Content strategy critique: Zuora
If you are a B2B tech content marketer, there is a good chance you will recognize all these phrases, and maybe even be able to identify which companies they come from:
HubSpot has helped people understand how to use “inbound marketing.” Drift has made “conversational marketing” popular. And Zuora owns almost every credible piece of online content about the “subscription economy.”
What is Zuora, and what is the subscription economy?
Zuora is a software company that, in its own words, "enables businesses of all industries and sizes to price, package, and sell their products on a recurring basis." In its company vision, Zuora makes a compelling case that the way people consume is shifting from ownership to usage. Backed by a range of third-party quotes, statistics, and examples, the company claims that the new economy will be powered primarily by subscriptions.
If Zuora had a regular (content) marketing team, its story would likely be something like "the world is changing to subscriptions, here is the proof, and here is how Zuora helps."
But Zuora has taken a much bigger and more ambitious approach in two key ways:
They have elevated the concept of the "subscription economy" as nothing less than a fundamental societal shift.
They consciously evangelize this shift by telling stories about the emergence of the subscription economy to a much wider audience than people who may buy their software.
In this post, we will go into how they are going about the above points, the pros and cons of such an ambitious approach, and what you as a B2B tech content marketer may be able to learn.
Zuora's content defines a fundamental change in human consumption
If this claim sounds grand, it's because it is.
Way back in 2008, even before most B2B tech companies were thinking about content marketing, Tien Tzuo, founder and CEO of Zuora, (and former Salesforce CMO) wrote that software shouldn’t be trapped on a CD or any physical hardware. Instead, it should be available for subscription as needed. And so the term "subscription economy" was born.
From this point on, this term has served as a north star for the company's stories. Zuora registered the term, consistently refers to the fact that its CEO coined it, and refers to it unfailingly in marketing content across its own website and other channels.
Bu beyond simply talking about how subscriptions may make commercial sense for your business, Zuora's stories talk to the emotions of the audience. Content often leads readers on historical journeys through changes in human consumption habits, how we are evolving from a product economy to an access-based model, and to which it appears the obvious and inevitable conclusion is a shift to subscriptions. Being a top subscription management platform, Zuora has created a targeted content strategy by using this broad, fundamental change as its basis.
Zuora is a brand publisher as well as a software business
There are a select number of companies today - Red Bull and John Deere among them - that have thriving media businesses beyond the core products which they are known for. According to ImpactPlus, the differences between these so-called "brand publishers"and content marketing include:
Brand publishers view content as not just a marketing tool, but as a product.
Brand publishers have a newsroom mentality, with all the resources, tools, and standards that go with it.
Brand publishers see the content they are creating as independent of the brand, meaning that their mission is purely to deliver value to their audience.
Brand publishers approach content creation not as a function of the business, but as a business in and of itself that can be monetized to create revenue.
Subscribed is an online publication from Zuora that discusses a wide range of issues and trends around the shift to the subscription economy and meets the criteria above - even creating documentaries and selling books related to the core subject matter. Nothing is sold in Subscribed - content is focused neutrally on how businesses from all different kinds of verticals are managing the shift.
Here are three recent topics I picked from the magazine.
How should software companies think about cars? Lessons from Adobe & IBM
Do box office numbers even matter anymore? Talking Suicide Squad with Nick Cherrier
Designing the subscription bundle: The biphasic monetization strategy
As you may notice, these are high-quality thought leadership pieces that require genuine research, experience, and interpretation, by experts in the field. But even more than that is its accessibility - this content is not heavy - it's light, chatty, and even entertaining in a B2C kind of way. With this approach, you can imagine that not only is Zuora selling software to manage subscriptions, but actively driving the shift to the subscription economy as well.
Zuora makes masterful use of storytelling techniques
Ok, it's confession time.
I'm a lazy copywriter. And if you have any sense, you should be too. For any blog post, video script, or other pieces of content you write, it helps to start with a template. I have talked about a number of copywriting formulas in this post. But by far the formula I refer to most frequently is this: The Greatest Sales Deck I've Ever Seen - a deep dive into the storytelling techniques used in a Zuora sales deck, which can be easily translated into almost any content marketing format. I strongly urge you to read the whole post, but in a nutshell, all you need to remember is these five steps:
Name a big, relevant change in the world.
Show that there will be winners and losers.
Tease the promised land.
Introduce features as "magic gifts" to reach the promised land.
Show the evidence.
This formula is not appropriate for a brand publishing approach. But it is highly effective for more conventional content marketing needs, where you are consciously soft-selling your solutions to a target already in your marketing funnel.
However... is Zuora getting high on its own supply?
“Everything you purchase—from transportation to entertainment to groceries—will soon come with a monthly plan” - Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo.
This is a direct quote from an article that was written in August of 2018. But even after three years and an ongoing global pandemic, for most people and most purchases, the product economy is as strong and relevant as ever, and likely will be for many years to come.
One gentle criticism of Zuora's approach is that it feels a bit like a bubble. There is no doubt SaaS has been a megatrend in software. And outside of B2B, consumers love digital subscriptions for Netflix and Spotify, and some are also subscribing to retail and groceries too. But one-off purchases remain very popular in day-to-day life and business, with no sign of disappearing. So from that perspective, Zuora does occasionally feel like it goes overboard a bit with its claims of the entire economy being built around subscriptions.
As every B2B tech company invests in content, there is a possibility that your content gets lost in the noise. Zuora offers a textbook example of how to break out of the narrow confines of your niche and tell stories that elevate your brand beyond product benefits and into the realm of a bigger societal change.
Having said that, Zuora is not your company and does not face your unique challenges. And it could be argued that Zuora does overreach somewhat in claiming the scale of change that is happening. Not every company needs to represent a fundamental shift in society - that would be implausible and probably exhausting for B2B tech buyers to constantly read about.
Nonetheless, many B2B tech content marketers can take some lessons from the way Zuora approaches its storytelling, copywriting, and content - and you may be one of them.