March 24, 2011
Case Study

Solution Marketing: How Microsoft Windows helps consumers get past one of their largest pain points

SUMMARY: When your targeted consumer faces a pain point in the buying process, Marketing needs to quickly address this issue and provide the consumer with information, reassurance or another way to ease the buying process.

When Microsoft found out that buying a PC was becoming one of the more anxiety-filled purchases (even rivaling automobiles) its Windows Consumer Marketing group created an interactive online tool to ease some consumer main pain points. Read about how the Microsoft team created this tool, and continues to improve and expand this marketing effort.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter


Microsoft is a global company with many resources to address issues and implement solutions. Yet, it faces problems that every marketer will recognize -- consumer pain points, for one. Over the last several years the company began to realize buying a new personal computer was stressful for consumers, rather than something that generated excitement.

The buying process for a PC is fairly technical, therefore consumers feel the need to become informed about the various elements of buying a new computer. The significant number of choices -- different brands, amounts of memory, hard drive sizes, video card options, etc. -- make the process daunting and create anxiety.

Cory Toedebusch, Group Marketing Manager, Windows Consumer Marketing, understood the PC buying process needed to be addressed in three major stages:

o Education
o Recommendation
o Purchase

And he also realized that consumers were being forced to address each stage in different places. Education and recommendation was coming from websites such as Consumer Reports or CNET with professional and consumer product reviews, and the purchase was happening elsewhere, such as Amazon, or Best Buy or even at the Hewlett-Packard or Dell websites.

Toedebusch believed Windows was uniquely positioned to become a trusted advisor and help to integrate the entire buying process. The result was Windows PC Scout, an online interactive guide that provides consumer information for the education stage, walks consumers through PC options to match targeted consumer segments with different computer configurations, and at the end of the process the user is provided PC recommendations with an option to buy the computer from various retailers.


Step #1. Recognize the consumer pain points

Through a combination of internal and independent consumer research over the last five years, the Windows team found that buying a PC was becoming one of the more anxiety-producing purchases, rivaling even buying a car.

"We use the phrase that we don't want [buying a PC] to be like going to the dentist," Toedebusch explains, "We want it to be like Christmas morning when you open your presents."

In addressing this issue, there were two related areas where improvement could be made:

o The PC buying process has always been technical, causing some consumers to feel inadequately prepared and informed when they are looking to buy a new computer. The solution was to provide simple advice that consumers could trust.
o The consumer who feels inadequately informed is also in danger of a post-purchase feeling of "getting the wrong PC for me." Toedebusch explained this feeling can either be a real or perceived state, but either way it impacted post-purchase satisfaction, loyalty and likelihood to repurchase.

Having the consumers you are marketing to feeling unprepared, unsatisfied and anxious is not a positive outcome.

Step #2. Help your customers help themselves

The first version of Windows PC Scout was created about four years ago to address these consumer issues. Toedebusch states a series of steps were taken to implement the original vision:

o Creation of an education and recommendation component engaging enough to deliver the marketing message in an accessible and fun manner while still conveying the core concepts to consumers
o Creation of a website to host the experience and provide consumers the basic shopping tools like viewing, comparing and actually buying PCs
o Development of a database of PCs to provide consumers a robust set of recommendations
o Understand the customer purchase process to map out buying scenarios that would be meaningful to consumers when comparing various PCs
o Drive awareness of the tool and drive traffic to the tool
o Keep the entire experience updated and relevant to match the marketplace as new form factors and channels emerge

Toedebusch explained the important final step in the process, "Rinse and repeat as we learn, get new insights and increase our reach."

Windows PC Scout has gone through several versions and is continually evolving. Toedebusch described the tool as a "living program" that regularly is updated with new features, capabilities and refinements in the process.

You can see how the current version looks in the first creative sample titled, "PC Scout homepage" (see useful links at the end of the article), and the following samples show different pages in the consumer experience illustrating how each page offers some information, or poses a simple question to help refine exactly what type of computer the consumer is seeking.

Once the questions on each purchasing area are answered, the eighth creative sample (see sample titled, "Recommendation screen showing ranges for various PC elements") shows the recommendation page highlighting the recommended ranges for each area -- such as budget, RAM, processor, hard drive and more -- for a new PC based on information provided by the consumer.

Using this recommendation the user can then go to the selection page and see actual PCs that meet the recommended criteria. From that page, they can actually go to various retailers such as HP, Dell or even the Microsoft Store to buy the listed computer.

Step #3. Be visible where your customers naturally go

Going back to the final step in developing Windows PC Scout -- rinse and repeat -- means this marketing effort is constantly being monitored and tested for improvements to the tool itself and to expand the entire program.

The original PC Scout was designed, built and implemented as a part of the Windows website, and the overall network. Although that alone is a fairly powerful marketing tool simply by the size and traffic the Microsoft family of websites receive, this aspect of the marketing effort is currently undergoing a change to expand the reach of PC Scout.

First, Toedebusch stated Windows is agnostic on where someone buys a PC, it just wants consumers to buy the right computer for their needs so they enjoy the PC.

He continued, "One of our goals is to build this as a scalable platform such that you don't necessarily have to come to Windows to experience PC Scout. Our long-term goal is to actually work with our partners and their channels so OEM retailers can actually put it on their websites."

The idea is to place PC Scout where consumers normally go to start shopping and not necessarily have to make the detour of visiting the Windows website to use the tool.

- Adding depth

This depth is going to come from getting PC Scout "wherever consumers research and shop" according to Toedebusch by looking into new channels and specific audiences for the tool. One way Windows is implementing this idea is by creating customized versions of PC Scout for specific audiences, that is, syndicated versions of the tool that reflect the site where they reside.

One early version of this effort is a version of PC Scout specifically branded for AMD, the chip producer. See the creative samples below entitled, "AMD PC Scout main page," "AMD PC Scout Laptop 101 information," and "AMD PC Scout basic visitor question" for the look of the AMD version of PC Scout.

- Adding breadth

Along with depth, Windows is looking to add breadth to the marketing effort by expanding into different countries, and offering versions that target specific consumer and demographic groups.

For example, there are currently PC Scout versions that target:

o Students
o Hispanics
o A Microsoft version specific to Mexico recently launched
o A Microsoft version specific to Australia also recently launched
o NineMSN in Australia is running a syndicated version of the tool

The Microsoft Australian version of PC Scout has already created some interesting results. The customer base is much smaller than the US PC market, but there was not a lot of information on buying PCs that targeted Australia.

Within two to three weeks of launching the site, it was already ranked in the top three or four sites locally because of SEO related to providing information on PC purchase and recommendations. Toedebusch said this result was something of a surprise and now they believe international versions of PC Scout may prove to be very strong performers.

Step #4. Test and optimize

When seeking to improve an ongoing marketing effort, the best way to achieve that goal is to continually test to refine and optimize those efforts.

In the case of PC Scout, the Windows group is most interested in improving the completion rate for users. That is, once a consumer begins interacting with PC Scout, Windows wants that consumer to reach the Recommendation and Selection pages.

Toedebusch said that over time they have addressed the largest abandonment points and now test areas to incrementally increase completion. One focus area is the immediate experience visitors are presented with, and how that experience impacts completion rates.

The group hypothesized getting users to interact with the experience sooner in the process, even with a question not directly affecting the task at hand, makes the user more invested and more likely to complete the process.

Toedebusch stated, "Essentially, we want them to sit forward and engage with us immediately versus giving them time to sit back and listen."

To this end, the team did an A/B test on two introduction options:

The control

o Featured an introduction and explanation of the experience before visitors were asked their first question, with this being considered the logical approach -- here is what to expect, now let's get started.

o The rough audio was -- "We'll teach you everything you need to know, then help you find a great laptop." Then the visitor was asked, "Should we start the Laptop 101 crash course, or do you want to skip that and jump right to getting a recommendation?"

The test version

o Had a shortened introduction that immediately led off with a question the visitor needed to answer in order to proceed.

o The visitor was presented with, "All right, laptops and netbooks -- tell me, have you just started the search, or have you been looking for a while?

o After answering this initial question the visitor received an explanation on the PC Scout experience.

The results of this test found a completion rate of 55% for the test version compared to 46% for the control, an 18% increase in completion. Total completion rate increased by 8%, one of the largest factors the Windows team has seen to date according to Toedebusch.

The takeaway from this particular test was interactive online experiences, like PC Scout, can benefit from engaging the user immediately, even if that engagement is light and not directly impactful on the overall user experience.

o The main hand-off from PC Scout is to Microsoft's partner ecosystem of PC retailers and OEMs. The Partner Referral Rate is based on overall visits and is typically 10-12% per month
o In 2010, 3.4 million US consumers visited Windows PC Scout
o 55% of visitors who start the interactive guide complete the tool
o Median time in the tool for those who start Laptop 101 (the education section) is 11 minutes
o Median time for visitors who skip Laptop 101 is around 4 minutes
o "Satisfaction" (top 2 box) is over 80%
o "Quality of PC Scout recommendation" (top 2 box) is 80%

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples:

1. PC Scout homepage
2. Processor question
3. Video card question
4. Recommendation question on gaming
5. Recommendation question on movies
6. Recommendation question on screen size
7. Recommendation question on "work anywhere?"
8. Recommendation screen showing ranges for various PC elements
9. AMD PC Scout main page
10. AMD PC Scout Laptop 101 information
11. AMD PC Scout basic visitor question

Windows PC Scout

AMD PC Scout

PC Scout for Students

NineMSN's syndicated Australian PC Scout version

Hispanic version of PC Scout

Microsoft's PC Scout for Mexico

Microsoft's PC Scout for Australia

Jellyvision Lab (developing vendor)

Members Library -- Chart: E-commerce Marketers Don't Take Advantage of Online Tools

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