A few days ago I posted an analysis of how internet video is exposing a third dimension to the standard reach and frequency of traditional advertising. Not every product can be sold on reach and frequency alone – these days, in many cases, it’s more important to build a deep and lasting relationship with a relatively smaller number of core consumers. These fans are called a number of things – brand ambassadors, net promoters, brand evangelists. Whatever they are called, it’s important that any product or service have as many of these as possible – they end up recommending the product or service to their friends and family.

Back before the social Internet, those brand ambassadors were good. On a strong day, they probably touched 4 or 5 people with their love of your product. But now, with the amplification effect of social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Friend Feed and MySpace, a single ambassador can touch – and thus influence – hundreds. The average Facebook user has nearly that many friends, and true connectors have many times that.

Shortly after my post, I was chatting about reach and frequency with my old friend and former boss Jason Young, CEO of Ziff Davis Media. He took it further than I did, saying that reach and frequency were dead. We started thinking about egregious examples of brands that killed themselves by neglecting their core. It didn’t take long to hit on one train wreck we both witnessed firsthand – the nearly irreparable damage to Windows caused by Vista.

Jason and I had a front row seat to the launch of both Windows 95, XP and Vista. When Microsoft launched Windows 95, they had a team of evangelists and their job was to convince the opinion leaders and tech enthusiasts that Windows 95 was the way to go. Well known venture capitalist Rick Segal was on that team, back then (I still remember him trolling Comdex in a bright green/yellow Windows shirt, handing out goodies). The company spent millions promoting the benefits of Windows 95 in computer magazines, including the ones that Jason and I worked for.

Fast forward to Vista. When Microsoft prepared to launch Vista, they ignored the tech press entirely. Almost all of the company’s marketing budget went to a broad, consumer campaign designed to convince the rank and file computer users that Vista was exactly right for them. The messaging focused on feel-good platitudes rather than the significant technology advances inside the product. Microsoft opted for reach, and frequency, instead of going deep on the core set of technology influences and users. They didn’t just ignore them – they actually insulted them with messaging that was so generic and vanilla it could have been used to sell cat food.

Microsoft forgot that computers are still pretty alien to most people. Even today, most computer users have that “go to guy (or gal)” who gives them advice and tells them what to buy and how to fix it. All during the long campaign selling Vista, Microsoft ignored the go to folks, and they, in turn, were unconvinced about Vista’s benefits.

So when early problems arrived, as they always do, the tech core didn’t make excuses, they pounced. Hell hath no fury like a techie scorned. Vista, suddenly, was being denigrated by the same group that helped make Windows 95 and XP such a success.

Microsoft’s response was late, and equally as tone deaf. Instead of focusing on the core technology inside Vista, and instead of turning key technology influencers into brand ambassadors, they teamed Bill Gates up with Jerry Seinfeld in a vignette about shoes. When that failed, they turned to a broad campaign designed to blunt Apple’s brilliant “I’m a Mac” ads. That, too, failed. Microsoft continued to go for mass reach and frequency with a message that meant nothing – instead of trying to turn the influencers into advocates.

So here we are today. Windows 7 is coming out at the end of the year. Microsoft can redeem itself – but will it? Early indications are that the deep messaging, designed to turn the core into Windows advocates, has already been slashed. Right now, Windows 7 has good buzz. Even notorious Mac fan and ultra-connected geek influencer Kevin Rose has waxed enthusiastically about the beta.

But it’ll take more than just a few geeks to turn the tide. Microsoft needs a prolonged, in depth communication plan to reach the core – and to leverage their influence. I hope they wise up. Because without a deep campaign to turn a large fraction of the tech influencers into brand ambassadors, all the reach and frequency in the world will just lead to more failure.

10 Thoughts on “How Microsoft Really Murdered Vista”

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