Case study: Intercom

Coming in loud and clear: Intercom chooses a modern stack solution with Contentful

Intercom is the business messaging platform that offers the only totally customizable messaging suite that drives growth at every stage of the customer lifecycle, from sales and marketing to support. Intercom’s Messenger powers real time, contextual conversations between businesses and customers, and its accompanying workflows and automation provide personalized customer interactions at scale. Intercom is powered by a live customer data platform that seamlessly integrates with CRMs and many other tools, including Salesforce, Marketo and Zendesk. Intercom is making business messengers mainstream and working with customers including Sotheby’s, Atlassian, Shopify, New Relic, Aer Lingus and One Medical.

When bespoke doesn't fit anymore

Intercom is the business messaging platform that offers the only totally customizable messaging suite that drives growth at every stage of the customer lifecycle. The platform powers more than 500 million conversations each month and works with 30,000 companies including Atlassian, New Relic, Shopify and Sotheby’s.

Intercom has also built a strong in-house brand identity. When it came time for a brand refresh, there was concern that Intercom’s hard-coded marketing site would muffle rather than amplify that voice. Intercom had built its own custom content application because the CMSes available at the time were too rigid for their needs. The team opted to build its own application to make whatever the marketing team could dream up a reality.

However, this meant that only engineers could update content — and they were often the bottleneck for any marketing site changes, even the smallest copy edits. The engineering team also ended up creating lots of custom, one-off pages that were difficult to maintain.

Nothing about the marketing site moved as nimbly as the company. It took about two weeks from design sign-off to push a page live. Deployments took 20 to 30 minutes. The site took over 500 seconds to build and continuous integration about eight minutes to run.

“We wanted to solve for developer pain; we were really starting to feel it with the old marketing site,” says Steven Petryk, Tech Lead at Intercom. “When you have such a slow build process and such a slow CI process, you start to ship lower-quality code because you just don't want to wait anymore.” 


As the company rapidly grew and expanded its reach, content teams also needed flexibility to change the translation process to launch in new markets and get text into the right language quickly. In addition, there were new audience segments that Intercom would be speaking to with its new brand, and that required the ability to A/B test, rapidly iterate, and experiment with new ways of communicating with these audiences.

A modern stack was critical to achieving all of these goals.

The search for the right stack

For Intercom to move faster and level up its marketing site, it needed to build a lighter tech stack, reduce time for page development, reduce barriers to contribution for marketers and editors, and free up time on the engineering team. What they needed was content infrastructure. They started with was a list of more than 100 requirements, says Lauren Ottinger, Product Manager at Intercom. “There were a ton of stakeholders and people who this project was going to impact — from marketing, branding, content and demand generation to engineering.” After grouping the must-haves into themes and prioritizing, the top criteria emerged: - Brand flexibility - Fast build times - Overall ease-of-use - Enable marketing team contributions

That still left about 20 CMSes to choose from. The teams debated whether to go with a traditional or headless CMS. With a traditional CMS, the marketing team could make quick changes to the website, but the experiences they could create were limited and inflexible. Making another custom application freed up the creative side but saddled the engineering team with every tiny change.

They concluded that a headless CMS could provide the best of both worlds by making the content easy to update by the marketing team, while providing a system that’s easy to maintain for the engineering team. After speaking with several vendors, they chose Contentful for enterprise readiness, out-of-the-box features, single sign-on and modularity.

“We needed a platform that could support us where we were, but a huge deciding factor for Contentful was choosing a platform that could grow with us,” Ottinger says. Now that creatives and engineers had started thinking end-to-end and holistically about the experiences they were building, they needed a partner for the duration. “We had a lot of confidence it would be a really strong platform and partner for us for a long time, given that implementing a CMS is not a short-term decision.”

Contentful enabled Intercom’s marketers to make content changes without being dependent on engineering and allow their content to scale. They also built a reusable library of components. The key to these, Petryk says, was finding that just-right Goldilocks size. “If you make your components too large and opinionated, then every single page looks exactly the same. If they’re too small, then they're a little bit too flexible. A content author can shoot themselves in the foot by composing too many things together.”

Petryk says the team opted for components that were slightly too large and then breaking them into smaller bits. The library reduced the time it took to build custom elements for each new page, and also increased team efficiency. In turn, cross-team collaboration drastically improved.

Who wore it better: Old and new side-by-side

As a proof-of-concept, the first test was to build a marketing page in Contentful then set it live alongside Intercom’s existing website. This pilot-in-parallel approached helped marketing team members get familiar with what webpages would look like in the new content system and show them how easy it was to change content or copy. They could also see how quickly different blocks of content could be reused to create other pages without leaning on the technical team.

“From a technical standpoint, we were able to de-risk and prove that we could split traffic to different pages and a phased rollout,” says Petryk. “We weren’t forced to have a scary all-or-nothing switch in one day — we had a lot more control over that experience. That gave everybody peace of mind and helped us move into the build phase with a tremendous amount of confidence.”

Results

“We saw a ton of really positive impact to the business,” Ottinger says. For starters, the marketing team can quickly make copy changes, translate and swap out images on the site, which they couldn't do before.

On the engineering side, the numbers improved. They dramatically reduced the time it took to deploy the site, from 20 minutes to about 90 seconds. The average page build time shrank from about two weeks to closer to two days. The entire site, previously built with Ruby on Rails, is now a server-side rendered React application (built using Zeit’s Next.js) that pulls all of the content from Contentful. There’s no content in the site's repository, and the site gets compiled to plain HTML, CSS, and JS at build time.

“It all helps us iterate faster, do faster launches, support components more quickly,” says Ottinger. “It's pretty seamless, so that's great.”

In Contentful, editors lay out all of the content and ‘think in components,’ a lot like engineers. By composing and arranging components, they can build pages entirely from scratch. In fact, the site today has NO bespoke components for any specific page. — Steven Petryk, Tech Lead, Intercom


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