For young companies finding their voices in the world of content, there aren’t many more influential sources of inspiration than Mailchimp.
Founded 17 years ago—how often do you say that about a startup?—as an email marketing side project, Mailchimp pioneered the fun, friendly voice and tone that now dominates the SaaS space.
But while a lot of companies try to ape their style, Mailchimp remains a reference for how to do content right. They continue to push the boundaries with new ideas like Mailchimp Presents, and they emerged from their recent rebrand with an even more unique content identity.
We sat down with Senior Content Strategy Manager, Erin Crews, to talk about company wide buy-in for content, measuring an article’s success, and why the HubSpot model is only one way to do it.
Committing to great content
SD: Mailchimp feels like it’s been around forever. But has it just experienced another growth spurt?
ERIN: Honestly, it just feels like a sustained period of hyper-growth. When I joined in 2016, we had somewhere between 450 and 500 employees. A few weeks back we hired our 1,000th. We've opened a second office in Atlanta, an office in Brooklyn, one in Oakland—all that has happened in the past couple years.
SD: And since the beginning, Mailchimp has been known for making great content. Why is the company so committed to doing this?
ERIN: There was an article by Gerry McGovern a few years ago about how many companies are accidental publishers. They find themselves publishing content out of necessity, but without the tools or capabilities in place to make it resonate.
“It was incredible to see how lucky we’d gotten in some of our content investments. There was just a lot of good gut instinct.”
But from very early on, we had quite a few marketing employees who were talented writers from the media industry. So that was a bit of a unique situation.
SD: A lot of SaaS content is generic and mediocre. How do you keep making high quality stuff that people actually want to read?
ERIN: It’s really about a relentless focus on customer needs. There's always business pressure to plan an entire content calendar around business priorities. But you need to find the intersection of user needs and business goals.
My advice would be:
Do the research to really understand what your customers are going through. Not just in terms of actionable advice, but also their emotional experience.
Hire professionals to write the words or shoot the video.
Empower those professionals to make decisions. I think you can pretty easily spot when a committee of people has pieced something together.
Balancing customer needs and business goals
SD: Anyone who makes content can relate to this tension between what the business wants and what customers want. How does Mailchimp’s content team get buy-in to make these publishing decisions?
ERIN: There are a couple of ways in which Mailchimp has a unique advantage over a lot of our peers in the space. We’re entirely founder-owned. We have never taken VC funding, and we’re not public. So we’re accountable only to our customers—not to shareholders or investors.
That means that we can invest in a long game, because we don't have an arbitrary earnings goal we have to hit next quarter that people are really stressed about. So we don’t meet the same levels of resistance that some other content teams face.
This lets us have a very test-and-learn approach. It's like, "let's put this out in the wild and see what the reaction is.” We can learn from that and adjust constantly as we go.
For people who don't have this advantage, try running small-scale experiments with something like Optimizely to get buy-in for larger investments.
SD: How do you use metrics to guide your content strategy?
ERIN: We're always working on how to measure the success of content. Everything that we do should ladder up to high-level goals around customer acquisition, product adoption, and retention. But we’d almost never measure a single piece of content against goals like that.
What we look for are user behaviors that show a high level of intent to do that thing eventually—micro-conversions. We don't publish an inspirational customer story thinking it’ll cause someone to sign up for our product. But we look at: does it cause someone to return to the site more frequently?
SD: Could you give an example of a micro-conversion you track to measure the success of content?
ERIN: So if someone returns to our site a certain number of times in 48 hours, they’re x number of times more likely to pay us when they sign up. We see a very strong correlation between site visits and how likely someone is to pay us later.
“If people who are hitting a piece of content are twice as likely to become a return visitor, that’s a micro-conversion towards a paid sign-up.”
Also, if someone hits an editorial piece and our pricing page in the same session, we know they're in a really strong final consideration phase. Even if they don’t sign up, that content was part of the journey.
SD: You guys must have some pretty rigorous tracking in place to know this stuff, right?
ERIN: It’s actually still fairly manual at times. When I first started at Mailchimp, there wasn’t really a whole lot of tracking going on.
We didn’t even have a CMS until last year, which is insane. We’ve historically had some resistance to installing robust tracking on everything, because without it our site load time was lightning fast. And that contributed to our high domain authority.
So not everything needs to be an A/B test for us. That’s very different from some other companies who would never put anything on their site without testing it. We have much more robust tracking now, but I'm guessing that a lot of companies are ahead of us.
It was incredible to see how lucky we’d gotten in some of our content investments. There was just a lot of good gut instinct early on.
A content strategy built for loyalty
SD: You see a lot of talk about the success of HubSpot’s content strategy, which focuses heavily on SEO. How does Mailchimp’s content strategy compare?
ERIN: We always want to make the experience of connecting with our brand weird, joyful, fun, and human. And I think that’s really hard to do when you're writing for Google. It's gotten easier to do both over time, but this is a constant struggle for us.
“We don’t ever want someone to have an experience that erodes trust in the brand. We’ve been so brand-driven from the very beginning. People feel very passionately about it.”
There's always going to be something that happens on the product side—a server will go down, or whatever. People are going to be upset, and you won’t be able to mitigate it entirely.
What saves us in those scenarios is how loyal people are to our brand. So we always put a lot of effort into the design and brand behind our pieces. And it's very difficult to use certain techniques to scale that.
But we do have an SEO team. And now our product is much more than just email, we’re looking to rank for a lot of new topics. It’s a very saturated market with more marketing jargon. Staying true to our brand while establishing relevance in new areas is something we have to tackle.
SD: So how do people find Mailchimp’s content?
ERIN: One of the main ways is through our emails. The free version of Mailchimp has the MonkeyRewards badge. It’s essentially a link to our site that users can add to their emails to get credits. That’s always in our top five traffic sources every month.
“Many companies are really good at giving actionable advice. But people also want emotional reassurance that they’re not alone.”
We also have a very high volume of branded search traffic, which shows you the power of brand over time. And we’re doing a lot with social media and paid social.
SD: I got an email from Mailchimp recently, and I was surprised at how substantial it was. I could read an entire customer story without clicking through to the site.
Mailchimp seems unafraid of promoting editorial-style content. What do you think of the perception that people don’t like reading proper articles anymore?
ERIN: All the data shows that people still read. But they don’t read content that’s not worth their time. Design is important—if you’re not breaking it up with headers and making it a pleasant experience, you’re probably going to lose some people.
In one of my previous jobs, the VP had this rule that you could never publish anything over 500 words. It felt very strange, so I ran the numbers. We looked at what was performing on social. The sweet spot for word count? 1,600 to 2,000 words.
There are a lot of myths out there about how people like to consume content. Plenty of research shows that actually, younger adults prefer text to video in a lot of different contexts.
Of course, no one’s going to read your interface for fun. But if they’re looking for a customer story, they’re in a mood where they’ve chosen to read. On the other hand, if someone’s trying to troubleshoot, you have to make the tutorial easy to scan quickly. It’s about setting expectations.
Voice, vulnerability, and the little "c"
SD: Mailchimp was one of the first companies to make software seem friendly and fun with its voice and tone. But for the last 15 years, everyone has been trying to copy this.
How do you stand out these days?
ERIN: Last year we refreshed our brand voice principles as part of the rebrand. We knew that a lot of B2B companies were moving to more consumer-friendly language and starting to sound pretty similar to us.
So we did this audit to see where we had opportunities to differentiate ourselves. And we found there are still a lot of websites that are full of very opaque jargon.
“While a handful of companies have made incredible strides to use plain language and be more accessible, the vast majority actually haven’t.”
We ended up finding three areas where we could differentiate ourselves.
First, a lot of companies had started working in more appeals to emotion, but used memes or language that could come off as pandering. So the idea of being genuine was a big one for us, because we felt like there were a lot of disingenuous appeals to emotion.
Two, companies have started incorporating humor into their copy as well. Not just in marketing campaigns, but particularly in UX content. We realized we never really defined what brand of humor we use. So we've spent a lot of time defining a more dry, deadpan style of humor as we grow up and move into more complex product spaces.
Lastly, we're willing to be weirder than anyone else. That’s still something that sets us apart that we really embrace. And we're not terribly worried about other companies adopting that.
SD: Is there a piece of content you’re particularly proud of?
ERIN: The whole first season of What’s in Store, when one of our employees, Meg Lindsay, created her own ecommerce store. We were like: “What's the best way to really understand what our customers are going through when they first start a business? Start one ourselves.”
Many companies are really good at giving actionable advice. But people also want emotional reassurance that they're not alone. They want to see how other people have pushed past the problem they're facing, and that they're going to be okay on the other side.
With What’s in Store, there was so much vulnerability on display. We definitely messed up a few times and just wrote about it. Melissa Dixon led the initiative—I had nothing to do with it. But I think it’s one of the coolest things we’ve done.
SD: Final question: why did you change the capital ‘C’ to a small ‘c’ in ‘Mailchimp?'
ERIN: As part of the rebrand, potentially changing our name was on the table. We’re not an email company anymore. Freddie the chimp is now much less of a mascot.
So we felt like the capital ‘C’ really over-emphasized both ‘mail’ and ‘chimp.’ The company has evolved beyond either of those things. We wanted it to be one word that meant something different.