Taking the volume to a higher level

Once described as a sleeping giant, MSN certainly has its eyes open to the opportunities for growth that the recently introduced video and music streaming services appear to offer the brand.

When Microsoft announced last month that it was launching a music streaming service in the UK to compete with Spotify, it was the latest in a series of new tactics to diversify the company’s product range. With heavy competition for user attention online, Microsoft is now on a quest to revive its consumer operations, placing its flagship MSN portal at the centre of this brand strategy.

The push to tie together engaging content with advertising reach is being led by Ashley Highfield, UK managing director of consumer and online, who masterminded the BBC iPlayer. In March, Highfield told Marketing Week that the MSN brand was “a sleeping giant in need of awakening”, adding: “Consumers should actually engage with our content and love it as part of their online life.”

As part of this push of its content, MSN also recently introduced the MSN Video Player, which claims to be the first full-length online video-on-demand beta service in the UK. It delivers more than 300 hours of free-to-view British TV shows over the internet, such as Peep Show, Shameless, Hustle and The League of Gentlemen through partnerships with key content distributors, including BBC Worldwide and ALL3MEDIA International.

Highfield says that while the new video service aims to entertain consumers, its business model also provides advertisers with an engaged audience. He says the size of Microsoft’s digital advertising sales house and “unparalleled reach to an audience” will mean the company goes further than merely offering clients ad slots; the business will help advertisers “develop appropriate access points to this hard-to-reach, growing audience”.

Music services

Will new video and music services also boost MSN’s public profile? Peter Bale, the site’s executive producer in the UK, says the company’s overhaul of its services is paying off.

“We’re not a news publisher and people don’t think of us for hard content,” he reveals. “Where we’ve really improved is our breadth of in-depth coverage on our different channels, ensuring that these are exposed at every opportunity possible – across the Microsoft portfolio and on the MSN homepage as well. Our lifestyle channel, for example, is bigger than rival sites such as Handbag.com.”

This is reflected in the latest figures from internet measurement company ComScore, which show that MSN now has 28 million UK users – 7 million more than the same period last year.

Highfield and Bale are now keen to make sure that the gains in audience and attention are pushed throughout all Microsoft online products, with MSN publicised heavily across the Windows Live portfolio, promotional material running on the Messenger service’s “Today on MSN” box, ads on sites such as Hotmail and email marketing sent to registered users based on their preferences.

The breadth of MSN today is a far cry from its initial portal site when it launched as the Microsoft Network – an internet service provider for Windows 95 users – in August 1995, before being relaunched as a website portal three years later. The brand has been extended over the years to create a family of MSN products, including Hotmail, Messenger, Search, Encarta and Mobile, some of which were renamed under the Windows Live brand in 2006.

Chris Ward, UK commercial director for Microsoft Advertising, was head of content on MSN when it started and says that the gradual evolution of the site means it has been able to overcome initial teething problems.

He says that tying together “content partnerships” with “clever editorial” has helped the brand become a far broader and more compelling opportunity for advertisers. It is the editorial value of MSN that he sees as crucial for the brand to maintain success. MSN reports that its average dwell time is 23% longer than previously and there are 14% more visits per user than to rival Yahoo! Despite teaming up with Yahoo! for search with new engine Bing, the companies are still competitors on content.

Microsite campaign

One advertiser that has recently worked with MSN is PepsiCo, which is running a special Pepsi Max microsite campaign for nine months in the UK, Norway and Australia targeting 18- to 25-year-old men. Pepsi says the deal is “a way of adding value in a recession”.

Other brands to have run microsite campaigns like this are Coty Prestige, easyJet and the breakdown service RAC. Hollie Smit, digital marketing manager at Coty Prestige, says the MSN microsite it used to push its Joop! Thrill fragrances for men and women proved a good way to target its 18- to 30-year-old consumers.

“It wasn’t just a blatant advert to sell our fragrance, but had a connection with the user offering advice, video content and related information that people that age seek online,” she claims. “On average, users spent 4.84 minutes on the site, which is a good amount of time for a user to engage with a microsite online.”

Another recent content-led campaign, which raised awareness of MSN, was Jivebrow09, the world’s largest communal eyebrow dance – based on the Cadbury ad featuring children with wiggling eyebrows, which was hosted on the MSN homepage in February.

The campaign reached about 4 million unique users, linking directly to their webcams, allowing them to record their own eyebrow dance and streaming it directly into the MSN homepage. A partnership with photo site Photobox also allowed users to add eyebrows to their favourite photo and have this printed on a mug.

Sandie Dilger, Cadbury Dairy Milk brand manager, says: “We really wanted our online activity to allow people to get involved with the eyebrows campaign themselves.” She adds that the partnerships with MSN and Photobox “really allowed everyone to get up to some eyebrow-themed mischief online”.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer certainly seems to be throwing his weight behind MSN.

Ballmer predicts the print industry will come to an end in the next ten years as online content becomes available on a growing number of digital platforms. And he believes that the MSN brand will be central to this objective.

In the UK, Highfield shares Ballmer’s confidence and says the site is beginning to become the “blueprint” for online portals it was intended to be when it launched. Aside from the music and video launches, other new initiatives include a series of MSN concerts branded MSN Xclusives, a download service for MSN Mobile, personalised searches from MSN Local, a partnership with MSN Money to provide expert financial information and a variety of other initiatives in the film area.

Advertising methods

The service is also set to go widescreen and Highfield says that Microsoft’s flagship website is the perfect place to experiment with what pleases consumers. He says that MSN will be aiming to be the “best place in the online display market to test different advertising methods.”

He is determined that while Microsoft might have fallen behind companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook in terms of media coverage, it will eventually garner plaudits. “Dwell time and loyalty is on the rise; we will crack this and make it a major success, paving the way for Microsoft to communicate all our products including Windows 7 and Bing in a convincing manner above-the-line instead of just online and in press. I’m determined to see this through.”

Facts & Figures

MSN

  • MSN-Windows Live provides services in 42 countries and 21 languages.
  • MSN-Windows Live has 586 million unique users a month globally.
  • MSN UK has 28 million unique users.
  • MSN-Windows Live Messenger has 16.4 million UK unique users a month and a total of 324 million global unique users a month.
  • MSN Search service has 8.7 million UK unique users a month and 184 million unique users a month globally.
  • The MSN UK homepage attracts 14.5 million UK unique users a month.
  • MSN homepages attract 257 million unique users a month globally.

The channels within the MSN UK portal also attract millions of UK unique users a month, making them among the leading sites in their own categories:

  • MSN News has 3.2 million UK unique users a month
  • MSN Entertainment has 3.1 million UK unique users a month
  • MSN Video has 2.3 million UK unique users a month
  • MSN Music has 1.5 million UK unique users a month  
  • MSN Life & Style has 1.4 million UK unique users a month
  • MSN Money has 1.1 million UK unique users a month
  • MSN Movies has 1.1 million UK unique users a month
  • MSN Tech & Gadgets has 1 million UK unique users a month

Source: ComScore, April 2009

Viewpoint

Neil Jackson
The director of search at Tamar gives his view on MSN:

“The concept of the ‘portal’ is very much a hangover from Web 1.0 days as the likes of Yahoo! have found out to their cost. The key objective is to keep people on the page for as long a time as possible and MSN definitely has a good design and quality content.

However, search is the number one activity online and to date, the inferiority of MSN’s search engine has resulted in many people re-setting their homepages to Google. 

The incorporation of the new Bing search engine into the MSN portal could start to change that behaviour, making the portal more sticky and attractive to online advertisers. 

Initial reaction to Bing has been positive, and its user-friendly approach to displaying multimedia research is a good fit for novice internet users, who are more likely to use a portal as their online base.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has a mountain to climb in trying to erode the public’s addiction to Google, and until it does, the potential for MSN to grow significantly will always be hampered.”

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