Welcome to Growth Interviews!
Welcome to Growth Interviews, the fun, stimulating and engaging series of conversations driven by digital business growth.
Our mission is to provide insights and ideas from world-class professionals on the topic of growth and to cut through the noise of so-called marketing tips and tricks, revealing the money-making strategies behind e-commerce.
Each episode is an intriguing challenge involving an insightful expert who reveals some of their best-kept secrets, which you can use right away to boost your business.
In this week’s episode of Growth Interviews, we invite you to join our conversation with John Collins, Director of Content at Intercom and a former business and technology journalist with 20 years experience who decided to take a leap of faith and start writing, editing and creating strategy for outstanding content.
In the course of that interview, he confesses his long-time goal to “shake up the world of content marketing with quality editorial” and you can easily see what a great job he is doing on Intercom’s blog:
John shared some great ideas with us on finding that fine line between SEO and PPC and how PPC and SEO are working together, especially if the focus is on generating the best possible content to increase your business.
The full video interview is very insightful. It takes just five minutes to watch, so here goes!
What we spoke with John about certainly sparked our interest! So, we wrote down for you some of his most interesting ideas, including his top three thoughts that definitely struck a chord with us.
The beginnings of John Collins in content marketing
John, how did you start working on content? Tell us how you’ve switched from journalism to tech content.
John: I’ve worked as a journalist for nearly 20 years, mostly covering technology and business and I suppose it’s no big secret that the media industry is not exactly in great health. So, I was kind of in the middle of my career and just had to decide if I’d like to be in something that’s growing, something that’s like, ‘We’re going to learn more, we’re going to be challenged more because, I think, the newspaper industry is challenging, but it’s maybe not challenging in the right way.’ And, I was pretty lucky I’d discovered Intercom. I’d known the CEO of Intercom, Eoghan, who’s now my boss, for a few years.
So, I was looking for a change. I got in touch and we went and had a beer. And here I am, five years later, still working at Intercom.
How is the transition from a pretty small team to a large team?
John: I think the biggest transition for this kind of content and for journalists (content creators or journalists) is realizing that actually a lot of people think of journalism and writing as a vocation rather than a business.
At the end of the day, if it’s what you’re making a living out of, it is a business. I think it’s just being willing to think, ‘I’ve got skills as a writer and an editor that I can use in this company and apply them there.’ I think the biggest organizational change has been working somewhere that’s gone from 65 people when I joined in 2014 to nearly 650 people now. I’ve just gone through that massive growth because it means you’ve worked in probably three or four different companies over that period because the company keeps changing all the time.
Investing in content: PPC vs SEO
So you’re a strong believer into delivering value through your content and of course inbound marketing. Why should you invest in content?
John: I think one of the great things about investing in content is it’s very different to other forms of marketing. If you are spending on Google Ads, it ramps up really quickly, but the minute you stop spending, the flow of people stops.
John’s take on content marketing is very powerful and straightforward, while there are countless pros and cons on this debate, to name a few:
👉 Higher website conversion rates for content marketing users
👉 Great SEO can come out of this technique
👉 Content marketing is a lower-cost solution than PPC, which helps you grow your traffic, but it does take more time than PPC
👉 PPC can get you on top of the SERPs faster than content, but you can disappear just as fast
John: If you invest in content it takes longer to have an impact, but it has a compounding impact particularly if you’re sort of doing evergreen content where you’re thinking about SEO and things like that, so that the content you’re creating is going to get traffic for a longer period.
You publish it and it’s going to get traffic for, like, potentially two to three years. We have posts four or five years old that are still performing for us today. So, I think it’s a really unique form of marketing in that sense. It’s not cheap. I always say to people: it’s very labor intensive – there are some things you can do to automate it – but it will pay off for most businesses. It doesn’t work for every business, though. There are some businesses I would say that potentially are not going to benefit from content. If you’re selling very undifferentiated widgets or whatever, content’s probably not the thing for you.
How impactful was the content strategy of Intercom’s success?
John: It’s sort of a big top of funnel activity we have in marketing and we were doing content – well, I shouldn’t say ‘we’ because it was before my time – but Intercom was doing content before we had anyone in the company who had marketing in their job title. It was before we had a sales and marketing team, and the founders were writing blog posts, sharing them, speaking at conferences, doing all that kind of stuff, getting the story out there, and creating the brand that we still have today. Obviously the brand has evolved, but it’s really built on those foundations.
How to make great content
Give us a few tips about doing content properly.
John: One thing I’ve seen a lot of recently is that a lot of brands are out there creating a sub-brand, so that they can kind of write about something related to their business. I’ve seen a lot of video content this way as well, where they’re sort of like: ‘This is amazing, but how does it relate to X company?‘. I’ve spoken to some people who have said that actually the big issue people like that face is not just generating an audience, but whether they’re an audience who are in the market for your product? Not only that, but I think the kind of content we create is where we really try and be relevant to the brand, and we try and share a lot about our culture and our values, but we also try and share what we believe is in the product.
We believe we’ve written a lot of content about customer engagement and how to write good messages, how to write messages that are going to engage your customers, and not about how to use Intercom. If you’re using a competitor you can learn from this stuff as well. But it does mean that when people do become customers, there’s a connection between the content and the actual products. As a result, all our research has shown that customers who engage with the content before they become customers, spend more with us and they hang around for longer. And I think that’s really because between the content and the product there’s a real linkage. Whereas, as a journalist, I could easily create popular content – that’s not hard.
It’s easy to do clickbait, but it’s not easy to duplicate or maintain. But you can do it. Just because you’re generating a big audience, doesn’t mean your content program is successful.
Having people engaged with content before becoming customers is crucial. You can do a great audience analysis and then create some random content about anything else but your company or products and make it viral. Will that really help you create new customers or regain old ones, let alone retain them? You can surely build a lot of traffic, but is it valuable for your business?
Creating content in a close relationship with your products or services should provide enough incentive for your website users or leads to trust you and, thus, spend more time and money thanks to the valuable information they can find.
Educate your audience before they buy!
What are the benefits of SEO?
What keeps you going in this tech industry?
John: I think, personally, I really just love learning. I don’t want to sound like a bit of a cliché, but it’s just getting to do new things. I think one of the reasons I really liked journalism is because nearly every day you were starting with a blank piece of paper and it’s like, ‘What story am I going to get today or what am I going to find out?’. There was a huge variety. Marketing is changing all the time. You’re constantly learning and having to do new things. I’ve spent the last year really getting immersed in SEO. To be honest, five years ago I probably thought SEO was pretty spammy, but I’m actually learning how we are going to apply SEO to high-quality content and get the benefits of SEO as well. That is just one example of the kind of thing that keeps me going, because there’s always something new to learn or try.
So you are checking on the topics, keywords, performance?
John: Absolutely. I think you can still create quality content.
What SEO helps you do is realize where the opportunities are. It also makes sure you don’t do stupid things that are going to impact your search engine ranking.
Back in 2013 we also thought that SEO done wrong is spammy. However, as time went by and the algorithms matured, digital marketers grew along with them. Nowadays, we focus more on the great opportunities SEO can bring to the table.
We can name a few right now:
👉 Visual Stories carousel, which means visual storytelling in a search engine-friendly way
👉 Check your log files for a real overview of how search engines crawl your website
👉 Make a competitive analysis to discover keywords that have the potential to drive high quality traffic to your website and rank well for them
👉 Use web crawlers to identify internal linking opportunities
John: Writing too much on the same topic is not a very good thing, because Google doesn’t know which article you want to rank for. So, you find that you’ve written a lot of content on a topic, and you know a great domain authority on that topic, but you’re actually not ranking in search results.
So, there you have it. Think twice before choosing between long-term optimized content or fast traffic growth PPC, because your business type can definitely change the score.
Other than that, keep an eye on how you create the story of your products, because people will take it seriously! And so will browser algorithms!
How did you find this experience? Was it insightful?
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