Gene Shannon: A company blog’s content value multiplies over time 

April 8, 2020

As the first Managing Editor of Shopify UX, Gene Shannon’s priorities are the blog’s content, maintaining its social media, and running their newsletter for the UX community. The blog has been around for about 5 years, but before Gene became the editor, it was being managed on the side of the UX team’s roles, and their designers, content strategists, researchers, and developers contributed as they saw fit. He told Wonder Shuttle that creating his position was an investment in putting out a more cohesive message and lowering the barrier for contributors. “We felt we had a lot of people who have good things to say and we wanted to help them say it.” 

Since everyone contributing to the blog has a day job, how do you incentivize them to make time for it?

I think what helps for us is that one of the company’s cultural values is, “Do things, tell people.” We’re a very large team, we’re distributed across a bunch of different offices, in different time zones, in different countries. Even though the audience for the blog is nominally external, I think it’s really helpful internally for people to share interesting projects or techniques. 

I know for some of our other outreach activities, like if you’re speaking at a conference, Shopify will pay you a bonus for that and cover your expenses. So we’re looking at doing something similar to that around blog content, but for content that we think is really high value and that takes a bit of extra time for the person involved. 

We’ve actually given people who want to contribute resources about how to talk about that with their managers and with their leads, saying, “Here’s the time commitment involved. Here’s why it’s valuable. Here’s what Shopify will get out of it.” And a lot of people have it as a personal development goal that they want to get better at communicating, and this can be a way to help them do that.

How does a blog post usually start? Is it from the person who just finished the project and wants to talk about it? How else do you cultivate idea generation?

I would say that case is probably the most common, but there’s a few others. We’ll encourage UX leadership and other people leading teams, if they see someone who reports to them and works with them is doing something great, to encourage that person to make a blog contribution. I have a network of people out there doing my dirty work for me, and it’s helpful because I don’t have insight into what great project work is happening or if a great presentation happened at a team meeting. 

We’re looking at ways to lower the barrier of entry, so it doesn’t have to be a blog post. The obvious one is doing more interviews with contributors. We sit down for a half-hour conversation and we publish an edited version of that interview. It’s much more timely that way and lowers the burden on contributors as well.

What does success look like for the UX blog and what are the kinds of goals you need to meet there? What indicators do you use?

Our primary goals are around the brand for Shopify UX and making it really clear what we represent and what we think is important. We’re obviously monitoring readership and which stories take off, but we’re also looking at how much traffic we get from the blog that then goes directly to a link to our career site. I also check in regularly with our talent acquisition team for more anecdotal evidence around how often the blog comes up in interviews and particular kinds of content that have resonated. I really try to use those metrics to see if we are telling the stories that we want to tell, and when we’re speaking with candidates, are they clear on what they’re getting into and what Shopify’s story is. 

How do you communicate the value the blog is generating to stakeholders?

One of the things that is really important is that we always demonstrate that value back to people. We have a very transparent process internally about how we’re doing on metrics for any Shopify project, so we always share our metrics as broadly as possible; like what our audience growth is like and how many people the blog has attracted to apply for Shopify. 

I try to do things at performance evaluation time, like reach out to the leads of all the people who’ve contributed and say, “Hey, this person contributed to the blog. It drove this much traffic. We think this helped. We’re guesstimating a little bit, but we believe this caused this many people to apply to work at Shopify, or at least to visit our career site.” It’s to make the value proposition a little more tangible. Ultimately it’s a brand play, and you have to believe that we’re telling a good story and that it will pay off. But at the same time, anything we can do to make that more concrete and make the value for people clearer, I think that’s important for us to do. Otherwise, you can over time see that trust in what you’re doing erode.

We have links to our career site on the blog. We can track the traffic from there. At times, we post links to individual job listings and we can track how many people click on those from a post. Then we’re just extrapolating from that to our overall blog numbers and traffic numbers and making estimates around the impacts of posts.

For a younger organization launching or looking to start a design blog or a dev blog, what advice would you give them on explaining the importance of brand vs. quota to their leadership?

Just like a product needs to have a clear narrative about what its value proposition is, I think as an employer you have to have the same thing. The blog is one tool that can help you do that. I think as those kinds of investments go, it’s very low cost. It lets you build up a relationship with people who may be interested in your company, your work, or working for your company, so it’s a play with a lot more breathing space. Think of it like you would a brand campaign. It’s not like you’re going to see an immediate payoff for seeing sales in a particular product, but you’re going to see people understand what your company does and become fans of your company that way.

It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of time. There’s lots of things you can do in terms of interviewing prominent people, finding people who are really interested in contributing and are really good at it, and prioritizing their contributions to get things off the ground. You’ve got the nice pipeline of content and you can build up momentum quickly that way. It has a long tail. You create something and the value doesn’t just disappear the week the post goes out, but once you build up a corpus of content over time, that value multiplies on itself.

We were going to ask what the brand story was, but it seems like you touched on it earlier: we want to show people how great UX work is done, and if people want to do great UX work, they should come work here.

That’s definitely part of it, and maybe an even deeper underlying part is one of the things that I think is unique about Shopify: we have a really deep commitment to learning and personal growth. One of the promises we make to anyone who comes here is that you’ll learn a lot. You’ll get better at what you do. You will have time to dedicate to getting better at your craft and we will give you resources to do that. 

The blog is in many ways a demonstration of that. Our narrative is we’re doing interesting work. That work is valuable to a lot of people, like obviously our audiences, business owners, particularly small business owners, independent businesses. We think this is really worthwhile work. Come, do good work. Do work that’s worthwhile and learn stuff with interesting people while you’re here.

Are you the only editor on the team? How does that process work? 

I’m the only editor on the team, but usually when someone submits a post, I generally recommend they go get some peer feedback first. I’m often not the subject matter expert on whatever they’re talking about. I’ll make sure they get three or four people on their team, either who are also designers or who are also working on the same product area, to give their insights on what may have been missed. 

Honestly, once it’s gone through those revisions, it’s often in pretty good shape. Then it’s just more about highlighting, making sure the really key insightful points are coming out, and working with them on the positioning.

What first drew you to editing? What do you like about it?

It’s really exciting to work with interesting thinkers and people who have interesting things to say. That relationship is very rewarding in terms of helping someone who has something worthwhile to say; helping them to bring it out into the world in the best way. You get to meet tons of interesting people that way.

From a craft perspective, if you’d like to geek out on making writing as beautiful as possible and really distilling messages, editing is a great process. Writing is a lot of work and you work on a couple things at a time, whereas editing you can work on a more diverse plate of things. That was the sweet spot I found that was always really rewarding.

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