Why we’re dropping the term “content marketing”

Main illustration: Kelsey Wroten

We’ve never been 100% comfortable with the phrase content marketing at Intercom.

In the space of five years content marketing has gone from promising a new, more authentic way for businesses and consumers to communicate to something with connotations of spam and hoodwinking readers. Innovative companies rushed to create their own internal newsrooms staffed by journalists, only then to have them crank out product announcements and press releases. It’s little wonder many view content marketing as a series of hacks taken straight from a mythical playbook called “0 to 10,000 customers in 5 easy steps”.

The term “content” is problematic. It commodifies the core of what we do, but for want of a better catch-all phrase for the articles, books, podcasts, talks and presentations we create, we all continue to use it. Sidenote: terminology matters. At Intercom we avoid phrases like blogs (to refer to individual posts) and ebooks (a book is a book) as we feel they demean the value of what we’re offering.

Combine “content” with “marketing” and you further undermine what you’re creating. The phrase suggests the entire point of the exercise, or at the very least the primary one, is marketing. But if you want to attract people to your product, this is the wrong approach to take. (Matt has explained in the past how content fits into the broader marketing mix at Intercom).

There are some companies that are really successful with content marketing driven by aggressive email captures, funnels and A/B tests; let’s call it playbook content marketing. But there’s also a growing cohort of companies like Intercom who believe that if you focus on publishing great content, you’ll actually need to do minimal marketing to attract people to your product (Figma and Algolia are two examples that spring to mind and of course Basecamp pioneered this approach). Our experience has been that by focusing on the content first, you can be far less aggressive trying to convert visitors.

And we’re not the only people thinking this way:

Putting content first

If we’re not creating something people want to read then we are wasting Intercom’s resources

Like any growing team at a startup, the content team at Intercom has tried to codify what we believe in and how we want to work. At our most recent off-site we updated our team principles and wanted to capture this world view in a single phrase.

As we brainstormed and threw ideas around, it suddenly dawned on us: the phrase “content marketing” actually puts content first. It’s just the term is so widely used that we’ve all become deaf and blind to that primacy. So now the first principle of our team is “content, then marketing”. Put simply we believe if we’re not creating something people will want to read/watch/listen to, then we are wasting Intercom’s resources.

We followed up that off-site with the recent decision to change our job titles to reflect the editorial and publishing work that our team does. So now you’ll see us advertising for editors to join the team rather than content marketing managers.

If we were driven by marketing considerations rather than editorial ones, we probably would never do things like publish a 120-page hardcover book and then sell it at a loss. But by focusing on the quality of that publication, rather than marketing hacks to get readers to download something of poorer quality, we’re attracting more than enough potential customers to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

The normal marketing-driven narrative is that there’s simply too much content out there so your efforts should focus on getting attention. The world is drowning in an ocean of digital content, so how do you break through and get your content read? What usually follows is some slightly suspect SEO hack that’s guaranteed to send traffic and riches your way. Our counterpoint is that the last thing the world needs is more mediocre material. Newsjacking is the perfect example of this. It worked well when it was new and innovative but most now falls flat on its face or comes across tone deaf:

Putting your readers first

We’ve always felt there’s a better way than these mythical silver bullets. It involves applying editorial principles to your content as we’ve written about before, and simple steps like:

  • Create an editorial calendar of what you’re going to publish
  • Start brainstorming ideas from all around the company
  • And don’t be afraid to have an opinion

Investing our time and energy in creating content that people want to consume is subtly but fundamentally different than creating content we want people to consume. It puts the reader/potential customer first. Our needs come after.

Where playbook content marketing goes wrong is in trying to market and sell from the get-go. We have to give you, our readers, something of value – our knowledge, insight and experience – before we earn the right to market to you. Our “content, then marketing” approach means we still engage in the full gamut of marketing activities to nurture and convert leads after we’ve attracted them with content.

So to be crystal clear we absolutely believe in marketing. But when it comes to “content marketing” we firmly believe content comes first.