Gentle cyber-bullying or market slanting?

Microsoft is continuing its misguided methods to achieve market dominance, this time in the web information zone. MS/NBC. Note the precedence of acronyms.

I’m a free-wheeler when it comes to software tools: Microsoft has great tools, usually with fairly logical interfaces. I’m sensitive to CUIs (Cheesy User Interfaces), so if the tool is cack-handed to use, features won’t keep me with it. That goes double for web sites. There are a lot that seem to go out of their way to be difficult to manage (Yahoo’s portal and interfaces, for example), some that are neutral, such as Google, and some that are fairly handy if you’ll only register as a personalized user and let them dump cookies to track your every move. (Yes, I know they log web pages and IP addresses. Yes, I know that properly mined, logs can provide quite a bit of information about users and their habits. Still, tack on an anonymizer and life is bearable in that regard.)

MSNBC’s web site is fairly easy on the eyes, even when surfing anonymously. The simple text ‘red alert’ banner when there’s a news flash is low-tech and simple, which is great because that’s when these kinds of sites get hit hard, so why make them work harder? The cute little feedback buttons (“how many stars does this article rate”) are also nifty, if useless in terms of the ROI for the individual reader (why should I care if lots of people like an article?).

This accessibility and handiness hits clear, hard walls when MSNBC feels the need. Want to watch a video? Sorry, only the latest version of Microsoft’s Video Player. Want to cast a ballot on a public poll? Sorry, your browser can’t handle that — try Internet Explorer. So Apple users, Linux users, UNIX users, and those of us bold enough not to use the Microsoft products get left in the dark, unvoting, unloved.

This might make sense if there were some pay-per-view scheme going on. There is one: advertisements that play before and after the video clip. But advertisements (theoretically) play regardless of video player used. What’s the profit for NBC whether Microsoft’s tools are used? None, of course. Worse than that, they loose ‘eyeballs’ on advertisements that aren’t paid. Not a logical or profitable track. And that’s the key to understanding that the MSNBC relationship is little different from the MS Instant Messenger product: burn the brand in, no matter what the relative profit or cost is for the activity.

I can’t even get a handle on why they wouldn’t let people vote on non-IE platforms. Best I can figure, it’s to up the frustration factor for users. Marketing stupidity!

So here’s some free consulting advice to Microsoft (and if you hire me, I’ll push to instantiate this): welcome all, but make ads on the delta.

Oh, you want it in English? Okay, fine. Allow anyone to view your content (check out CNN for ideas on how that works). But since you know what kind of browser is being used, add a commercial touting the MS product. You get up-front advertisement that you can control and tune to the user, and the user will sit though it because they want to see the video content. Perfect eyeball strategy. As for polls, use the simple bars you’ve been using until now but provide additional demographic or temporal information on the vote using IE-specific graphics. That way if someone wants to see the polling results as a function of time and location you can pop that up on some snazzy .NET-enabled service, while we poor Firefox slugs will have to make do with the raw data. Oh, and slap a little IE ad on the voting page as well: again, guaranteed viewing for your target market instead of cutting them off. And creating blog entries such as this one.

If you think about it, adopting this strategy can turn into a very measurable ROI for advertising investments, and you can more positively ‘turn’ viewers into users of your products. Okay, M$, I’m ready for my job offer…