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Engaging Audiences Online in a Time of Constant Change

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Q&A with Shantel Gascoigne of Microsoft

Shantel Gascoigne understands the powerful, 365-day content-generating machine that an event can be. That’s why this B-to-B Dream Team member focuses on turning the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, one of the brand’s flagship events, into an opportunity not only to generate content for the entire year, but also to create deeply personalized experiences for engaging sophisticated audiences. We caught up with Shantel to get her take on these hot-button topics and more:

Q: Hi Shantel. Can you tell us a little bit about your role?

SG: I’m the content strategy lead for the Microsoft Partner Network at Microsoft, so I spend my days looking at how we can build a more connected and consistent content experience for our partners across our marketing engines. I get to work with some really smart people who are experts in their areas and try to make connections. I also spend a lot of time right now on improving our website content, since that is at the heart of so many of our experiences.

Q. That sounds challenging.

SG: It is, and I am learning something new every single day. It’s a fun mix of some more challenging, innovative things like building a personalization strategy, and basics like revisiting our personas and building a messaging framework that we can all use to be more consistent. And it’s just really cool to try and figure out how to tie that thread across all of those different engines. Every marketing medium has its own unique aspect, so it’s important to create a customized approach for each, but you have to start with some unifying north star so that your audience feels like they are engaging with one entity.

Q: OK, so your role is focused on content and social media for the WPC audience. Tell us a little about that audience. Is it changing?

SG: It’s funny, because we don’t really differentiate our audience much between our event attendees and our broader partner audiences. It’s one audience all year long, and the event is really the acceleration point for those messages. That said, that audience is absolutely changing. Traditionally, the B-to-B audience was thought of as an entity in and of itself. That’s gone now. Instead, we're taking the approach of people connecting with people. It’s a new idea for B-to-B, and it's changing the way we look at things — everything from how we define our personas, to how we look at their challenges, and even who the decision makers are at our partner companies.

Q: Has the changing nature of the tech industry impacted those aspects at all?

SG: It sure has! Technology has been democratized — everyone now has access to software and the ability to code. As a result, we aren’t just talking to bigger companies but also to the guy who built an app in his mom’s basement and grew it into a profitable business. And it’s the changing nature of this audience that causes us to up our game, if you will, from a content perspective. That new audience has a low tolerance for nonsense. They are sensitive to marketing, and they place a much higher value on authenticity. Some people say that the newer generation has a short attention span like it’s a bad thing. In reality, there is just so much competing for their attention that if you aren’t adding value, they’ll move on to the next option. This forces us to be better about what we do so we can earn the right to their attention. We’ve never lived in a world like that before.  

Q: So much change! Is personalization a priority for Microsoft? How do you use digital marketing to engage your audiences?

SG: This is a fun one for me. The short answer is yes, of course, it is a priority we’re thinking about. I heard someone at a conference I attended say that the most important part about personalization in the digital world is finding the line between being relevant and being creepy. And we all know what it feels like when personalization goes terribly wrong. It isn’t an easy thing, so right now we’re starting slow. We’re doing some campaign-based personalization on our website and trying to learn and build on that learning as we move into more behavior-based personalization.

The thing that I find interesting about it is the huge opportunity brands have to connect on a more personal level. It used to be that when you’re a company, you can just get on a megaphone and say whatever it is you want say and hope it hits someone. Now, there’s this expectation that someone’s going to connect with you on a personal level, which extends to brands. That's new, it didn’t apply to them before — and it's one of the most interesting opportunities that we have right now in digital marketing.

Q: Last question — what’s your favorite way to unwind?

SG: I try to unplug twice a year for a whole week. The digital world is always on, so it's incredibly important to turn everything off every now and then and tune in to your own mind. I’m pretty good about it, too — that "downtime" is sacred for me. And actually, some of my best breakthroughs on understanding how to approach things, both in my life and in my career, have come during these times. Other than that, I have to say that I am obsessed with books. I always have a book as a go-to reference at any given time. Whether reading or listening to an audiobook, it’s my little escape between the bigger getaways.

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