Do you find it hard to find fresh ideas for your content? My guest today will tell you how to generate content that will resonate with your audience.
Today we have John Collins, Director of Content at Intercom. In this episode, you will learn how to spark emotion through content, get buy-ins from your boss, and the methods to produce bold content ideas.
Listen to the episode:
- Why companies just started noticing the power of content in the past couple of years
- Why content is fundamental in today’s marketing
- The first step to getting started in content marketing
- When you should NOT do content marketing
- How to create an authentic, emotion sparking content
- Why SEO should not be the focal point of content creation
- Intercom blog
- Eoghan McCabe
- Des Traynor
- Brian Dean
- Tomasz Tunguz
- The Compounding Returns of Content Marketing
- Lessons Learned From Scaling A Product Team
- Growth TL;DR
- The Drum
- John’s LinkedIn
- John’s Twitter
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour and welcome to another episode of everyonehatesmarketers.com, the no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast for marketers, marketing consultants, founders and tech people who are just sick of shady aggressive marketing. I’m our host, Louis Grenier. In today’s episode, you learn how to build a successful content marketing program without silver bullets or shitty growth hacks. My guest today is the director of content at Intercom. You probably have heard of this company before, they’re a customer messaging platform. My guest is a former journalist and editor. Intercom is now eight years old, almost nine years old pretty soon. They have 30,000 plus paying customers globally. They’ve raised a ton of funding. They have offices everywhere.
Louis: What’s really interesting about my guest is that, as I said, he’s a former journalist, editor. He has more than 20 years of experience covering tech, business. He’s been mentioned in a lot of publication and he now leads the team who produce Intercom’s blog, podcast, book, social media, et cetera, et cetera. So, super happy to have you John Collins on the show. Welcome.
John: Thank you very much, Louis. Delighted to be here. I was listening to that intro and going, “Who is this smart, clever guy who’s going to be on?” I thought, “Do I recognized him?”
Louis: Yeah, and to me as I was saying just before we started to record this episode, I’ve seen your face pop up a lot online, and that’s probably testament to the good work you’ve been putting as Intercom but also as you. I think you’ve led the way in a few ways in terms of content marketing in the recent years and it’s good to have you on the show. Everyone’s talking about content marketing nowadays, right? Everyone. Every single company seems to say, “We need to do content.”
Louis: And frankly, from my side who follows marketing a lot and talk to people a lot, it feels almost very redundant. It feels almost like why are we waking up just now, or the last few years, about the power of content while the smartest companies in the world seem to have done that for almost ever? I want to hear more from you. Why do you feel companies just are kind of slowly waking up to the power of actually helping people through content?
John: Yeah, it’s an interesting one. You said companies are waking up to doing content, and actually that always kind of worries me. I think it’s a bit of a tell when people contact me and they want to come and pick my brains or the team’s brains about how we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved with content marketing at Intercom, because they’ll say, “We want to do content.” It’s almost this idea of they want to check a box. They want to tick a box. If somebody comes to me and says, “We want to invest in content. We want to build a content team.” I’m all ears. But when people say they want to do content, I’m always a little bit suspicious because I really think it indicates this attitude of, “We’ll just tick the box. Hey, Hubspot did it. It worked for them. It can work for us.”
John: I mean, I was quite lucky at Intercom. When I joined Intercom, the company was nearly two and a half years old. Two of the founders, Eoghan, the CEO and Des Traynor, the chief strategy officer, really, really had a vision and believed what content could do for the company. Des didn’t just have that belief, but he actually… He walks the walk as well as talks the talk, because he actually wrote the first 93 of 100 blog posts on the intercom blog before I arrived on the scene. I think that’s what you need. You need a client, or a company if you’re going to go in-house, who really is going to invest in content. It’s tough and it’s not glamorous work. I think that’s probably why we hear a lot of people talking about content, but to actually embrace it fully, more than maybe to launch a blog and it runs for six or eight weeks and they run out of ideas.
John: We see lots of failed experiments. But the problem with content is it’s a big investment. You have to invest in people and their time. It doesn’t deliver benefits straight away. It’s not like just turning on a campaign and Google Display Network or something. But the great thing is it’s slower to start but it pays off in dividends. If we stopped publishing on the Intercom today, we would still get 80% of the traffic in a quarter’s time because people are still going to find that through search. We could still promote that through social. It’s still there to be browsed on our blog. Assuming you’re creating the right kind of content, it’ll pay off in spades for a long, long time.
Louis: Right. Before going through this step by step and how to do that in your company, let’s take a step back and try to understand for your perspective why is content marketing such a fundamental element of marketing nowadays, even though as I said before, a company from my home town actually, Michelin. Michelin, the tires, did some form of content marketing more than 100 years ago with their Michelin Guide. Why is it such a fundamental element of today’s marketing?
John: I think it’s a reflection of maybe the broader media landscape. There’s some great tier one media out there, like the New York Times and the Washington Post and whoever of this world. But there’s very few… There used to be really strong… For ever industry and every sector, there used to be a really strong trade press which was actually properly reporting and writing quality content. That’s largely gone now. People can actually create their own content online and share it. The companies that are successful at it, it’s not promotional content, it’s not PR, they’re not just talking about themselves. They’re entering into discussions in their industry or debates. That’s all the stuff I think a trade press would have served in the past.
John: I think it’s driven, I suppose then as well, the whole inbound model that’s been so successful for so many companies. It definitely feels like something that you can… You literally, if you’re a startup, day one you can start a blog, you can start a podcast. It’s something that everyone can do, everyone can write. That’s kind of dangerous as well. I mean we can get into that as well. But everyone can put words down, so I think people feel like, “Oh, we can totally do this.” The issue of course then becomes one of quality. That everyone can create some kind of blog or some kind of publication or some kind of podcast, but can they do it well? And will what they do actually stand out and be heard? That’s a real challenge.
Louis: So there is a lower barrier of entry? Right. I mean anyone, as you said, can write. I don’t know if it’s the consequence or the cause, but as you said, trade press and all of that are almost nowhere to be seen. I mean in terms of tech and startup and what not, we don’t see that happening so companies have kind of filled the gap and the internet as well started to give the power to companies and individuals to be able to publish stuff themselves. You don’t have to be a journalist to actually publish content and be seen by people, right?
John: Yeah. I mean you’re cutting out a whole layer of middle men who may not understand your industry as well as you do. I think it’s this direction connection you can have with readers or with listeners that’s really, really attractive. For us at Intercom, it’s been one of the great ways to really sort of get to know our customers and what resonates with them and what problems they’re struggling with and then what jobs Intercom can help them solve with. I mean content has been a part of that. Events and getting out and meeting customers has been a big part of that from the early days. It was kind of like, as we say, it was the kind of marketing we were doing before anyone actually had marketing in their job title, we were doing content marketing.
Louis: You said something super interesting a few minutes ago that I want to come back to. I suspect this could be probably be step one of the methodology you’re going to lay out for us in the next few minutes. You talked about mindset. The mindset of the founders. The mindset of the people at the very start of the company who knew that they wanted to help people out there with good content, whether it’s blog articles and whatever. I’m curious, is it do you feel the first step towards building successful content program in your company to build and invest it in? Do you feel like this is a must to actually have the leadership in your company to believe in content in the first place?
John: I think it makes a massive, massive difference. I would struggle personally to run a content operation at a company that didn’t have that. Because one of the things I always caution against is you see a lot of companies and they kind of look at content the way people would have looked at a company newsletter in that it’s almost like, “Hey, let’s not do anything too controversial. Let’s not rock the boat.” The CEO is going to sign off on content even though he probably isn’t creating the content. It’s that classic play it safe model and not really understanding I think what you can get from content and how actually being opinionated and getting your opinions out into the world is a great way to grab attention when you’re a small company.
John: I think something else like the founders at Intercom, Eoghan and Des and Ciaran and Davis really thought was that actually blogging and writing things down was a great way for them to sort of just synthesize what they’d learnt. It was a really great way to process like, “Hey, we’ve gone through this big project and we learnt this thing.” But then actually sitting down to write a blog post about it for instance was just really, really great way to go, “Oh, that’s actually what we learned, and that’s what we can repeat, and that’s what we can do next.” I think it’s that kind of content that’s really resonated, certainly in the early days at Intercom because we were selling our product to a lot of startup folks and the guys were being very open about the things they had learnt as startup founders.
Louis: Yeah. It’s something I wanted to challenge you on a bit because that might not be a case for every company, everyone listening to this podcast is that you had the benefit from the start to be able to share your learning as a startup and yet you are also selling to startups, right? The stuff you are learning, even though it wasn’t directly related to the product, were still relevant to the market you were trying to attract.
John: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Louis: Are there scenarios where, before we go into this kind of step by step together, is there a scenario where you would see that not happening and you sharing, as a company, your learnings that wouldn’t be relevant to the market you’re trying to attract?
John: Yeah. I mean listen, there’s obviously cases where content is not going to just be a good marketing strategy. If you make widgets or whatever, which are pretty undifferentiated, it’s all about price. That’s how you’re going to… That’s your marketing is you’re going to compete on pricing. Writing about how you’re going to build your widgets or how your widgets are much better quality than the competitions is probably not going to move the needle for you. I think it really does depend on the sector, but equally I would say that everyone is an expert on… If you’ve set up a company and you’re selling product or a service, you have some knowledge that you are sharing with your customers.
John: Even if you are that classic startup where you’re just like… You’ve identified a problem and you’re learning yourself about how to solve that problem and how you can contribute, just have the balls to openly share that. Get it out and get a discussion going. That’s huge in itself. Even if you’re just willing to actually write about that, talk about it on air on a podcast. That will be huge. And it’ll be I think just a great opportunity to engage your customers and actually get… Even look at it as customer research.
Louis: Let’s talk about how to set up a successful content program, right?
John: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Louis: As you mentioned before, a few minutes ago, folks would reach out to you and ask those questions. You are aware and you know how to answer this question because you probably get that question quite a lot. First, let’s lay the foundations. You started to talk about this.
Louis: In what situation do you feel from your experience, content marketing, how can I be a good investment? In what situation is it a good investment to potentially put money towards, and what situation is it not?
John: I would say it’s… As I say, if you feel and you know that having some opinions and sharing some knowledge with your customers is going to resonate with them. I think definitely the B2B space is great for that kind of deeper standard almost kind of blog playbook where you’re going… that’s the kind of content you’re going to create. Maybe that blog is nowadays a podcast because I definitely think we’re past peak blog. People like to listen to podcasts because they can listen to them anywhere. You can’t always read a longer blog post.
John: I think that’s a massive scenario that says to you, “Yes, this is going to be worth investing in.” I think in B2C, there’s definitely content but it’s maybe a different kind of content. B2C, massive investment in Instagram these days. If you don’t have a cool Instagram account as a B2C brand, you’re pretty dead in the water. As I say, I think it’s really just those more undifferentiated products that maybe where you’re just purely talking about price and no one really cares about how it’s built or there’s no real story around it. I think that’s where you’re in a challenge and forget about content marketing really.
Louis: Let’s take the example of the B2B company that tried before maybe to do content as you said. They realized they didn’t take it the right way but this time they want to invest in it for the long term. They understand the power it can have longterm. What would you advise them to do step by step? If you want to ask me that question about this fictional example to have it more narrow so you can find a better answer, let me know.
John: Okay. Well I think first of I say there’s no silver bullets or quick hacks. I think… I googled it once, content marketing hacks. 56 million results or something. I think on one hand you look at brands like Tesla or Patagonia in the consumer space, even like House, the branded look after sort of interior design products and furnishings for your home and stuff. Go to their homepages. It’s like Tesla, the car is there but actually it’s almost like this lifestyle at selling these beautiful, beautiful high-end images of Californian homes.
John: Go to Patagonia, they’re homepage you’ll see these amazing pictures from the ’60s about one of their founders who’s a famous climber who created his own… He’s written a book and he created Patagonia to solve his own problems. And then even something like House, it’s just these beautiful images of houses and the whole thing is product placement. You can see, you can click through and find out who the interior designer is or what the products are.
John: And then, and particularly in the B2B space, you google content marketing hacks and you literally have… In comparison to all this beautiful content that’s competing for our attention, you have these literally shitty hacks of how you’re going to drive traffic, to talk about things like skyscraper methods of just being 2% better than your competitors. It’s just… It’s really very snake oil salesman kind of stuff. And so-
Louis: Why don’t you like… Sorry to interrupt but I’m curious now. Why don’t you like the skyscraper techniques from Brian Dean for example?
John: I think it’s been done to death. I would think Google Algorithm is sophisticated enough now that for most competitive keywords, it’s not really going to work. You’re literally trying to be a minimum of 1% better than your competitors article. I’d suggest that the effort that you put into that, why don’t you just come up with something that actually blows your competition out the water full stop. I think particularly SEO driven content, it’s more competitive, I think Google’s getting more sophisticated and so I would actually say look around you and look at the stuff that you engage with. I’m a big believe that marketing is not just data, it’s about creating some kind of emotion, some kind of feeling in people, even for B2B products.
John: We talk at Intercom in our marketing team, is there a spark in what we’re doing in any particular campaign or piece of content we’re producing. I think it’s really, really important to look around, see that stuff that you do resonate with, those brands I mentioned, and go, “Hey, even if I’m creating B2B content, I should be focusing on the quality content, not the hacks.” I think people are overly focusing when it comes to content marketing on the marketing piece and there’s very little about how do you create good content? You have to create good content. The dirty, guilty secret of content marketing is there are all these consultants out there who come along, create blogs and other properties for companies, set them up for them and they don’t perform. They get very minimal traffic.
John: But they’ve done the thing, they’ve set up the thing and they get paid and off they go. But if you want your content to be consumed, to stand out, you’ve got to start with creating the highest quality content you can first and don’t start with the hacks.
Louis: Yeah, I concur with that. Now I know my listeners by heart, that’s probably one of the things about marketing, you need to know your people quite a lot.
Louis: I’m lucky enough to have a lot of good listeners who contact me, give me feedback. I know that at this stage when you said you just need to create good content that blow competition out of the water. They are asking, “How the fuck are you supposed to do that?” How do you do it? How do you notice whether there’s a spark in your content? So let’s go through that now in detail. How do you advise folks to do this? They’re in front of their computer. They’re probably listening to this on their way home or in the gym and they say, “That’s all well and good. I completely get you John. I’m going to do the same but where do I start? I have this empty page in front on me.”
John: Sure, there’s several tips I’ll give to people. First of, really simple one, what are the three most controversial things you believe about your sector or industry? What are the three things you believe that other people don’t in your industry? Presumably, particularly for startups that tend to be actually why people decided, “You know what? I’m going to do this. I’m going to set up this company.” If you can figure out what those views are, what those things are that make you stand out from the crowd, start to write about them. Start to discuss them because that’s what people are interested in.
John: There is too much safe content out there that is… Everyone else in the industry, no one disagrees with it. If no one disagrees with it, you shouldn’t write about it. At the very least just move on the debate in your industry even just a small piece. But that small piece should be what’s unique and what your bringing to the table. The other thing I would say is very much think about writing for humans. Brainstorm a bunch of ideas on a whiteboard, absolutely. But humans are going to buy your product at the end of the day not the algorithms. The algorithms will deliver a certain amount of traffic to you, but I think if you think about, “Is this an article that I would want to read? Is this an article that my partner would want to read, or potential customer?”
John: Actually have real humans in mind when you’re creating content. I think it’s huge if you’re going to go down this route of trying to create quality content first. I think you can SEO at a later point. But if you start off with SEO you’re not going to create quality content, you’re going to create… I call it Happy Meal content. It looks good, you think it’s going to be really satisfying, but 15 minutes after you consume it you’re hungry again.
Louis: You’re hungry again, and there might be an accident happening along the way as well. So yeah, I don’t digest Happy Meals very well so I stopped going there. Let’s go to step one, right?
Louis: I have to figure out two to three things that you believe that most people don’t, right?
John: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Louis: Now let’s say you are a content marketer hired in the company, you’re not a founder. Or let’s say you are a content marketing freelancer, a copywriter. How do you figure that out? So do you interview the CEO to extract that from the? How do you like to figure out the things that actually make them stand out that most people would disagree with?
John: I mean that’s exactly what I’d do. Go and talk to people around the company if you’re coming in, whether it’s the founder, the CEO, the people actually building the product. Then get out and actually meet some people who are customers. I found trade shows were amazing. I used to be on the Intercom stand at big conferences like Web Summit during the first year I was there. It was really just a great way to meet and eyeball customers. We still have a thing called customer day at Intercom where you literally get into the inbox. We use Intercom obviously to run Intercom and we have a customer support product. You get into the inbox and start answering customer support. You see what kind of customer support questions are coming in and you get to answer some of the easier ones.
John: Back in the day I actually was on the customer success team at Intercom when I joined first because Des ran that team and I needed to report to him, so I used to regularly be in the inbox answering customer’s questions. That was an amazing way to go, “These are who our people are.” I think once you then know who those readers are, you can do so much more. You can really start to think about what kind of things are going to resonate with them.
Louis: But this is such a simple advice, yet you and me, we both know that this is very rare to hear marketers, content marketers, people in general actually go out of their way to talk to their customers, to meet their customer face to face, to talk to their CEO even to understand the story of the company. It’s rare because we are a bit safe I think as market nowadays. We sit behind Google Analytics every day, we look at our SEO tool and we feel we understand our audience while actually we don’t, right? And I have plenty of example in my experience were we thought a specific keyword would have very low volume, no one would search for so we didn’t really write about it and then realized after talking to customer ourself that actually everyone is mentioning this fucking thing, yet it doesn’t seem like there’s any volume for it. We wrote about it and we got a lot of traffic.
Louis: Very much like this podcast. If I had to look at the SEO stuff around marketing, marketing podcasts, I wouldn’t have found any evidence that people wanted a marketing podcast without the bullshit, you know?
Louis: But yet-
John: I think it’s really important to be… You really have to be thoughtful about what metrics you’re going to measure content with. I think that really speaks to that point because you can’t… Certainly in the early days of content program, you should just be able to see it’s working. You should just… If you have to go and dive into the metrics. If we had to go and dive into the metrics in the first year at Intercom when I’d taken over the content program there was something wrong, because it should just be blatantly obviously that it’s heading in the right direction. It shouldn’t have to be, “Oh, we’re ranking number one for these keywords on… That’ll show high intent for our software.”
John: I think obviously as you build it out and as you develop that muscle of creating quality content, you can start to think about those very specific metrics and areas you want to grow in. For instance, it’s only maybe in the last 18 months that we’ve really got focused on SEO and thought about how do we really, really harness SEO. Even though I’ve been at Intercom for nearly six year at this stage. Early on it was really about building that muscle of learning how to create quality content. And as you said, content marketers, or marketers generally, can be a little conservative and can kind of sit in their own bubble and maybe aren’t going to be interviewing the CEO or the people…
John: Our whole thing was we… As much as you said everyone hates marketers, no one cares what marketers think. That’s our big belief. They don’t want to hear from the content team at Intercom, they want to hear from the subject matter experts. If we are writing about design, there will be a designers byline on there. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that designer sat down and wrote 1200 words, but they certainly worked with my team to come up with 1200 that they were happy putting their name to. That might mean we end up interviewing that person then ghost writing it for them. It might mean that we sit there with a whiteboard and literally come out with an outline for an article and then they go off and draft it. It depends. Some people are great writers, some people are just really, really good subject matter experts who have great ideas but they’re not necessarily great writers at sharing them.
John: But as I say, get the subject matter experts because no one really cares what marketers think. It’s much better off get out of your own bubble and get their opinions into your content.
Louis: Yeah, and it’s tough for marketers to hear that no one gives a shit about us. They care about themself. They care about the problem they want to solve and they certainly care about listening from all their peers who suffer from the same problem and what not, but they don’t really care about the opinion of the marketer about design and that kind of stuff.
John: If you’re selling a content marketing product, you’re quids in. They want to hear about… But otherwise, yep.
Louis: Absolutely. Yeah. Let’s go back to the first step, right, which is about finding out those three things that are controversial that your company agree with that most people would disagree with. Just give me, quickly, give me the example of Intercom. What is the one thing that you believe that most people don’t?
John: Well I think a good example I always give… There’s kind of two things here that we’re covering. One is this focus on the quality content, but then… And be opinionated. I think opinionated quality content is really important, but it’s easy to get it wrong. The way I say that you… Don’t just create angry or contrarian content which just you get a reputation in your industry, is making sure you stay brand relevant. The way we do that at Intercom is we see the world through the lens of our product. One of the big beliefs in our product is you should never send the same message to everyone in your customer base.
John: You should literally… Probably the only message that you want to send to everyone in your customer base, the exact same message, is, “Hey, really sorry. It didn’t work out, we’re shutting down the service.” You know what I mean? You send the right message to the right people at the right time. That’s what effective messaging is and it’s never going to be a one size fits all thing. That is literally the thesis that we have written probably 20 blog posts broadly in this customer engagement bucket about targeted messaging strategies, how to write good messages, how to make messages relevant to people at the right time. And then that all rolled up into a book called Intercom and Customer Engagement.
John: We have done micro-sites on the history of messaging and customer engagement and how customers and businesses have interacted. I think that’s… right message, right time, right place belief, which I would necessarily say it’s something that no one else in the industry believes in, but we’ve really given it our take on that and really I suppose put our mark on it. We did have one post which I would… I was kind of on the fence of, which caused a bit of controversy. We did the whole Growth Hacking Is Bullshit post with our original director of growth.
John: Definitely on the fence as to maybe that was a little bit too trying to wind people up, but I think at the time it was warranted because it was maybe at the peak of growth hackers as a community, and some people just assumed that if you changed the button colors you were going to be the next Stripe or whatever. We all know that’s patently not the case.
Louis: So you find out two to three things that are controversial about your… or at least that you really strongly believe. You talk to the CEO, you talk to customers, you go meet them face-to-face at trade shows and you put a face… What I like about talking to customers is you actually put a face to the people you want to talk to and they will share with you stuff, they will share with you their problems and what not.
Louis: Now the next step usually the hurdle is, as you’ve mentioned rightly with your blog post around growth hacking is bullshit, you said there was some controversy. I suppose that internally some people didn’t want that to be published, right? Or at least to be diluted to maybe something a bit softer. How do you, when you start specifically a content program, as a marketer in charge of it, how do you convince people around you that yes, we need to publish those type of posts. We need to take a stand. We need to show what we’re made of.
John: I would say the big thing you rely on in the early days, and which we relied on, is people’s egos. Let me explain that a little bit. First off, people get a buzz out of being published. It’s a little bit scary but you’re putting them out there into the world and then they start to get feedback. You want to make sure you are closing all those loops, that they are getting that feedback. Maybe I’m just thinking of some examples from the early days at Intercom, but our director of brand design, our director of product design would sit down and write a post. Yeah, it’s probably going to be close to at least a days worth of work for him or her, and then they put it out into the world and they hear nothing. That’s terrible.
John: You want to be pinging them say, “Hey, did you see this designer over at Google shared your post on Twitter?” You want to be celebrating that on your general channel on Slack or wherever your company hands out that you can go, “Hey, look at this amazing post that Emma wrote and look at all this feedback it got.” Make sure that you celebrate all those successes really, really openly internally. Another thing that worked really well for us at Intercom was to show that actually creating content, it’s not just a, “Hey, I wrote a blog post,” but, “Hey, I wrote a blog post. Then maybe I spoke at one of our meetup events. From that meetup event, I got an invite to go speak at a conference.”
John: We made that really clear and show those connections for people in the company, so people could see that actually writing a blog post is not something I’m just going to do in the evening. I’m going to go to my managers, I’m going to ask, “Can I make it one of my goals for this quarter.” Luckily at Intercom, because it came from the top, people would agree to that. But people could see that it was a good investment of their time for the company, but also for themselves. And then there’s just little fun things you can do, again going back to people’s ego, but just… We used to publish a monthly league table of who the most popular authors were on the blog.
John: If you can get your VP of Product and your VP of Marketing literally openly competing with each other and saying, “Hey, I’m going to write a more popular post than you next month.” You’re pretty home and hose at that stage. I think that it’s all about making sure that people see that this is not just ticking a box, that it’s actually moving the needle for personal growth, for career development and it moves the needle for the company as well. Make sure that you also show people that, like, “Hey, we got x amount of leads from the activity that we did with content, this book we launched or this guide we published.” Really, really important to close the loop there.
Louis: That’s really interesting, and playing people’s ego, having this leaderboard, showing them the path that it could take them on that is growth path of publishing a blog post, repurposing that into a slideshow, getting invited for bigger stuff.
Louis: Now that doesn’t answer the question originally of that’s all well and good but maybe most of those people writing could very be writing about vanilla stuff that no one really disagree with. In the first place of this program, when you’re only getting started, you mentioned about the topics that are controversial. How do you convince people to take the risk of doing so. Those first few blog posts, those first few podcast episodes, those first few things that are quite risky.
John: Yeah, I mean it is. I mean it’s a tough on all right. You’ve got to try and find that champion inside. I would say that at Intercom, I was not there at that time. It was Des Traynor, and Des… I think he had seen elsewhere in the industry that it worked. They, both himself and Eoghan, very early on would have seen people like HubSpot and see that, “Wow. These people are opening up a whole new channel of leads by doing content.”
John: And so I think they didn’t have to convince themselves, they saw it. But I think that’s how you maybe kind of convince people that this is the way to go. You have to show them other successes, whether it’s peers or other industries, and show what it can do for your business. But I think that the stakes are probably even higher now than seven or eight years ago because with cancel culture and all that, you’re only as good as your worst piece. It used to be the case where people would go like, “I love the Intercom blog. There’s all this good stuff there.” But like most things on the internet these days, now we’re kind of judged by our crappiest piece. If we do something bad, that’s what we’ll be judged at.
John: And so people will very quickly stop being readers if they come along and there’s like, “Oh, I don’t really like that stuff. They’ve started writing about topics I’m less interested in,” or whatever. Particularly early on I think the stakes are really high. You’ve got to come out the blocks pretty strong with something that’s going to not just grab attention in a very, I suppose, sensationalist way, but that’s just going to stand up to scrutiny and I think people are going to want to share.
John: That’s the other great thing about quality content, people do want to be seen sharing good quality content on social or whatever. Yeah, don’t rush anything as well. A biggish thing we’re seeing, and I kind of touched on this already, is this idea of people setting up some kind of content program whether it’s a blog on podcast and kind of having these crazy, “Oh, we’re going to do one every week.” But actually, why not do it every month and do 12 over a year and they’ll be much more considered and you’ll have time to build up maybe search traffic et cetera, verses one a week for 12 weeks and then you run out of steam because it’s just become a grind and a slog to actually get that out every week.
John: I think you talked about that recently on the show with Hillary Weiss, this hole idea of shipping consistently and constantly. It’s great to get that feedback, but you also need to make sure you’ve got a realistic cadence. Even at Intercom, we would very much believe in that just constantly pushing it out there is not going to work.
Louis: Yeah. One thing that I think is important here, and something I used to think is, “Yeah, let’s take our time to publish this piece, and then let’s take our time to publish this next piece.” I believe that if you don’t have some sort of consistency, even if it’s every month, you tend to put it off. You don’t have necessarily a deadline to work towards and you as good as well as the feedback you’re getting. So sometimes it’s the balance between making sure you ship something so you get actual feedback instead of just keeping it internally like an idiot, and shipping too fast and then become shitty, right?
Louis: You talked about it a few minutes ago. You talk about this idea about having your spark, which I very much like.
John: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Louis: So let’s say you contact this designer inside Intercom who has something to say. Let’s say they have something to say, and okay that’s cool. What is the decision making process there to make sure there is a spark there, to make sure that this content will be shared and it’s not going to be yet another cookie cutter type of content. How exactly are you going through this to make sure that it stands out?
John: Well for us it’s very much a case of looking at whatever has been published on the topic. We very much involve people like… Say it’s a designer, they would get feedback… We would say, “Get feedback from your team.” So there’ll be engineers, there’ll be product managers on their team. What do they think about this. They worked on the project with you, if they find it’s interesting… Bring it to other designers, just the same way that there’d be review of your design work, bring your post as well and ask people to give input that way.
John: And I mean, I think we would apply the same sort of editorial standards and processes that you’d get pretty much at any publication. Most of my first few hires on the content team were all editors who worked in traditional publications. And so it’s a lot of just applying those same editorial standards to what we do at Intercom. There’s been plenty of stuff that just didn’t see the light of day over the years. No one saw the stuff that we canned and said, “No, we’re not going to do that.”
John: Another thing that I think is really important is try to put yourself in your customer shoes. We do share a lot about what we’ve done at Intercom and what we’ve learned from our projects, but you always try to figure out what’s relatable from that. How can someone else benefit from this? I remember there was a post a few years back Gustav, one of senior designers, wrote which was about why we chose folders rather than tags to organize messages in the product. At the time I think tags were quite… I suppose a bit more trendy in the design product world than folders. We went with folders.
John: If you think about that, that could have been quite a boring, very specific post about a product decision at Intercom, but actually we then said, “Let’s lift this up a layer and think about what about that decision making process that Intercom went through could our customers benefit from? What could they learn from it? What could be relatable if they’re in a similar position?” And so it was actually quite a positive… quite a popular post, but just as easily, as I say, could have been quite an obscure sort of like, “Okay, this is the decision making process we went through.”
Louis: You have the spark and you mentioned these editor guidelines and the fact that it’s pretty natural for you, you have more than 20 years experience in this space, you hire editors as well. But how does it actually look like in detail. What is the step by step editorial process that you have in Intercom to make sure that you actually publish those content that stands out. Can you tell me more about it?
John: Yes. People pitch ideas to us, actual pitch ideas to the content team. They can email them to us, we have office hours. But they bring them to us, and we’ll discuss them as a team sometimes or we’ll get them to discuss them with their team. It really… It’s not just… I’ve found the posts that have been least successful sometimes when we look back on it, it’s like there hasn’t been that sort of input from a bunch of people. It’s been one person’s view of something we’ve done rather than the collective knowledge or the collective insight of people from around the company in that discipline.
John: Then just I suppose very practically in terms of the process itself, once we’ve… There’s just a bunch of things I suppose that are quite standard in the publishing industry. Like I said, there’s always two editors see everything in input into everything so it’s never just one editor works with someone so you always get that second set of eyes stuff. I think just simple things like just making sure… Occasionally there’s typos and stuff, but just making sure it’s as good quality as we can actually what goes out because I think that makes a huge difference that if something’s too long or if it’s not short… It’s too short, that you haven’t explored something fully…
John: You see a lot of content, it does feel rushed out and it kind of feels like it hasn’t gone through a good editorial process. We all do that as well where we find these articles, topics really interesting but you find yourself skim reading it because I think largely it hasn’t gone through a good editorial process.
Louis: So you have this massive advantage at Intercom that people actually pitch stuff to you, right? Internally you have hundreds at this stage of people actually have ideas and shit to share. I mean this is incredible, right? And it start, as you said, from the very top, right? So your CEO from the very start of the company decided that it was part of the culture. How do you advise people who are at a company where this wasn’t part of the culture, to start actually having that in the culture, to start having employees pitching ideas when it’s not really something they’re used to.
Louis: How do you convince them to do that? How do you set that up from scratch really?
John: I think it goes back to all the things I talked about earlier in terms of getting your couple of quick wins and then really, really celebrating them. It’s supporting people through the process. A huge thing is actually when we… Early on I made sure that people who maybe, as I say, our more difficult customers who needed a lot of hand holding to get something out. Like, “Hey, go and tell the rets of your team that this is what we do and how we support you.”
John: To this day, we still have to do our internal PR so that people know what they’re going to get if they engage with the content team, that they are going to get hand held through. I’m constantly keeping my eyes out, and I encourage the team to as well, internally, looking for things that we know could become good content. I even see people on Twitter sharing something and I’ll be like, “Hey, you spoke at that event. That talk looks really good. Why don’t you put it in a blog post?” Just constantly having this spidey sense of what are we creating already that could become content that we could share with the broader world?
John: There’s a lot of stuff that gets created internally in companies that really could be shared. I think it’s just sometimes people… A lot of people still have that mentality of information has value in and of itself. And it doesn’t really, it’s all about execution. Some of our most popular posts are… Actually one post that has been hugely popular and continues to be hugely popular was Paul Adams, our SVP of Product, literally wrote a post about how whole product building process from beginning to end. What does a week at Intercom look like in terms of the rhythm of the week, the meetings we have, how the product team create the roadmap, the tools they use.
John: It really went in depth and a lot of people were like, “Oh my god, why did you guys write that? Why did you share it? Presumably you’re giving an advantage to your competitors.” I was like, “Well not really because they’ve still got to execute against it.” The ideas are not in and of itself what’s going to make you work and actually by the time it’s on the blog… And this is kind of a bit of an internal joke we have, sometimes it’s like by the time we’ve gone through the process and written the blog post, those processes are already changing and tweaking and the company’s just grown a little bit more and some of that stuff’s broken.
John: If our competitors want to go and copy that old shit, great. They don’t have the full context of how we use it or what the pros and cons of all those things are.
Louis: It’s like a chef afraid of sharing his recipes and afraid of writing a cookbook. Most of the time… I mean most popular chef have written so many fucking cooking book, they know that what matters is the execution and maybe a bit of the ingredients as well, the quality of the ingredients. If you’re afraid of sharing information, obviously you’re not talking about proprietary information or [inaudible 00:46:22] technology and what not, but the rest you should be okay to share. And as you said, it’s all about the execution.
Louis: Apart from the stuff you’ve shared so far, to actually build a successful content program, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about?
John: Well I think the one other piece of the strategy at Intercom that I always try and impress on people is this idea that we this evergreen content strategy which I think has been… Anyone who’s looked at content marketing these days has probably heard of evergreen, but just this idea of trying to write about stuff that you know is going to… It’s a recurring problem that people have or a recurring issue that people are going to be interested in. Rather than trying to do this kind of news jacking or writing about news events, which will have a huge amount of…
John: So my background, obviously I worked in news and newspapers in Ireland and news websites and stuff. News is incredibly spiky. You get… Day one, you’ll get a thousand views for something, but day two there’ll be two views. Literally two. No one is interested in old news. People are attracted by the thousand figure, but they don’t realize that actually the half-life of that content is nothing. If I write 10 gifts for product managers this Christmas, January 1st it’s not getting any traffic and there’s probably a two week window during the year where it gets traffic. Whereas with evergreen you can actually do the same amount of work in terms of producing the same amount of articles, but the traffic will work out much better.
John: Tomasz Tunguz, the venture capitalist with Redpoint, he writes on sales and marketing quite a bit. He wrote a great post a few years ago about the economics of an evergreen strategy. He literally looked at news articles versus evergreen articles, both publishing in the same cadence, 100 page views for each article on the first day for the news article and the evergreen article but after a year, when you run the figures, because the evergreen content doesn’t decay as quickly because it gets page views weeks and months after it’s published, that you 3X the traffic from an evergreen strategy. That’s absolutely been our experience. That post I talked about that Paul Adams wrote about how we ship software. That continues to get a couple of hundred page views a month, even now. It’s probably four years old at this stage.
John: I think that’s how you make sure… Investments in content are expensive because a large part of it is you’re either hiring people like me, or you’re going to a content marketing agency or hiring contractors. Content will not be cheap. It takes time to spin up. But if you go down the evergreen route, it will continue to pay off. As I said, it’s very different to other forms of marketing in that regard. You can stop investing in new stuff but the old stuff will continue to deliver for you. I think that’s… I don’t know any other type of marketing you can say that about.
Louis: Yeah. In fact this podcast is also an example of evergreen content. All of the episodes, I’m trying to make sure I never mention anything that’s related to news or whatever, that all episodes can still be listened to today can still be relevant. That’s exactly the strategy, so thanks for mentioning that. I should have also asked you that. But yes, evergreen all the way. What are the problems that people suffer from that they will stuff suffer from in five, 10 years, 50 years.
Louis: In fact, that’s a good segue into the next thing I wanted to ask you John.
John: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Louis: And by the way, thanks for going through all of that and sharing your knowledge and the mistakes you made, lessons you learned. What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next five years, 10 years, 50 years?
John: I think just be very open minded and be very… Just having a growth mindset. I know it’s sounds a bit of cliché but it’s hard to know what will and will not land in terms of very specific tactics or trends or technologies. But I do think just having that open minded growth mindset is the key. As I said, I worked in media for 20 years, and I actually I think the media industry is so battered and having to produce more and more with less and less resources that it’s quite hard to have that kind of mindset. What I love about having made the transition to what was a startup, is now like a scaling software company, is that you constantly get to try new things and learn new things and do new things.
John: 2015 we launched a branded podcast. It was like let’s do 10 episodes and just see has anyone any interest in a podcast from a brand, because there wasn’t that many people doing it at the time. Guess what? They did. And so we doubled down on that, invested in that and so… I think it’s just having that experimental mindset and openness to new things and really just figuring out… going where your audience is because that’s what the podcast was all about for us. It was actually, a very similar kind of content to what we say do in our blog on in our books or guides, but it’s actually just tweaking it so it can be consumed in that format and so people can listen to it when they’re commuting or at the gym or wherever it might be.
John: I think that’s huge. I think it’ll be even bigger for people as we move forward. The old playbooks don’t work anymore and I think the tactics get… The length of period that they are effective for is getting less and less. You’re constantly having to try and reinvent yourself and come up with new things.
Louis: Agreed. Thanks for sharing that. What are the top three resources you’d recommend listeners? It could be anything from podcasts, books, conferences, software, whatever?
John: For marketers at the moment?
John: Top three resources? I mean I’m pretty old school. I still Twitter. I find I have my little lists on Twitter that I’ll jump into for different topics and just see what discussions are going on there. Am I allowed to mention rival podcasts?
Louis: Absolutely, go ahead.
John: I do enjoy the Growth TLDR.
Louis: How dare you.
John: Yeah, yeah. I obviously enjoy Everyone Hates Marketers. I think there’s just some very, very interesting stuff going on in marketing at the moment as well. I always try and read some mainstream, not tech industry focused stuff. Things like The Drum, which is great just to find out generally what’s going on in marketing beyond this world of tech and SAS that I’m very much in and try and… I think that’s where a lot of the spark ideas come from, seeing what people are doing in other sectors and getting a sense of that.
Louis: And you waited 53 minutes to say that, right?
Louis: To me, that’s also the key point, right? Get out of your own bubble. All of the tools built out there, like social media tools, are there to make sure you stay in the bubble. Fuck that, let’s try to get out of it actively. I personally like to go to subreddits that I disagree with and just read the shit they write because actually you see something… You see a mirror image of it’s the actual opposite point of view and it makes sense as well. It’s crazy when you start really reaching out to people who you actually don’t agree with from the start.
Louis: So yeah, to draw on, there’s plenty of publications that are outside of tech and SAS. If you’re in tech and SAS in particular, I think it’s extremely… I’m not going to use the term incest because that’s very bad, but it’s like we are getting to the stage-
John: Insular. Insular I think is the word you’re looking for.
Louis: Yeah. Very insular type of culture. Get out of it, I would agree with you John. Thanks very much for sharing all your wisdom with us today. It means a lot. Where can people connect with you and learn more from you?
John: Okay. I’m on LinkedIn, which is a great place if you just want to connect there. I’m always happy to accept connections. But I’m pretty active on Twitter. I’m kind of an old school internet guy so I’m Jaycee, J-A-Y-C-E-E-0-0-1 on Twitter.
Louis: You’re the first one. All right John, once again thank you so much for your time.
John: Thanks Louis, it was great being on the show.
I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).
I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in April 2017.
I’m also the Content Lead at Hotjar – a powerful way to analyse people’s behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience.