Beyond the Handle: Tessa Gray

The Beyond the Handle series continues into the New Year kicking off with Tessa Gray, Social Community Manager at Microsoft.

Beyond the Handle features the brightest minds behind your favourite brand accounts on social and digital media. We learn about their career journey, how they built the foundation of their role, the day to day and what priorities lie ahead for the year.

Prior to her role with Microsoft, Tessa spent time establishing her social foundation in agency life before taking a leap with the biz-tech giant. Tessa notes her time at Rational and credits encouragement from leadership that has allowed her to become who she is today.

On behalf of Marketing Twitter, The Sponsorship Space team also wishes Tessa Gray the best of luck in her battle with cancer. The entire community is behind you Tessa, you will crush it!

1. Tessa, talk to us about your journey and the path leading up to your current role with Microsoft.

I’ve been working since I’ve graduated college in the marketing space - I graduated in 2013 from a small Jesuit school in Denver called Regis. That was where I feel like I blossomed and really come into my own as far as what I was interested in.

I actually did a focus on Film and TV Studies because I had a professor that was really amazing – so just having those small groups of classes really allowed me to get comfortable in knowing that I wanted to be in the Community and Communications space. But at our college at the time, they didn’t really have a lot of digitally focused classes so I majored in Communications with a minor in Sociology.

With my major I jumped right into Marketing, I did an internship at a local magazine and social just – I wouldn’t say fell onto my lap – I really didn’t know it was something I could actually make a career out of. Even a couple years ago when I was working at Rational doing Community Management, people would be like, “That’s a job? You can do that?”.

Right out of college, I got an internship with a more B2C/startup/social media so it was a lot of restaurants, bars and definitely a fun job after college I guess you could say. But, that’s when I really started to dip my toes into social.

After that, I ended up working for a digital marketing company so it was more focused on SEO, PPC marketing, web and then landed a job at Rational when I moved back from Denver. I started as a Community Manager and have come full circle as far as what I’m doing now at Microsoft in the community management space.

2. Do you believe it was important for your career to get into a digital marketing/consulting role like Rational early on to refine the necessary skills working in a fast paced environment and being exposed to different brands? Was that the path you wanted to be in before specializing in Social?

I think it’s really good for people to experience the agency side of things within digital marketing because it’s so fast paced, always changing. That really allowed me to become really agile and flexible in this space knowing that everything changes everyday. There’s always some kind of fire we need to put out or something we need to work on. That got me prepared to then eventually work at Microsoft and work at more of a bigger, corporate company. Working at a big corporation is going to be different than working on the agency side.

The cool thing about the team that I’m on now on the Microsoft side is we have a team of 60 or so consultants. We have a direct agency at Rational that we work with – I was able to get a lot of nurturing as far as having great leadership. The client who is actually now my boss, Gabriela Head, I’ve worked with her for six years. She always sees talent in people she works with and I really lucked out in that way that she was able to see what she saw in me. When a job opened up on the Microsoft team, I was like, “Yes I’ll apply!” with a little pushing from her.

3. Take us through a typical week in your role?

With the way my role is built out – we have eight full time employees on our team – my focus is on the Community Management space. I oversee our day to day operations, making sure that we’re monitoring, that we’re supporting our customers with their questions or concerns they’re having. That’s something I want people to understand.

The space that we’re in with the channels, it’s very tech heavy. We are triaging for customers and getting them the help and support they need. That’s the main goal for us. To supplement that, it’s just being able to connect with our customers and build relationships and nurture that community.

I would say on a weekly basis, I’m in a lot of meetings doing a lot of strategy – meeting with other stakeholders, making sure we’re building good relationships with the product marketing managers, the engineers. I’m obviously not a developer but I need enough to be dangerous in order to help our customers if they have questions about SQL Server or Azure.

We do quarterly fan engagement campaigns: one that is really popular is Azure Trivia where there are prizes and you basically answer trivia questions related to Azure every week. We’re also trying to look at what our audience wants and what the focus is.

Another piece is making sure I’m being a good manager to the people that support me. I couldn’t do my job without the support of the 20+ community managers because we are around the clock 24 hours, 7 days a week so we have the day time team, night team and the Dublin team. I want to make sure my community managers feel supported and have everything they need - giving them feedback, working on reporting.

4. Any notable adaptations you made in your career that helped you go from good to great? Any changes in your skillset or toolbox because of “2020”?

Something that has really helped me is learning that feedback is a gift. Especially within Microsoft or within any big company and the way my manager is, she’s very direct. But its always coming from a place that’s like, “I want you to be the best that you can be”.

Knowing that feedback is a gift, I think has really allowed me to have a bit of tougher skin which is important in this industry, while also knowing that you can still be compassionate and empathetic when you are giving that feedback. That has been huge for me in my first two years at Microsoft.

Knowing that feedback is a gift has allowed me to excel over the years and really know that the people are looking out for you and want you to put your best foot forward.

5. What can you share about creative ideation strategy and your tactical execution when engaging with the biz-tech community?

On top of our team, we also have the Copy and Creative team. I have a fellow colleague who oversees that team and she’s amazing. We basically have our leads for Copy and Creative on the agency side so we’re all about making sure we’re sticking to our brand guidelines and Microsoft values - anything we’re posting or creating, we have that at the forefront.

If we’re working on something often like our bigger, flagship events, we work with our Design team to actually connect with different users at the conference so we’ll build out special graphics. Say for example – especially in the digital space with the way events have been this year, people aren’t getting that one on one interaction – for Microsoft Ignite a couple years ago, there was this woman who was looking for Mountain Dew at the conference, tweeting about it and she was super into Harry Potter. So we thought, “How can we find her at the conference, get in contact with her, take a picture with her” and we also made this digital image of her with a Hogwarts shirt on and a bunch of Mountain Dews.

We’re always looking for ways to surprise and delight our customers. It can really be as simple as replying with a GIF or building out something that’s a little bit more detailed that takes more manpower. We look for those opportunities and it’s really fun to see those side of things!

6. Do you have any sources of inspiration or resources that you lean on and refer to when it comes to execution? Would love if you could share them.

Since coming back to Twitter, I’ve gotten so much inspiration from conversation that are organically happening within the Marketing Twitter community. I’ve connected with a lot of different people especially from different industries. I talk to Alex who runs the @jenisiceicreams brand account for example.

It’s cool to talk to people in other industries because B2B is going to be different than B2C. That’s been cool for me to dive in and see what differences but also how many similarities there are between the things we have to do. Also, just realizing that there are one person teams – one person that is doing community management, copywriting, creative. That just makes me so fortunate for the team that we have because there are specific people for specific teams in each work stream allowing us to scale.

7. Was building and maintaining your Social Media channels always a priority for you knowing that it was and is your career?

No, not really! I mean I have my Facebook and I had a Twitter account but it was more of me tweeting/retweeting about dog things. I think I’ve learned especially from talking with my coworkers too, if you don’t have an active social presence it doesn’t mean you’re not good at your job. That’s really important for people to understand because everyone has different priorities and what they want to focus their time and attention on outside of work.

There are some people that are like, “I’m going to really build my brand up on social”. There’s all the thought leaders on Twitter which is great and everything. But for me, the moment I stopped comparing myself to that person who said this smart thing, “I wish I had thought of that” – was the moment I started to make genuine connection with people in the community. I don’t like to talk about my job 24/7 but I do like my dogs, music and I love to cook. There’s all these other things I enjoy doing and talking about.

It really depends on the person but for anyone that’s coming in to the marketing or digital space, know that you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people, you’re just going to get imposter syndrome. You’ll think that, “I’m not good enough or smart enough”. You will find ‘your people’ – the people that will want to support you and want to have these conversations with you. That’s probably the one piece of advice I would give anyone that’s coming in. But also don’t be shy, introduce yourself.

There’s so many good Twitter chats that happen. Brianne Fleming (@brianne2k), she does #PopChat and there’s a couple others that are going on right now. Finding those spaces where you feel comfortable in sharing your point of view is really important if you do want to build up your social pages.

8. Looking back at your career - specifically Yogurt Guru where you managed their social media presence. What was the ideation and thinking behind the “voice”? How did you know what route to take in establish the brand voice?

That was really good first taste (if you will!) of what I could do with a brand. This was a local, small family owned company. Knowing that people loved to take pictures of their food, frozen yogurt and so for me it was coming back to know the customer and who your audience is. For Yogurt Guru, it was seeing the young moms and kids after school wanting to have this refreshing treat and leaning into that piece of what we wanted the brand voice to be.

At the time, the owner wasn’t into social but she gave me the keys and had me do what I wanted with it. For that it was a lot of highlighting the products, what was good about them and finding ways in connecting frozen yogurt with your best friend, or with your mom and making memories.

9. If you had to pin point a part of your career where you felt it gave you a strong foundation where would it be. What were your key takeaways from there and how have you applied it to your day to day with Microsoft?

I feel like the biggest change for me was when I got my job at Rational.

I worked as a Community Manager for about five years and that was when I got to really understand the importance of knowing your audience and your products. My focus when I was first hired on was to help with technical training, triage but also day to day community management with monitoring and sentiment. That really helped build the foundation for working in the social space. Everyone should know that community management is the most important part in my opinion, in social media especially with your company. Our team is on the front lines talking to our customers, getting the feedback.

For example, Microsoft Teams – when the pandemic started and everyone was shifting to Zoom or Teams or other types of virtual spaces, the number of questions and inquiries just skyrocketed. Our community managers were on the frontlines getting that feedback from customers and asking what they need help with. Having that base point of community management and having that experience over the past couple of years really allowed me to then move into this role.

Anyone that is coming into the social space, start off as a community manager if you can. It will really help you succeed especially if you eventually want to move more into a social strategist role because you have that strong foundation of how to support and nurture a community.

10. 2020’s been a year of plenty experimenting with different platforms especially when it comes to social and community engagement. Are you testing anything that you’d like to give us a preview on?

I think a huge thing that a lot of people in the social space is looking into is the importance of crisis management especially with this last year with the social unrest, the election and the pandemic – making sure you have a process in place, something that is big part in my role as well.

We just know that when working in social where something is trending, having good crisis management, who are your PR contacts, what are you going to do if ‘this’ situation arises – that is super, super important for brands across the board in the social space. This is something that will continue to be at the forefront going into this next year. We don’t know what this next year is really going to look like if we look at this year.

Also, knowing that we’re going to have more digital first events, how can we continue to move the needle as far as types of engagements we can do, conversations we can have with our users and with our audience during events. It’s a big point for us to make those relationships with people.

11. Any advice you’d like to offer our aspiring social media, community managers, digital marketing professionals out there?

If you’re coming into this field, there’s so many resources now but make connections with people. I’ve really tried to push myself outside of my comfort zone and just meet people within the industry because having that peer to peer contact and conversation really allows you to grow in your role.

Step outside your comfort zone is such a simple and cheesy thing to say but its true. It’s in those uncomfortable bits where you’re going to have the most growth.

On the other side, stay up to date with trends that are going on. Find #MarketingTwitter, I wish I found it sooner. I’m really excited about all the new marketers that are coming in, who are young and hungry and just want to learn, dive into different things. That is such a great space if that is something you want to do, to meet other people and make genuine connections! Like I said, that has allowed me to grow - having those people who have supported me and inspired me to where I am now.