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How Intercom Grows
What we can learn about acquiring early B2B customers, jobs-based marketing, SaaS pricing strategies, and content-driven growth from Intercom.
Hi friends 👋
Wednesdays are starting to become my favorite day of the week! I’m really having such a good time learning about growth strategies at these companies — and it’s exciting getting to share these pieces with you. Thanks for being here — I really appreciate it.
Today, we’re going deep on Intercom. If I described them the way that most people do — a B2B customer support software — I feel I’d be doing them a major disservice.
What they really do, is give brands the platform to acquire, engage, delight, and retain customers — while their own product does exactly that for them.
Once upon a time when I had my own startup — Intercom was by far my favorite tool in our arsenal of SaaS subscriptions we couldn’t afford. I loved logging in and chatting to customers, building relationships through memes, making fun workflows, and spending much more time than I should have creating quirky chat bots.
Their tiered pricing got head of us pretty quickly, but I pushed us to keep using it well beyond safe blood-pressure limits of my co-founder. And not just because the results were good, but because it was such a sticky product. It was designed so well around important use cases, our team loved getting to do customer support (wild, right) and they really do build relationships with their own customers.
Customer Support often get’s a bad rep for being mundane and boring — but the way Intercom positioned themselves as leaders in customers, and has lead the movement of conversational experiences, has made this one of my favorite products of all time.
That’s a big statement, Jaryd! But to prove it, I haven’t used Intercom since 2017-18, and I’m still a diehard loyalist to them. I often just go stalk their site to see what they’re up to.
Anyway, we were using Intercom when they were at around the $76M annual revenue mark. Today, they’re about 4.5X that and have raised $240M — growing at ~30% a year. That’s solid growth — and they were one of the fastest SaaS companies to hit the $100M ARR mark (Slack was the fastest)
I felt that as such an advocate for their product — it would be cool to know a bit more about how they started, went to market, and have grown so successfully — even without my business. 🥲
So…here we go!
(Click that link ☝️ to read the full thing in your browser)
Here’s what to expect:
What they do, where the idea came from
How they grow
Acquiring early B2B customers — and selling to them
Milkshakes? Finding out what customers want from your product
SaaS pricing strategies to drive growth
Intercom — great customer relationships start here
Like only a few things — it all started in a small coffee shop in Dublin, Ireland.
A group of friends — Eoghan McCabe, Des Traynor, David Barrett, and Ciaran Lee — sat around, lattes in hand, and as Des recalls, “noticed how the owner of the coffee shop was growing his business conversation by conversation, relationship by relationship, growing loyalty, encouraging repeat customers, creating super-fans — and he did that just by human connection.”
At the time, they were running an error-tracking app, Exceptional, with thousands of customers — and realized they had met maybe 30 of them. They had nothing like the relationship with their customers that this coffee shop owner had with them. And they started to ask themselves, was that kind of human connection even possible for online businesses?
The seed was planted.
Around 2010, near the end of the growth curve for the world wide web, connecting with businesses online as a consumer started to make for a pretty crappy, spammy, and transactional experience. The channel was over-optimized, maybe even dehumanized. It was rare, for example, that you could actually connect with a person, and it was pretty frequent that when you’d try, you’d receive that warm, fuzzy, delightful reply that sounded something like, “Dear valued customer, thanks for your inquiry. You are ticket number 5,053. Have you read our FAQ? Your ticket will automatically close in 10 days.”
— Eoghan, “A decade in the making: An oral history of Intercom’s first 10 years”
All businesses ultimately depend on some form of loyalty. This loyalty comes from the overall product experience, but also the customer experience and the way people see the brand.
As they polished latte after latte, they formed the conviction that the impersonal, transactional way of doing online business just wasn’t cutting it for customers anymore, and that people wanted to actually connect with businesses, to get more than just spammy emails or vague, cookie-cutter answers to their questions.
We realized all businesses need a positive customer experience, but the tooling just wasn’t there. Businesses didn’t want to be impersonal. They didn’t want to be transactional. This was pre-Stripe, pre-anything, pre any good technology that we know today. Because of that, businesses were forced to be in many ways transactional.
We really wanted to do better, and that’s where the idea for Intercom was born.
Now the seed needed to be sewed into something. 🌱
The start of Intercom was a tiny feature they built into Exceptional — for themselves.
They were inspired by the coffee shop owner, and wanted to chat with their customers. But to do it, they’d have to jump through hoops — exporting contacts, importing, wasting a bunch of time.
So, they created a solution to their own problem.
They created an admin tool that allowed them to send messages to customers while they were using the tool. To a user, there was simply a floating logo at the bottom right, where a little speech bubble would pop out if when they got a message.
That’s what it looks like now, but messenger is still very much the heart of Intercom today.
Customers immediately started saying, “Hey, what’s this bubble? What is that? Is that a third-party tool? Is that some open-source thing? I want that. Can I get that?”
There was more interest from some people in that than the actual product that we were selling them and they were paying to use.
David Barrett, Des Traynor, Eoghan McCabe, and Ciaran Lee on the day of Intercom’s founding
…I need David’s sunnies. 😎
And nothing captures the early ambition and vision of the co-founders as nicely as their first pitch deck from late 2011. A quick, down and dirty, eight slides that outlined the scale of the opportunity to build new ways of connecting with customers.
Their first product, Business Messenger, revolutionized that space, creating a convenient, accessible channel for customers to begin conversations with companies. And it has continued to evolve into something much more powerful – a versatile, convenient way to sustain relationships with customers.
Today, Intercom at its core is a CRM with messaging and support applications built on top. Companies can then interact with customers via targeted content, behavior-driven messages, and conversational support.
As they’ve grown beyond their Dublin roots to a team of over 700, with offices around the world, they’ve built adjacent services on top to help teams engage with their customers in other ways, like:
Surveys: Gather feedback to learn about your customers
Product Tours: Help with product discovery and adoption with interactive tours
Bots: Build fun bots that automatically address a variety of issues instantly
Customer Data Platform: Leveraging customer data to understand users and personalize experiences
Campaign builder: Visual campaign builder that lets teams send cohesive messages across channels—inside your app and out.
Knowledge base: Source of all customer facing documentation and help docs
All of these features help companies drive customer acquisition and decrease churn.
Okay, so we know what Intercom is and how the four co-founders came up with the idea. Now let’s get to the good part.
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How they grow
Acquiring early B2B customers — and selling to them
Until you have users, you don’t have a product. And until they’re paying you, you don’t have a business.
This is why so many people are rightly obsessed with the question — how do you find your first customers?
And the way to get people to start using your product is different when you’re talking about acquiring your first 10, 100, 1K, and 10K users — and very different when you’re talking about B2C or B2B businesses.
The short story — there is no magic bullet — but there is a simplification. And Paul Graham has been saying it for years – “Build stuff and talk to users”. That’s true no matter what you’re selling, and in the beginning, focus on the nuance and forget about trying to scale whatever you’re doing.
Since you’re here, I presume you have some time — let’s unpack the longer version.
Fortunately, there’s a pretty limited number of options for how to get your first customers as a B2B startup. There are three growth levers used by essentially every B2B businesses to drive very early growth:
Tapping into your personal network. The key question here is: Who in your network could be a potential customer? Think friends, family, co-workers.
Finding and meeting your customers where they. The key question here is: Who are your target customers, and where they currently spending time? This could be either online or offline — think Twitter, communities, trade shows, conferences.
Getting press. The key question here is: What’s a unique and untold story you can pitch press? This is obviously a harder and less predictable route, and rarely the best way to get started. Last time when we looked at Superhuman, we spoke about leaning into the cultural zeitgeist — which is definitely something to consider if planning to try this.
Of the three strategies listed there, Lenny Rachitsky found that, “almost every B2B business BOTH hits up their personal network AND heads to the places their potential customers were spending time. The question isn’t which of these two routes to pursue, but instead how far your own network will take you before you move on.”
Let’s look at how Intercom found their first users.
Intercom: Nail it before you scale it
Intercom used the first growth lever by reaching out to their former customers from Exceptional. These happened to be largely SMBs.
[Our early strategy] was basically “Do things that make people find out about Intercom”. Our previous businesses had helped us grow a network of people who would listen to us, so they were the first people we reached out to.
So all day every day I’d email people to tell them about Intercom, show them what Intercom might look like for them, and hear their feedback. I did this 100% by hand and if I was to do it all again today I’d still do it by hand.
This is what that looked like:
That’s email grind — and it’s such an effective strategy to get your first users into the product.
Here’s Des giving 5 reasons why he thinks the hands-on approach was the right call:
The approximately 100 or so emails I sent every day built on the previous day’s learnings. When you’ve read the 40 replies and understood common confusions, you can address them in the following day’s new set of emails.
Every email was pretty much unique, which meant that the automatable boilerplate was minimal.
Doing it by hand helped me avoid all the tell-tale signs of a bad outbound campaign. I wasn’t guessing email addresses. I wasn’t sending the same email to someone’s personal and professional address. I’d include every contact in a company on the same mail rather than send them three identical emails.
I was creating custom screenshots of example use cases for their exact businesses, and speaking their exact languages. I was showing them something they definitely wanted.
There is just something primal about trying to sell your software directly to people and listening to what they say. When your runway is measured in weeks and you’re spending your own savings, every rejection is like a dagger to the soul, and every positive reply warms your heart. I think those emotions are good to taste, and I honestly worry about early stage founders who see themselves as above this type of graft, or think that they should API their way out of it.
All automation loses nuance and nuance is literally all you have in the early days, so embrace it. You could call this a “Nail it before you scale it” strategy, but then we wouldn’t be friends because I can’t stand things like that.
Apart from email outreach — another tactic Intercom used was webinars.
We opened up Intercom to the public on January 27th, 2011 and with the floodgates open I decided to switch to blogging and presenting webinars to help onboard groups of users at a time. Again, there were ways to automate this and avoid the hard work, at a cost of the nuance. So every week I did one live webinar on Wednesday nights to groups ranging from 9 to 90.
We grew email by email, Skype by Skype, webinar by webinar, and looking back I can’t distill it down to any one thing. Just do all of it and one of two things will happen: either it starts working eventually, or you just can’t do it anymore. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll feel a lot better knowing that you gave it everything you had, rather than realising you should have actually talked to your would-be customers before trying to automate them.
— Des, CSO
A huge takeaway here is to start small and personal in the beginning. By doing hands on outreach yourself you’re building relationship and getting that boots-on-the-ground insight into what people are saying — which helps you with the feedback loop for your next outreach cycle. Sure, Des and the other co-founders could have automated campaigns to their network of former Exceptional customers— but besides that being super off brand — they’d be trying to scale it before they nailed it.
So, by tapping into their network with personalized outreach — they generated that very early awareness and got users into their product.
Intercom had shifted from an idea, into a product. Now, they had to become a business. 🤑
Selling to the people you’ve found
Once you’ve found your early users, and next piece is getting them to pay you.
Fortunately, once again, there are 3 clear strategies for B2B— making the choice easier.
Bottom-up + self-service. Here, people discover your product, sign up for a free plan, find value, and then upgrade themselves in order to get more functionality.
Bottom-up + internal sales: Here, people discover your product, sign up for a free plan, but the difference to self-service is that they are then encouraged by a sales rep to upgrade for more functionality.
Outbound sales: Here, founders or an early sales team reach to leads, help them trial the product, and then sign them up for a paid plan.
Given how hands-on the founders were in getting users — it’s no surprise that they leaned into founder-led sales (outbound).
At this time — Intercom had simple SaaS pricing for a single product. They launched with a freemium version and had paid plans that scaled based on usage. So, as the team was reaching out, creating awareness, and bringing people into the product to try it for free, they were beginning the conversations to get those users to become customers.
Their early focus was on SMBs and very early stage companies, but like most B2B companies that scale — they’ve shifted audience focus to move upstream to enterprise. Along with this — they’ve built out a sales team and adopted a land and expand strategy. This is when ****a sales-rep deals with the company, and over time they develop a relationship built on value creation, trust, and a great customer experience. Reps then uses this as a foundation to find new ways to add value to the customer, i.e — upsell. This works because it’s much easier to sell to an existing customer (60-70%), while your chance of selling to a new prospect is a 5-20%.
The point there is that you can adjust your sales strategy down the road. The way you start doesn’t lock you into that forever. While researching this section, I came across a few great quotes worth sharing with you about this:
Initial growth at successful early-stage bottom-up companies is often the result of a product-driven flywheel: The product’s value and appeal drive individual user adoption, which in turn drive viral momentum through word of mouth, while product upgrades and individual usage often lead to team adoption.
However, as products proliferate through an Enterprise customer, there’s a limit to the users who want or are able to discover, use, and pay for it on their own. As the company starts to scale, relying purely on self-serve often results in an asymptotic flattening of the growth curve, resulting in linear or worse, declining growth.”
—Sarah Wang and David George, a16z
The conventional wisdom is you don’t go straight to Enterprise. You solve a specific problem first, and then you layer in Enterprise requirements like governance, compliance, etc. They [Enterprises] generally also move slower, so it makes sense to start with more nimble customers first.
—ChenLi Wang, GP at WndrCo, ex-growth at Dropbox, Workday
In most markets, the SMB segment is varied enough to allow a startup to win larger and larger customers every quarter without making the leap to Mid-market or Enterprise. While it’s a long way to the top, a rapid ascent upmarket for an SMB SaaS business can be both unnecessary and destabilizing.
—Adam Fisher, Partner at Bessemer Venture Partners
To understand the next stage of Intercoms growth — we need to talk about milkshakes.
Milkshakes? Finding out what customers want from your product
From 2014 onwards — Intercom’s growth starts to get explained by milkshakes.
Milkshakes — surely not?
To explain, let’s take a step back from a software startup for a second.
[If you know the JTDB framework, you can skip my beautiful storytelling and skip to just below the visual of the skateboarder]
Once upon a time — and this is a true story — a fast food restaurant wanted to sell more milkshakes. Why milkshakes specifically…who knows.
So, their marketing team went out and asked people to list the characteristics of an ideal milkshake (thick, thin, chunky, smooth, fruity etc.). Their customers gave them their preferences, and the company responded to the feedback. But, milkshake sales did not budge.
So, absolutely desperate to move the needle on milkshakes — they hired a Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton Christensen, to help them figure out how to do it.
He approach the situation by trying to deduce the “job” that customers were “hiring” a milkshake to do. First, he spent a day in one of the restaurants, observing who was buying milkshakes, when they bought them, and whether they drank them on the spot.
He found that 40% of the milkshakes were purchased first thing in the morning, by commuters who ordered them to go. Intrigued (as I would be), he asked them why a milkshake so early in the morning.
He noted, “Most of them, it turned out, bought [the milkshake] to do a similar job. They faced a long, boring commute and needed something to keep that extra hand busy and to make the commute more interesting. They weren’t yet hungry, but knew that they’d be hungry by 10 a.m.; they wanted to consume something now that would stave off hunger until noon. And they faced constraints: They were in a hurry, they were wearing work clothes, and they had (at most) one free hand.”
He had found out why people were buying milkshakes.
The milkshake was hired instead of other things (like a granola bar, a doughnut, or a bagel) because it was relatively tidy and filling, and because the activity of sucking a thick liquid through a straw gave people something to do with their long, boring commute.
With this key insight, the company realized they didn’t need to change their milkshakes to sell more, but rather, make it easier for commuters to buy them.
Milkshake sales shot up — and the Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) framework was born.
People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.
That’s the core principle of the JTDB theory. People buy things to get something done; and while products come and go, the underlying job-to-be-done stays the same.
This concept has become popular in product design and development. But, Intercom took this to a whole new level — driven by Matt Hodges.
At Intercom, we asked ‘what job are customers hiring our product for?’. And the answer to that question now informs our entire go-to-market strategy, from the way we position our products, to the audiences we target and the content we produce.
Yes, it’s an approach that runs counterintuitive to classic, persona-based marketing, and does so purposefully. Focusing on customer attributes really means focusing on what you want to sell, rather than what your customers actually need. Those customers come from a variety of backgrounds, industries and verticals, but their one commonality is their motivation, the Job-to-be-Done.
This is called job-based marketing.
Up until 2014 — they sold Intercom as a single product. It was marketed with four use-cases that they thought Intercom was great for. They had a typical SaaS business model where you could choose from one of four plans, with their premium plan having everything on it.
When they started job-based marketing — they unbundled those use-cases into four unique, but integrated, products. And this is where they growth took off.
So, let’s take look at how they uncovered the jobs that Intercom is hired to do, and how they took those learnings and applied them to every aspect of their go-to-market strategy. From communications, to demand generation, events, to product and content marketing.
Figuring out their JTDB
Intercom went out and spoke to 40 different customers, and spent days workshopping to create five different jobs-to-be-done statements.
You’re not going to get a good understanding of the jobs unless you invest the time, get on the phone, and speak to a bunch of different customers. That needs to be active customers, it needs to be new customers, it needs to be customers that tried your product but didn’t buy, and it also needs to be customers that cancelled. You need a broad mix.
Study the conversations intensely and look for any patterns that come out of them. From there, define what the job is that people are looking to hire your product for and follow a framework that works for you. For Intercom, they created a messaging guide for each job.
Once you understand the job, understanding how to improve the product becomes so much more obvious. That same thinking can be applied to marketing
Market for jobs, not personas
Customers come in all shapes and sizes — and when you work with personas — you’re inherently making a ton of assumptions about who your customer is. But the one thing they are much more likely to have in common is the job that they’re looking to hire a product for.
From a product development standpoint — that’s why the JTBD framework is much more effective than persona-driven user stories. It bakes in a ton of context and causality — and gives you a solid definition of the problem, as well as in what situation people have it, what their motivation is in solving it, and what outcome they’re expecting.
You get a similar value when creating marketing strategies around jobs.
This was a screenshot of Intercom’s homepage in 2015 — where they literally are calling out their standalone products and selling them based on the JTBD.
Previously, everything was positioned as one product. But once they had found their 5 JTBD, they were able to segmented their marketing and drive the right people to a single, super relevant, product within Intercom for them.
Intercom has a great article on how to write a landing page based off the JTBD: 12 Steps To Creating A Landing Page That Converts
So, when thinking about how to grow something — think about milkshakes. 🥤
Pricing strategies to drive growth
Figuring out what, and how, to charge people for your
milkshake product can be a daunting task – especially if you’ve never priced anything before. And the stakes are high. Getting pricing wrong can limit your growth, or quickly give you the wrong kind of growth.
It doesn’t matter what the product is — first principles is needing to understand your audience, and why people gravitate towards your product — your value. Then you need to decide how much revenue you want to earn from them.
From here, you really have three pricing strategies – transactional, enterprise and self-service.
Joel York coined the above axes to define the three key sales models for SaaS businesses. This is the how to charge piece of pricing. Here are a few examples of companies in those quadrants:
And here is a handy framework for thinking about which pricing model makes sense for a product:
Enterprise: i.e HubSpot
Demos part of sales process
High monthly price - duration and renewal offers
Dedicated reps and product consultants
Transactional: i.e Stripe
Self-service sign up
Usage based pricing
High support needed, and support-level offered based on usage
Self-service: i.e Notion
Self-service sign up
Plan based (flat monthly, annual)
Low to minimum support needed
The bottom right quadrant is simply a dead zone. If your product is too cheap and you’re charging less that it costs you to sell — that math doesn’t add up.
Last note on pricing strategies, as Intercom shows us — you can have different pricing models to address different ends of the market. That’s a powerful way to grow and triangulate a market.
Okay, so far, we’ve looked at pricing strategies for SaaS — and can see that Intercom uses a combination self-service and enterprise — with both strategies incorporating transactional.
This trifecta of pricing allows them to hit both ends of the market — from startups, to early stage, to SMBs, to enterprise.
Now, let’s look at figuring out what to charge.
How to charge ⇒ What to charge
A product always creates some sort of value. And to land on pricing, you first need to determine your value metric. This term wasn’t coined by me — so here’s an expert explaining:
A “value metric” is essentially what you charge for. For example: per seat, per 1,000 visits, per CPA, per GB used, per transaction, etc. If you get everything else wrong in pricing, but you get your value metric right, you'll do ok. It's that important. Partly because it bakes lower churn and higher expansion revenue into your monetization.
Pricing based on a value metric (vs. a tiered monthly fee) is important because it allows you to make sure you're not charging a large customer the same as you'd charge a small customer.
Intercom’s main value metric is the number of people reached. Here’s a screenshot from their pricing page that states that pretty clearly — “People Reached means you only pay for the value you get from Intercom”
They also charge based on seats. So, as their customers scales to serve more or their own customers (i.e as they grow) — they charge more along with them, driving Intercoms revenue up.
That illustrates a huge benefit of pricing based on a value metric. You bake growth directly into how you charge because as usage or the amount of value received goes up (and those are not the same thing), the customer pays more.
If they end up using Intercom less or getting less value — they pay less (thus minimizing churning). This is why companies using value metrics are typically growing at double the rate with half the churn and 2x the expansion revenue vs companies charging a flat fee or where the only difference between their pricing tiers are features.
Okay — so value metrics are important. Now, how do you find yours?
Again, let’s ask someone more qualified that me.
To determine your value metric, think about the ideal essence of value for your product — what value are you directly providing your customer?
In B2B, it's likely going to be money saved, revenue gained, time saved, etc.
As an example, the perfect value metric for ProfitWell Retain (our churn recovery product) is how much churn we recover for you. We can measure this, and our customers agree to the measurement, so we can charge on that axis. Other pure value metric products include MainStreet, which handles government paperwork to automatically get you back tax credits — you pay a percentage of the money saved.
Most [businesses] wont’ have a pure value metric, so the next step is to find a proxy for that metric. Take for example HubSpot’s marketing product. Their pure value metric is the amount of revenue their tool drives for your business. This is hard to measure and hard for the customer to agree to in terms of what percentage of credit HubSpot deserves for revenue from a blog post. Proxies for HubSpot are things like the number of contacts, number of visits, number of users, etc.
To find the right proxy metric, you want to come up with 5-10 proxies and then talk to your customers and prospects. You’ll typically find 1-2 of these pricing metrics will be most preferred amongst your target customers. You then want to make sure those 1-2 also make sense from a growth perspective. Your larger customers should be using/getting more of the metric, whereas your smaller customers should be using/getting less of the metric. You also want to make sure the metric encourages retention.
Intercom’s CEO, Karen Peacock, gives us the perfect wrap up here on pricing — “You always need to make sure that the price you’re charging is less than the value for the customer”.
It should be pretty obvious why.
This next piece is a massive growth lever for Intercom. My fiancé is a content marketer so I hope this section makes her proud.
Content is the centerpiece of Intercom’s customer acquisition strategy. It’s how they drive traffic, create awareness, feed their marketing and sales funnel, and build such an authoritative brand in the market. And their main distribution channel from $1M to $50M ARR was their blog
I was talking growth with Neil Patel recently and we discussed the channels that we would both invest in long term. If we were to start all over again, what would we do? The answer was one you’d expect us to give: content marketing.
The way I see it, and the way Neil sees it as well, content is the foundation of customer acquisition. If you get content marketing working, then you are able to retarget people. You are able to build lookalike audiences on different channels. If you’re creating great content, it builds links, which brings your domain authority up.
You can write more content and then you can collect more emails and optimize your conversion rate from there, but everything starts with content first. Look at a lot of media companies – they’re building agency services divisions now. It’s easier to build an audience first, and then from there you can start to branch out into other areas.
— Eric Siu, CEO, Single Grain, Inside Intercom podcast
But content is a massive term. So let’s unpack it for a second.
At the highest level — content can be broken up based on (1) what you’re trying to optimize for, and (2) how the content is getting created.
What: SEO value, or Virality.
How: Is your team creating it, or are users creating it?
Here is the landscape broken up into quadrants again.
And looking at where Intercom sits, we can see that their content is created by employees, and optimized for SEO, with an aspect of virality.
This strategy, dubbed by Lenny Rachitsky, is called Editorially-Generated SEO-Optimized (EGSO). Founders and people on the Intercom team create content with the goal of ranking higher for certain keywords. Besides Intercom, this primarily drives the growth of companies like Ahrefs, Canva, and HubSpot.
Writing has been a core part of Intercom’s DNA since its inception – Des wrote 93 of the first 100 blog posts here on Inside Intercom. For a certain audience, Intercom was arguably more famous for its content than its product.
Beginning in 2015, we expanded beyond regular blog posts to publish books containing our insights and opinions. This acclaimed series included titles focusing on product management, customer engagement, and Jobs-to-be-Done
The deluxe hardback copy of Intercom on Starting Up epitomized the approach – a beautiful item in its own right that became a coveted collectible among fans and influenced the industry.
Having a superior product is definitely part of it — but Intercom’s EGSO strategy has separated them from the competition and positioned them as a premium customer support and engagement tool.
So let’s get into what they are doing.
Creating targeted, evergreen content
Evergreen content (i.e content that lasts) is key to Intercom’s sustainable and growing pipeline of inbound leads and customers.
Using the JTDB framework — they have spent a lot of time figuring out what people who are looking to get a certain job done are searching for on Google. They’ve then targeted a range of medium to high-volume keywords that are super relevant, and have written great content that meets the search-intent of those people.
These pieces have longevity and will be relevant for a long time, allowing them to build up references and continue to be performative.
Customer messaging isn’t a sexy industry, so doubling down on content marketing might not seem like the best strategy at first. But if you think about it, messaging is really all about telling a story, which is what Intercom is really good at. And their organic search strategy revolves around these stories as a way to elevate their brand to the trust and respected leader in all things customer support.
The way they do this is by tapping into high-value keywords with click value, building a backlink profile that lends social proof and link equity to their blog, and leveraging the power of strategic page-one rankings.
Tie this all together and you can see how Intercom has built an organic search strategy that not only elevates their rankings in the SERP but also positions their brand as the go-to expert in the industry. Those two things are the key to Intercom’s impressive growth and the backbone of their customer messaging brand.
And to be clear — this isn’t just posting to their blog. Intercom publish books, guides, webinars, and more to educate and connect with their target audience.
But does this content convert?
Driving conversions with retargeting
Content is a long-game. Most people don’t convert after just one touch point.
And with evergreen content — the goal is usually building trust and awareness. Meaning — when Jaryd the product manager reads Intercom on Product Management, he’s probably not whipping out the credit card. But, he does start talking about it.
So, it’s great for filling the top of the funnel, but may not directly convert into sales for the product.
Intercom uses strategic “Next Steps” prompts, like funneling you into more relevant content, or getting your email addresses for their newsletter, or as a gateway to an ebook
There are hardly any CTAs to get people to try the Intercom product. And while digging into this, that leads me to believe that you can’t really build a successful content strategy by focusing too heavily on for immediate product/revenue conversions. Trying to force those conversions into your content can easily turn people off and hurt your performance.
But, bringing people to your site with great content and then not converting them can seem like a massive waste. And it would be, unless you’re retargeting them.
That’s what Intercom does really well, and in their retargeting strategy — they personalize what they retarget you with based on the content you’ve read.
Building links with thought-leadership pieces
Everyone at Intercom contributes to their blog — Inside Intercom. Their founders, executives, product teams, marketing teams, support…it’s a company effort.
Part of this strategy generates them a lot of thought-leadership pieces — which is a great way to get backlinks.
They’ve picked up on interesting topics or emerging ideas within the field of customer support, startup growth, and design. Then, they use their blog to advance that idea in a new direction or solidify and refine it in a way that provides perspective and insight for others in the industry.
As the ideas grow, they have an interesting article that will organically pick up links from others writing on the same topics or trends.
Intercom isn’t always the first one to the table, either. They seem to focus on emerging trends and putting their own spin on the topic.
That quote calls out something worth giving its own heading.
Stealing what works
Looking at some of Intercom’s most viewed pieces, it’s pretty clear — stealing what works is a great strategy. 🕵️
Intercom seem to dig deep into their target communities and find topics that have already proven to be successful, and then go and give a a fresh or contradictory take on that topic.
Take this example: Alaister Low wrote a great piece about why people choose to quit their jobs. The article gained a ton of traction in the startup/tech world.
And, drumroll, guess what Intercom’s most-shared piece of content is?
If you said, “an extremely similar, updated article on this same topic,” then you’re right.
There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Finding topics and coming up with new ideas that stick with your audience is hard — and by keeping an eye out on what’s proven to work and piggy-backing on that is just being efficient.
Leveraging outside channels for new audiences
When you have great content — you want as many people as possible to see it. Posting on your own blog means you’re likely writing for the same readers over and over again, making it harder to grow.
So, be like Intercom — who have made great use of Medium. They use it as a platform to republish and **distribute their content to new audiences. This squeezes much more out of the same article by putting it in front of new readers — and driving more people into their retargeting loops.
Here’s a post that Intercom published on saying no to customers:
And here’s same post on Medium, getting it extra traction and more reach.
More bang for their buck, and no extra effort.
Wrapping up on content, here’s some advice from Intercom’s former Director of Content:
Content marketing initiatives don’t generate returns as quickly as other forms of marketing, so be sure to hold your nerve. But once you start to see an audience engage with a particular format or channel, double down on it quickly. And don’t be afraid to focus on that particular medium rather than trying to do everything at once i.e. if you’ve started to have some success with a podcast don’t suddenly start to try spinning up a YouTube channel. As I like to say content is a super-tanker not a speedboat.
Content marketing has been a massive growth driver for Intercom — and they just do it so well. I’ve seen many B2B brands have a content strategy, but do it in the most boring way — thinking that selling to enterprises, or working in a certain industry, means you need to write with a certain level of buttoned-up-ness.
But Intercom proves that’s not the case. The people in those companies are just that, people. And we like edgy topics, we like creative things, and we like being entertained while we learn.
Okay, I’ve been swimming well outside my lanes here talking about content marketing. So let’s change gears and look at what happens after Intercom’s content has driven awareness and brought people into their funnels and product.
We know Intercom have a strong sales-led strategy. But they also have their product doing a lot of work to create awareness, onboard self-signup users, and get them discovering value and upgrading.
Let’s look at a few ways they are doing this.
The embedded growth loop
In the beginning of this piece, we saw what happened when the founders launched that little floating bubble on Exceptional — and everyone wanted to know how they could get it.
That’s the embedded growth loop.
All of Intercom’s customers become distributors for them as soon as they add that little piece of JS script onto their site.
Simple — but so powerful.
Early on, Intercom also inserted "We run on Intercom" links inside each of their customers' chatbots, driving visitors back to their site to learn more about the tool. Each link also sent those visitors to a landing page personalized for traffic from that website — a technique known as dynamic keyword insertion.
Take Atlassian — a highly trusted brand with a pool of top-tier customers. As soon as they use Intercom, they generate awareness across their users. And these people will instantly trust Intercom by association — which compounds since many of these users probably use multiple tools that run Intercom.
With 25K businesses distributing the Intercom name — those eyeballs add up quickly.
The only downside here is that this isn’t a unique advantage to Intercom — all embedded support tools have this. But Intercom’s Messenger widget is by far the best, and essentially acts as a mini landing page and proof of concept every-time a prospect customer touches is.
Upselling and stickiness
Intercom’s product is full of contextual triggers to get customers to try new features out. That’s how I got into bot-building — a real time vortex. 🙃
They have subtle upsell pathways across the product (see below), to also sending in-app messages while you’re online, when they believe you’d be prime to getting more out of Intercom. Depending on your account value and usage, they may funnel you into a self-service flow — or into a chat with your account rep.
The compounding value for Intercom here is that the more of the product you use — and therefore the higher your account value — the less likely you are to churn.
This is because the moat becomes stronger. The more you use it, the more customer data you have living on Intercom — shooting your switching costs way up — as well your LTV for Intercom.
Thinking back to that pricing graph from earlier — you can see a sales-led strategy makes a ton of sense here.
The last piece of Intercoms growth we’ll look at is product education.
Product education = happy customers
Product education, it turns out, is an often overlooked but critical part of a company’s success with all stages of the customer lifecycle: onboarding, activation, retention, and expansion.
If you are a SaaS business with a product-led growth strategy, a product education team is non-negotiable. This team has the power to be the glue between your customers and your product, enabling you to service your customers in a capital efficient way at scale.
Intercom has focused on creating happy customers from the get-go, and has implemented this customer-first mentality into their GTM strategy by having a dedicated product education team.
Today, we organize our team using the CARE framework for onboarding. Half our team is focused on conversion and activation while the other half is focused on retention and expansion. Each half of the team works closely with marketing, product, and sales; and within each half of the team we work on two types of projects. On the one hand, we create product education content that aligns with whatever the product team is shipping or launching. And in between all of that activity (which is a lot), we work to proactively and strategically broaden and deepen our customers’ usage of Intercom.
This is what that looks like for Intercom:
With product education, it’s basically thinking about onboarding as a never-ending thing. Intercom continue to build relationships with customers throughout their journey — and focus on making sure people are always getting the most value out of the product.
Small touches matter — and with a SaaS tool — product education is key.
And that’s our deep dive on Intercom!
Writing this piece though has been the hardest one yet. Why?
Well, my moms been living in my basement for the past two weeks. She came to visit from South Africa, so life has been a bit of a juggling act. I’ve had to shoo her away while trying to write in the mornings, and make up for it by touring New York in the evenings.
But, we made it! And I hope you learned at least one thing about growth.
If you did, please consider subscribing and spreading the word about How They Grow by hitting the button below 🙏
And on that note, here are my high-level takeaways on Intercom’s growth.
🔍 Observe the world around you. Sometimes all it takes to find a billion dollar idea is to watch the way your barrister talks to customers.
🤝 Start small and personal to get early customers. You don’t need to find scalable ways to reach customers before you have any. Focus on the nuance of conversations, be super personal, and be hands-on reaching out to the people you know. Remember, “Build stuff and talk to users” — that’s how you get your first users.
🪜 Your sales strategy can change as your move upstream. Most of the time is makes sense when doing B2B to first focus on early stage and SMBs. Don’t go straight to Enterprise. Solve a specific problem first, and then layer in enterprise requirements like governance, compliance, etc. They generally move slower, so it makes sense to start with more nimble customers first. And the way you sell to SMBs vs enterprise is different — so prepare to have a sales process that evolves.
🐋 To sell to enterprise — you need a sales-led G2M motion. When you do sell to enterprise — you will almost certainly need to have a sales team in place. That’s just what it takes to get those high value accounts.
🥤 Remember milkshakes for jobs-based growth. Use the JTBD framework to not only build better products, but to market to people based on fundamental, shared, jobs that they are hiring your product to achieve. You eliminate risky persona-based assumptions and get a ton of context and causality. Once you have you JTBD, use that to build great landing pages.
💸 Use multiple pricing strategies for different sides of the market. You don’t sell to enterprises and smaller companies the same way — and the same logic applies to how you price your product. Let SMBs do self-service and have upsell pathways in your product, and let your account reps put packages together for the big fish.
❤️ Determine your value metric — and priced dynamically. For SaaS, you need to determine what your core value is to customers. This becomes your value metric, and you should use that as the basis for scaling how much you charge customers based on how much value they get. That maximizes your revenue growth and minimizes your churn. And always make sure that the price you’re charging is less than the value for the customer, and more than it costs you to deliver.
📃 Content can be the foundation for your customer acquisition. It can help you drive traffic, create awareness, feed your marketing and sales funnel, and build you an authoritative brand in your space.
🤔 Content isn’t the conversion event. Expand your funnel with strategic, granular retargeting for readers, and build a custom funnel from key evergreen articles. And drive conversions with well-placed CTAs — and be careful about being too aggressive with product/revenue conversions.
🕵️♂️ Steal what works, or make a noise. Use popular content from relevant communities to drive ideas — don’t worry about reinventing the wheel every time. Or, be contrarian by expressing a strong opinion on a controversial topic, it can help galvanize supporters and drive huge amount of discussion and engagement.
🔥 Leverage third-party platforms. Content distribution through third-party platforms can help you reach a new audience and accelerate your growth.
See you next time ✌️