Mischa Vaughn Goes Direct on the Future of Content

Mixing Board member Mischa Vaughn has worked at the edge of how organizations communicate directly with their most important audiences since being an early employee at Twitter. He has since helped Upworthy, Pivotal, Carta, and now Webflow remake how companies consider and execute editorial, video production, podcasts, community work, social media, and events. Mischa’s work has been nominated for Shorty Awards, he’s been a SXSW organizer, and he’s co-founded a film festival in San Francisco.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Mischa and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about the four things you should always ask yourself before creating and sharing new content, finding the balance between authenticity and perfectly on-brand messaging, how to build trust with your internal audiences and why content and community teams should always collaborate closely.

SG: Founders consistently ask, “Should I do content or should I do comms first?” I say, “…yes.” What kinds of questions are you getting now, and how have they evolved over time? When we worked together at Twitter, literally a million years ago, did people even do ‘content’ back then?

MV: It wasn’t quite as prevalent back then. You had blog posts. The social media pointed to the blog post, and that was it. That’s what’s interesting about how content and communications has evolved. Back in the day you had a press release. But now press releases can be 140 characters with a link to a blog post. These days it’s been much more amorphous, because you have companies and entities creating media. That’s where content is really going now. It’s also why the word content isn’t a great word. It’s really strategic creative communication — that’s a better description of what it is. You’re figuring out what you want to say, who you want to say it to, and what are the right avenues for saying it?

Sometimes it could be the press and sometimes it could be that a lot of our audience is very familiar with Discord and they’re hanging out in Discord. So we should make a Discord for them. Or they’re on YouTube and we should do things there. When I was at Upworthy, we were thinking long and hard about our audience. Our audience was very much the people who watch The Daily Show. So we thought, where do the people who watch The Daily Show hang out online? They follow The Daily Show on Facebook, on Tumblr, on Twitter and all these things. So we would look and see where those audiences were more engaged. We’d try out different channels there and we’d see what’s worked best. Facebook worked well, notoriously too well. And so we’d invest there.

I used to get a lot of, “What should we do?” Now it’s more, “What should we say?” That’s the difference. Everyone acknowledges that this is important and it’s important to do it. But how do you not come off super self promotional? How do you say something that’s actually of value? For the VCs who reach out — that’s a much more crowded field, because everyone wants to have hot takes, everyone’s shooting into the same barrel. But for companies, there’s usually a lot of nuance, a lot of differences you can have, based on what their product is, who they’re selling to, or any number of things. It’s a little bit different based on what type of organization you’re working for. But in general, there’s much more acknowledgement that we need to be talking about these things. Everyone knows that legacy media doesn’t have the impact that it had before. It still has impact, for sure, but there’s real value in owning your channels.

SG: What’s your title at Webflow? Did it ever have communications in it?

MV: Director of Content. But I basically ran communications for a year and a half. Recently, a colleague just joined and she’s taken that on under corporate marketing. You see people organizing it differently. Sometimes it’s brand, content, and comms. Sometimes it’s corporate/customer marketing and comms, which is what we have here. There’s a number of ways to do it. Brand and content work well together, but content and comms can also work well together. Zapier does content and comms together. Figma does brand, content and comms.

Even though comms isn’t a hundred percent under my purview, we still inform each other a lot. We’re working on customer stories on the content side, and that helps inform what we do from a PR perspective. We’re doing some videos with customers now and that’s helping inform some of the customer and corporate marketing stuff that we’re doing, as well as some larger brand campaigns. It’s all enmeshed together. It isn’t a fine line, it’s all overlapping circles.

SG: People might have specific focuses to their job, but isn’t it all just comms? Why do we need the word content?

MV: It’s all just comms, in the sense that we’re all putting our things into the same void. Whether it’s a press link, a blog post, a video, a tweet, or whatever — it’s all going into the same funnel. Yes, some things get presented differently. But there was a while where Facebook, Twitter, every single link had the same exact type of treatment. Now it’s a little bit different. There’s different formats even within Twitter, there’s spaces, there’s NFT stuff and all these things. For some companies I see content becoming a little bit more service specific, being in service of growth. For some places it’s still a little bit more brand-oriented. At Webflow, it’s a 50/50 mix. It is all communications, but we’re all competing for the same attention from folks.

And they help magnify each other. Last year at Webflow, after we announced our fundraising, we launched a brand campaign at the same time which included billboards and TV, just to follow up and build that momentum. I think a lot of founders understand the concept of momentum and how to build it really innately, at least, some of the best founders that I’ve worked with. That’s what’s key and that’s why there should be less distinction between the two. If you still have your church and state — marketing over here, comms over there, and they’re not talking to each other — you’re running a playbook that’s from 2003. You’re not going to succeed in building significant momentum.

SG: Who is even reading content from brands? How are you tracking it in a modern way today?

MV: As for the people who are reading it, whenever I’ve instructed content teams at any point in my career, I always ask for three, sometimes four, things.

  • What’s the goal of whatever piece you’re trying to produce?
  • What’s the audience, who are you trying to reach? And that can be super specific, I want to reach CIOs at Fortune 500 companies. Or it could be broader — designers at Series B and up companies.
  • Where should this go? What channels will it go on to succeed? How does it get seen, in terms of distribution? What does it need to succeed, from a distribution standpoint?
  • How do you want people to feel after they’re done reading it? And that’s for more just helping instruct the piece; the tone that you put into it.

NerdWallet has done an exceedingly good job at content. They know their audience. They’re writing for people who have financial questions at any point in time. Yes, there will be overlap with their customers. But I’ve read NerdWallet stuff a ton of times, and have I actually clicked their links and used their referral things? No, I don’t think so. But they still do really incredible research. You could look at The Points Guy or even a place like HubSpot. Hubspot is the de facto blog about marketing related topics and a lot of people point to them as an example. Part of the reason was because they were so early, but also, they did such a thorough job covering every conceivable marketing topic under the sun. You could probably do a better job writing about it than HubSpot did, but you still have to start with them because they’re ranking on page one on Google.

This gets into how you measure these results. From the growth side, you measure things by how well it’s ranking in search, how well it’s contributing to signups, and what is the clickthrough rate. How likely are people who sign up through this blog post to upgrade and become a paying customer? Then there’s returning traffic versus new visitors. That should give you a sense of if you’re drawing in new people. Something that I like to look at, and this is a much harder thing to measure, there isn’t a great tool for this, from what I’ve seen. But is your content being shared on various channels? Is it being shared in Slacks, on Twitter, on LinkedIn? There are ways to track this but sometimes I just search for webflow.com/blog and see what people are sharing around it. Are they reacting to it?

At Webflow, we have seen an overall increase in the volume of people sharing things. That shows me that this content is resonating with people. Whether they are our customers or not, people are finding value in it and seeing value in sharing it. We write a mix, sometimes directly for designers, developers and companies, but sometimes we write something about color theory or the best color combinations. That’s such a broad topic, because a lot more people search for it, so there’s a higher likelihood that someone will land on that. If they’re a designer, maybe they’ll see we have all this other content around development, design, and no-code. And that’ll help get them interested in our products.

SG: How can you measure and compare the impact of a classic media piece in TechCrunch versus a really well read blog post?

MV: I’ll give you an interesting example. Our highest date in traffic was when we had our Series B funding announcement, which was about a year ago. But we came very close to breaking that with our launch of Webflow TV, which is a totally owned property; our streaming platform that we built entirely in Webflow. We published it on Product Hunt, we had influencers involved and other promotional content. We came very close to topping that fundraising announcement. Those were two very different strategies, one completely focused on comms and one completely focused on owned. That just shows you that if you execute really well in doing something in an owned capacity, it can have a similar impact.

One of the reasons why comms is still hugely valuable, is that if you can figure out the right place to share something, you can potentially get a whole new audience set to follow us, subscribe to us, and check us out. But, generally speaking, there’s a much lower conversion rate through comms than through owned channels. So there’s benefits in building your own stuff. You can have a lot more control over the other stuff that’s on the page and how that signup button is positioned. You’ll probably get more performance bang for your buck if you do something from an owned capacity. But with earned, the audiences can be massive. If you get on The Today Show, it can be hugely beneficial. Look at Shark Tank, for example, and how it’s launched a lot of the things that we now see in stores on a day-to-day basis. That’s a comms angle for these products and these companies, because it works really well for launching them.

SG: What’s next? How do we keep on reinventing content in interesting and meaningful ways?

MV: It definitely depends on the appetite of the company and what they have the ability to do. I’ve thought long and hard about what’s Webflow’s version of a podcast? I have an idea for one, but video is such a better investment of our time. We can reuse it in so many ways, we can reuse it across mediums. And our product is just so inherently visual.

In terms of what’s next for companies and firms, I see a couple of paths. One, there’s almost the patron point of view, where we go find this documentary filmmaker or podcaster who has their own audience that we want to attract, and we’re just going to cut you a blank check to go produce this thing. And we’ll be executive producers in the background. Second, companies will partner with a production company and produce something — like the way Shopify had that show on Discovery Channel or the Calm app had that show on HBO and Headspace had one on Netflix. I’m sure they still remain very heavily involved, but I could see even much lighter things like that work in collaboration.

SG: The issue I have with branded content — it’s always so perfect. Everything works, everything is awesome, and there’s zero reality. There’s no honesty, like, “Oh man! This didn’t work.” And there’s so much opportunity in that messiness.

MV: That’s why the brands and the companies that approach storytelling from a much more authentic point of view are going to succeed. Honestly, that’s part of why some of these shows with Shopify, Calm and Headspace — none of them have really successfully taken off. Look at something like The Circle, on Netflix. It’s this reality show where they’re all big brother style locked in the same room. But if that had been, The Circle brought to you by Alexa, it still would’ve worked really naturally. It would’ve been like, oh who cares that it’s an Alexa or a Google doing this. Honestly, we’re probably going to get there soon, within the next five years. You see it already too, in some shows where they’re much more subtle about some of the product placements integrated within. I do see that as the next evolution.

I could also see it being interesting in documentaries, too. There’s all these space startups, climate change startups, and they’re collecting data and satellite imagery. Maybe that data gets used in an interesting way to tell a story. If brands really want to connect with creators on their terms, they’re going to have to say, “The brand’s going to take a backseat, and we’re just going to trust you to do the right thing.” There will still be times when you have to take a little bit of a more heavy handed approach, and yeah, it might come off too perfect. But that’s the balance of authenticity and perfectly on-brand messaging. You want to strike somewhere that’s a little bit in the middle. If you’re too authentic, people will be like, “Here’s all these reasons why this product sucks.” And you don’t want that to be the result.

SG: How does content ideally play a partnership role within an organization with the other functions? Because at the same time you get the sales people coming by like, “Hey Mischa, can you do me a solid and do some content around this thing?” And that thing is super boring. How do you properly maintain that editorial integrity, internally, when you have a bunch of people asking you to help them out?

MV: There’s some companies or people within companies that write editorial charters for themselves. Even the OkCupid blog had one back in the day. And they were really in that first wave of a company’s blog really taking off and succeeding in mass media. I position content as a layer of creative strategic communication that works across brand, PMM, growth, customer storytelling, sales, activation and even events. When you plan an event you need to think about who the right speakers are, what should they talk about? You don’t want content to be the bottleneck, instead how do you help it influence things in the right direction so the right stories are being told, the right people are being amplified, that you’re bringing in diverse perspectives and it’s not just the same people over and over again. Because that’s an issue, too.

Often in growing companies, you have three incredible customers and so many people reaching out to them — this person for events, this person for demand gen, this person for a sales call. You want to be able to funnel that from a project management perspective and content can help provide some of the strategy to make sure we’re not repeating some of the same things and that the customer is still engaged.

If I think about where things are going, the type of media we create is going to be everything from these full-on hyperscale productions at the scale and quality of TV shows all the way down to more interesting and immersive events.

SG: Content has become an overhyped word that, if used poorly, can mean nothing. And it’s only rivaled by the other C word: Community. Content and community are hanging out, going on dates, there’s a blossoming relationship between the two but I don’t know how it’ll turn out. What’s your take?

MV: You need a really strong relationship between the two. It’s a combination of people and tools that will help to bring on this new wave of content and community working together. Every company has a community play. Because every company has a collection of people that are interacting with it who have shared interests. Therefore, you have a community. But there are dynamics within a community — everything from moderation, to codes of conduct, to events — that definitely need their own specialists. If you have a hybrid social media, content, and community person, A) triple that person’s salary, and B) that’s not going to scale well. They are distinct functions, but they collaborate closely. We collaborate very closely with the members of the community team here at Webflow. Webflow has a very passionate community. We collaborate on everything from the big No-Code Conference event that we do, to the live streams that are happening. We work together to promote the thing itself and on the actual content of it.

You need people who are social natives, who understand the Discords and Slacks, and the manners that go along with that. But you also have to have people who are there and ready to help interact with them and help triage these stories that are coming in. That’s really important. You need to have an appropriate funnel and relationship between your community and content functions, to make sure that those stories are getting out there and are getting told. And that you’re giving the community what they want and responding to their concerns. Webflow became a very community first company, responding to the needs of customers, responding to their wishlist of feature releases. And that still is there in the ethos of the company today.

SG: Obviously, community is really important externally. But your most important community is your internal one with your employees. What is the relationship with your average Webflow employee and content you put out? How do you best use your internal audience to make your content better?

MV: You best utilize your internal audiences in two primary ways. One is through their subject matter expertise. Even at Pivotal, there were infrastructure developers, frontend developers, backend developers, designers, product managers, who are all experts in their craft. I was never going to become an expert in design, product engineering, infrastructure, or cloud computing. Being able to translate what’s on their minds, pick their brains, and help figure out, yes, this is on one person’s mind, but is it on five people’s minds? Does it relate to the company features that are coming out? Or the goals and the narrative that we’re weaving? You’re able to help turn their ideas into stories. And in the future you are able to ask them, “Hey, can we get some clarifying questions or a quote for this?” And not have them roll their eyes at you, instead they feel part of it.

The other way to use internal audiences, besides just story ideation, is amplification. Making sure that people have stories that they feel proud to share themselves. It’s not easy to describe what we do to our friends and family, but having a story that helps show the thing I’m working on, the company I work for, and how it impacted this company or this set of people — and we get these types of stories all the time at Webflow. If all you do from a content perspective is create stories that the employees at the company are proud to share, then you’ve really done your job. You’ve succeeded in really helping shape a culture of storytelling. The key is, how do you make it authentic and organic? Do you give people a tool that helps them schedule posts? Maybe. Or do you just post it in Slack? Maybe. It’s different for every company and it’s different at each stage, too. At growing companies, it’s much more of a challenge than is at smaller companies. You have to find the right way that works.

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

For more on Mixing Board and how the community can support organizations, see this recent post.

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