About the episode
Intercom is a heavyweight in the content marketing world. Their practical, hands-on articles are popular among marketers, product managers, developers, and more.
In this episode, we go behind the scenes of Intercom’s content strategy with senior editor Sara Yin. She joined host Matthew Kammerer to talk about how to get subject matter experts to contribute to the blog, how content fits within the larger marketing team, and approaching content specifically for demand generation.
You can connect with Sara on Twitter.
- [04:00]How does Intercom manage a content strategy with so many different topics?
- [08:10]How do you coach non-writers to write blog articles?
- [10:45]How does the content team fit within the larger marketing team?
- [13:45]Is the process for creating demand gen content different than other types of content?
- [16:50]What are the results of Intercom’s test to release e-books chapter by chapter?
- [19:25]What is the best way for content and demand gen teams to work together?
- [22:04]What challenges are senior editors facing right now?
Episode is brought to you by
Matthew KammererShow Host
Matthew: How did you get your start in marketing?
Sara: So, I’ve never been one of those people who knew what they wanted to do when they grew up, but I knew I’ve always loved reading and writing about people. So like a lot of content marketers out there, my career actually began as a journalist.
I was a journalist for the first few years. I worked at Men’s Health, I worked at South China Morning Post. My last journalism gig was at PC Magazine. That was the first time I’ve really had any experience with the tech industry, and I think they gave me the role that nobody really wanted at the time which was specializing in Android apps and mobile security software.
It led me into this rabbit hole of talking to some of the smartest people at Android and security firms, and I got sucked into the optimism and culture that Silicon Valley has about improving yourself and improving how you do things and how you work.
From there, that’s when I started working in the tech industry and found myself at Atlassian back in 2012. This was a time when it was trendy to hire journalists in house and so I was able to join as a content marketer over there. I stayed there for a year and moved over to Intercom with a bunch of other former Atlassians. And I’ve been here for just over four years now.
Matthew: That’s forever in internet years.
Sara: It is! It really is.
Matthew: That’s a really cool journey. What was the biggest change in content marketing since you first started doing it at Atlassian?
Sara: I think for me one of the biggest shifts that occurred from moving to Atlassian to Intercom was that at Atlassian we took a very persona-driven approach to marketing where you started out by defining who are the segments of people that you are targeting with your content, and I think that might have been indicative of the maturity of Atlassian at the time. But when I joined Intercom, they didn’t talk about personas at all. We were using something called Jobs To Be Done methodology and approach to content, which is more defining what job your target audience wants to do with your product and trying to create content that communicates how our product does that job well.
Matthew: It’s a big shift. Atlasisan has so many products they have to fit against. Where you working on one product in particular or across multiple?
Sara: I was working across multiple, I was in charge of the customer stories over there. So writing stories about JIRA and Grasshopper… there’s 13 products and I’ve forgotten them all.
Matthew: Let's talk about how content fits into the organization at Intercom. Your blog touches on a ton of different topics, how are those decided?
Sara: The verticals we have on the blog are a reflection of a couple things. One is who we sell to and that’s a decision that’s made at a higher level, above product and marketing. That’s why we have categories like sales and marketing and support. Those are our three core audiences.
But we also have verticals that reflect places where we have strong thought leadership and unique ways of working. So, for us that’s engineering. We don’t sell to engineers at all but we have a super strong engineering culture. We have a lot of engineers and a great culture around sharing what we learn, so that’s why we have the engineering category, the product design category, the product management category. These are places where we have unique things to say.
In terms of how we thought of these categories, they’ve quite naturally changed over the years, but I wish I could say there was a really sophisticated way that we thought of it. It was really a matter of hopping into a meeting room and whiteboarding up some ideas.
Matthew: How do you juggle a content strategy for so many different topics?
Sara: This gets to one thing that we do quite differently on our blog compared to other companies. The bylines for almost every single blog post is not from a content marketer, it’s from people working within the company. Part of that is we really strongly believe that the practitioners should be creating the ideas and have the most valuable things to say. I can’t imagine why a product manager would listen to my advice about creating a great product, I’ve never done anything like that before.
The way that we’ve been able to manage this is having a strong top-down culture of sharing what we’ve learned and writing about it. Our blog, which is what the content team is probably best known for, was actually founded on day 0 by our cofounder Des Traynor. He wrote the first 99 blog posts that we have. It was really just him sitting down at a computer and typing down his thoughts and learnings as he was helping to build Intercom.
For a lot of new employees, their first point of contact even before they join Intercom is actually the blog. It’s almost self-selected, the people who join are the people who have already bought into the culture of wanting to share what they’ve learned with the industry. I think the cultural aspect is really, really important. As a content marketer, I feel so blessed that it is really something that is bought into from the very beginning. This is also reinforced by managers who encourage their teams to write for the blog and will even add it to their goals.
Another thing that’s a bit more organizational on the content team is we see ourselves as more editors and even writing coaches versus people who actually write. Probably the easiest thing for us to do would be to sit down and write our own content. You know, I’d write ten tips for building products. We very deliberately choose to be editors, so we’re paired with a practitioner within the company. So say a product manager wants to write a blog post, an editor will be paired with that person and help them fine tune their outline and drafts and help them put their best voice forward on the blog.
Matthew: How do you go about coaching someone who is a non-writer? What are your best tips around that process? I’m just trying to think of how I can get my team to write more.
Sara: One really useful thing that we do, especially for the more reluctant writers, is that the editor will meet with the writer in the very beginning and talk through an outline. I think that process really helps to clarify a person’s thinking, clarifies their thesis and really simplifies what they’re really trying to say. Often times when they pitch you a story, it doesn’t necessarily bring out the most compelling points.
Matthew: I see your content pieces shared so frequently, especially in the sales sector. How do you go about creating that content that people want to share? Maybe it’s natural?
Sara: It’s definitely not natural. I think there’s a couple things we do. And sales is a new sector for us, and trying to find that same groove in creating sales content that we’ve had for previous segments like product management and design has been extremely challenging for us, so it’s cool to hear that you’re seeing it shared.
The way that the editors work on that specific area now is we do a lot of interviewing internally just trying to capture the thinking of how our sales leaders think about modern selling tactics. It was through sales that we began looking more outwardly as well, trying to figure out how some of the best sales practitioners in the industry think about selling their products and overcome different challenges.
The process so far has been really trying to dive into the industry and understand what are some of the genuine challenges that today’s sales practitioners face and what are some of the unique and impactful ways that people are overcoming them these days.
So that’s one part of it. Another thing that you might see across a lot of our content in the last few years is we have an amazing brand design team to work with us and support our work. If you’ve seen the design, they’re anything but conventional B2B illustrations. I think the way that they interpret the content we hand over to them has really made it shine and helps it go viral.
Matthew: So, content works a lot with other teams to write blog posts and things like that. How does the content team fit within the larger marketing team?
Sara: I’ll start off by saying that more than at most B2B companies, content marketing is a really core part of our DNA. Within marketing, content plays two roles. One is driving demand, this is where we work with the demand generation team to create content offers that fit within a larger business campaign. And especially in the first few years, our blog was the first meaningful place where a lot of our self serve customers learned about Intercom, whether that was through thought leadership blog posts or some of our more tactical guides.
The second role that is plays is in brand marketing. Our editorial calendar certainly goes beyond just creating content that talks about our products and problems we’re trying to solve. You’ll see us regularly creating content as a way for our employees to express themselves and some of the lessons that they’ve learned. Again, that’s a reflection of our culture of wanting to share and help our industry grow.
Matthew: How does content marketing fit into the marketing strategy overall? How do you get people to move from a reader to a subscriber to a prospect and so on?
Sara: I wish I could tell you that we’ve figured it out. That’s a growing process for us here.
One part of your answer speaks to one of our ongoing challenges which is just visibility into how people are using our content at the moment and what touchpoints that they’ve viewing your content on. That’s sort of a data analytics thing that’s constantly being worked on.
Matthew: So how do you measure content success?
Sara: In the early years, it was a lot of the standard metrics like pageviews, time on page, engagement, open rates, the very usual stuff. As our analytics continues to become more sophisticated and we get more insight into how content falls through the funnel, we’re starting to track things like MQLs, number of leads captured, and can even start putting a dollar value onto our content.
Matthew: Let’s dive into sharing that success. Are you building out dashboards and spreadsheets?
Sara: We shoot an email to everybody who has been involved in the content project. We’ll show all sorts of metrics such as how many people viewed the piece of content, how many new leads were acquired, how many MQLs we received to date.
We do that not just to share the results and pat ourselves on the back but it’s also just very encouraging for other stakeholders who aren’t on the team but participated in the project to see that their efforts have produced something tangible.
Matthew: This season, I’m especially digging into how teams use content for growth. How do you approach content made for demand generation at Intercom?
Sara: When it comes to content specifically for demand gen campaigns, the high-level business goal is set by demand gen. Say it’s we need to drive X number of leads this quarter, that’s the first step.
The second step is the fun part. It’s where we collaboratively brainstorm on different types of content that can be used to meet that goal. It’s always kind of fascinating to see how a demand gen person thinks through content ideas versus a more editorially-driven content person comes up with ideas.
Often it falls along the lines of: content person will say, “Hey, we should create a book for this.” whereas the demand gen person might say, “Hey, we should create a short landing page with three sentences to solve the exact same problem.” It’s just fascinating.
I think out of that brainstorming process we will come up with a consensus or even better idea that meets two needs: one is it solves the goal for the demand generation person and solves the goal of trying to improve Intercom’s brand cache and feels like an Intercom piece of content.
Matthew: Talking about ebooks, that's something that Intercom's content team consistently does so well. How do you get the guest writers to contribute chapters on those?
Sara: First we ask ourselves who our heros are in a certain topic. For example, in the Sales Handbook, we featured a bunch of sales practitioners that we look up to. For a guest writer, one of the hardest obstacles to saying yes to something is having to write a whole new piece for another company on top of your existing workload. So sometimes what we’ll do is we’ll look for a great blog post or piece of content that they wrote in the past and ask them to repurpose or repackage that in a way that would work for our content.
Matthew: It’s funny that you brought up the Sales ebook. I actually downloaded that a few days ago.
Sara: Oh, cool. That was a fun one. It’s the first time that we distributed a book in parts. We did a chapter a week instead of all at once.
Matthew: I didn’t even realize that it was broken out into parts. So, when I downloaded the 89-page download, I got it after the fact?
Sara: Yes, you did. This was a marathon of a promotional effort that took place in September.
Matthew: So tell me what you learned from that. What was the difference in a weekly release versus one big dump?
Sara: My colleague just did a great write-up on it. One thing that we noticed was that there was tons of momentum in the first couple chapters and a fraction of momentum for the latter few chapters. I think part of it is when you’re announcing something for the first time, you’re going to get the most excitement and traffic.
We released this in five parts, so I think that maybe by the fourth or fifth part, people were tired of hearing of hearing about it. That was a fascinating learning because what we were hoping or expecting to get a sustained buzz across all five chapters. That’s not how it turned out.
Matthew: So is it worth trying again?
Sara: We haven’t concluded. TBD. But I will say that for the folks involved it was a marathon of an effort. The amount of content that we put out was if we had just released one book at once, but the amount of promotional effort that went in for five weeks in a row was five times more than we usually do.
Matthew: Does your team lead the promotional effort on social, and how else is that pushed out?
Sara: It’s a mix of organic and paid. Our team manages all of the organic promotional tactics such as social, email, our own messenger, our blog. The demand gen team supports this with paid promotion.
We’re bringing the demand gen voice earlier into the content creation process. So even in the very first or second kickoff meetings when we’re trying to figure out what kind of content we want to create and what the topic is, we love to have a demand gen voice in the room because they’re thinking far ahead. Like who do we need to sell to in two quarters’ time, and what kind of business goals do I need to meet in two quarters’ time? If there’s a way to marry both goals, that’s where you create the juiciest content marketing.
Matthew: So, let’s speak really high level about content marketing and demand gen teams. What’s the best way for those teams to work together without butting heads?
Sara: Such a good question because it’s a challenge that we’re currently facing as our demand gen muscle has been built out a lot over the past year. I think a healthy mutual respect for what each team brings to the table. On the content side of things, it’s recognizing that working with a demand gen person lets you get your content to produce real results versus just creating content for the sake of creating content.
On the demand generation side of things, I think recognizing that maybe an editorial person has a more creative solution or a more interesting way to tell a story that meets that goal that you have.
Matthew: It sounds like it’s a more recent transition to have DR more close to content creation. Is there one big takeaway that you’ve gained from that besides the mutual respect?
Sara: So, one of my biggest takeaways from working with demand gen on various projects is definitely create a DACI chart from the very beginning. DACI is a decision-making framework, it stands for Driver, Improver, Contributors, and Informed.
Where a lot of contention comes in between the two teams is when you try to decide who the driver should be. Should demand gen be the one setting the narrative and the type of content, or should that be the content person?
Personally, I think the answer is the driver shifts throughout the course of a project. What that means is in the very beginning, the driver is the demand gen person because they’re setting the high-level goals and outcomes, but then when it comes to creating the content itself, that’s where the content person needs to step in and drive the narrative and even what the look and feel and tone should be. You see the content and demand gen roles switch throughout between being a driver and contributor.
Matthew: Beyond the evolution of measurement and demand gen in content, are there any other challenges that you're facing as a senior editor right now?
Sara: I think something that keeps everyone on our team up at night is how do we keep the stature of our blog as strong as it was in the very early days, especially as our audiences are evolving and becoming more sophisticated, and becoming bigger.
That cute startup blog that we had in the very beginning is not going to reach the same types of audiences that we want to reach going forward for the next 5-10 years.
Matthew: Sara, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today about how content marketing is evolving. To wrap things up, do you have any advice you'd like to give to marketers looking to grow in their careers?
Sara: I’d like to plead for the content industry as a whole to continue being more story and narrative driven versus falling prey to numbers and metrics and data points. Once you start aiming for that exclusively, it’s very easy to do that via clickbait and pumping out tons of content that maybe has tons of typos. As content marketers, continue having pride even as you go through big scaling changes because nobody else is going to look out for the typos.