How to Grow a Blog the Hard Way

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By Walker Donohue

Oftentimes, one of the biggest roadblocks to creating great content isn’t finding the time to write it or coming up with new angles to well-worn topics or establishing a regular publication schedule.

It’s finding smart, knowledgeable subject-matter experts who are willing to actually write content.

This, more than anything else, limits the growth of so many blogs. When your writers are also practitioners, it shows in the content. It’s smarter, more insightful, more engaging. You can fake it to an extent, but you just can’t beat content written by someone who really knows what they’re talking about.

Take Intercom, for instance. Intercom’s reputation for quality content is well-deserved, and the company is almost as well-known for the quality of its content as it is for its products. This isn’t accidental; it’s by design. Intercom has made content an integral part of the entire company. Intercom’s co-founder Des Traynor has long been an evangelist for quality content and wrote 93 of Intercom’s first 100 posts himself.

Executive support for content is all well and good, but it doesn’t guarantee success. That’s why, when Intercom began hiring its internal content team, new hires were told they would be editorial conduits for Intercom’s institutional expertise, not just mere content writers. This approach defies conventional wisdom—particularly in SaaS—and it’s also brutally difficult to pull off. It’s this commitment to editorial excellence that sets Intercom apart, even in a densely crowded space.

Intercom’s content team is responsible for growing the company blog and publishing Intercom’s range of books. That’s not all, however. Intercom’s content team also solicits and publishes writing by their peers in other parts of the company—the designers, engineers, marketers, and product managers who work hard to produce, market, and sell Intercom’s products. This content not only fuels growth but also serves as valuable reference material for experts who lack a wealth of outlets that publish the kind of specialized content they need to perform at the top of their game.

To learn more about Intercom’s approach to content, we spoke with senior editor Geoffrey Keating. You may not see Geoffrey’s byline on the Intercom blog all that often, but he is instrumental to the quality of Intercom’s content.

Build Domain Expertise into Your Blog

Saying you need subject-matter experts to publish their insights on your blog is one thing, but actually convincing them to do so is another matter entirely.

If you’ve ever tried to coerce busy engineers or executives into writing a blog post, you probably already know how difficult that can be. According to Geoffrey, the key to success is all about building and maintaining momentum—a process that begins during the hiring process at Intercom.

“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,” Geoffrey says. “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 sense of prestige is actively cultivated by Intercom’s managers, who often encourage their direct reports to contribute to the company blog. Some managers even incorporate writing and publishing content into employees’ quarterly goals.

“The buy-in we have into content across management makes our job a hell of a lot easier, but at the same time, this is not some perfect process,” Geoffrey explains. “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.”

Securing the kind of buy-in that Intercom enjoys isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t quick. According to Geoffrey, allowing subject-matter experts to craft their own content can be a time-consuming process. That said, encouraging domain experts to contribute to the blog often has a flywheel effect.

“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,” Geoffrey says. “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 experienced editors to run a corporate blog isn’t the most popular approach in the B2B SaaS world. Is the extra work really worth it?

The results speak for themselves. Take one of Intercom’s most popular posts, The end of apps as we know them, for example. That post was written by Paul Adams, Intercom’s VP of Product and a veteran of both Google and Facebook. Not only is Paul’s topic highly relevant to today’s B2B SaaS landscape, but it also benefits immensely from the decade of experience that Paul brings to the table.

Paul’s post was highly controversial when it was first published, and this controversy resulted in more than 400 different outlets citing Paul’s post. Even the most skilled content marketer may have struggled to write such an excellent post—but Intercom’s strong editorial team helped make it happen.

Paul’s post is far from an outlier for Intercom. The company has published hundreds of similarly successful articles, many of which have been slow-burning, long-tail successes.

Make Nonwriters’ Lives Easier

Despite Intercom’s fastidious approach to content, a remarkable 204 people have written posts for the Intercom blog. Each post appeals to select groups of readers within Intercom’s broader audience, but the cumulative effect is an unstoppable engine of growth that has a significant impact on Intercom’s bottom line. That simply isn’t possible without solid processes in place to support the diverse range of people who write for the Intercom blog on a regular basis.

“As the team has grown, we’ve built up a well-oiled machine,” Geoffrey says. “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 writers, the process couldn’t be easier. First, Intercom’s editorial team asks all potential contributors to summarize their proposed post as a short elevator pitch. Intercom’s editors then work with individual writers to get to the core of their topic and identify key points. Editors then work with writers to create detailed outlines, ensuring that everybody is on the same page and reducing the likelihood of extensive edits later on.

“If you’re a designer working on a new product, you wouldn’t jump straight into Sketch or Photoshop,” Geoffrey explains. “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. 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.”

At this point, contributors are free to actually write their initial drafts—but Geoffrey and the rest of the editorial team are always available to provide writers with support and guidance. It is at this point that Geoffrey’s role begins to diverge from that of the traditional editor.

“Editing as a discipline is so professionalized, and it’s very much baked into the newspaper, magazine, and the book industries,” Geoffrey says. “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 that’s something that editors probably underplay quite a lot.”

Rather than leaving line edits in draft documents, Geoffrey prefers to sit down with writers face-to-face. Geoffrey describes this approach as “collaborative editing” and finds that it’s much more effective to emphasize an article’s strengths than it is to overwhelm new writers with criticism.

“Getting the first draft over the line is always really, really hard,” Geoffrey 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.”

Appearing Effortless Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

We titled this post “Grow a Blog the Hard Way” for a reason: Building sustainable organic traffic over time is always a challenge, which is why so many startups hire content creators rather than content facilitators.

But building a team tasked with extracting subject-matter expertise from busy practitioners, encouraging them to frame that knowledge in their own words, and maintaining a consistently rewarding, engaging experience for readers is hard—really hard.

As we’ve discussed before, the first decision to be made in any content strategy is whether to be better or different. Successfully executing on a brand-new, untested formula is difficult precisely because there’s no road map to follow. But the elements that make Intercom’s blog truly excellent are also the same elements that make replicating Intercom’s success so difficult.

A company-wide culture of content and a collaborative approach to editing has created a flywheel effect for Intercom, but it has also created a moat. It would take several years of sustained effort, a considerable budget, and a team of highly skilled editorial professionals to even come close to matching the quality and consistency of Intercom’s content.

To the untrained eye, Intercom’s content engine appears to function effortlessly, but the appearance of ease belies just how much work has gone into making Intercom’s blog one of the very best in SaaS. Intercom may be one of the leading B2B SaaS blogs today—but it all began with a bold vision of what B2B content could be, and a lot of late nights and hard work.

“Full disclosure: We’re extremely privileged and lucky to have an entire editorial team at the company’s disposal,” Geoffrey says. “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 small steps that will help you get started on the right track.”

Without a doubt, he has. Learn more about Geoffrey and his work by following him on Twitter, and delve deeper into his editing process by reading his excellent piece In Praise of Editing.

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