands of hits and is known to designers as the industry standard when it comes to design-focused content.
But what’s most staggering is that only 5% of InVision’s blog content published to date has been written by paid employees or contractors. The other 95% was produced by community contributors.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve reviewed InVision’s content library, listened to and read interviews with their founding team, spoken to a contributor, and analyzed the strategy they used to build one of the most successful content marketing engines in the industry. Here are our findings.
InVision’s Content Origin Story
Originally InVision produced content like almost every other company: they hired a small team of content creators to write blog posts and promote them on social media. Then, in October 2014, the company “inverted their model” and decided to test a bold new idea: rather than produce content in-house or pay freelancers, they would recruit community contributors in the design community to write stories. This was the beginning of their publication, Inside Design.
A few months after the pivot, Kristen Hillery joined the company as an early editor for Inside Design and began reaching out to designers.
She emailed users to ask if they’d be interested in contributing. After that, she spent time reading design blogs and reaching out to writers asking to either re-publish articles she liked or contribute something new to InVision.
According to her, “They always said yes.”
This not only gave InVision a huge stack of content for their website from unique perspectives in the design world, but it also offered built-in distribution. With designers looking to build their brand or thank the platform for publishing their article, contributors were likely to share the articles they wrote on their social media profiles.
As more contributors wrote on the platform, the cumulative distribution from each share amounted to massive growth for InVision’s content. According to Hillery, the blog had about 500,000 subscribers when she joined. InVision added these subscribers over 3 years with a primarily in-house content creation model. After two more years of Hillery’s concentrated efforts on the contributor ecosystem, InVision was up to over 2.5 million subscribers.
Ensuring Quality Content and Supporting Writers
One of the biggest challenges with a contributor model is that the quality of writing is difficult to guarantee. Not everyone who has a smart idea can beautifully write out that idea — especially if they’re not a trained writer. And a low-quality piece of content on a company’s platform reflects poorly on the company even if they didn’t write it in-house.
To combat this challenge, InVision set up an intense support system for contributors, functionally treating them as staff writers.
For starters, the company does not accept all contributions. Aspiring contributors submit a pitch, explaining their story idea and why it’s important or interesting to the design community. With this step alone, InVision protects its brand from bad-fit contributed pieces.
Nathalie Crosbie, a UX strategy consultant and contributor to Inside Design, was attracted to the blog because of InVision’s prominence in the market. I had the chance to connect with Crosbie, and she shared with me the two things that led her to want to contribute: the fact that their blog is well-known and that “InVision is an industry-standard tool for the UX industry.”
When a new contributor joins the community, the InVision team sends them resources to level set on editorial guidelines and expectations for the piece. This not only ensures consistency for InVision’s brand but also helps the contributor produce better content from the start. It’s a strategic win-win on a number of levels:
- InVision can stay lean since an editorial resource is a “make once, distribute many times” piece of content with zero marginal cost.
- Contributors gain valuable insight into what InVision wants and get advice on becoming a better writer, which helps build a sense of community and value exchange with the writers, who are then more likely to contribute again and share their work.
- InVision increases the chances of a contributed piece being high quality before anyone in-house puts major effort in.
After a draft comes in, the InVision team edits the article and offers feedback to the contributor. Since InVision hires experienced professionals for their content teams, contributors gain invaluable feedback. The process also goes back and forth, so that both parties have their say.
Crosbie noted that she got “lots of help” from the InVision team to make her writing better and ensure that she told her story in the best way possible.
She explained to me that the editorial team helped her not only edit the article but even offered to purchase images if need be, so the article could really stand out. She also said she got to give final approval before the article was published. Contrast that to other contributor platforms and you begin to see why InVision’s contributors are so happy.
After publishing, InVision promotes the content as much as possible: on social media, through email, and in person at conferences or other speaking events. Crosbie said that once her contributed article went live, InVision “promoted it through their newsletter list of recently published posts,” which Hillery noted in an interview had millions of subscribers.
The promotional benefit goes two ways, of course. Crosbie also shared her article on her own social media channels. Distribution is tough for marketers, and paid distribution channels are increasingly expensive, so having a built-in community distribution tool helps with ROI on editorial resources. By making the article look fantastic and read smoothly, InVision is investing in the idea that a contributor will be more proud to share their article — and others.
In Crosbie’s case, she shared her article, and she also shared other articles from Inside Design, giving InVision a great organic distribution boost.
This double-win is precisely what InVision planned for. Clair Byrd, the former director of content marketing for InVision, explained in an ask-me-anything (AMA) with GrowthHackers: “We found that making contributors look really sexy was super helpful,” she said. “We made our blog beautiful and we leveraged existing assets (email list, press network, etc) to pump up the impact of each blog post.”
A Contributed R&D Strategy
InVision’s in-house content team is still lean, with only about 65 of their over 1,000 employees on LinkedIn working in either marketing or content roles. Based on recent job postings, the in-house team primarily writes content about their customers and creates long-form content for InVision’s other properties like DesignBetter. They focus on topics like how clients solve problems or issues clients face with industry influencers. And, of course, they encourage clients to contribute to the blog.
But when it comes to fleshing out a full content strategy — for their podcast or video library, for example — the team leverages data from contributed pieces.
“Contributed content strategies are a beautiful thing for R&D,” said Byrd during the AMA. “First, we know what our customers are interested in seeing and hearing about because they are the ones creating the content. Second, we can test themes quickly and cheaply because, again, the content is contributed. We can see based on performance what things work for us, and double down on those topics in different forms (video, long format content, etc).”
In other words, they look at analytics from their contributor content library and see what topics are performing best. They pick the winning outliers and double down on those topics by producing more articles, featuring the topic in their podcast, or making a video about it. Instead of spending a lot of money on user research, InVision’s strategy enables the organization to get deep insight with little overhead.
Becoming a Content Powerhouse
Having a company blog is nothing new: Stripe has Increment, Casper has Woolly, and InVision has Inside Design.
InVision’s uniqueness — and the thing that took InVision from a humble blog to a content powerhouse — lies in its openness to contributed content where other companies keep content production heavily gated. Taking a brand risk like accepting contributed content is not something to be taken lightly since poor content can destroy a brand as much as great content can build it up. InVision has mitigated this risk by setting content quality standards and providing an infrastructure of editorial support for contributors.
Where InVision really wins, though, is how they support, promote, and celebrate their contributors in a way that builds up both the writers and InVision. Contributors gain a voice in their community, they instantly become thought leaders, and they become better writers in the process. Along the way, InVision gets to rapidly scale its content library with offerings they know their target audience will love — since their target audience wrote it.
This article was created in partnership with Campfire Labs, a content marketing agency on a mission to tell stories that inspire.
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