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.

21 responses to “Fixing Microsoft’s bad reputation

  1. I consider it childish having a grudge against Microsoft and things they did ~10 years ago (Windows ME). I can’t really think of any despicable things they’ve done since then. It’s really a whole different company today working actively with the open source movement and giving lots of love to the developer community. (node.js on Azure, jQuery intellisense and CDN hosting, open source Orchard CMS, to mention a few)

    Microsoft today is not an evil company. But some will bear grudge against it until the day they die.

  2. @Mikael Lundin: Did you check the kind of bashing they get on the sites I linked to? That’s today. The good parts just don’t show up there, even though they probably should. Microsoft should be there, not just stick to places where people that already like them hang.

  3. Microsoft had been widely used since then that is why I can’t imagine it as an evil company. I’m sure they’ve been doing damn hard to regain its reputation.

  4. Have you found your devil, it’s easy attribute everything to him. The people on Digg, Reddit or Hacker News will always be picking at straws to find evil in everything MS does. I doubt that anyone outside their circles listens or even cares.
    Those opinions won’t reach the every day Windows/Office user. That is where Microsoft need their influence, and I think they’ve got back a lot of credibility with Office 2010 and Windows 7.

  5. @Mikael Lundin: You seem to have misunderstood what I’m trying to say here. It’s not if MS is good or evil, it’s that they are perceived as such by a big part of the tech crowd. That’s a fact. And it does effect ordinary Windows/Office users, see my arguments in the article.

  6. About your points; I think their already have done much in the areas of point 1 and 3.

    I was especially happy about how they handled the “jailbreaking” of windows phone 7. Let’s see if it lasts.

  7. “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.”
    I wouldn’t say I’m a tech user but as a proponent of Mac I was asked by a beginner (after troubleshooting his Windows display driver update for an hour) what computer I would recommend. He was all ears. Point is that tech users are Mac users and so I would agree they need to start appealing
    to them on a new level.

  8. Microsoft has earned its bad reputation over and over again. Microsoft had to be dragged kicking and screaming into compliance with web standards. They wanted everyone to use Internet Explorer, so they went off and created their own proprietary code that screwed with every other browser. We’re still trying to overcome the slowdowns that caused in our work processes and in the general evolution of the Web.

    I wouldn’t say they’ve turned that around, exactly, but what they have done in the past few years to improve IE means a whole lot more to me than anything they can say. I stopped listening to their hype a long time ago. Show me, don’t tell me.

  9. Too bad Microsoft has to work so hard just to overcome their own stupid PR mistakes. These tactics were so effective in the early years, but I don’t believe they will ever really catch up. That tech crowd they have alienated is not going to forget anytime soon, no matter how many “community managers” they hire to make nice.


  10. It’s funny how Microsoft screws up and it blows up in their face, yet when Apple lets things slip, it works in their favor.

  11. This article makes it look like all “Tech Users” match the behaviour contained in it, i consider myself a “Tech User”, currently on my masters in cs, and working as a web application developer, and i do not think Microsoft or any of its recent products is bad. Because im a web developer i tend to wince when someones mentions ie6 or ie7, but its not entirely Microsoft fault people dont update to ie8 or ie9.
    I know a lot of the “Tech Users” mentioned in this article, usually are linux fans, i know few “Tech Users” that would chose a Mac for anything other than browsing the web and going to class with it, except for the Mac fans in my workplace, that have a huge Mac just to have it run a windows virtual machine on a much smaller screen next to it :P.
    Im an active user (and fan) of the windows 7 OS, love theyr office suite (far superior to any other productivity software available), and generally consider theyr Software good, sure they make some mistakes (Windows ME, Windows Vista), but they seem to learn from them and allways come back with something great (Windows 7), plus, they seem to have learned to use the power of the comunity, just look at the kinect case.

  12. Personally I’m not a fan of Microsoft, I’m a Mac user and I’m happy with it that way, even if Microsoft improved their product ten fold, it would take a lot for me to convert back.

    The product to me is the most important thing and bad experience over the years has led me to put my faith in Apple products over Microsoft.

  13. @Carlos: A very good point indeed. Far from all tech users are affected by the slashdot (et al) negative news about Microsoft. I myself use a Windows machine at home so I am obviously not that contaminated by general tech opinion :)

  14. Well they give away free software for students through the Microsoft Academic Alliance which saved me bundles of money during my studies. Had Office, Vista Business and SQl server completely free. Maybe they should be praised for helping people get into the IT industry although they are only trying to create brand attachment with students who they hope will buy there software in the future.

  15. i strongly believe it is horrible to judge Microsoft for things they did over a decade ago when Apple is currently doing the same things and being praised for it? How is this just?

  16. It is funny how Apple always seems to be mentioned. The article does not even mention Apple, I thought it was about Microsoft?

    However, I agree completely. If more Tech people with huge impact by tweeting and writing blog posts were writing about all GOOD and GREAT stuff Microsoft put out, there would be a change in the air coming.

    I personally could imagine myself talking about stuff I like about the .NET platform, since I use and work well with C# and .NET MVC. I feel good about Nokia+Win Phone 7 since it could become a good alternative for Tech people who want a really good phone and could not find it in any Android device or an iPhone.

    Since I will be developing native apps for WP7 I could see myself talk and write about the importance of making Titanium extend their services to WP7 too.

    I could do that, if Microsoft managed to inspire me.

  17. Microsoft’s downfall is in its PR…it’s products are not horrible. I actually like Windows 7 to be honest, but that’s just me. A PC is always my choice over a Mac because I don’t like Apple’s closed-system policy.

  18. @Belinda: I agree with you a little, MS does not have great PR and Windows 7 isn’t bad at all. I have used Windows since Windows 1 and use Windows 7 today, on the face of it Windows 7 works well but, Windows and Office are polished as they’re the cash cows of MS and that’s the problem most of their other products are very average. I manage 1500 Win 7 PCs on a daily basis with the latest MS servers and it just about works. Is this good enough?

    Now lets talk Apple, I don’t have a Mac but my family members do, Apple does have a closed system in some regards because this is the ideal if you want things to work the very best they can. MS and Apple have different approaches and I personally think people are fed up of Windows, patching, virus, buggy etc. Apple own it end to end and this does work better. If I didn’t need Windows for work I’d switch today!

  19. The outcry of PR problems with Microsoft remind of a life principle for success:

    Don’t tell me – Show me.

    Praises are sung to the background music of quality. That is in both product and service.

  20. @Anders – I agree with you about how Apple seems to find their way into almost any article these days – even those focused on Microsoft :)

    Regarding the proposed suggestions for microsoft, while they seem well thought-out and realistic, there is an element of letting the inmates run the asylum.

    Apple’s way of telling the market what it wants rather than listening seems to trump the suggested approach, no?

  21. I have to say that while my image of Microsoft the company isn’t very good, like others here I do like and use many of their products over rivals like Apple.

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