Intercom vs Customer.io - An in-depth review on where each one stands out
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Since I wrote the previous essay on creating a single view of your customer, a question we repeatedly hear is "Should I go with Intercom or Customer.io?".
Both tools are able to create user profiles, ingest product usage events, and can trigger emails and notifications based on product usage. In my conversations, most early-stage startup folks lean towards Intercom since they also have the chat functionality along with several other features.
Before we ask which one is better - let’s take a step back & understand the different use cases they enable.
Why should you use a tool like Intercom or Customer.io?
You put a lot of time and money into getting people to visit your website and sign up for your product. But 80% of them do not come back.
The numbers are not promising.
But one of the biggest levers you could pull is activating more of the % of users who do signup. Let's do some quick back-of-the-envelope math to understand why.
Let's compare activation efficiency for a hypothetical app that gets 60,000 users to sign up:
A total of 3,000 active users represents a 5% activation rate.
A total of 12,000 active users represents a 20% activation rate.
Just by virtue of activating more of the 60K users - the numbers look incredibly different.
Imagine the kind of impact this would have on your bottom line even if the rest of the metrics further down the funnel doesn’t change.
Clearly, we’re all missing out on a lot of potential.
This is where a tool like Intercom and Customer.io comes into the picture. Tools like these help us reach out to the right people at the right time based on their behavior with your brand (website, in-app, or marketing activities). It allows us to educate new users/leads about our product at scale and teach them how to use the product for specific use cases and building behaviors.
So, which one is better for your organization? Let’s dive in.
Overview of Intercom
So Intercom calls itself the engagement OS that brings together all customer interactions under one roof. At the center of everything is the little chat box, which is sort of what makes Intercom famous, and what people may know Intercom for.
You can talk to someone by clicking the small chat box which is heavily focused on leads (via chatbots) and providing customer support. If someone has a query, you can route them either to a specific SDR if they’re a prospect or to a customer support if they’re an existing customer. So you'll be able to deliver communications across different channels once someone becomes a customer or after you get their email address or something else.
In the last couple of years, Intercom began to remove its dependency on the chat box and started to expand. Today, you can also run product tours (similar to what you can with Pendo), run surveys (like you would with Typeform), and throw in a banner to grab someone’s attention on something new that you just launched or run multi-channel campaigns to send in-app or email messages to active or lapsed users, build segments based on product usage & more.
When should you choose Intercom?
For the longest time, Intercom was known as a great tool to engage with your customers. But in an attempt to win the battle against a worthy competitor, Drift, Intercom lost its way a bit.
They got dragged into the “Let’s create a category” conversation and caused more confusion by calling themselves as the “Conversational Relationship Platform”.
In my experience, Intercom is a great product for all the use cases that you can think of after someone signs up for your product.
A non-exhaustive list of things you can do with Intercom once someone signs up for your product:
Run product tours to increase adoption and help new users understand your product better. It’s code-free, simple to use, and works like a charm if you want to highlight specific product components and help customers discover new features.
The ability to trigger product tours as a support reply to a query is one of the well thought out capabilities to make lives easier for your support team.
Keep the live chat within the product to provide quick in-app support. If you’re using Intercom’s helpdesk, the help bot is pretty neat and is highly recommended to reduce incoming tickets that are already answered in your support center.
If you’ve got a mobile app, you can show carousels in your app to onboard new users.
Use Series to build a multi-channel campaign. For example, you can welcome new users with an email, then show them around with a Product Tour, then ask them to enable app notifications with Mobile Carousels.
Rules and automated workflows lets you set up automated processes such as routing, assignment, and SLAs. Super useful for your support team.
What always amazes me is how well Intercom is built as a platform that is interconnected so well for multiple use cases. And that, I believe, is their biggest strength of all.
When should you not choose Intercom?
If you talk to anyone who has been in SaaS with smaller ACV for a while, there's a 90% chance they’ve asked themselves this question:
Any organization that relies on capturing leads, nurturing them, and converting them into customers, is in for a heavy bill from Intercom. Intercom’s pricing is based on how many people you engaged within the last 90 days (recently changed to 30 days) and the number of seats you need. And that’s not really marketing friendly, especially if you want to engage with leads and lost customers. Or if your GTM strategy revolves around PLG.
Even still, I believe Intercom lacks a critical marketing use case — syncing segments in the middle of a workflow to ad platforms. For a platform that (also) promotes itself as a CDP, you’d think they’d support this use case, but unfortunately they don’t.
If you want to integrate Facebook’s lead form with Intercom or have a dynamic list that constantly syncs with your ad network either for an exclusion list or to create a lookalike audience you’ll have to rely on Zapier or Integromat to do that for you.
Overview of Customer.io
Customer.io is a customer engagement platform that allows marketers to create the most advanced and automated messaging campaigns. You can generate customized and relevant communications that engage and retain your customers if you have access to real-time behavioral data. Send emails (marketing and transactional), push notifications, text messages, and more with an easy-to-use visual experience.
Today, Customer.io aggregates all first-party data a business has about its customers so you can communicate and engage with them effectively. This includes in-app behavior, activities on your web, how they engaged with your communications, and along with other data you might have stored in your warehouse or other platforms. This makes Customer.io a single source of truth about your customer, giving you the complete picture of what they did and when so you can tailor-make your engagement plans accordingly.
When should you choose Customer.io?
If you’re a marketer who designs and sends relevant communication, unique to every customer, across email, push notification, and SMS, Customer.io is perfect for your needs.
I know, there are plenty of tools out there (including Intercom) that excel in the very same things, but it’s the nuances that makes Customer.io stand out.
I’ll call out three specific nuances that I think are critical for most marketers.
1. Customer.io allows you to create new events or update properties of your users while they are in the middle of a campaign. This is super helpful if you want to update your user’s preferences or information on their persona dynamically as time progresses. For example, you can update someone’s attribute to their persona based on their behavior during the campaign. Another neat use case is you can automatically calculate a customer’s lifetime value (with a total_purchase_value attribute) every time someone renews their account. This data can then be fed into your ad network to drive more best-fit customers. This brings me to my next point…
2. Ad network sync is probably my favorite one of the lot primarily because it means I never have to re-create CSV files that match a certain template. The best part is you can trigger these ad audience sync based on a combination of in-app and website behavior. Some simple use cases include:
Trigger retargeting ads when the customer's trial is expiring and if they viewed your pricing page.
Stop showing ads the minute someone turns into a customer and reduce CPA.
Create a lookalike audience from your highest-paying customers.
3. Most people will tell you the power of Customer.io is in the demographic and behavior-based segmentation engine. In my opinion, their support for Liquid Templating is an unsung hero. For the uninitiated, let me share a simple use case where Liquid really stands out. Liquid lets you do multi-variant personalization on a single sequence. Instead of writing a separate sequence for each persona, with Liquid, you can write one great email that supports 3+ personas dynamically. This saves up a lot of time in managing the onboarding sequence when you later need to edit it or when you want to pull up reports.
Of course, there are several nuances that make Customer.io a great tool. For example, you can get creative in your campaigns by including CC, BCC, and reply-to fields in your email (more on this here). Or call webhooks in the middle of a campaign to deliver better experiences (check out this post by Colin).
When should you not choose Customer.io?
Customer.io isn’t ideal if your GTM motion requires a more multi-channel engagement & comms strategy & you are looking for a platform that does Product Tours / Surveys / Chat / Email & Campaigns all in one. It also can’t provide you with a helpdesk, in-app onboarding, and tour capabilities that Intercom has. Intercom is much more of a platform with a collection of apps & integrations while Customer.io is much more of a comms product.
Another drawback with Customer.io is you’re likely to get maximum bang for your buck if you have experience working with Liquid Templating Language. It isn’t a must and they’ve got some great guides to help you throughout your journey.
Intercom and Customer.io are both exceptional tools with their own nuances. I leave you with a few questions to ask yourself when comparing Intercom vs Customer.io.
1. Does your organization rely on live chat for marketing or is it used only for support?
2. How price sensitive is your organization? Is your organization ok with seeing increasing bills on a monthly basis from just one tool?
3. How much are you paying for a post-sign-up experience today with other products? And how successful are these campaigns? If the cost is lower than what Intercom charges and if your campaigns are successful, you likely don’t need to switch to Intercom.