Lacked technology to improve content-led marketing initiatives and SEO rankings
Creating, previewing, and publishing content was slow and developer-dependent
Struggled to disrupt new markets as content wasn’t localized
Began to outgrow media storage limits on GitHub
A content platform to support landing pages, customer stories, FAQs and more
A clear editorial interface and Preview API to encourage marketing-led content creation and publishing
Localization tools to enter new regional markets
Expansive cloud-native storage to manage images and videos
“I probably spent four years out of college building WordPress sites as a freelancer. During that time, I saw a lot of really awful content management systems. Comparatively, Contentful is sort of like the zen garden of CMSes.”
“Content is critical to our business. First, it helps people get excited about Notion. Then, once they’re excited, it teaches them the value of the product and how to use it. We rely on Contentful and content to tell the why and how of our product.”
“In the beginning, we didn't have that much content, so we didn't have a CMS. We were really lucky because we grew by word of mouth — people just really loved Notion, and they told their friends about it. We came to realize, obviously, that word of mouth doesn't scale forever.”
If you’re like most people, you’ve likely made a habit of scrawling reminders on the back of envelopes (only to accidentally throw them away), bookmarking hyperlinks (but forgetting you ever did so), and building massive grocery shopping lists (which you leave on the kitchen counter as you head out the door). The frustrations that accompany these blips in memory and organization are something that Notion, a San-Fransisco-born notetaking and project management tool, aims to remedy.
When Notion first emerged in 2016, its primary use, structured note taking — think college students outlining lectures and lessons — represented just a fraction of the software’s full capabilities. Over the next two years, word-of-mouth recommendations and an ecosystem of sharable, user-created templates purpose-built to manage everything from side hustles to plant species found in the garden, pushed Notion’s user base to over one million. Today, Notion has become a go-to workspace for companies and individual teams. Use cases span from basic, such as internal wikis and project management to the more creative, such as communication hubs to unite dispersed teams and documentation databases.
With such diverse, flexible tooling, so many new users, and limitless possibilities for what could be created, Notion realized a gap in the overall experience it was offering. While the freedom to DIY the space excited some users, it was daunting to others. The company needed to build out educational content to showcase the tool’s capabilities and how to utilize them. If it wanted to continue growing its customer base — and valuation — it needed to create marketing content as well. Notion needed a content solution to house all this, ideally something that matched the versatility of the platform and would allow some level of content reuse across initiatives.
A scalable content solution to support scaling marketing efforts
Early on, Notion invested little time and resources in marketing efforts and demand generation. It simply didn’t need to. Still, the company was forward-thinking. Its lean team of 13 understood that growing marketplace competition and information-hungry users wouldn’t allow such slim content to go unchecked. If the company wanted to scale sustainably, it needed to expand its digital footprint.
“If we were going to be a larger SaaS company, we knew we would have to adopt traditional performance marketing practices — which is where content comes in. We see content as a way to unlock a huge segment of the market that we haven't touched yet,” said Cory Etzkorn, the designer and engineer responsible for introducing the company to Contentful.
When he joined Notion in 2019, its content was minimal. What little there was took form in pricing pages and sprawling, unstructured blog posts (which now look very different). Notion wanted a solution that could support the diversity of content that leading SaaS companies were accustomed to, such as landing pages, FAQs, help centers, learning centers, case studies, and demos. After all, Notion was well on its way to becoming a leader itself, earning a $2 billion valuation in early 2020.
With hefty experience building sites on monolithic CMSes, Etzkorn knew adopting that type of technology wouldn’t be a one-time investment or the right fit for Notion. Suites demand substantial investments of time and money which the growing company wouldn’t have the bandwidth to keep up with. They also limit content, no matter the type, to a small number of inflexible options. After figuring out what the company didn’t want, Notion engineers considered which features would be useful in a content solution. These included governance, support for content modeling, and easy integrations. Content solutions capable of pairing with React and typescript would earn bonus points (and buy-in from engineers).
With practice and a Preview API, anyone can create in Contentful
With industry-wide praise, an encouraging nudge from Etzkorn, and a small investment in a Teams subscription, Notion decided to test out Contentful. Its engineers decided prototyping customer stories would be a good place to start. While developing the initial content model took just days, Notion engineers were pulled into other projects as they finished the build, which paused experimentation with the new tool.
A few months later, Etzkorn and the other engineers returned to their Contentful space. However, they found it in a slightly different condition than they’d left it. Hundreds of customer stories were built out and published within the hub. It seemed Notion’s marketing and customer success teams liked working in Contentful. What’s more, they figured out how to use the platform with very little coaching or support, a pleasant surprise for both developers and creatives alike.
Contentful’s Preview API played an important role in this. It helped content writers and editors envision how the structured content they imputed on the back end would appear to users visiting Notion’s site. “When content and code are decoupled, an instant preview of what creators make and adjust can really make things click,” explained Etzkorn of the API.
With Contentful supporting greater productivity across various internal teams, Notion upgraded its plan and increased use of the platform to include developing and launching landing pages, blog posts, and other educational content. The company even decided to use Contentful for its knowledge base. “We’ve migrated all our FAQs there. The customer support team will come in and update things regularly, so I think people see a lot of value from the product. They don’t have to reach out to an engineer and go back and forth for changes,” said Etzkorn, who received weekly FAQ update requests before adding Contentful to Notion’s tech stack.
Today, more than 50 Notion team members create, edit, and publish content from within Contentful’s interface. And while having so many people working in parallel can enhance productivity, there can also be drawbacks. Questions of governance and gaps in content can arise. To prevent these concerns, Notion engineers carefully curated how user roles are set up within Contentful. In this way, content creators in charge of education content can’t alter projects created by marketing, and vice versa. Validation fields provide another layer of security and consistency in the content Notion produces. They serve as guides, reminding content creators which media files and sizes are used within specific content models and which symbols are allowed in which text editors.
Capabilities that go beyond just the basics
Despite serving different purposes, Notion and Contentful share similarities. Both are content repositories. Both are extremely flexible. Both have modular architectures. And, as a byproduct of the latter two, both require some guidance when getting started. For Etzkorn and other engineers, getting familiar with Contentful was as easy as sorting through the platform’s extensive documentation, asking a question in the Slack Community, or visiting the well-stocked Developer Portal.
With help from Contentful, Notion moved to create similar resources to “train” users on the ins and outs of the tool. They were hopeful that additional information would remove writer's block and unleash creativity. Notion created actionable and inspiring content in the form of demos, template galleries, tutorials, and guides, all of which gently remind consumers that an all-in-one workspace can bring balance to daily life.
To support visual learners and really show off the limitless possibilities of Notion’s minimal and easy-to-use interface, many of the company's assets incorporate rich media, even those that are traditionally text-based, like blogs and FAQs. It wasn’t until expanding their educational content within Contentful that Etzkorn and his team realized the platform could serve as an asset manager in addition to a content manager. Notion’s engineering team was thrilled with this discovery. As a cloud-native platform, there was no limit to the number of videos and images Notion could index and store alongside its content.
One thing that surprised Notion more than being able to use Contentful as an asset manager was the direct impact the platform had on its plans to enter new markets. In adopting Contentful, Notion hoped the platform would support the creation and organization of content to educate customers and generate new leads. While it achieved this, the content platform's APIs took it one step further. In implementing localization with translation APIs, Notion modified its product and new supporting content so successfully that it launched a Korean and Japanese version of Notion in 2021, further differentiating itself from competitors. While Notion hasn’t offered details, the company has confirmed its plans to localize its content for even more markets moving forward.
In the near future, Notion plans to elevate its digital presence by building tighter integrations between its product and marketing sites. This concept will be realized as teams introduce product data to Contentful and build references across their site to create a content ecosystem rather than a hub.
With Contentful laying the groundwork for Notion’s educational content and growing marketing initiatives, success is skyrocketing. Notion continues to expand its team, and in 2021, the company celebrated a valuation of more than $10 billion.