The Practitioner Series took a holiday-inspired break, but it’s back with a great interview about a facet of the UX arena that we haven’t touched upon yet: Content. Say hello to Monica Norton, Sr. Director of Content Marketing at Zendesk. Monica provides an in-depth look at how her career path shaped her as a writer, and how she defines quality over quantity—a Zendesk mantra. There she helps not only drive Zendesk’s content, but their new blog, Relate, as well, which is a wonderful dose of daily musings that don’t just focus on Zendesk’s core focus—customer service. From delving into the inner workings of retail experiences to how to stay professional at work when you’re unhappy, their blog houses some meaty content for those from all walks of UX. Check it out.
Content is a powerful (and sometimes underrated) aspect of effective design. But as copywriting and storytelling have become more appreciated and necessary over the last few years, we’re seeing a shift in how Marketing Teams operate their blogs, their brand and their customer-facing content. Monica’s part of this emerging reliance that many brands have on their communications’ teams and the delicate balance of nurturing content alongside stellar UX designs. Dive on in and hear how she manages Zendesk’s communications, and her thoughts on keeping users happy.
And remember: We’re always excited to hear your thoughts on the Series. Is there someone you’d be interested in learning more about? Is there a company you’re curious about? Do you wonder how they lead and drive their design teams? Let us know—we’re listening.
1. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us, Monica! Currently you are the Senior Director of Content Marketing at Zendesk, which is really impressive, but I’d like to start the interview with our audience learning a little more about you, your evolution and history as a content marketer. Could you tell us about your three biggest career milestones, and tell us why they were significant to you and your growth as a content practitioner?
First of all, thank you for inviting me to participate—I’m honored!
The first of the milestones that had the greatest impact on me as a content marketer came when I worked in radio as a student at the University of Texas. My radio journalism classes and my reporting for the local NPR affiliate and our college radio station trained me in the art of telling a compelling and succinct story. Learning to tell a great audio story is excellent training for storytelling in virtually every other medium.
The second was getting a job as a writer at CNN. Working under tight deadlines to understand complex and evolving news and political events, and then quickly pulling together words and imagery that explained all that complexity in 30 seconds provided valuable lessons in prioritizing information and communicating clearly.
The third probably would have been my move to my current role Zendesk, which was the first time I chose to take a team leadership role. In previous roles, I’d preferred to remain an individual contributor and focus on my lifelong passion for writing. Along the way, I was always very fortunate to have managers who were invested in my career development, so I was constantly learning and growing, but I never saw myself leading a team. Then Zendesk came along, and it was such an exciting opportunity. Everyone here—from the marketing team right up to the CEO—was so passionate about creating great content. So I took a chance, and it was the best career decision I’ve ever made.
2. You’ve had a lot of varied experiences as a writer, marketer and creator, could you tell us about some emerging trends that you’ve seen rise up that have become a game changer for you and your field of expertise?
I’m noticing an increase in brands creating totally product-agnostic content—even spinning up entire sites devoted to content that’s useful for their audience, but not about the brand or the company at all (like our new Relate site). As a former journalism student and journalist, it’s been very depressing to see major news outlets shrink, disappear, or change focus over the last decade. Although so-called “brand journalism” can never replace traditional journalism, I’m glad that companies are putting so many resources toward generating content that is useful to an audience that is much broader than their current and soon-to-be customer base.
3. Quality over quantity is another mantra of the Zendesk content marketing team. How do you vet quality? And how do you capitalize on the quality content you set loose into the wild? Do you believe in repurposing quality content to get the most out of it?
Quality is, of course, subjective—it’s more gut check than checklist. For me, high-quality content is well-written, has personality, and expresses a point of view. Good, quality content also accomplishes something. Does the content achieve what it was created to do? Does it instruct or advocate as intended? If it was meant to simply entertain—does it pull that off?
I’m a big believer in getting as much mileage as possible out of content. Repurposing successful, quality content is key to making sure you have sufficient quantity. You don’t have to create something brand-new from scratch every time. It’s easy to forget that your entire audience doesn’t see every single piece of content you generate. If you’re thoughtful and creative about repurposing content, even those who happen to have seen the original piece can get something out of the new version, and the part of your audience that missed the original piece gets to discover something new.
4. Here at Digital Telepathy, we’ve noticed a shift in how content marketing is viewed and we have also seen companies lean towards wanting to understand their audience’s engagement more fully. Over the years, have you also noticed any major shifts in how content marketing is viewed by enterprise and startup businesses alike?
When content marketing was emerging, I think most businesses thought of it as a “soft sale,” and most were still selling themselves in the content, even if they put the self-promotion at the end of the piece or tried to work it in as naturally as possible. It was really product marketing disguised—badly—as content marketing, which really goes against the spirit of what content marketing is meant to do.
Today, more brands are comfortable not using content to sell. Companies are finally starting to get that the best content marketing is a long-term play, and the dividends are greater, even if they don’t come immediately.
5. How has user experience (UX) affected your workflow as it has become a driving force of, not only design, but content as well?
The user experience is paramount in great content marketing. My measure of success for every Zendesk blog post has always been, “Even if a reader is not a current Zendesk customer and they never intend to become one, they should learn something useful by reading this.” So, for example, when we write about our own product, we put it in the context of broader industry trends or best practices, so there’s useful information for anyone who stumbles on our post.
6. True or False, and why: The Customer Is Always Right.
Definitely false! Even very customer-centric organizations recognize that a policy of “the customer is always right” puts their employees in a very difficult and unpleasant position. I think a better position to take is that the customer deserves to be heard and respected.