'A happy, clappy company blog won't cut it - readers aren't stupid'

Intercom managing editor John Collins delivers a masterclass in content creation.

By John Collins Managing editor, Intercom

WHEN I FIRST spoke to Intercom about my role, I wasn’t sure running a blog would keep me occupied.

I’d spent 20 years working as a business and tech journalist and thought I might be bored with it after three months.

But actually, two of the Intercom co-founders, Eoghan and Des, had a vision for how content would benefit the company and where things could go with the blog. It was really clear early on that leadership across the company saw the value in taking it seriously.

My role as managing editor is much broader now than when I started, which just goes to show the commitment the company has to publishing good content.

It’s not just about editing blog posts any more – we also do a podcast and produce books – and I’m pulled into projects across the company.

A lot of startups get into content to tick a box because they see it has been a successful tactic for companies like Hubspot or Basecamp.

They don’t really have any sense of how it might work for them or how it will fit into their work week. If you’re thinking about starting a blog, you have to have a vision for where you want it to go.

When you start off, you need to build up an audience and credibility in your industry. Think about who your customers or your potential customers are. What knowledge do you have that’s going to make them better at their job?

john collins John Collins
Source: YouTube

Share mistakes

Our content has been successful because we share the lessons we’ve learned along the way to help people fast-track their own companies.

Anyone who’s curious about the software industry and what goes on at a high-growth company is a potential reader for us, so we pretty much cover anything to do with this sector and any topic to do with building a business.

We share our mistakes too. You can’t just have a happy, clappy blog that makes everything seem wonderful.

It’s hard work building a startup, especially one that has got to the stage that Intercom is at. We need to reflect that in our content. Our readers aren’t stupid.

We don’t constantly try to sell our product either. Obviously, that’s the ultimate goal, but with content, we see it very much as an exercise in creating awareness of Intercom as a credible source for insights.

Intercom Co-founders 1 Intercom's co-founders
Source: Inttercom

Some content marketers confine themselves to the marketing bit – they try to sell their company all the time. You can’t do that.

You’ve got to earn the right to do the marketing piece. You do that by telling really great stories that people actually find useful and entertaining.

Nobody is interested in rehashed press releases or pictures of a grinning CEO shaking hands with a new customer.

Honest opinions

Don’t be afraid to share an opinion. That doesn’t mean you need to be angry or annoyed about things all the time. Just don’t say what everybody else is saying or tow a company line for the sake of it.

We’ve published stuff on the blog that not everybody at Intercom agrees with. People want those differences of opinion. It’s not interesting for them otherwise.

It takes time to get a blog up and running and to develop a following. It’s not something that happens overnight. You’ll only really see the benefits in two or three quarters.

It’s common for people to start blogging with a bit of enthusiasm, churn out three or four posts a week and then lose interest after a month.

If you write three blog posts a week for a month, you’re not going to have much of an impact. If you spread that out over three months and publish a post a week, you’re going to have a far better impact with the same amount of work.

_MG_5613 Intercom's Dublin office
Source: Intercom

You have to work it into your normal work week so it’s manageable and consistent. That’s what we do at Intercom: people at all levels of the company contribute to the blog as part of their quarterly goals.

When I joined, the blog had been going for three and a half years and Des Traynor, our co-founder, had been pretty much running it single-handedly.

He still writes for the blog and has contributed over 150 posts. Only about 10% of our blog posts are actually bylined by a member of the content team.

War stories

A big mistake that some companies make is that they get freelancers or interns to run the blog as a sort of side project.

If content is really important to you, why get a contractor who doesn’t work for the company to do it? You wouldn’t do that with your design or engineering teams, do why do that with content?

We’re a team of four now – Geoffrey and Nathalie work with me in Dublin and Adam is based in our San Francisco office. We’re embedded in the company – a bit like war reporters embedded with the troops – so we have a handle on everything that’s going on here.

We can see what products the team is building and we know what challenges we’re facing. We’re given the freedom to turn what’s going on internally into stories for the site.

John Collins is managing editor of Inside Intercom. This article was written in conversation with Conor McMahon as part of a series of masterclasses with some of Ireland’s most influential business people.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.