Last Friday I attended the Microsoft Digital Day conference, held in London. The day was targeted at the advertising industry and had a great line up of speakers. Here are some notes and thoughts scribbled on the day. I’ve broken them across two posts due to length. This post covers the morning sessions.

First things first, it was interesting to not the line of products listed under the title ‘Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions:

  • MSN
  • Windows Live
  • XBox
  • Office

Yes, the last one sneaking in on the act is Office, not just Office Live but Office whole.

The changing online media landscape, industry trends and our business and market vision for the UK

Presenter: Steve Berkowitz – Senior Vice President, Online Services Group

The session began with an overview of the advertising industry, its size compared to the software industry (it is 4x larger if you are wondering) and the percentage of online advertising today and its future predicted growth. Three-quarters of the UK now has broadband, and 28% of consumer media time is now spent online.

Increasingly consumers are looking to access services for free leading to advertising being the model to generate revenue. Microsoft is building up services to be able to better target users based on preferences gleaned from the use of online services (i.e. Live). The big question to answer – how can you get advertising in a position where it is being considered content?

This is an interesting question that warrants more thought. The reason Google has scored so well with its model of adverts is that they are not annoying, just simple text boxes that sit at the peripheral of your vision. If I am searching for a specific product, more often these days I will deliberately click on one of the sponsored links because it is for the company I am actually looking for. Online news and magazines, on the other hand, seem to have defaulted to those incredibly annoying ads that still manage to pop up in front of the text, forcing you to locate and close a tiny little X in the top right corner to get rid of the damn thing. How on earth that sort of advertising leads to purchases is beyond me. Sure, occasionally I accidentally click on the ad trying to close it, but that just annoys me even more to the point I will actively not purchase from the company responsible. And what do they register? A positive click through result. Doh!

Steve described there being three ways that consumers enter the Internet:

  • Search
  • Portals
  • Communities

MSN is being positioned as the pre-programmed entertainment experience (portal). is about entering through mail, search, community….). Microsoft is focusing on building audience. Steve positioned software and services as being a combination of technology, user experience and business models. Microsoft’s Live initiative is about building a platform for services (messaging, storage…) and making the experience of the web consistent across any and all devices.

If you want to get an idea of how Microsoft is building that platform, check out Operations: the new secret source, by Tim O’Reilly. Wired also ran an article on this subject, looking at Google’s activities – The Information Factories

When culture meets technology and when technology meets culture – How consumers’ behaviour is changing as a result of technological and cultural developments

Presenter: Anne Kirah – Senior Design Anthropologist MSN Advertising and Trade Marketing Research

Anne has an interesting role at Microsoft, observing how people use technology in their everyday lives. This is sooo important. If you design products purely from within your organisation, particularly as a technology company, you will be in danger of building for the market of geeks, which on planet Earth is much smaller than the total population. Andrew Till (presenting at the Cambridge Technology Management symposium) described this same phenomena at Motorola, where engineers are actively discouraged from using the products they build to avoid the geek effect.

Anne highlighted the challenges and importance of observing the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. This is a pet frustration of mine when working on IT projects. When defining end-user requirements, too much emphasis is placed on asking them what their complaints are with the current system or what they would like to see from the new one, rather than observing what actually happens in their working day. The current classic is around workflow. The complaint/wish is “We want to implement workflow to make sure all documents go through a rigid approval process before they are published.” leading to the design of a complex workflow with multiple steps. The observation is: “Documents need sign off before they get published but it gets forgotten if not completed within 48 hours.” leading to the design of a simple workflow with one step involving a big red flag.

Anne talked through some of her recent research activities that produced some interesting insights into the tension between technology and culture. For example, when looking at broadband adoption, she found that the Netherlands had more in common with Korea (I’m assuming South) than with Germany in terms of usage – both countries were very big adopters of social networking and community sites. Both countries were also very early to adopt broadband en masse with encouragement from the government.

Another example was the use of social networking sites to find answers that historically we would never have investigated. She described the example of a couple from Arizona called Howard and Martha. They have been usability testers for eight years. Martha became ill at the start of the year and showed signs of developing Senile Dementia. Doctors advised that she move into a care home. Howard went on to a social networking site and asked for help – did anyone have a cure for Dementia? And he got a response, advising that he get the doctor to check Martha’s medication. Howard did just that, Martha’s medication was changed and she was cured! Five years ago, this would never have happened. It’s an amazing example of the positive effects social networks and virtual worlds can have on our physical lives (I’ll be delving into this area further in a separate post). The story had a sad ending. Howard recently died, and Anne was leaving straight after the conference to attend his funeral.

In another example of the clash between culture and technology, Anne talked about the example of using instant messaging in Japan (or why it hadn’t taken off as well there as in other countries). Manners and etiquette mean everything in Japan – when unwell, people where masks to protect others from their germs. (We tend to assume it is the other way round.) Communication is conducted in a very polite way. Texting is popular because it is not intrusive. Instant messaging can be considered the rudest form of communication because it interrupts.

To conclude, Anne made a great comment about how our use of technology is changing and becoming a natural part of our environment:

“Eight years ago, if you asked people what they are doing, they would respond ‘I’m on the computer’, now they would just say ‘I’m talking to my friends'”

Social Networking Research – The impact of Social Networking and how consumers use technology in their Digital Life

Presenter: Caroline Vogt – Head of International Research, EMEA and Americas

There were 450 attendees at this conference, and we were all given digital communicators during sessions that could be used to vote
on answers to questions and to send questions and comments via text. They scrolled the text messages on screen at the end of the event (Note to self: next time send message promoting business 😉 )

Caroline started with a session asking how much we all knew about social networking. 47% answered “Lots”. Then we were asked how many had a blog or space. 51% said Yes. My heart would have sank at this point if I were the presenter – you’re about to preach your subject to an audience that pretty much already knows all about it. To her credit, Caroline continued and delivered a great session. The focus was on research in the different approaches to social networking across countries. For example, in the UK, FriendsReunited has 71% of the market compared to 20% for MySpace.

One of the most interesting points was how there are two different forms of social network emerging – open and closed. The type of network influences how people view and use it. An open network is usually perceived as unsafe and lots of anonymous viewers. But the attitude is fun – content is usually shallow but participation is addictive. (Similar to the traditional gossip networks and similar-minded news channels.). A closed network is the opposite – attitude can be both serious and fun, but content is often deeper and participants are identifiable.

Caroline used a word that cropped in a few of the sessions on the day – the need to be authentic. In the context of this session, advertisers on social networking sites need to behave ‘like a good Spaces member’, in other words be like everyone else – participate in conversations, create word of mouth. This can not be done in a mass-processed way, you have to create exclusivity within different social networks.

The power shift from corporations to consumers. How Windows Live builds connections and brings our fragmented world together

Presenter: Blake Irving – Corporate Vice President, Windows Live Platform Group

Perhaps the most interesting slide of the day – Microsoft using the Long Tail to clarify the difference between MSN and Windows Live (a lot of people tend to assume Windows Live is just MSN renamed):

I think that slide works well. I think Microsoft should put it in a big press release and publish it on the home page at to help clarify that MSN and Windows Live are not one and the same.

This session talked about Windows Live as unifying your world – relationships, information, everything – and providing services to connect a fragmented world of devices – work PC, home PC, Zune, phone, Xbox etc.). AdCentre then becomes the method for serving up targeted ads.

I have to confess, this all sounded a bit like the Hailstorm furore from a few years back – people using Microsoft devices from dawn ’til dusk and beyond, and all your information being stored up in a Microsoft cloud. It remains to be seen if Microsoft as a brand is considered trusted enough for this approach to succeed. But the demos given were quite impressive:

  • Windows Live Expressions – enables people to brand/skin their sites and spaces. The demo showed how you could click on a targeted ad and use a ‘skin’* , the example given involved selecting your favourite football player from a team, and then having your site branded based on the player. This is a very interesting concept – taking the idea that people where clothes that identify their personality, and that they will do the same in the future in their online world. (Will Adidas be selling virtual clothes in SecondLife?)
  • Windows Live Gadgets – the ability to add content your site/space, served up inside individual windows (the corporate version is web parts, ala SharePoint)
  • Windows Live RSS – advertising-funded information feeds

* ‘skin’ means to change the look of your site as opposed to the content, e.g. blue background instead of white, purple text, different fonts, images etc.) <– pity that so many are unable to detach colour from content in the physical world, but that’s a whole other subject…

Blake closed by emphasising that targeted advertising will be an opt-in process, the aim is to offer a better ‘experience’. This will be the difficult balance for Microsoft to achieve – create a business model that generates revenue through advertising without driving away your ‘other’ customers.

Building the Future of Search Advertising

Presenter: Chris Ward – Commercial Director – UK, Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions

The session started with IAB market date – that £531m was spent on search marketing in the first 6 months of the year. The rest of the session was very visual (i.e. hard to describe here).

There was a demo of a beta product – Microsoft StreetSide. It combines driving directions with Windows Live Local to give you a virtual tour of your journey, showing what local landmarks look like… of course, those local landmarks can include advertising billboards etc…

Chris also showed a video talking about PhotoSynth. This is a very exciting product – the ability to create a 3d view by stitching together photos. The typical example given is the use of holiday pictures. But imagine applying this concept to the Flickr store, combining everybody’s pictures to create an online footprint of the physical world… add in all the photos now being taken on mobile phones, that can be immediately uploaded ‘somewhere’ in real-time. A major incident occurs (such as the July bombing in London last year), and now you have a service that can stitch together all photo evidence taken on the spot at the moment it happened. It’s an interesting thought…

..and taking it a step further – you have a store that is able to search through, and stitch together, photos to create a 3D representation of a location. You get lost in a city, use your mobile phone to take a picture of the nearest landmark you can see and submit it to the store. A search matches your photo and is able to tell you where you are and give you directions to where you want to go… For me, these are the most interesting possibilities with emerging technologies – the ability for online and virtual worlds to benefit what we are doing in the physical one, as opposed to existing as a separate reality.

Case study on Search / adCenter

Presenter: Nick Hynes – The IMW Group (The Search Works & The Technology Works

To give an idea of who was attending the event, 43% of the audience had clients spending over £1m in search advertising…

Nick presented some of the facts and figures around search advertising. Paid search is currently growing year-on-year by 57.5%. The 2005 total was £768m, it had reached £531m within the first half of 2006. Google dominates in Europe (for example, has 77% of the UK market compared to 45% in US). Yahoo dominates Asia-Pacific with 53% of the market.

New products that are starting to grow but have yet to find a strong business model – local search, mobile search, demographic search. They are also somewhat dependent on each other. Most mobile searches are location-dependent – you want to use your mobile to find something nearby (for example, I wish I could use my mobile to locate the nearest coffee shop when I am out and about in London and have time for a coffee/snack between meetings). Nick highlighted that local search has to take off before mobile search will succeed.

Nick also called out that it will be a while before we get truly personalised targeting of ads. People are still very protective of their data – they want something in return, beyond targeted advertising. He predicted the death of the TV schedule editor, as more people choose
when and where to view TV programmes. Hence the focus will shift from 30-second slots in prime time to wrapping adverts around content, regardless of when or where it is pulled.

Introducing Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions

Presenter: Sharon Baylay – General Manager, Microsoft Online Services Group, UK

Sharon wrapped up the morning sessions with a review of how Microsoft has re-organised to focus on advertising in the online world. The top level organisation is the Microsoft Online Services Group (OSG). There are now three areas within OSG – Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions (MDAS), MSN and Windows Live. MDAS will enable advertising to be targeted across a very diverse set of audiences, spanning MSN, Live, Office and Xbox.

Related post: Microsoft Digital Day – Part 2

This post is filed under Research > Talks

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