Conversations with a MarketerIntent Marketing

The Emergence of Chatbots: Interview with Graham Ó Maonaigh

By Ilana Hart
Monday, December 9, 2019

We sat down with Graham Ó Maonaigh, Senior Growth Marketing Manager at Intercom, to better understand growth strategies SEO, content, and partnerships best practices. We talked about his multi-channel approach to marketing in the digital age, how he uses intent marketing strategies to drive better customer engagement, the importance of partnerships in growth marketing, and the company’s unique approach to content generation.

Listen to the interview here:

IH: Graham, please tell us a bit about Intercom and your function.

Today, I’m Senior Growth Marketing Manager at Intercom. Typically my role revolves around the non-paid channels of growing traffic to the site and then bringing them through the funnel and getting them to MQL (Marketing Qualified Lead) status. Our content is something we’re proud of here at Intercom. We’ve been sharing our story from day one when we started, and our co-founder Des Traynor wrote the first 98 blog posts (out of 100) on the blog. From there, he brought in John Collins, the director of content and head of the content team, to grow us into a bigger content machine.

I came out to the team about 7 months ago, in the mindset to focus a lot on SEO, look at a lot of growth strategies around partnerships, and how to get the content working for us even better.

The Emergence of Chatbots: Interview with Graham Ó Maonaigh
Graham Ó Maonaigh, Senior Growth Marketing Manager at Intercom

IH: Can you tell me about your journey into the marketing world?

Before Intercom, I’ve been in a couple of different organizations in SaaS and real-money gaming. Still, it’s all been predominantly digital-marketing based businesses, looking at different angles of growth strategies, from using multi-channel approaches in marketing to the more focused elements from PPC and SEO. So, I’ve overseen quite a broad scope of digital marketing across all the different channels in acquisition and retention techniques, making sure that a multi-channel approach has been very central to all the campaigns that I’ve been involved in; and if it isn’t there, then bringing it on board.

[No matter] how you engage with anyone—online or through your app—you’ve got to take a multi-channel approach with it. The consumer/user is always engaging with you in different ways. On social media, there’ll be a way they’re engaging with your brand and with content somewhere else; and that can have relevance on how it affects you as well.

You’re not really competing with a competitor or indirect competitor; you’re competing for people’s attention. And sometimes, the biggest competitors for people’s attention are not so obvious. You may be in a particular vertical. Still, you’re very much competing for people’s attention with Amazon and Netflix, even though they’re not a competitor of yours, and you’ve got to be mindful of that. You’re taking up people’s time, and that’s what you’re competing for.

IH: Can you detect Intercom’s influence on the online experiences that surround us?

Intercom very strongly positioned itself at the beginning (2011), saying that the way businesses engage with their customers has to change, and it needs to be more personal.

Using a business messenger for a live chat box is the way to do that; [instead of] relying so much on emails and tickets from a helpdesk point of view (when it comes to things like customer support) because that isn’t the ideal or natural experience. In a pre-online world, people didn’t walk into a customer support department and pull a ticket stub off the wall and get called up by number. They were very much engaged in a personal manner.

So that’s where Intercom started and very much has held that belief the whole way till now.

In some ways, it has pioneered a change in the way people engage with their users and customers online through live chat and chatbots.

The complexities around how Intercom and others in that field engage with customers has evolved and changed, but the philosophy behind it hasn’t. The initial adopters of that kind of way of engaging your customers and users were very much in the text space. Still, we’ve seen it in the last few years being embraced by everyone who has a digital presence.

They understand that they need to engage in a more natural manner, using things like chat and chatbots. So, that’s really encouraging. The kind of companies that we would have been targeting before would have been apps and SaaS (Software as a Service) developers, being very digital native companies.

Now its broadly anything from your eCommerce store that has bricks and mortar through banks, insurance companies, to some surprising ones like government agencies who are looking at live chat as a way to engage their customers.

IH: How would you say that intent marketing plays into what Intercom is offering?

You very much use the context of what people are doing inside of your app or on your site to form how you’re engaging with them using a business messenger because you’re aware of what they’re reading and what they’re engaging with.

Using something like chat, even if you don’t have the resources to run a huge number of agents on that live chat, you can use something like knowledge-base to deflect people to the answer. The messenger is a very effective way to do that.

They’ll have a query, and the messenger and chat window can help form what kind of issues they’re having very quickly and smartly using automated chatbots.

In some cases, like the vast majority of queries where people might find the answer in an FAQ or this kind of a go-to reply from a support agent, it can very quickly give you that answer automatically. There isn’t even a need to engage with a live agent.

In many cases, people are quite happy with that—they don’t always have to speak with someone. It can be something as simple as: “How do I reset that password?” or “How do I change my credit card details?”

Understanding those regular occurrences and understanding when people will be looking for those queries meets intent marketing very well. When you try to match customer intent using the old ways, it can be done, but it’s much trickier.

IH: What would you say are the main technologies and innovations that you’re continuously looking into in this area?

At Intercom, the learnings are two-fold. The technologies in place allow anyone using Intercom to understand their customers better.

I remember the first time I used Intercom when I was working at an eCommerce SaaS. I just found it a great tool to understand what segments of customers were doing and go back and look at the kind of stuff we had on landing pages and marketing communications. We managed to better align it with our customer needs.

The company was using Intercom as a support tool, but we realized it’s much more than that.

Intercom has evolved its products because it does realize that it’s hugely valuable for sales teams and capturing leads. For many of our customers, that’s exactly why they buy it now—as a sales prospecting tool.

IH: Let’s talk a little bit about creating an amazing customer experience and how the product that you’re putting out is allowing organizations to improve customer experience. Do you think there’s a step-by-step workflow that marketers can follow in order to do this?


The great thing about treating a customer in a total process is that it’s a seamless experience.

It’s not just the acquisition and retention function of an organization. You capture the customer and work at retaining them. Traditionally that would be done with your typical channels like SEO, PPC. If you’re a bigger organization, you’re going to look at things like programmatic display campaigns, video, etc.

And then, when you move into the retention sphere, typically, your tool is email. Email is still valuable, but the addition of a messenger allows that seamless experience where someone isn’t even a prospect. Still, they’re just engaging with you to navigate and find the information they need.

As they move down the funnel and become customers, you need to retain, activate, and onboard onto your app—it all happens through the messenger.

There’s no break. It’s a very natural way of how they engage with your brand. That—I suppose—is one of the true values of the messenger. People feel like it’s very much an integral part of how they communicate with you. They don’t feel like they’re being treated differently in how they’re engaging.

For instance, if they’re looking at a landing page, they’ll see the messenger; if they’re inside their account, they’ll see the messenger. It’s just a natural extension of how they engage and navigate your app or website.

IH: From the perspective of marketing, which technologies and tools are most integral in the customer experience process?

I suppose it depends on the company really.

There’s a lot now that can go not just through Intercom’s messenger. Competitors understand the value of integrating with other parts of the business. We have a fairly well-established ecosystem of partners now, and they develop on top of the Intercom platform.

It’s a way that they can add value to their own product and help customers’ engagement. It can be something like a survey system that adds an additional layer of how [customers] can interact.

Then there’s the other side of it as well, where there are the background messenger apps [used] inside the company for agents to get the information they need right in front of them. So, integrations are really an integral part of it, enhancing the customer experience and also enabling your colleagues to succeed.

IH: What are some of the key metrics that you would use to measure customer experience success?

Well, that’s very much dependent on how a company measures its own success. Just having a conversation with a customer, when you’re looking at chat as an experience, is a bit more of a vanity metric.

If you look to other vanity metrics like page views, you’ve got to identify where the key points of value are, and that’s beyond a messenger communication.

It holds for any marketing opportunity—you have to see which key customer actions lead to the acquisition, [and look at] increasing value from any customer interaction (via revenues, the bottom line, etc.).

So, [the focus should be on] finding those key points along the path to acquiring a customer and ultimately driving revenue for your business.

IH: A lot of companies consider customer feedback as one of the key metrics when they measure performance. How do you transform this feedback into action items?

Feedback is always one of the things we’re trying to tease out—what’s the best way to ask for feedback and get valuable feedback.

The very nature of customer feedback is that you tend to get the extremes—you’re going to get the big fans; they’re going to give you five-star, rave reviews, and they’re going to talk about you.

Then there are the disgruntled ones that are very unhappy. You’ve got to respond to feedback, and you’ve got to address it. Still, you’ve also got to be able to quantify it well because the vast majority of your customers are not really going to give you feedback.

You’ve got to find a way to get feedback from them to see how they’re engaging with you and what their activity is like. [You may need to] actually engage with them and just ask them, because sometimes that kind of feedback is the most valuable (After all, they are the vast majority of your active users).

They may not be your most evangelical customers; they may not be your most unhappy customers, but they’re probably what’s driving the vast majority of revenue. So, it is a challenge to get to that middle ground of customers. They may have some suggestions on how your product can be approved, and it’s about trying to get that feedback from them. The only way to do that is to be very proactive.

The great thing about the messenger is it kind of allows that seamless way of approaching the customers on key points and just asking them in a short manner: “what do you think of this?”

It can be a very simple “yes, no, maybe,” or it could be just a little bit of a dialogue box asking for some very brief feedback.

A messenger is a useful way to test those points of customer activity when you’d like to get broader feedback from that customer-in-the-middle that makes up the majority of your customer base.

IH: Is there a particular marketing success story that you can share with us?

The problem with SEO is that everything is in small steps.

There’s never a giant win, and it takes months sometimes for that kind of success.

Previous to Intercom, I was more involved in the paid side of marketing, where it’s a lot easier to see successes overnight.

In terms of SEO, Intercom’s a very interesting company to have joined, because—from the very start—they understood the value of good content. Normally when you’re working as an SEO, you’re going to look at the problems: what needs to be changed in terms of the website or the app in order to rank for the key terms that the business wants to rank for. At the very end of that process, you go: “Now, let’s make great content.”

Intercom starts with great content. It’s one of the leaders, particularly in the area of product and design, and increasingly so in marketing, sales, and support content.

It’s very strong, it ranks very fast. When we publish an article, it would typically be crawled in hours by Google. It will rank well, and we can work from there to make sure it continues to rank well.

When I joined, it was very much “We’ve done content, now let’s do SEO.”

The challenges in SEO from Intercom’s point of view are that Intercom ranks really well. It has got a very strong opinion on a variety of topics and [strong] use cases (e.g., how it approaches engineering problems and product design problems). It’s a case of making sure that we have our content correctly positioned, and that we have the right search intent.

I know that at Natural Intelligence, you’re really strong on understanding search intent. That’s an essential part of what we’re doing at Intercom. We’re making sure that when we’re putting out content, we have an idea and understanding of “What search intent is this addressing?” and “Can it better address search intent?”

So, previously we would have been looking around search queries and going “This article is related to this search query.” Now we have an understanding of the intent around this article and if it’s being matched by the content. So, we obviously do look deeper than keyword analysis.

We do try and understand where a particular piece of content fits in the ecosystem of meeting search intent. So that’s kind of the elements of how our SEO and content strategy are changing.

In the past few months, we’ve launched a strategy to go up-market as a company.

When Intercom started out, it very much addressed the startup and startup SMB (Small and Medium-Sized Business) space. Now we see the value of looking more to the MME (Mid-Market Enterprise), while still serving the startup space. We’ve also evolved the product in that direction.

So, our content is moving in that direction as well, and that created some challenges. Previously, our content addressed founders, startups, product designers. We still have a place in putting out content for product, design, and engineering. But ultimately, our use case is [now] very much marketing, sales, and support (product and onboarding).

That’s very much where we’re pivoting our content, going forward.

IH: What advice would you give an emerging growth managing marketer?

Looking at growth marketing in general, you really do need to look beyond a given channel. Some organizations may have a siloed nature within their marketing organization. Someone might be a PPC growth marketer; another might be a social media growth marketer (either paid or organic).

Even if they’re in a position that is somewhat siloed, I think it’s important to be cognizant of how the channels interplay between themselves. Taking that multi-channel approach is vital because the customer is not coming to you through 1 channel; they may consciously think they are, but they’re ultimately engaging with your brand in so many other ways that you need to be aware of that.

“What kind of brand campaigns are you running?”

You might be more on the demand generation side, but the brand level is important to consider as well.

“What kind of media attention is your company getting; how does that impact your campaigns?”

Understanding all the different parts of the play in terms of their success on that 1 channel, and having an eye to other people’s work and how other people’s actions can interplay in your campaign is really important.

It is a complex area, but I think the most important things are to really have an open mind and test, test, test.

You need to be able to see how many levers you have control over so that you can really start to control your campaign and know that “If we’re going to change these attributes of the campaign, it’s going to have this impact.”

The more testing you do in your campaigns, the more you can tick off failures and go: “Well, this didn’t work.”

Then, you’ll know how you can ramp up any given campaign at a time. That doesn’t involve testing new channels to new customers; it does involve seeing how you can put more energy behind certain campaigns.

Content has always been really important, and it’s actually a really hard thing to get right. Some people say: “We need to do more content,” and that’s not really the case.

At Intercom, we very much believe that everyone has a part to play in the content we put out. As a content team, we’re essentially a team of editors. We get our content from the whole company. Everyone writes for the blog: support teams, engineering teams, design teams, sales teams, marketing, and so on.

So, we’re getting content from all arms of the company. The job of the content team is to put it together and help formulate it. This gives a kind of 360-degree view—the Intercom view of the world. What we think about the industry, how we build our product, even things as small as how people cope with the challenges of prioritization within the team they’re on.

Some of the top articles on our blog are actually about how to prioritize your projects. So, giving that kind of total insight is really valuable, [alongside] not just relying on marketing to put out content.

I think that’s a critical part because that forms the basis of everything you’re going to talk about. It can help reinforce your brand messaging on those sorts of brand-based campaigns, as well.

IH: Which digital marketing trends do you think are going to dominate in the next few years?

I’m not going to say voice. I think that’s over-hyped.

I think how people interact with their devices is going to impact how we carry out our campaigns. Contextual marketing will become more successful in how marketers use it and target users. I think voice marketing was all the rage in the last 2 years. I would say maybe in the next 5 years [this might happen]. Particularly in the last 2 weeks, with the Google BERT updates, it finally looks like they have the power to understand contextuality in speech.

There’s not a lot of writing out there in helping people understand what that update really means, so it will be interesting to see how that really evolves.

I think the really interesting thing is how people are changing their interactions and engagement with social. A lot of people now understand how social has a lot of bloat in terms of paid ads. So a lot of social interactions are now taking place privately inside the social messengers, be it Facebook Messenger, direct messaging on WhatsApp, etc.

So it’s becoming increasingly difficult to rely on the kind of targeting signals you get from social that you would have previously [gotten].

I still think search has a really important part to play. It’s a lot easier to identify [through] voice or typing the kind of things users want to find, and where they fit in the funnel. So, I think that both organic and paid search is really important for understanding that context.

I do think that social is very interesting because more and more people are sharing things privately, and we don’t have a line of sight on that.

So, understanding what people are sharing—and that comes back to the content again—is really important.

The other element that I think is really interesting is influencer marketing and the death of influencer marketing.

Recently a lot of people have been pulling back from vanity metrics in influencer marketing. I think this idea that influencer marketing is a new thing is wrong. Influencer marketing is actually very old. People have been using sponsors, sports stars, etc. for decades, and that effectively is influencer marketing.

I do think that the partnerships that brands make with other organizations, individuals, or celebrities are really important. It helps identify what your brand attributes are.

For a SaaS company, like Intercom, those kinds of partnerships are invaluable. Our partners build on top of our platform, and that adds value and creates an ecosystem of apps that are integrated with Intercom. And vice-versa, Intercom builds onto other platforms as well. So those deeper partnerships are really important in SaaS.

Beyond that, the more traditional affiliate partnerships are valuable as well, because you need to access audiences as a company, and some affiliates have developed those audiences quite well.

IH: Where do you think the AI and chatbot technologies will be going in the next few years? Is this going to become the norm for all companies?

I would say that almost every company can get value out of using live chat and chatbots. It can provide a much easier and seamless experience and can be much easier to manage.

In terms of AI, I’m very reluctant to say AI exists at all because if it did, Terminator would have done much better at the box office.

But, machine learning—to give it a real name—is really important. It allows you to understand people’s actions much better and to be a bit more predictive. It allows you to do some pretty smart things, depending on how it’s used. 

At Intercom, we use machine learning to improve the experience for both our customers and their users.

Some things as simple as elastic search are really important for making sure that chatbots can function fast and provide the right answers for customers in a seamless way. That’s why people are inclined to use a chatbot. It’s fast, it’s quick, and simple problems are best dealt with through automation. The more complex or nuanced a problem is, that’s where you can have your live chat or agent come in. That’s the great thing about messengers and chat. It allows that seamless switching between automation and live agent experience, which you don’t obviously get from email, or a ticket.

IH: I think we’ve covered a lot of interesting topics. Is there anything else you wish to add?

I’m really excited to see how you guys have doubled down on coming out with more insight and content lately. I’ve really enjoyed engaging with it.

I know that Natural Intelligence has been a strong advocate of search intent over the years, and I’ve seen you guys really ace that game in terms of answering search intent and understanding it.

It’s a challenge for everyone to get it right, and I’ve always enjoyed reading your insights on it.

IH: Thank you so much, and thanks for taking the time to speak with us today!

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