Content Marketing Editor Suzanne Barnecut: “What is necessary to the story?”
By Susan Johnston Taylor, Freelance Writer
Don’t Just Peddle Products
With the popularity of content marketing, savvy brands are investing big in digital storytelling that doesn’t just peddle their products but provides genuine value.
Take Zendesk. The San Francisco-based company makes customer service technology, but it also has a team of staff writers and freelancers producing articles on virtually all aspects of customer service. The company publishes content on the Zendesk Blog, the Zendesk Library, and Relate, its digital magazine.
Suzanne Barnecut started as a writer for Zendesk and took over editing Relate this past year. Outside of her day job, she also writes fiction. Barnecut shared with us why she’s excited about editing, how she works with freelancers, and more. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Beat: Why brand Relate as its own entity?
We launched Relate in the fall of 2015 with some high-level business goals to build brand awareness and attract an audience of customer experience professionals who may be unfamiliar with Zendesk. With Relate, which is also the name of Zendesk’s annual user conference, we’re able to broaden our scope beyond our products and explore issues and topics that are relevant to our core audience, as well as to any businessperson who is passionate about the customer – or even the employee – experience.
Today, Relate is lightly branded as a Zendesk property, but we think of it as a product-agnostic space to share thought leadership and a mostly sales-free zone where customers and potential buyers can consume content that is useful, relevant, and sometimes entertaining. Relate offers a way to begin and continue a conversation and relationship with our audience.
How do you define success with Relate’s content?
We're focused on growing our audience, so we look at our monthly unique visitors pretty closely. It takes time for any publication to build and retain an audience. We also look at how much traffic we’re sending to Zendesk and are working on ways to optimize the site to help build those bridges, when it makes sense.
What challenges would you say that you've overcome as editor of Relate?
As a writer, it’s hard to let go of the writing – but also necessary so that I can focus on all aspects of the site and become its primary advocate. I still like to write the occasional article, but it’s also fun to see how other writers bring an idea to life. In truth, I love editing as much as I love writing so I’m enjoying the shift in my role, but it’s also a learning curve to get up to speed with the analytics and zooming out to think about longer-term planning while staying hands-on with each article.
How has the editorial direction of Relate shifted under your leadership?
Relate just turned three years old, so it continues to evolve as our business changes and we learn more about what interests our audience. At the point I took over from the previous editor, Sarah Stealey Reed (who also moved into another role), a natural transition was underway. We ran a survey last February to better understand our audience, and to make sure that we were attracting the right audience. We also needed to align our editorial focus around our new corporate messaging. The outcome of that is we’ve narrowed our original scope and are now focusing more on the customer experience, on technology and industry trends, and also on the human factor – leading a team or interacting with customers and colleagues. We work about three months ahead, so it’s a work in progress.
Are there any pet peeves you can share about working with freelance writers?
I love all our writers! But we do work with a lot of freelancers; our in-house team is spread across a variety of projects. I think any writer, in-house or freelancer—myself included—always has their own idiosyncrasies and preferences. For example, some people need a deadline and wait until the last minute and others work really far ahead. I’ve just been learning more about what works for each writer.
Relate, as a whole, can amplify issues that Zendesk cares about – for example, diversity and inclusion in the workplace – but there’s also room for our writers to have a voice and to share their opinions and experiences in their articles. So I appreciate when a freelancer puts themself into a piece and I realize that it often makes the work very personal. My goal and hope is always that, during the editing stage, we’re focused on clarity and questioning whether we’ve taken the work as far as it needs to go. I try and remember something an editor once conveyed to me: Any time someone calls out something in your work, there’s something happening that made them step out of the flow of reading. I’ll admit that I can be a heavy-handed editor, but it’s less about making my suggested changes and more about taking another look and maybe trying it another way.
How do you know when a writer is a good fit for Relate?
It helps if a writer is familiar with Zendesk, or with our industry and writing for business, but that’s not always necessary. The best writers put some effort into understanding the industry and audience, and apply journalism principles – chasing original interviews, backing statements with credible research and data, and so on. We still publish some lifestyle and humor pieces, but many articles require some reporting. As our editorial direction has shifted, our writers have completely risen to the challenge. They've been pitching some really great and creative ideas, so it's been exciting to see that evolution.
You mentioned some advice earlier. What’s the best writing advice that you've ever received?
I tend to avoid writing advice. There are many rules that inform good writing, and writers should mostly follow them, but sometimes stories have different needs. Rather than worry about any particular constraints or best practices, I find it’s more freeing to just ask myself: What is necessary to the story that I’m telling? It opens up new possibilities for getting into a story and also functions as a way to help whittle something down. One of my personal struggles is that I want to pack everything in. A mentor once picked up a piece of paper, dangled it in front of me, and said, "With your work, we just have to shake a little out. Once you've told the story, you're done.”
How does your editorial work influence your fiction or vice versa?
The world is an intensely interesting place and I often write to understand. One way to do that is to learn as much as possible. I often find that nonfiction and news articles spark a short story idea, and as I write fiction, I want to learn more about a topic, or time or event, and so the two tend to feed each other.