Microsoft builds team to deliver revival of consumer operations

msnMicrosoft announced last week that it was beefing up its new Consumer and Online division with the appointment of former XBox marketer Mike Fischer as the division’s new chief marketing officer.

Fischer’s appointment comes hot on the heels of Microsoft poaching Project Kangaroo chief Ashley Highfield to head the Consumer and Online business. Highfield’s remit is to promote MSN and Windows Live as dominant forces in the online content world.

Despite multiple tweaks, MSN and Windows Live have failed to replicate the success that Microsoft has had with its operating systems online.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Highfield admits he and his team face a serious issue: “Microsoft lost sight of its consumer operations a couple of years ago, but this aspect of the business is vital to its success.

“We have some services doing very well and others that need refinements, like the MSN brand and Windows Live Search. Making them mainstream is a key challenge.”

He describes the MSN brand as a “sleeping giant in need of awakening”. The portal has nearly 17 million registered users, but these figures are not reflected in page view figures, due to a lack of consumer-focused services.

“The creation of the Consumer and Online division is a result of Microsoft having a long think, and returning to being a consumer-centric, easy to use, simple service. I’m determined to see that happen,” he adds.

He argues that the problem is not that the products aren’t good, but that “consumers are not aware of them or don’t have a clear idea of what they do”.

“We need to ensure consumers actually engage with our content, and love it as part of their online life,” he says.

New taskAs the man who successfully delivered the BBC iPlayer and helped to mastermind the cross-channel Project Kangaroo proposal, Highfield’s new task involves not innovating from scratch but breathing life into an older service.

To attract audiences, Highfield and Fischer are preparing a new series of ads, extending last year’s “I’m a PC” campaign. “Everything needs to be really simple in life, so we want to play on that for our new ad campaign. The next phase of ads will promote the consumer benefits of Microsoft’s consumer facing offerings,” he explains.

Highfield is aware of the challenge he faces in trying to compete with Google and Yahoo! – especially in search, where Microsoft has a market share of less than 5%, according to ComScore.

However, he insists: “MSN was the website to benchmark yourself against when I was at the BBC, and I intend to make that the case again.”

Highfield will also oversee the new Microsoft Media Network, launched in February and combining all aspects of Consumer and Online, as revealed by Marketing Week (MW January 29).

With the focus on getting consumers connected to the MSN portal on a more frequent basis, Highfield hopes he can monetise the site by encouraging more brands to match their ads to the individual channels available. He also wants more advertisers to experiment with such ideas as homepage takeovers. “Clients want to work with us for such marketing assets and I want to expand this,” he says.

Sponsorship dealsConversations over sponsorship deals will also continue and discussions with MSN Video partners will look to broadcast longer-length content.”I want to take existing relationships with partners such as ITN and Channel 4 and gradually extend them to get longer-length clips and explore the best ways of marketing these,” says Highfield.

Mobile phone platform development will also continue, and discussions with new commercial mobile partners are under way. Highfield is also monitoring the prog-ress of recently launched Internet Explorer 8 and Windows 7 software. The company has also decided to close the beta of Microsoft Adcenter Analytics.

Customer base”With all the brands I’m responsible for, the aim is to create strong brands that are close to the hearts of everyday customers. By doing this, we’ll have a solid continuous customer base and a better pitch for advertisers and agencies,” he says.

“I want to get to a point where there is a symbiotic relationship, which is both a selling point and is attractive to the ordinary consumer.”

It’s a huge task and Highfield admits: “There’s no time for resting”. With competition at an all-time high, the new Consumer and Online team will have to use all of its experience of trumping competition to see them achieve this radical vision. 

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