Memo to Microsoft: Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.

The Empire Strikes Back in Marketing?

Dear Steve Ballmer — I have three words for you. Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.

No, not Microsoft’s own marketing — although that’s a related topic. The “marketing” that Microsoft must urgently pay attention to is marketing as a software-driven business function. It is the hottest growing market in enterprise and SMB software alike. And its future is clearly much bigger than the traditional boundaries of the marketing department — marketing in a digital world is on a trajectory to be the coordinating device of the entire modern organization.

It’s an amazing future. And, as a stockholder, I’m afraid you’re missing it.

Microsoft is, more than anything else today, an enterprise software company. Like it or not. But you’re missing out on the single biggest growth opportunity in the enterprise. This is not just a loss of potential revenue — the kind of multi-billion dollar revenue that makes an appreciable dent on a company of Microsoft’s size. It is the loss of the strategic high ground of the future of business software. And that can be a loss that kills you.

Let me state this is no uncertain terms: He who owns the marketing technology — the modern pipeline to the customer — will own the enterprise. I’m not talking about old school marketing. This is new school marketing, and its rules are being written by those who are in the game.

From my view in the cheap seats though, you’re still sitting on the bench.

With all due respect, MarketingPilot and Dynamics CRM are not sufficient. (Seriously, Steve, go look at the MarketingPilot web site, and then compare that to sites from Adobe, IBM, Salesforce/ExactTarget, Oracle/Eloqua, Marketo, HubSpot, Responsys, Teradata, etc. I’m writing this on July 23, and the MarketingPilot Twitter account hasn’t been updated since June 10 — a message about installation errors. It’s like you aren’t even trying.)

Meanwhile, almost every other enterprise company of significant scale is playing to win this game: IBM, Oracle, Adobe, Salesforce, SAP, Teradata, SAS, even HP. (HP may have its own challenges, but its Autonomy platform is a solid foundation upon which they can launch a more aggressive assault on enterprise marketing.)

Are you going to cede this opportunity to these opponents?


Microsoft is in desperate need of a new rallying flag — something that will reignite the passions of your entire company and your broader ecosystem. The last time that happened was with Netscape and your epic shift to focus on the web. You turned that aircraft carrier around on a dime. And it was impressive — and effective.

The future of marketing could be your new mission to the moon.

The bad news is that you’re behind most of your rivals. The good news, however, is that you have a set of assets that are unmatched by your competitors that — if properly aligned — could give you a tremendous strategic advantage in this mission. (That’s a big “if,” but a tenacious leader like yourself could force that sort of corporate-wide alignment in a way that few others could.)

And the fact that you’re behind at the moment has a benefit too: it gives you the burning platform on which to make a heroic turnabout. Everyone wants to know what Microsoft is going to do next, how you’re going to be not just relevant but dominant in this world that has changed so dramatically around you. This can be your legacy — the vision that reinvigorated Microsoft for the next two decades.

Microsoft’s unique assets for a new marketing mission

Here’s the thing: the future of marketing is not merely a digital translation of traditional marketing. It’s about the new relationship that companies are forging with their customers and the market at large — a new gestalt that encompasses every facet of a company’s strategy and operations across the entire customer lifecycle.

This is the remaking of business that the Big Bang of the web promised 20 years ago. It’s just taken this long for the galaxies to emerge from that primordial fire.

It’s hard to due justice to the stunning scope of the future of marketing in a paragraph, but I’d humbly point you to two presentations of mine — 5 marketing meta-trends and art and science in marketing: meaning, truth, and money — for a deeper dive into why this is such a monumental business transformation.

I’d also like to point out that the nature of marketing software will be very different than traditional enterprise software such as ERP. It’s much more dynamic. It defies attempts to lock it down with a closed-end process, as other back-office functions were subjugated, because buyers don’t have to follow the seller’s process.

Grokking the freedom and power of consumers may be the greatest conceptual difficulty for enterprise-only competitors to overcome.

You have a real edge. Microsoft is one of the few companies that has deep experience engaging directly with enterprises and small businesses, professionals, developers, and — most of all — consumers. Admittedly, your consumer mojo isn’t what it used to be. But you have far greater knowledge and capabilities in that space than Oracle, IBM, Salesforce, Teradata, or SAP.

Adobe has a slim connection to most consumers — Flash and photo editing. (They do, however, have very strong, direct ties to the creative professional — an advantage they’re fully intent on leveraging.) HP is mostly connected to consumers from afar, through distribution channels for computers, printers, calculators, and other electronic gadgets.

But Microsoft — you have a rich history of interacting with consumers directly, from a wide multitude of touchpoints. Certainly a bunch are still Windows customers. Internet Explorer, in aggregate, still has more than 50% of the browser market share. There’s the Xbox, Skype, MSN, Bing, Windows Phone, Hotmail, etc. Okay, so many of those have their own challenges. But while you may struggle in being compared to Apple on consumer marketing, you’re still miles ahead of typical enterprise-only companies.

Similarly, your relationship with business professionals through your Office suite — from sole proprietorships or Fortune 500 mammoths — is also a big advantage. One could argue that Word, PowerPoint, and Excel have been the most widely used “marketing” tools on the planet. Take a hard look at the way Adobe is playing that card, connecting their Creative Cloud with their Marketing Cloud. It’s a smart strategy.

You have a strong developer community — one that’s longing for revitalization.

You have a powerful, open cloud platform architecture with Azure.

You have a great internal social platform with Yammer, a successor to SharePoint. And as a mechanism for cross-business collaboration and coordination, this can play a huge role in the orchestration of marketing beyond the marketing department.

You have the massive deployment of Windows — although I would be wary of looking at the future too myopically through that lens.

And, not for nothing, you have $264 billion market cap and $77 billion war chest of cash and short-term investments.

These are an envious set of assets that could support a powerhouse play on the future of marketing — the future of business. But you’re lacking the gravitational center to pull these things together. You need a sun in that solar system.

The shortest path to being a marketing technology juggernaut

Okay, there’s no “short” path. If you go after this crown, the next five years are going to be a viciously intense fight with your rivals seeking to be the king of modern marketing. It’s going to require incredible commitment, focus, talent, innovation, daring, and grit. Yet I believe you can rise to that challenge.

But first things first: you need to buy a hand into this game. Now.

If at all possible — and, unfortunately, it may not be possible — you should buy Salesforce. It would be ridiculously expensive. You’d have a massive uphill battle in convincing their talent to stay with you. But if you could pull this off — and truly co-opt them into a new, integrated vision — you would, in one fell swoop, be at the top of the marketing technology food chain. I think Salesforce, with its latest acquisitions, has some amazing opportunities for reshaping the marketing technology landscape. All that could be yours.

I know, that’s probably not feasible. But let’s dream big.

The same might be said about Adobe. Rumors had it that was a possibility a few years ago. But they’re going to be equally as expensive as Salesforce, probably equally as uninterested at this point, and equally as challenging to integrate.

So let’s say those two choices are theoretically attractive but pragmatically unlikely.

Your second best option is to buy in at the level below those two giants. Teradata, Marketo, or HubSpot probably make the most sense on the marketing automation side. Three very different companies, but each offer you a significant strategic option. (If you want Marketo, don’t dally.) Sitecore or Ektron would make a great web content management (WCM) acquisition — and they’re .NET-based to boot. Those are the two important halves of the marketing technology landscape to bring together under one banner. Maybe add Webtrends for analytics, Sprinklr for social.

There are a plethora of brilliant marketing technology point solutions. From the money you save by not having to shell out for Salesforce or Adobe, you could assemble a mighty impressive portfolio of cutting-edge capabilities.

But as I shared in my advice to Salesforce, that is not the end game. It is the beginning.

The next stage of the game, you can’t buy today. You have to build it.

The real vacuum in the marketing technology space today is the lack of a large-scale platform ecosystem. And by platform ecosystem, I mean like the definitive third-party developer universe that you created around Windows. You guys invented the third-party developer system lock-in model: developers want to build for your platform, because that’s where the users are; users want to buy your platform, because that’s where the developers are building the most software. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Given the enormous diversity in marketing, and the rapid evolution of new marketing capabilities that are likely to continue to appear in the years ahead, such a platform strategy could solve the greatest paradox of marketing technology today: how can a company simultaneously standardize and differentiate their digital marketing capabilities?

You could build that platform architecture. You could seed it with the portfolio of marketing technologies that you acquired today. Of course, it would all be cloud based, leveraging Azure. You could tie it in with your other key assets — especially Office and Yammer. Maybe even Bing. And if you can bring your developer community to bear on the opportunity — along with a few strategic partners from the agency world — you could have a good shot at kick-starting a whole new virtuous cycle.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s technically within your reach.

You could no doubt go further than that too. Instead of simply focusing on the marketer’s infrastructure, how might you be able to empower the customers? Doc Searls’ idea for vendor relationship management (VRM) — or something in that vein — could help bring technology to bear on the emerging problem of the over-digitized world. This is in the interest of both buyers and sellers and could be the dominant exchange of 21st century. But it would take a major player, such as yourself, to bring it to life.

If you have strong connections with both marketers and consumers, you have a shot at such game-changing innovations.

The hardest part, however, isn’t really technology at all. To lead this charge, you have to build a business revolution around the future of marketing. So many companies are struggling with that transformation. They are looking for a beacon that is bigger than the individual marketing technology companies of today — but more broadly accessible than solutions that are limited to only the largest enterprises.

You could be an incredibly inspiring champion of the future of marketing. But you’d have to start with your own organization, remaking the role and reach of marketing as an integral part of all your business operations.

In the big scheme of things, business transformation was always your hallmark. You powered the PC revolution that brought computing to every professional’s desk. You drove the adoption of client-server computing to take those desktops to the next level. You pulled off a huge about-face by embracing the Internet at a critical moment and connecting those users to the world.

This is the next business transformation that is coming to a boil: everything is marketing and everyone is connected to the customer. It’s not even digital marketing anymore. It’s interconnected digital business. And its dawn is breaking.

You once famously chanted, “Developers. Developers. Developers.” Because developers have been the engine that has driven so much of your success. And they’re still the linchpin to your future.

But the engine of growth for almost every business moving forward will be the intimate embrace of direct relationships with customers and markets. The new chant is, “Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.”

Will you be the one leading that rally?

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13 thoughts on “Memo to Microsoft: Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.”

  1. Scott, it’s too late. Microsoft has missed the boat yet again (by at least 3 years in this case). Microsoft, please ignore this blog post. We marketing technology users don’t want your “enterprise solutions” that cost an arm and a leg and only place nicely with Office. Please go back to keeping your head down in a gopher hole while the rest of the world moves on with SaaS and inbound marketing.

  2. A breathtaking post, Scott. The ‘buy Salesforce’ bit took me by complete surprise, and I doubt it can succeed. I think Marc Benioff believes he can replace Microsoft in the enterprise, and he’s definitely building a tech and app stack that can deliver. plus he’s already got a strong dev ecosystem. it will be tough for Ballmer to complete such a move without seriously depleting his “war chest” as you’ve called it. as tough as it would be for Benioff to say yes.

    I’m fully with you on the Marketo option though. and not just because they have dynamics integration, albeit less mature than their salesforce integration. it just makes too much sense to pass. Marketo needs a powerful ‘daddy’ like Eloqua and Neolane and the other large B2C marketing automation vendors now have, and MS would win much from the marketing tech cred of Phil Fernandez and his gang.
    plus it would be hella fun to see how they name Marketo after buying it. I expect ‘Enterprise Marketing Platform Premium’, or ‘Windows Marketing Live Plus’ to be strong contenders.

  3. Yes, I would agree that Salesforce’s likely destiny is to surpass Microsoft. There’s maybe a brief window where a merger might make sense, but it’s probably more of a pin hole at this point.

    I actually think Marketo could thrive as an independent company. But I think they are extremely attractive to the few remaining existing enterprise players that need that piece of the puzzle. Microsoft is theoretically a great buyer. But I’m not sure if they’ll figure it out before somebody else makes a move. (S)ome (A)lternate (P)layer would be my guess.

  4. Scott, Wish I had written this!
    I commented around the place when Microsoft announced the big write-down based on the market failure of the Surface. Basically I said their marketing was crap, and they were looking like they had brought a knife to a gunfight, not very smart for the industry behemoth that grown and survived by being in front of the game, and being able to pivot on a dime.

    1. Thanks — I’m glad you liked it.

      I think your critique of their own marketing identifies what may be the biggest barrier to them pursuing the hypothetical plan I’m recommending. At some level, the technology is the easy part. The shift in thinking to a new generation of marketing would be, I suspect, much more difficult. That’s the real engine propelling the aircraft carrier.

  5. I believe Microsoft has recently discovered the need to put a strong solution in market in the last year, as the tools they were using for their own marketing technology, were being bought up by competitors. But as some of the other commenters noted, they are late to the game. To be successful, they’ll need to deliver something totally different.

  6. Very glad you wrote this, Scott. You might get into an ear or two that have been plugged. Back in ’06 or ’07 I was interviewed at length by a product manager for Outlook. All the normal questions you might expect about their product, potential new features, etc. I told him at that time, (I had been in email marketing tech since ’99), “If you guys would put out a credible email marketing offering, you could be a leader almost overnight”. It’s been something I’ve scratched my head about for a decade.

    When they put serious investment and thought into SharePoint, they created two releases that started to steamroll enterprises and gained huge revenues and market share. They could do similar for MarTech, if they did it with earnest, rather than an “oh we do that too” checkbox that we would see through immediately.

    I love the Neolane MarTech Monopoly diagram, which of course needs to be updated with the Neolane acquisition itself. I know everyone is looking at Silverpop/CoreMotives, Marketo, SAP, and MSFT, and wondering what the next moves will be. Adobe, Oracle, and SF have been loading up their wagons.

    1. Thanks, Don. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft navigates the next 5-10 years. If Satya Nadella gets named as the next CEO, perhaps that incrementally increases the odds of them pursuing this marketing technology space?

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