The Internet Generation—young people from 15 to 24—has never known a world without instantaneous communication via the Internet or mobile devices. As this large, influential and critically important group moves toward the workplace, Microsoft—the world’s leading developer of computer software—must understand and engage this group on the front end to better enable the company to develop products relevant and useful to the next generation of workers.

Because of their technological know-how and skill, NetGen workers have different needs and expectations from the generations before them. The work force is about to experience a dramatic shift, and for Microsoft, the key to its future is to continue to develop products that are relevant and useful to the next generation of workers.

In early 2004, Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s agency of record, was charged with reinforcing Microsoft’s position as a thought leader and source of knowledge for information workers—defined as heavy users of workplace technology—and finding innovative processes that engage and gather feedback from future workers. Given that Microsoft is a company nearly twice as old as some of the youngest NetGens and often viewed by this group as a corporate monolith, this would be a challenge. Waggener Edstrom knew this required a fresh approach, unlike anything the agency had created in its 21-year relationship with Microsoft.

The agency team’s primary and secondary research included reviewing Microsoft’s extensive consumer research, tapping into the company’s NetGen group, which studies this generation’s technology use, and conducting its own research on the technology industry through reports, media coverage and interviews and arrived at the following conclusions; NetGen workers are particularly important because of their technological know-how.

Given the savvy and size of this group—larger than the post-World War II baby boom generation—the workplace is about to experience significant changes as this group becomes a greater and greater force; A primary challenge for Microsoft is that the company can be perceived as too “establishment” and lacking credibility when speaking to an audience continually looking for “the next great thing.”

The team would need a credible and persuasive way to involve and engage this group, something fresh, groundbreaking and personal; although it is always important to reach the people who make the buying decisions, in many companies new software products are brought to the attention of the usual decision-makers—the information technology (IT) departments—by staff outside the IT department. In the near future, this will very likely be NetGen workers.

The team concluded it was important to reach out to both NetGen workers and those who make the buying decisions.

Based on research conducted and knowledge of Microsoft’s long-term business goals, the agency team formulated a plan that would help the client reach its NetGen audience while bolstering the client’s reputation as a thought leader.

The campaign had several objectives:
? Identify young, international leaders who would serve as advisers, sounding boards and advocates for Microsoft products around the world
? Build awareness of Microsoft’s long-term vision of information work through international media coverage
? Provide valuable feedback to Microsoft executives and product developers

The agency created an international advisory group of NetGens, the Microsoft Office Information Worker Board of the Future, to help establish Microsoft as a source of knowledge for information workers and give the company valuable insight into the needs and preferences of its future customers. The youths would serve not only as a bridge between representatives of the next generation of information workers and the developers of today’s Microsoft Office System, but as representatives of various cultures, economies, and common careers and workplaces in their respective countries.

To maximize time and resources and ensure success, the agency team worked closely with Microsoft groups and subsidiaries to leverage relationships with key organizations and international media. Steps taken to convene the board included these; working with a third-party organization to help recruit the board members from around the world; creating a special event at Microsoft for board members and managing all aspects of the event, as the first major opportunity for interaction between the board and Microsoft representatives; using media relations to help share Microsoft’s vision globally, especially in countries where Microsoft has a significant presence, to further promote the company’s relevance among tomorrow’s information workers and today’s business decision-makers. The media strategy was designed to reach NetGen and business decision-maker audiences.

 With less than three months to plan and execute the entire program, the team immediately set to work to implement a highly complex campaign that included coordination with Microsoft subsidiaries worldwide and accommodating an extremely diverse group of students with wide-ranging cultural considerations.

Tactics included recruiting Board Members. Microsoft’s NetGen Group introduced the team to, a nonprofit organization based in Canada with a global network of thousands of college-age students and young leaders who work to create positive change. Partnering with this organization, the team chose 15 board members from 14 countries based on their use of technology and vision of the future workplace.

The next step was the kickoff for the board’s advisory activities was a “Dream Week” at Microsoft, June 19–27, a weeklong session to share ideas, build scenarios, brainstorm about technology and lifestyles of the future, and ultimately present the board’s vision to Microsoft executives. The agency team managed an ever-more-challenging set of event logistics, including coordinating with 14 Microsoft subsidiaries to reach out to the students; helping arrange travel and resolving some visa issues; planning menus and activities to accommodate every culture and food restriction; producing collateral materials; coordinating entertainment; securing lodging and transportation; and developing thoughtful, meaningful programming that would benefit all parties involved.

Finally, media audiences included business and technology publications, local Seattle-area media, media in countries where the students lived, and multiple broadcast opportunities. The strategy included developing background materials (press release template, bios, fact sheets, etc.) and subsidiary communication in 14 countries; a SharePoint Portal Server site to house press materials; a broadcast media strategy including a video news release to be distributed internationally; and outreach to online media outlets and international, national and local print outlets.

The difficulties of this challenge included overcoming skepticism on the part of the youths, making the exchange of information meaningful and significant to both parties, and overcoming the many logistical problems of planning and executing the special event in a critically short time frame. For the program to be a success, it needed to be worthwhile to both sides, and the event needed to be flawless.

The results of the first Information Worker Board of the Future campaign were exceptional, despite the many challenges of executing a global campaign in a short time. Both the client and the board were thrilled with the success of “Dream Week,” and planning is under way for another session in the summer of 2005.

The board’s feedback, discussions and ideas generated valuable information and videos now being used internally by Microsoft executives in presentations and speeches. In addition, a contributed article by Microsoft executive Dan Rasmus, titled “Learning From the Future: Microsoft’s Information Worker Board of the Future,” appeared in Knowledge Management Review after the event.

The team was able to reach both its NetGen and business decision-maker audiences worldwide through a variety of consumer and technology-focused business media. Coverage appeared on 200-plus U.S. TV stations, CNNi, CNBC Asia, BusinessWeek, Money Talks and CNN en Español. Online coverage included CNET and IDG. Print coverage totaled more than 30 stories in 10 countries.

When Microsoft asked for a dollar value of the coverage—which the agency typically does not use as a metric—the client was pleased to see the coverage value estimated at $1.2 million, a 4:1 ROI. An analysis showed that 95 percent of the event’s media coverage was positive and included key messages about Microsoft’s thought leadership and Microsoft now has 15 bright, young, accomplished and enthusiastic ambassadors around the world.

Since “Dream Week,” several board members have delivered presentations on what they learned there, and they continue to interact with Microsoft. As one board member said, “The idea of such a huge company opening its doors to feedback is just amazing. The fact that you care what young people think, that I got to meet people who are creating something that I use every day, was wonderful.”

Waggener Edstrom was not only able to effectively communicate Microsoft’s thought leadership messages worldwide, but to facilitate valuable content for future activities and set the stage for ongoing dialogue with Microsoft’s customers of the future, all over the world.