“I think it would be quite disingenuous if I sat down and started writing an article about the future of design. I could write it, but I’d likely miss the subtleties and nuance a designer will have from years at the coalface. The best writing comes from lived experience and that article is going to be much more impactful if it actually comes from a designer.” — Geoffrey Keating
Perhaps the most significant barrier to creating great content is finding people with subject matter expertise who are willing to write blog posts. More so than strategy, more so than distribution—this is so often what creates the ceiling on a blog's growth. When the writers are also the practitioners, your content immediately stands out.
Intercom, a company whose reputation for excellent content marketing is nearly as well-known as its products, has chosen to tackle this problem head-on. Content is baked deeply in the company culture, thanks to co-founder Des Traynor's early blogging efforts and continued support. (Des wrote 93 of the company’s first 100 blog posts.)
Top-down support of content marketing goes a long way, but it doesn't guarantee success. When Intercom hired a content team, they were instructed to serve as editorial conduits, not just content creators. This approach is very different than most B2B SaaS companies. It's also hard. Very hard. And it's this formula that sets Intercom apart.
Intercom's content team is not only responsible for growing the company blog and publishing books, they do so by facilitating writing by their peers—the engineers, designers, marketers, sales team and product folks who make the company tick. The content isn't just fuel for growth, it's source material for other domain experts that don't have many outlets for niche advice.
To learn more about how Intercom runs their blog, we spoke with Senior Editor Geoffrey Keating. He's instrumental in the growth and quality of Intercom content even though you don't often see his byline on the blog.
1. Get Domain Expertise on Your Blog
Let's begin with the most obvious and pressing question. If you choose to feature experts' bylines on your blog, how on earth do you get busy developers, designers and product people to write blog posts?
If you've ever tried to make this happen, you know it can be like pulling teeth. But, Geoffrey says, the key is building momentum. And it starts with hiring.
“For many new employees, the first point of contact they have with Intercom is actually the blog. It's an incredible recruitment tool for us,” he says. When new hires come onboard, they not only expect to contribute to the blog, they're eager to do it. “Before new employees start at Intercom, they are usually quite bought into the culture and the philosophy. So for a lot of them, writing for the blog is quite prestigious.”
This is reinforced by managers, who encourage reports to contribute to the blog and will even add it to employees' quarterly goals. “The buy-in we have into content across management makes our job a hell of a lot easier,” says Geoffrey, “but at the same time, this is not some perfect process. Our writers still have product to build and customers to support. There are times when it would be easier for us to just sit down and try and tell the story ourselves. But we wouldn’t make full use of the knowledge and experience of the writer, and we certainly wouldn’t make the writer feel like they have full responsibility for the story."
"Getting practitioners to write and getting them involved in the editing process might be a bit slower at times, but it means they are much more inclined to pitch in again. When someone publishes for the first time on Inside Intercom, it’s not uncommon for us to receive another draft from that author one or two weeks later. That’s when we know our process is working.”
Hiring editors rather than content marketers to run a blog isn't exactly a popular trend in the B2B SaaS world. Does the extra work and staff payoff for Intercom?
The proof is in the pudding. Take one of their most popular posts, The end of apps as we know them. It was written by VP of Product (and former Google and Facebook employee) Paul Adams. He lends more than a decade of experience and plenty of credibility to this highly relevant topic. It caused quite a stir when it was published and has since been cited on more than 400 other sites. A content marketer simply could not have written that post—but a great editorial team made it happen.
Intercom has plenty of hit posts, so that example isn't an outlier, but hundreds more articles have been long-tail successes. Posts on customer support by Intercom's customer support team don't need to smash hits to win them traffic and customers.
2. Make It Easy for Non-Writers to Write
An incredible 204 people have authored posts for Intercom. Each resonates with a select group of readers, but the cumulative effect is a powerful content engine that contributes directly to the bottom line.
This can’t happen without great processes. “As the team has grown, we’ve built up a well-oiled machine,” says Geoffrey. “We do have a lot of process for our team, but we try to keep as many of these processes invisible to the author as possible. If you force new writers to adopt your systems and processes before they even put pen to paper, they might stop while they’re ahead. Our mission is to make it as easy as possible to write for us.”
For the writer, the process is simple and seamless. It all begins with an elevator pitch. Intercom’s content team asks contributors to begin by writing a brief pitch for the topic they want to cover. Then, the team helps the writers suss out the core of the idea and refine it until they agree on an article outline. This ensures everyone is on the same page and, most importantly, prevents the content team from having to rework articles later in the process.
“If you’re a designer working on a new product, you wouldn’t jump straight into Sketch or Photoshop. You’d sketch some wireframes and get feedback. The exact same goes for writing. When you start with an outline rather than a fully-fledged draft, it adds structure and clarity to the idea.” Once the idea is settled on, Geoffrey encourages writers to stay true to the idea. “A lot of authors will append the elevator pitch to the top of their documents where it acts as this sort of 'north star' to keep them on track as they're writing.”
Writers are then free to work on a draft, but the content team is always close-by for help and support. And this is where Geoffrey's role veers from that of a more traditional editor.
“Editing as a discipline is so professionalized and it's very much baked into the newspaper, magazine and the book industries. While the core concepts are the same, I've never found that style strictly applicable for what we're trying to do at Intercom. I don't deal with writers on a daily basis. I deal with subject matter experts who are not professional writers. A huge part of our job is actually brainstorming, coaching people and holding their hand through the process, rather than jumping into a doc and chopping and changing their words. I think something that editors probably underplay quite a lot.”
Geoffrey prefers to “edit” by scheduling face-to-face meetings with contributors. Marking up a document with comments can feel overwhelming and deflating to someone who isn't used to having their writing scrutinized. In that meeting, they discuss the strong points of the article and look for ways to make it shorter, better organized and easier to read. This keeps the writer excited about the piece. Geoffrey calls this practice “collaborative editing” and says it's key to keeping his team of non-writing experts engaged.
“Getting the first draft over the line is always really, really hard,” he says. “But it can't be underestimated the endorphins you get from publishing an article. So once people have gotten a taste of published life, they're eager to contribute again because it's pretty addictive.”
3. Don't Be Fooled by the Appearance of Effortlessness
There's a reason we titled this post “How to Grow a Blog the Hard Way.”
The M.O. for most startups is to hire content creators, not content facilitators. Not that former is easy either. Building traffic, especially sustainably organic traffic, is a challenge regardless of the approach. But to build a team whose role is to extract knowledge from the company's practitioners, encourage them to record it in their own words, then maintain a consistently great experience for writers is extremely difficult.
As we've discussed in previous posts, the first step in any content strategy is to decide if you plan to be different or better. It's harder to execute on a unique formula since there's no blueprint to follow. But what makes a blog like Intercom great is also what makes it hard to replicate. The deeply embedded content culture and Geoffrey's processes for ideation and editing has created a flywheel effect—but it's also created a moat. It would take years of effort, a team of editorial pros and a significant budget to even come close to matching Intercom's content.
On the outside, the Intercom content machine looks effortless, like it was always destined to be great. But that's simply not the case. There's been countless meetings, countless hours of writing and rewriting, cajoling of designers and engineers, projects and deadlines to managed, direction from the C-suite—all with an uncertain future. It's easy to see how the blog has influenced the SaaS world in retrospect, but it started with a vision and a lot of elbow grease.
“Full disclosure: we're extremely privileged and lucky to have an entire editorial team at the company's disposal,” says Geoffrey. “I'm very attuned to the fact that if you're working at another B2B company, there might be no professional writers, there might be no content marketers—you might have no one willing to contribute to your blog. But hopefully what I've shared are some like small steps that will help you get started on the right track.”