How InVision Used Community to Build a Content Marketing Empire
Nathalie Crosbie is a UX strategist, not a writer. But her writing is featured on InVision’s Inside Design blog and distributed to millions of subscribers. That's because InVision knows that designers don't want to read design articles written by content marketers — they want to read design articles written by working designers and design experts.
Since launching in 2011, InVision’s two web publications, Inside Design and DesignBetter, have become go-to sources of content, insights, and digital tools for new and experienced designers around the world. The company’s website gets hundreds of thousands of hits per day and is widely regarded as the industry standard for design-focused content.
What's most surprising is that only 5% of InVision’s blog content has been written by paid employees and contractors. The other 95% was produced by community contributors.
For content marketing teams looking to expand their reach, InVision is a great example of how to leverage community to build a sustainable content marketing engine.
InVision’s content marketing origin story
InVision used to generate content like most other companies: they hired a small team of content creators to write blog posts and promote them on social media.
In October 2014, the company decided to test a new idea: rather than produce content in-house or pay freelancers, they would recruit contributors from the design community to write stories. This was the beginning of their first publication, Inside Design.
A few months later, editor-in-chief Kristin Hillery joined the company and began reaching out to designers. She emailed InVision users to ask if they’d be interested in contributing. She spent time reading design blogs and reaching out to writers to ask if they’d be willing to republish their posts on Inside Design or contribute something completely new.
“They always said yes,” she said in a recent interview with Managing Editor.
Hillery’s efforts not only gave InVision a huge amount of content written from unique perspectives in the design world, but it also offered built-in distribution. Contributors, looking to build their brand, shared the articles they’d written on social media and elsewhere.
As more contributors wrote for the platform, the cumulative distribution from each share amounted to massive growth for InVision’s content. When Hillery joined InVision, the blog had about 500,000 subscribers. Two year later, thanks to a rapidly growing contributor ecosystem, InVision had more than 2.5 million subscribers.
A supportive, high-quality contributor network
One of the biggest challenges of any contributor model is ensuring high-quality content. It goes without saying that not everyone with a smart idea can execute on that idea, especially if they’re not a trained writer. A poorly-written piece of content on a company website, even if it’s not written in-house, runs the risk of reflecting poorly on the company.
InVision set up a support system for contributors, functionally treating them as staff writers. To start, the company does not accept all contributions. Prospective contributors submit a pitch explaining their story idea and why it’s important or interesting to the design community. With this step, InVision makes sure every piece of content is a good fit.
Nathalie Crosbie, UX strategist and Inside Design contributor, told us the two reasons she wanted to contribute were InVision’s prominence in the market (including the popularity of their blog) and the fact that “InVision is an industry-standard tool for the UX industry.”
When a new contributor joins the community, the InVision team shares editorial guidelines and expectations for the piece. This not only ensures brand consistency, but it helps the contributor produce a better piece of content. Since editorial guidelines are a “make once, distribute many times” document, it’s more than worth it for the time it takes to produce.
Setting expectations is also an essential part of the process. This process helps contributors gain insight into what InVision is looking for, as well as get advice on how to write better. This builds a sense of community and value exchange among InVision and its contributors, who are more likely to contribute again in the future and share their work.
After a draft comes in, InVision’s in-house content team edits the article and gives feedback. The process goes back and forth a few times, so that both parties have their say. The pre-established editorial guidelines and expectations go a long way in increasing the quality of submissions to begin with, saving the in-house team time and effort.
Crosbie notes that she received “lots of help” from the InVision editorial team to improve her writing and ensure that she told her story in the best way possible.
She also said that the editorial team helped her not only edit the article, but even offered to purchase images so the article could really stand out. And unlike some other contributor platforms, she was able to give final approval before InVision published the article.
After publishing, InVision promotes the content as much as possible: on social media, through email, and in person at conferences and other speaking events. Crosbie said that once her contributed article went live, InVision “promoted it through their newsletter list of recently published posts,” which goes out to millions of subscribers.
With a contributor model, promotion is a two-way street. Distribution is tough for marketers, with paid distribution channels becoming increasingly expensive, so having a built-in community network can help increase ROI for the in-house content team. InVision invests resources into making articles look fantastic and read smoothly on the web, knowing that contributors will be more likely to want to share them with their networks.
Clair Byrd, former director of content marketing at InVision, said recently in a GrowthHackers AMA: “We found that making contributors look really sexy was super helpful… We made our blog beautiful, and we leveraged existing assets (email list, press network, etc.) to pump up the impact of each blog post.”
In Crosbie’s case, she shared her article on her social feeds, and she also shared other articles from Inside Design, giving InVision a great organic distribution boost. This double-win is precisely why InVision invested in a contributor model.
How content drives research and development
InVision’s in-house content team is still lean: of more than 1,000 employees shown as working for InVision on LinkedIn, only around 65 work in marketing or content roles.
Based on recent job postings, the company’s in-house content team writes mostly for and about their customers and creates long-form content for InVision’s other publication, DesignBetter. Topics focus on how customers solve problems or issues customers face with industry influencers. Of course, customers are encouraged to contribute to the blog.
When it comes to building out a more comprehensive content strategy — for their podcast or video library, for example — InVision leverages data from pieces contributed to the blog.
“Contributed content strategies are a beautiful thing for R&D,” Byrd said during the GrowthHackers AMA. “First, we know what our customers are interested in seeing and hearing about because they are the ones creating the content. Second, we can test themes quickly and cheaply because, again, the content is contributed.”
In other words, they look at analytics from their contributor content library and see what topics are performing best. From there, they pick the winners and double down on those topics by producing more articles, expanding on the topic in a podcast, or making a video about it. Instead of spending money on user research, InVision’s content strategy enables the organization to get deep insight with little overhead.
A company blog turned pillar of community
InVision’s advantage — the asset that transformed a humble blog into a publication that rivals established magazines in quality and reach — is its contributor network, which stands in contrast to competitors’ more heavily gated publications.
Changing to a contributor model isn’t a choice to be taken lightly: poor content can damage a brand as much as great content can build it up. InVision mitigates this risk by setting quality standards and providing contributors with editorial support. They know their community has a lot of insight to offer — and they invest the time to help them unlock it.
InVision has created a platform that gives designers a voice in their community. They coach them, edit their work, and distribute their stories to millions of readers. In the process they’ve created a base of support that powers even more distribution and content opportunities. For their innovation, the design community has rewarded them with a library of content and one of the best demand-generation funnels in the software industry.