Lessons learned from scaling a blog

Time is at a premium during the early stages of a startup. You’re simultaneously trying to create a product, attract customers, recruit, figure out finance, legal, administration and more.

So why on earth would you add “launch a blog” to the list when your plate is already overflowing? If you’re strictly following the advice of “write code and talk to users” why are you setting up WordPress?

There’s a lot of heavily biased advice out there that will tell you how, in mere weeks, content marketing can kick-start your business. We’ve run this blog for nearly 4 years, so we thought we’d share some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

1. It’s a slow return

Kicking off a content generating machine doesn’t pay back instantly, and it isn’t a closed loop in terms of return on investment. Even if your first few articles are smash hits, you won’t benefit immediately, and you won’t be able to measure how much value you’ve created in the short term. Remember, unless you are selling ads on your blog, it’s not just about page views.

2. It’s a compound return

Tomasz Tunguz explained this best and even ran the numbers to prove it (that’s his graph above). Articles on your blog don’t just live for a day – they can be relevant for weeks, months or years after publication. This is particularly true if they are tied to principles and ideas, not topical events. Giving your opinion about Apple’s strategy during WWDC might win you a quick spike in traffic, but you’re not the only one playing that game, and that attention is fleeting.

3. It’s not worth half-assing

It’s no longer enough to be just “doing content”. The tired old practises of soliciting guest bloggers with zero bar for quality, releasing “ultimate guides”, plagiarising other’s work to re-create and re-hash their opinions, and “top 10 quotes” don’t work well. Rand Fishkin recently made the point that it’s great content or bust these days, and there are plenty of examples to support it. It’s not an area where “average content” will work well, and to that end optimistic or aggressive content calendars usually lead to mediocrity with no return.

4. It requires and rewards fresh authentic opinions

We’ve talked about this before but articles that are provably factually correct but flat in tone never perform as well as those that nail their colours to the mast. Some of our best performing articles – Why Cards Are The Future Of The Web, Growth Hacking Is Bullshit, The Dribbblisation of Design, Why Mobile First May Already Be Outdated – don’t pull any punches.

Not everyone in Intercom necessarily agrees with every point made in those articles. But that’s why they have been so widely shared and discussed, and continue to be, long after they were written.

5. It’s a muscle not a fixed asset

A question we get asked the most is “how do you find the time to blog?”. As if we regularly find some extra hours down the back of the sofa. We don’t find the time, we make the time. Writing has to be practiced and if you’re taking your content seriously, you’ll make the time to practice it. Funny no one ever asks us where we find the time to design or to write code.

On this blog we regularly publish articles from folks at all levels across all areas of the company. Everyone contributes. It’s a valued activity that we all know to be high leverage.

6. Not every company should be a publisher

Great companies have an opinion about how the world should work, and create products that reflect that opinion. If you believe Project Management is about consistent, frequent, clear communication, you’ll be driven to create a product that reflects how you see the world. And then you’ll probably write articles that outline your vision, as a way to explain the thinking in your product. Similarly, if you believe businesses should know their customers, or talking to your users should be easy, you’ll probably create a product that makes it so, and also write articles outlining that vision. The essence of a great content marketing strategy is about producing engaging content that outlines your purview and attracts the type of customer who your product will resonate with.

And that’s why it’s not for everyone.

For example if your product is a standalone utility with no opinions about the world (for example an image compression app, or a simple file upload tool), then it’s highly unlikely there’s a great basis for you to run a series of articles outlining your vision. In both cases, you could wax lyrical about how exactly your mechanism works but doing so would speak only to a minute subset of your potential userbase.

7. Not every article needs to be selling

We’ve said before that all content is marketing, but that doesn’t mean you should approach every article with your business objective in mind. It’s not direct response marketing. You should approach each piece with the reader in mind, not the business. You’re growing an audience and increasing their loyalty. Once you have a listening audience they’ll react favourably when you tell them about your latest product/feature.

8. Editorial is the key to scaling

For your content to keep pace with the growth you desire, you simply need to scale content production in a way that doesn’t drop your standards. You can cast a wider net, you can cover more topics and areas, and you can go deeper on particular points, but you can’t publish bullshit. Ever.

But simply attaching an editor to a flywheel of content won’t achieve much. There has to be a clear content strategy in place that defines the subject areas you want covered, the level of articles (101 vs expert deep dive), the quality of articles, the types of writers, and much more.

Until you have clear thinking on those areas your editor will be ill-equipped to impact.

* Thanks to Des, our blog stalwart, for invaluable input into this post.

If you like our approach to editing and publishing, why not join us? We’re hiring an Editor in San Francisco.