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Microsoft Giveth then Taketh Away

Microsoft_3File this one under "What were they thinking?!" As has been reported all over the place, Microsoft had a great idea to seed the blogosphere with souped-up laptops running their new operating system, Vista.  The bloggers received these "gifts" in the hope that they would have something nice to say about Vista and help jumpstart the product launch.

FWIW, I agree with Robert Scoble on this.  It was a smart idea even though it was obviously going to lead to pay-for-post type criticism.  I tend to feel that if the blogger fully discloses the fact that they've been given the laptop, let them say whatever they want about Vista/Microsoft; if you've read the disclosure and don't want to read their review, go to another site!

But what started out as a good idea is rapidly crashing and burning.  After Microsoft originally told the bloggers they could keep the laptops, enough whining and complaining in the blogosphere (no doubt led by those who didn't get a free laptop!) is now causing Microsoft to change the offer.

According to this post on Marshall Kirkpatrick's blog, Microsoft sent a follow-up message to all the bloggers saying that "you either give the PC away or send it back when you no longer need it for product reviews."  I hope that message came with a nice Homer Simpson "doh!" sound.

Who's the genius at Microsoft who decided to make a somewhat good situation much worse?  My guess is they'll be laying rather low for the next week or so, hoping this whole thing blows over.



Five minute wonder - bound to be something vaguely news worthy with New Year pending - all be forgotten about by the 1st 2007 guaranteed. Cheers

Michael A. Banks

This reminds me of being on the free software and hardware gravy train back in the 1980s. (I was a contributor to some major computer magazines.) One very large computer manufacturer shipped two of the same machine to me when I asked for one to evaluate. One with paperwork, one without. A letter that came in the mail a few days later said, in paraphrase, "We hope you enjoy using the machine we sent to you. Please return the unit when you have finished your evaluation." (Note "machine" and "unit" in the singular.)

The same thing happened with modem and scanner manufacturers. Nothing was suggested in any of those cases, but the hint was implicit: "Here's something for you; we hope you will say nice things about us in return."

I never said nice about anything I didn't like, or which didn't deserve it. Still the freebies poured in. It's a way of doing business. If you want products to be evaluated and talked about, you put them in the hands of people to whom others listen. You risk getting trashed, but there are usually more praises than trashings.

Cars are given to celebrities, and loaned to columnists. Book publishers send out review copies. Microsoft sends out its new tool and the equipment required to use it. The differences are a matter of scale. Book publishers expect to make 10 or 15 dollars on a book, and budget to send out a few dozen copies to reviewers--at four or six bucks a pop. Automakers expect to make $8,000 or $12,000 on each unit--times tens or hundreds of thousands of units. Much more money’s involved, so they can budget on a larger scale, sending out dozens or scores of products that cost them $5,000 or $8,000 grand each to make.

In each instance, giving or loaning the product is a marketing technique intended to help generate primary demand. Reviews and editorial mention or celeb bragging reaches some customers that advertising doesn't, and these avenues reach all customers on a different level than advertising (the idea is that customers will perceive reviews, etc., as objective evaluations).

So, Microsoft invested several hundred dollars per unit to get Vista in the hands of non-press reviewers. It seems to fit the scale of what Vista costs and what Microsoft expects to make with Vista. Positive PR was a factor, too.

Or, to look at it another way, instead of spending $80,000 for ads in a couple of issues of World's Best Computers magazine, they bought $60,000 worth of laptops and spent the rest sending them to bloggers. And maybe the computer magazines got a few less review units.

So, no problem. 94 out of 100 bloggers who were sent free laptops could write, "Vista stinks," and keep the laptops. It’s not as if Microsoft was going to demand them back if the bloggers didn’t praise Vista.

Now, if Microsoft contacted bloggers and said, "We'll send you a free laptop or $$$ if you say you like Vista," that would have been payola.

But this isn’t. It’s a quiet marketing exercise, in hopes of bolstering support for a new product, and hopefully some goodwill/positive PR, which Microsoft could use.

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