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Zendesk Shares Keys to Creating an Outrageously Successful Brand Publication

zendesk-keys-successful-brand-publicationEditor’s note: Monica Norton is a finalist for 2017 Content Marketer of the Year. We will be sharing insight from all CMY finalists in the blog before the winner is announced at Content Marketing World this September.

Many brands struggle to stay out of the spotlight in their content. They begin with good intentions to quietly wait in the wings, but over time the brand creeps back to center stage.

Zendesk, however, created a publication that hardly includes the brand. Its newest property, Relate, is all about improving professional relationships. In a growing library of content – articles, podcasts, print magazine, and in-person event – the SaaS company’s customer service product rarely makes an appearance.

Monica Norton, Zendesk’s senior director of content marketing and a 2017 Content Marketer of the Year nominee, says the brand publication, now in its second year, has been enormously successful. Relate’s website pulls in over 40,000 monthly visitors, boasts an email database 10,000 strong, and hosts in-person events that attract 2,000 attendees.


More than two-thirds (68%) of the Relate audience was not in the Zendesk database, meaning the brand now reaches readers who might not have encountered the company on other channels.

68% of new publication @JoinRelate’s audience were not in @Zendesk’s database, says @monicalnorton. #CMWorld Share on X

Lightly branded publications like Relate are ideal ways for brands to reach a broader audience, and even to turn marketing from a cost center to a revenue generator. For those looking to move in this direction, Monica shares her top takeaways from two years at the helm of Relate:

  • Pick the right audience and topic.
  • Get (and keep) executive buy-in for building the audience first.
  • Focus on consumption metrics before moving to conversions.
  • Make the right hires, but don’t rely exclusively on in-house, full-time employees.
  • Don’t be afraid to go big.
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Talk to the right people about the right things

Picking the right audience and subject for a brand publication is crucial, for both its early success and its ability to eventually deliver business results. Monica stresses that you want a topic that’s communicated at a sufficiently high level to reach a larger audience, but it also must be something about which your brand can speak with authority.

Picking the right audience & subject for a brand publication is crucial, says @monicalnorton. #CMWorld Share on X

“Relationships are something we talk about at Zendesk,” she says. With Relate, “we were seeking areas where we could move away from customer service to elevate the conversation, but something where we felt we still had authority on the topic, like managing important relationships between your colleagues and your customers and partners. We cover everything except romance. That’s on you.”

The key is finding a topic beyond your brand and what you’re selling, but still within the domain of what your product is about. Otherwise there’s a disconnect. Zendesk, for instance, wouldn’t publish about the topic of marketing. Audience members familiar with the brand would be confused, and the content wouldn’t attract an audience that might one day become users for its customer-service software.

Monica says a well-targeted topic also helps content teams with internal positioning because it’s easier for employees outside of the content marketing team to understand how the publication fits in with the organization’s goals. Professional relationships are “a natural extension to what our business is,” according to Monica. She says an area “ripe for investigation” makes it the ideal topic for a brand to explore with content.

Grow grapes, not radishes

Growing a brand publication like Relate is like cultivating a garden of grapes. The crop may take a while to get going, but the harvest will be worth it. Monica built this expectation into early conversations with her executives to make sure the new experiment would have plenty of time to blossom.

Growing a brand publication is like cultivating garden of grapes. It requires patience. @monicalnorton #CMWorld Share on X

“You won’t be able to show results within a quarter,” she cautions. “You’re not growing radishes that will be done in a month. It requires patience.”

Even before she took the job as senior director of content marketing, Monica got the lay of the land at Zendesk by interviewing the CEO about his views on content. Confident that the company understood the value of a long-term commitment to audience building, she secured a year-long runway for the Relate project to prove its value.

As new executives join Zendesk, Monica ensures that each new member of the C-suite understands how the brand publication fits in with the larger marketing strategy by meeting with them early on.

Internal marketing for these kinds of publications doesn’t stop once they’re launched, Monica cautions. To maintain momentum, you have to keep marketing in your own organization.

Build trust before you try to convert

Keeping a running conversation is one of the best ways to ensure that a brand publication builds an audience and earns its trust.

A lot of companies want to advance quickly, says Monica, and the only way to build an audience rapidly is to create a site that’s totally about them: “If you go into it thinking about your end goal it won’t seem authentic, like it’s not for them but for you. Build the site for the audience first, and then figure out what percentage of that audience could be an actual buyer, and how to get them over to the company. That’s the key.”

The only way to build an audience rapidly is to create a site totally about them, says @monicalnorton. #CMWorld Share on X

At Relate, early data has focused on consumption metrics to make sure the content has resonated with the audience. Only now, nearly two years after its inception, is Relate moving toward a more conversion-centric approach.

And even as the focus shifts toward converting more readers into Zendesk customers, Monica and her team remain committed to keeping the connection authentic. Only content clearly about customer service links to the software, and there’s never a hard sell.

The content marketing team constantly hears stories from the sales team about Relate readers who had been consuming content for months or over a year, and then naturally chose Zendesk when they had a software need. Those kinds of stories prove that the loose connection between Relate and Zendesk is effective, but Monica believes now that the audience is established, the time has come to move from anecdotes to hard data.

Hire, outsource, and borrow in the right proportions

Relate is only half of Monica’s job; she also handles all Zendesk content marketing. Building the right team has played a huge part in its success.

Two editors report to Monica, one is in charge of Relate and one manages Zendesk content. The Relate editor was a “very last minute” hire – two weeks before the launch date. Monica says it’s hard to imagine how Relate could have been so successful without its editor.

Monica calls her a “unicorn” because the editor studied journalism and also worked in the customer service space. Her subject matter expertise means that not everyone who works on Relate needs to be an expert because the editor acts as quality control to make sure the content is accurate in addition to keeping the publication on track.

Of course, even with a great person in charge, resource allocation can still be a challenge. Relate and Zendesk both maintain healthy freelance budgets and are constantly experimenting with new writers to supplement the internal staff.

And even though Relate has only four full-time employees, the project generates so much excitement within Zendesk the team can pull in other resources as needed. Relate acts as kind of an internal start-up, Monica says, and being able to work on it keeps writers, designers, and even developers excited and energized.

“They love it more than anything else,” she says, “because it’s so different. They get to play around and use those creative muscles in different ways than they usually do. It benefits the whole company, because it helps us bring enthusiasm to all our work in general.”

Big bets create big results

After its initial launch as an online magazine and in-person event, Relate expanded to include an annual print publication and a podcast. Over the last two years, Monica and her team have provided tons of outstanding content to an ever-growing audience while delivering results to their parent company at Zendesk.

She encourages anyone who can get sufficient lead time from their leadership to consider a similar branded content initiative. Even if the brand publication doesn’t succeed, the net results will almost certainly be positive.

“Even if we had to shut Relate down tomorrow, we could use 50% of the content on Zendesk because it’s so nicely connected,” Monica says. “If you can get runway it’s absolutely worth trying. If you work the right angle even a failed experiment is a net gain.”

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Make plans to attend Content Marketing World Sept. 5-8 in Cleveland, Ohio, to hear who wins Content Marketer of the Year 2017 and learn from industry experts so you may create an award-winning content marketing program yourself. Register and use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Editor’s note: A special thanks to Ardath Albee who scoured the planet looking for the best-of-the-best content marketers. She was instrumental in helping us find our 2017 Content Marketer of the Year finalists.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute