Above the Glass: Tech and the Potential Positive Impact on the World
Written by Women Who Code
From left to right: Cait Sarazin and Annabelle Atchison
Annabelle Atchison is the Head of Global Communications at IONOS, based in Berlin. She met with Senior Content Manager, Cait Sarazin, to discuss the relationship between marketing and product, confidence, and what businesses need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
My mother is German and my father is American, so I grew up splitting my time between both places. I went to high school in the States, then moved back to Germany for my associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in communications.
After graduation, I worked for Microsoft as a trainee in the PR department. During my interview, I told my soon-to-be boss that Microsoft wasn’t leveraging social media as well as it could and needed to do better. He took me seriously and brought me on board.
In my first month, our team participated in CeBIT, a popular tech trade show that no longer exists, and someone from the biggest news agency in Germany, DPA, told my boss (the Head of Communications at Microsoft Germany) that they were using Twitter every day in their newsroom. That’s when he realized how right I was — social media was something we needed get on top of. Microsoft Germany entrusted me to open its first Twitter press account. I was 22 or 23 at the time, so it was daunting, but that allowed my traineeship to evolve into becoming the Head of Social Media.
I stayed with Microsoft for a while before moving to a director role at a PR agency, Hotwire PR, which primarily works with big tech clients like Logitech. After a year I moved to Dublin to be with a partner at the time. The area is locally known as the “Silicon Docks,” essentially the Silicon Valley of Europe because all the major tech giants are there, and that’s when I realized I wanted to be self-employed.
I started my own company, but after five years decided again that it was time for something new. My business partner took over the agency and catered it more toward an entirely German audience. I, on the other hand, traveled for three months until I started with IONOS, where I’m now Head of Global Communications.
You’ve accomplished a lot by the age of 35, and you’ve consistently stayed in the marketing field. What makes you passionate about marketing, and what do you love about your current position?
I think my answer would be different had I practiced general marketing, but I love working in the tech sector. I don’t code or program (though learning to do those things are on my bucket list), but communicating is what I enjoy, and the tech industry is where a great deal of real change happens. Anything anyone did at Microsoft could have impacted the entire world because its technology is so pervasive and integrated into everything we do. It’s the same at IONOS: the things my team communicates for the company and how we approach messaging have the potential to make a global impact. Lots of other industries are doing important things, but my belief that technology is at the forefront of change motivates me every day.
When people imagine careers in technology, they often think of engineers and don’t realize so many other roles are essential to the field. It sounds like you’ve really owned your role in the industry, but did you ever feel any impostor syndrome because you weren’t “technical” in a traditional sense?
Honestly, I was worried I wasn’t going to be technical enough for this interview! Looking back, though, I’ve never experienced impostor syndrome from feeling like I didn’t belong in the tech industry. It’s a tough, male-dominated space for women to be in, but I’ve never felt I shouldn’t be here. I’m confident in my expertise and what I stand for, so that keeps me grounded.
I also never doubt my contributions’ value. An engineer can code or build whatever software they want, but if they can’t communicate it, no one will buy it, and it won’t make an impact. Communications expertise is often required within a product, like when translating an idea to an application. Ultimately, no — I have never felt impostor syndrome in that way.
I like how you framed that. Product is often held in higher regard than communication, but either without the other is ineffective.
On the subject of making an impact, what are some of the projects you’ve worked on throughout your career that you’re the proudest of?
I was at Microsoft when the company introduced the concept of the Cloud. It was a revolutionary technology at the time, and now it’s everywhere. The Cloud’s debut onto the tech scene changed the entire industry’s business model, so that’s something I worked on that made a substantial impact.
Something personal I’m proud of goes back to when I was in college. I had a professor who, when I gave a presentation, absolutely ripped me apart. She said I use my hands too much, smile too much, I’m too bubbly to be taken seriously, and so on. I was devastated, but that was my American-ness coming through. I wanted to convey my passion for the subject. She was a tough lady who didn’t give me the best grades on my final, either.
A few years later, I was a keynote speaker at one of the biggest PR conferences in Europe. My professor was in the audience and approached me when it was over to say how amazing I was. She remembered me and asked if I wanted to be a featured alumnus on the school’s website. In the end, I declined being featured, but it was a proud moment for me, and I was no less bubbly.
On a different note, running my own company and seeding 15 to 20 people every month through something I built from my own ideas, knowledge, and leadership is an endeavor I’m proud of. It made me realize that if I could do that, I can do anything else.
Thank you for sharing that. Based on those experiences, what would you say are the key things that made you successful in making an impact in tech communications?
Growing up, I told myself I could be either the next president or the next Angela Merkel. I had this you-can-do-anything attitude that reassured me that I’m not worth any less than anyone else. Not in an arrogant or unrealistic way — I never thought I’d be a basketball player because I’m 5’4 — but my confidence in my abilities served me well. I want to emphasize the word abilities because I was never cocky about my knowledge. That, I understood, was an area I always had room to grow in.
On a related note, adaptability is essential. There are always new things to learn in tech. Never assume that because you did something once, it will be the same the next time. Just look at social media, marketing trends, and platform algorithms. They’re always changing, so keeping up with them has benefited my career tremendously.
Having women role models and mentors of any gender was also instrumental. Back when I was a trainee at Microsoft, the Head of Communications was a man who was happy to put me front and center. When he would be invited to speak at panels — he’s the person in charge of the entire communications department, after all — he would send me in his place without warning, which provided me several opportunities to shine in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have had at that point in my career. Having people in my life push me and give me the spotlight was incredibly beneficial.
On the subject of making an impact with tech, numerous companies are trying different things with social media — some more successful than others — but many businesses struggle to prove the value they provide their customers that way. What is your advice for companies who struggle to make the biggest impact with social media marketing?
When you think about making an impression from a marketer’s perspective, every piece of content should serve a purpose. We should leverage platforms for business impact, not just because a Facebook page is nice to have. It’s no longer time to do things just for the sake of doing them. Marketing should play an integral role in a company’s value creation and sales funnel. It’s not enough to say, “Okay, I’m going to spend $10 million on digital advertising and hope something comes of it,” when you have no idea how to measure that return on investment. Plus, you can’t always discern direct attribution.
On social, however, you have more opportunities to maximize your visibility because your content isn’t necessarily contingent upon budget. That’s where there is enormous potential for equalization between large and small companies. What I’ve witnessed is that if we can do with $10,000 what other companies can do with $100,000, we’re competing on a level field because we’re in the same bidding system.
If you play your cards right, establish a streamlined customer journey, make it traceable, produce creative content, and are willing to experiment, you can be just as successful as the big guys. Many companies are still stuck in the mentality of, “I need Facebook because it’s what everyone’s doing,” without looking at the sensibility of the attribution. They fail to see the entire customer journey and what they do see is isolated.
If you’re a marketer attempting to use social media, be sure to also retarget and optimize your website. All online and offline marketing pathways are connected and need to flow into each other. One of my favorite ways to visualize them is like the London underground: if you want to navigate it successfully, you need to know as much as you can about every route. The maze shouldn’t have dead ends.
I agree that being a jack of all trades helps amplify your efforts. On a related note, I think companies who are just starting out don’t realize the impact they can have because they assume they need an enormous budget to make it happen. Do you have any advice for people in that situation, even if it’s in a smaller capacity?
My first piece of advice is: don’t not do it. When you look at the realities we’re living with today and what the future holds, if you’re not going digital, you don’t have a sustainable business model. Unless you’re embracing “digital-ness” in all its forms, life is going to be really tough for you.
You don’t need to have all of the resources yourself, though — you just need the right partner. For many businesses, that’s where IONOS comes in: we set you up with everything you need to be successful. You might already have your website or online store ready to go, but it helps to have a partner you can rely on for SEO expertise, online marketing products, and other ways to thrive in a digital-first world.
I’m in several networking groups for women, and I’ve noticed that there are countless phenomenal, professional women out there who know their stuff and can offer these same services. Many of them are freelancers or run small agencies, so they’re not super expensive but are incredibly dedicated to their customers.
And lastly, some general advice for anyone trying to make the most of marketing: test, test, test.
Definitely. In a way, I had the opposite trajectory you did. I transitioned into marketing after working in inventory planning at Macy’s because I love combining data with storytelling. However, I dealt with a lot of impostor syndrome because I didn’t go to school for it and couldn’t help but ask myself, “How did I do that? Did I get lucky?”
Now, I’ve been in marketing for three years and have noticed that the ability to communicate information in a compelling way is severely underestimated, especially when women are doing it.
That’s true, and the ability to account for nuance is invaluable. I don’t want to say this trait is unique to women because I know many excellent marketers who are men, but in my experience, women more often excel at implementing nuance and emotion instead of taking a purely data-driven angle.
Look at the classic example of a mom who starts a business from her living room while taking care of two children. We’ve heard this story many times because she shares authentic stories about her life that people relate to. That nuance can help other small businesses, and it’s more common in the US than in Germany, where people are a little more private and distant. But as the growing number of influencers show us, it’s a model that works really well, especially if you don’t have a lot of marketing knowledge.
Exactly, it’s about leading with empathy. I try to incorporate vulnerability in the content I write to make it speak to key things everyone deals with. As someone who’s traveled the world for the past three years, I’ve learned that everyone has the same basic problems and wants the same things, they just sometimes look a little different. The more you tap into that commonality as a marketer, the more value you can deliver. At the same time, it’s critical to be respectful of cultural differences because certain frameworks might land differently in Asia than in Europe.
This is where we lean on our Localization team. Our copywriters from seven countries write and localize content to make sure it lands as intended in the market we’re targeting. Because of cultural differences, a campaign’s messaging for France might be different from the German or the US messaging, for example.
You’re also due to have a baby soon. Is that making you think differently about the way technology is advancing, and your role at the forefront of communicating its potential impact?
Indeed. I mentioned earlier that what excites me about tech is its potential for positive change in the world. Now that I’m about to have a baby, I think about it much more often — what will technology look like in 50 or 100 years?
What surprises me the most, though, is that I’ve never felt my “woman-ness” as much in my work life until now. That’s not to say I don’t witness gender dynamics — mansplaining definitely happens — but I used to go in, do my job, and not question my place there. Misogyny was never so bad that I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m a woman, and this culture is going to take a serious toll on me.” It was more like, “Well, I’m me, and that’s that.”
Now, my body constantly reminds me that I’m a woman. It has different needs than before. I don’t like doing unusual things because my body dictates, they’re temporarily necessary, but I also appreciate the journey of learning to accept that. Thankfully, all my colleagues, no matter their gender, have been incredibly excited for me and, unknowingly, push me along that journey by never treating me any differently.
Besides the future of technology itself, being pregnant makes me much more aware of changes that need to happen in the broader business world. Germany has excellent maternity leave practices. I have six weeks off before the baby is born and eight weeks after, but if I was in the US, it would probably be as little as two weeks afterward. All industries, tech included, need to be kinder to new parents.
I realize that in the US and elsewhere this isn’t a given. It’s heartening to see some states and lots of tech companies embracing parental leave. If this became the norm in all industries, it could be a total game-changer, especially for women.