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.
Hey Sean, can you tell us about your role at InVision and why you love it?
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. The mission of InVision is to elevate visual product designers and there are so many interesting ways we can do that through our content marketing.
Where do you get ideas for the Inside Design blog?
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.
Who and what is involved in producing content?
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
- The branding axis
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. “No content for content’s sake” is what I’d have tattooed on my arm if I was into tattoos!
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.
When you create a piece of blog content, what assets do you create to promote it?
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.
Do you work closely with the design team to ensure you have the right imagery?
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.
I have a couple of editorial truisms. One is, “Always keep the copy moving” and the other is, “Process produces creativity”.
Which factors are most important to the success of InVision's social strategy?
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.
What impact does content marketing have on the InVision business?
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. That’s the value; content gives us a chance to reflect our true value. The product is one value, but supporting designers is the other one.
What has been your most successful piece of content and why do you think it was well received?
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.
InVision invests heavily in content and takes risks where other brands don’t. Why do you think content has become such a key channel for the business?
I stand on the shoulders of the people who came before me, for sure. The reason it’s integral is because design is hard. It’s a hard thing to do; it’s a hard thing to build a product that people love—that’s f-ing hard. The last publication I ran catered to designers too, and I saw it there as well. The best thing we can do as a company is to help the design community. The fact that we exist is because we believe in a digital future where digital products touch everything. These are high stakes. People are figuring it out as they go and it’s our job to help them.
You set the bar high for content as a brand. Does living up to a reputation impact how you approach content marketing?
We don’t set the bar. The reader sets the bar. If we slip up or if we don’t do something correctly, the numbers will tell us. I give everything two reads—well, I give everything more than two reads—but the two reads I think about are the asshole read and the shrug read.
With the asshole read, I pretend that the most cynical person I know, who actively dislikes me, is reading it and is going, “This is terrible.” Then I ask, “Am I elevating past the easy criticism?”
And with the second one, the shrug read, I ask, “Do I know what to do after reading this?” It’s very easy to read something in line in Starbucks, but do I just go on to the next thing or am I so inspired that I say, “I’ve got to email this to myself to remember it,” or “I’ll send that to my teammate because they care about it,” or “I’ll make a note to myself to explore animation.”
Who is responsible for video content at InVision?
We have a very talented video product team that produces product tutorials and other video content led by Andy Orsow. We’re all under the content org, but as the editorial director my role is mostly concerned with the words. Our VP of Brand and Content, Susan Kaplow, came from Apartment Therapy and Refinery 29. That should give you an indicator of how seriously we’re taking and thinking about content.
What are the main changes that you’ve identified within content marketing since InVision began playing in this space?
When I graduated from college, I helped run a consultancy where I had to convince brands that content was a big deal, that it would be a great investment. It was such a slog. Now, they don’t need convincing. People have seen brands pull this off well, and they’re thinking, “Oh, I can do that.” It usually takes more time and effort than people expect, but that’s the biggest change. That’s really good for the individual writer and editor; if you have talent there are lots of companies that would just love to have you. I graduated college in 2008 in the middle of the great recession, and I could have gone out to the corner with a board and no one would have cared.
Which other brands do you admire for their content marketing efforts, and why?
I think in the content marketing hall of fame is First Round Review, First Round Capital’s publication. It’s not only content marketing, it’s good editorial, which is important because I often find the industry of content marketing, and the people that talk about it, to be very cold and businessy in a way that’s off-putting. I feel that the best publications understand that they’re a publication, that they’re serving a community first and that the outcomes will flow from there.
- Know your industry
Your existing and potential customers need to trust that you know what you’re talking about, so learn your industry inside and out so that you can be a leader on the cutting edge of advances and changes.
- Use your internal expertise
Just as the trust of your customers is important to your business, so is your trust in your team of experts. They can keep you abreast of industry trends that impact customers and, being on the frontlines, they best understand what customers need and care about.
- Seek the input of your channel owners
Not only does each of your social media channels need to have a dedicated manager, but you should also involve them in shaping your content because they best understand their channel and its community.
- Listen to your customers
Your success depends on you being in tune with your customers, so attend events and engage with them. Find out what they care about. Listen to their feedback, online and offline, and take it seriously.
- Involve your customers in the content creation
If you’re listening to your customers then you have a good idea of the range of experiences and expertise they offer. Harness this by inviting them to share their knowledge with the community by engaging them in a Q&A, writing profiles or inviting them to write an article.
- Think about content purpose and channel
Be strategic about where, when and how you share various types of content. Some content may be best suited for sharing in an email newsletter, while other content is best kept for a blog or Facebook post. Likewise, you need to be mindful of what content category a piece falls into. Is it a piece for developing your brand identity, inspiring readers or keeping them well informed.
- Create a “launch stack” when you’re planning a new piece of content
No matter what kind of content you’re launching, it’s helpful to create a “launch stack” by determining in advance all the resources you’ll need at various points, based on each platform that you plan to use. Creating a plan of action in advance, and consulting each channel owner for advice, will save you time and increase the likelihood that your content will be successful.
- Give out more value than you ask for in return (on social media)
One of the mistakes that small businesses can make is to start asking for a sale too early on in the relationship with potential customers on social media. It’s important to build brand love and loyalty by giving value in the form of free and engaging information more often than you push your customers for a sale. Serve your community first and the outcomes will flow from there.
- Read every piece of content critically
Your content is only as effective as it is able to engage and hold your potential customer’s attention. So avoid publishing content for the sake of it, and read every piece of content with an eye to whether it’s pushing an idea, thought or concept to the next level. Write to inspire readers to share or take some other meaningful action.
- Get ahead of your publishing schedule
Sean says that being ahead of your publishing schedule by 10-14 days allows more time for creativity. Having that buffer gives you time to get the content right, respond to feedback and be reactive to content that you can’t necessarily plan ahead for.
Learn Later’s insights into mastering Instagram, from using community created content to excelling at Instagram stories.
Discover our guide to social media strategy, including creating content, using social media tools, running social media ads.