Invision's Editorial Director Sean Blanda shares tips from the brand's content marketing strategy and audience-driven approach.
From his early days of running a consultancy, where he had the unenviable task of trying to convince skeptical brands that content was the next big thing, to his role as Editorial Director at the wildly successful digital product design platform InVision App, Sean Blanda has been a champion extraordinaire of content marketing.
In his role at InVision, he oversees Inside Design, the premium online resource for digital designers, and works closely with channel specialists to share InVision’s editorial vision. As a result, Sean has a unique insight into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to content and social strategy.
That’s why we got Sean to sit down with us for a Q&A, covering essential topics like where he gets ideas for the Inside Design blog, the impact content marketing has had on the InVision business, his approach to content production, and the brands that he believes are acing content marketing today.
SEAN: I'm the Editorial Director, which means I'm responsible for Inside Design, our biggest publication (we have several including Design Better and Medium). I also oversee our social media platforms, our online store that we have big aspirations for, and I help out on lots of other areas of branded content.
What makes InVision a super cool place to work, and why I admired the brand from the outside, is that as a company we put content first. We make documentaries and film, and we produce great editorial content and emails.
SEAN: One hundred percent of the Fortune 100 companies use the InVision product, so I'm spoiled in that I have a direct pipeline to some of the most dynamic companies in the world. That's where so many of our ideas come from.
We also find inspiration while attending our many events, from designers tweeting at us or by a pitch from a designer. Sometimes, I’ll see designers on Twitter or Medium saying, "Something my company cares about is …” and they start rolling out a design system. So we'll say, “Great, write about it for us.” So our content comes from looking at the cool people around us and trying to frame and elevate their insights.
Another source is all the amazing design expertise we have internally. For example, Aarron Walter—InVision’s VP of Design Education— used to be VP of R&D at Mailchimp, and I can Slack him whenever I want.
The second layer of that (and this is something we're trying to get better at) is how we look at the culture—and I mean that in the broader sense—and how design/digital design has affected that culture. For example, I'm currently producing a series of posts about fitness and health. That industry has been totally revolutionized by digital transformation. Digital products are utterly flipping over entire industries.
SEAN: The Inside Design team is managed by myself and Shayna Hodkin—a super talented Managing Editor based in Tel Aviv. At the moment, since the blog is small and we’re still figuring out the best direction to go in, I function as an editor-in-chief and I am editing everything, or at least touching every piece of content in some way. We have created several buckets of content, and this is different depending on the publication, but we have two axes:
The distribution axis is for content we think will play well in our email newsletter, content we think will be good for SEO or content that will work on Twitter.
For the branding axis, content might be more about hard skills; for example, topics like: “This is how you use the InVision product.” Sometimes we write a softer trends piece like: “Here are 20 new UX trends.”We also profile people and ask them about their design journey.
At this point, we know that certain types of content work. For everything we plot out, we try to pinpoint who it’s for and what we are trying to talk to them about.
Also, we put all of our content through JIRA. I make sure every piece of content has a JIRA ticket and all the commentary for the piece of content happens on that ticket. Then every ticket is attached to a Google document with our briefing template. Everything has a Jira link and ticket, as well as a headline summary.
SEAN: We have weekly editorial meetings with key stakeholders. People can attend optionally. In those meetings, we discuss our ideas. For example, let’s say I had the idea for interviewing the designer at Pinterest. I outline why I think their story is unique and why it would be good for social. Our Social Media Manager, Alisa Calvillo, might say, “Hey, if you manage to include x, y, and z it would really help.” And the person in charge of email might say, “Message it this way and I can use it too.”
So it depends on who owns that platform. I understand that in smaller organizations it might be the same person or people that own every platform, but it’s just about knowing the outcome you need for that piece of content and taking your time to get it right. Unless you’re in a breaking news situation you can always afford to take a few more days to get it right for distribution.
SEAN: At times we work with external designers, but normally we use our internal team, led by Aaron Stump and Jason Santa Maria, who manage a talented group of designers. A thing we do really well here is what we call a “launch stack.” It’s just like a tech stack. Let’s say we’re launching a documentary; we try to determine what assets we need at what point and on what platform. We create a plan of action in advance and consult each channel owner. So, as the blog channel owner, I say, “I need this image and it needs to look this way according to our style guide.” Then our designer and photographer will ensure we have it.
That’s what we do for bigger campaigns anyway. For individual pieces of content we use some stock photos, but I don’t like that. I want each article to have its own individual package and we’re working towards that.
What I also find is that being ahead of schedule by 10-14 days allows more time for creativity and for everybody to get their job done in the best way. Ideally, every channel has to have a person whose main job is to address the reaction of the audience so that we stay connected to impact and aren’t just shovelling stuff out there.
SEAN: The people who manage the various platforms are in tune with the community that they’re talking to. They attend events, listen to feedback, and take community response very seriously. They hold social media as just as important as the publication (Inside Design) itself because the only thing separating any brand from its competition is brand love: how much people love and trust it. This is why you give away more than you ask of your audience, trusting that the conversion will come on the back end.
Social media is one of the frontline ways of ensuring that brand love exists and that needs to be the north star, not these hard numbers. That takes commitment throughout an organization and it also takes trust, because it will be 18 months before you see the benefits of any platform.
I’m not actively involved in curating content but I know that the team that's in charge of social media is very hands on about who they follow and see. They talk to a lot of our designers, internally and externally, and work really hard to be exposed–even passively–to good work.
SEAN: People don’t just think of InVision as a place where you can use a tool that’s very helpful—although of course it is. They think of us as supporting the things they care about. For example, we have a Design Exchange program that takes a group of designers from US to somewhere outside the country. It’s almost like a cultural exchange program. We did the first one in Munich, which was a tremendous success. A lot of content came out of that—videos, blog posts—but the overall message is that we’re here to support designers.
SEAN: We made January Animation Month because we felt that animation is a big feature of digital design. When designers understand and master animation it helps them prototype stuff better, and it helps users understand complicated experiences. It turned out to be our best trafficked month of all time because we took this very nerdy approach to animation and connected it back to the wider culture. We wrote this piece called, ‘The 8 most important UI animations of all time’ and featured stuff like the AOL bootup screen, the Windows 95 download and the Sega animation. This connected the potentially dry design topic to its larger implications; that is, you get the design right and you impact the culture.
Another thing we covered was the oral history of the Mailchimp high five, and coupled that with a tutorial on how to do your own animation. If you think about your favorite magazine, it gets really nerdy on the things you care about. And when we get things right, that’s what we do really well.