Zendesk Relate

How Zendesk has become the Red Bull of relationships

In Trends by Steve Pratt

Global B2B software company Zendesk has created a media brand, Relate — a magazine, podcast and events business all in one. Steve Pratt spoke to Zendesk’s Monica Norton about its content leap of faith.

Red Bull is the iconic example of a brand that has transformed into a modern media company. The energy drink company makes a variety of original programming, highlighting everything from mountain biking to snowboarding to free-falling from outer space.

Most importantly, none of Red Bull’s content is directly about energy drinks. Instead, each piece of content gives you a genuine adrenalin rush … you know, like an energy drink does. It’s built a huge, passionate community and raised branded content to an art form.

Zendesk is a customer service platform started by Mikkel Svane, Morten Primdahl and Alexander Aghassipour in Copenhagen in 2007. It produces software that helps businesses with their customer relationships, and says the strengths of its product are its simplicity and flexibility. The company grew quickly after moving its HQ to San Francisco, and claims to have almost 100,000 paid customers and 1600 employees.

Zendesk is available in 150 countries, including Australia. It has a number of local clients, including LJ Hooker, Fairfax Media and the NSW Government.

For its content-led marketing strategies, Zendesk has taken a page from Red Bull’s media playbook. But instead of giving audiences a thrill-ride rush, Zendesk’s content is designed to create empathy and understanding.

It has created a media brand, Relate, which is an online magazine, a live event series (one was held in Sydney in 2016) and a podcast. All of which suggests Zendesk has ambitions to be the Red Bull of relationships.

As global senior director of content marketing, Monica Norton is leading the company’s communication creation and expansion plans. We asked her to take us inside Zendesk’s content strategy.

Question: You’re acting a lot like a media company with a multi-platform content strategy – a web magazine, a new podcast, live events and video – all around the concept of relationships.

Norton: I think that’s the trend that we definitely are seeing, especially in Silicon Valley. I’m a journalism major, and seeing so many magazines and editorial websites and publications fading away or folding or drastically reducing their output is really sad, frankly. Fortunately and unfortunately, the people who have been picking up the baton are brands. Some of them are doing a great job. Companies like (design software businesses) Autodesk and Adobe, who have editorial brands, are filling the gaps that may have previously been filled by industry publications.

There are also a lot of brands that aren’t doing a great job because they are making it too “salesy” – it’s more about them and their products than about being a true benefit to their community. These days people have a lot of choices and they don’t have a lot of time, so I think the brands that are investing in providing a useful service to their audience and providing useful, helpful and interesting content are the ones who are going to win.

We certainly believe that, which is why we’re investing so heavily in Relate.

Question: From your perspective, how has marketing changed from being able to buy an audience to now having to earn them by creating value?

Norton: Buying an audience, we’ve seen time and again, doesn’t work. I don’t mean Zendesk. I mean, in general. Paid advertising can work but if that’s your only kind of marketing, the only thing you have in your marketing bag of tricks, it’s not going to work. People have other choices and they don’t like to be tricked or fooled. You have to have great content and give them a reason to stick around.

Relate is kind of like our ‘love letter’ to our audience.”Zendesk’s Monica Norton

We can’t tie people to their chairs and prop their eyelids open and force them to read our stuff or to make them keep their earphones on and listen to our whole podcast. It has to be good or they’re not going to stick around. No one is obligated to read your content and people forget that.

You need to make it personal, you need to make it interesting, you need to make it relevant, you need to make it even fun and entertaining. People have to WANT to read it or listen to it. They’re busy people. You have to respect their time and provide them with something that doesn’t only benefit you. It has to have a clear and obvious benefit to them.

Question: None of your content is about customer service or the software-as-a-service industry or Zendesk itself – it’s all about relationships. What’s the strategic link between Zendesk and relationships?

Norton: Zendesk is a customer service software company, but if you look at our mission and our reason for being and even our elevator pitch for what we are, it is all about relationships.

The way we describe ourselves as a company is “We build software for better customer relationships”. It is a specific kind of relationship. It’s the relationship that you, as a business, have with the people who you do business with. So your customers, whether it’s another business or an individual consumer, we are very much all about that relationship. Relationships are at the core of everything we do.

And relationships are complicated. We know it’s not easy and things go wrong. Things frequently go sideways, and we’re here to help make that better for the people involved and for the business.

Question: How does the Relate brand tie back into Zendesk?

Norton: Relate is kind of like our “love letter” to our audience and our community of professionals who have devoted themselves to this work of customer experience and to making the customer experience better for customers and for companies.

We wanted to create a place that was separate from the main Zendesk site where people could feel comfortable coming whether they were a Zendesk customer or not. We wanted a place where they could come and get useful information that would help them do their jobs better, that would help them be better people and employees, and just get all that without any of the “baggage” that often comes with a vendor website.

We have always had a philosophy at Zendesk of not being too pushy or salesy, and we just felt like some people would be more comfortable if we started a whole separate brand and website where people could come to interact and get that information and become part of that community.

We started that in October 2015 as kind of that safe space, just to start this community. We were focused on building our audience, generating quality content, and we were following in the footsteps of other companies like Autodesk who have done similar things with creating content brands for their community that had nothing to do with their product.

Question: What are Zendesk’s rules of content engagement?

Norton: First, remember that no one is obligated to read or listen to your content. People have to want to read it or listen to it. Second, make it personal, make it interesting, make it relevant and even make it fun and entertaining. Third, don’t go immediately for the sale.

I always tell people who are sceptical that Relate is relevant to the Zendesk business – we are not a non-profit. I get that. This is intended to drive revenue for Zendesk. Every single person who visits our site is not a revenue opportunity, and that’s OK, but what we’re getting better at is identifying people who are exhibiting these buying signals because they’re clicking on certain articles that are closer to topics that relate to the Zendesk product. [It’s then about] finding a way to get those people introduced to Zendesk without acting like a used car salesman pitching every single person that comes to the site no matter who they are or what they’re clicking on with “Hey! Buy Zendesk!”

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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About the Author
Steve Pratt

Steve Pratt


Branded content and podcasting expert Steve Pratt is a partner at Vancouver-based agency Pacific Content, which produces the Relate podcast.