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Fixing Microsoft’s bad reputation

Blue Screen of Death

Image by taberandrew via Flickr

Microsoft has continuously failed at getting people in the tech crowd to like them. This is a growing problem for them, and something they need to start taking seriously. To understand how to turn this around, let’s start a decade ago, with Slashdot.

Slashdot has always been one of the pillars of Microsoft-negative news. They have a whole category on Microsoft (And the others have lots of articles too: “Microsoft” articles on Digg, “Microsoft” articles on Reddit, “Microsoft” articles on Hacker News). With a few exceptions, articles (and comments) are about Microsoft using their monopoly to crush smaller businesses, how their technology is inferior to what the open source world creates, on them creating data lock-in where users are unable to switch away from them, and so on. Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Hacker News together have millions of daily users, who place as much faith in them as others do in their morning newspaper.

But these sites are only read by disgruntled teens right? No. Hacker news users are ~26, Reddit users are ~24, Digg users are 35-44… When asked: “What computer do you want?” These users answer: “A Mac (or Linux) laptop“. When asked: “What software? They answer: “Google Docs (or LibreOffice/OpenOffice)“. All those individual choices are starting to pile up, and have far-reaching consequences for Microsoft: Windows and Office licenses are the major part of Microsoft’s income. Choosing a Mac or Linux laptop means no Microsoft Windows, choosing Google Docs or LibreOffice/OpenOffice means no Microsoft Office.

Tech users are a major force inside real companies, and not something Microsoft can just ignore. What about beginners and business users? They are both heavily influenced by by tech users. Beginners because they ask others for advise before buying their computers and software. Business users are instead controlled by their IT departments, which in turn try to find the most knowledgeable tech people to work for them. The small hold Microsoft still have on some IT departments is slowly shifted away from them when employees get empowered to choose their own equipment, moving them from business users to beginners in their purchase patterns. The tech crowd has more influence than you’d think.

Question is: where do you start fixing all this distrust? There’s only one way: you start talking to tech users on their own terms. Here’s how I would do it:

  1. Hire some good of community managers. Their job will not be to market Microsoft, but to be the communication channel that can aggregate community opinions to Microsoft. The more rooted they already are in their respective communities the better; that makes it easier to start get the discussion started at a respectful level. You don’t yell “Microsoft sucks!” at someone you respect.
  2. Start by monitoring news about Microsoft and send monthly reports to managers inside Microsoft. Couple each news item with an approximate number of users that read them. This will paint an image of how tech users see the Microsoft brand. Pretty soon they will want to change that image.
  3. Use community managers to ask for opinions on what to do next. Ask for small things that are likely easy to get done, and make sure to manage expectations right away. Windows 8 won’t be open sourced :)
  4. Have a small engineering team whose sole purpose is to make the suggestions from the tech crowd happen. They need to be cross-disciplinary, be well connected across the company, and have mandate from high up the organization. Employing this team is a small cost compared to other forms of marketing. Feed back any progress they make back as articles where they fit.
  5. Lastly: Use insights from community managers to create marketing campaigns directly aimed at the tech crowd. A good community manager can have a pretty good guess at what work and what will. Many of the things will not only be marketing, but also require engineering, but there already is a team for that.

Working through that list will make Microsoft slowly earn their trust back from the tech crowd. It won’t happen overnight; you don’t reverse 10 years of silence that fast. But I think this is doable, reasonable, and something that really could work.

Would you be willing to be a community manager for Microsoft? What would you suggestion Microsoft did to please the tech crowd? I’d love to hear your opinions.

Friendly Bit is a blog by Emil Stenström, a Swedish interface developer and web strategist that blogs about the modern web and how to make best use of it.