Gary Scattergood
Jan 13, 2016

Eyeing the needle: Vinyl could be the next frontier for Microsoft’s brand stories

For the past three years, Microsoft has invested heavily in publishing its own stories, many of them long-form articles alongside quality photography and neat designs. And most don’t contain a single product mention. But is it helping change its brand perception?

Microsoft provided internet to 30,000 in rural Kenya
Microsoft provided internet to 30,000 in rural Kenya

Forget the predictions for a virtual reality take-off or an artificial intelligence take-over this year. Microsoft has outlined another ambition for telling its brand stories in 2016…the vinyl record.

Vinyl sales have soared in recent years, spawning commercial success stories such as Record Store Day, while Panasonic and Sony made record players the centrepiece of their CES press conferences in Las Vegas this year.

Now Microsoft’s chief storyteller, Steve Clayton, is eyeing how the analogue survivor can play a role in Microsoft’s “brand transformation” in a digital era.

Speaking exclusively to Campaign Asia-Pacific in Singapore, the 18-year company veteran explains his thinking: “In this sea of digital content, which I love, part of me says the way to get attention is to go in the opposite direction,” he said. “So my next hobby and mission is to publish a vinyl record.”

The content will likely be a series of interviews with “interesting characters”, such as Star Trek actor and activist George Takei, who featured in a podcast for the firm last year. Actor Rich Sommer, better known as Mad Men’s Harry Cane, appeared in another.

“[They were] well received but it didn’t get the listenership we truly hoped for,” admitted Clayton. But I’m thinking, what if we put them on a limited edition record? It might only generate a few articles, but I think it might get much more. It’s all about capturing the imagination.”

Steve Clayton

Should the project go-ahead, it wouldn’t be the first time the firm has reverted to a traditional platform to tell its tales.

Towards the end of 2015, it published a book, Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Stories Inspired by Microsoft: an anthology of short stories written by science fiction authors who, as Clayton put it, “were let loose at Microsoft.”

“It had a limited-edition run of 1,000 (although an e-book version can be downloaded). The science-fiction community loved it. People asked why did we do it, and the answer is because it helps people think differently about us.”

At that last sentence, in essence, is what Clayton’s job is all about.

He and his team, which has between four and six people depending on the workload and sits within the marketing department, are tasked with changing perceptions of the brand’s transformation through content, largely on its own Microsoft Stories site.

After all, It’s no secret that Microsoft has faced a turbulent few years due to the dominance of Apple, the threat of Google, and its overexposure to the PC market and paid-for software upgrades.

“We have been a company in transition,” he said. “We have had a new CEO, a lot of changes internally and a lot of changes around how we wanted to tell our story.”

So how is Clayton measuring the success of the work?

“This might sound pithy, but one of the main questions we ask is do we feel good about the stories we are telling?”

And this seems to boil down to adhering to good, old-fashioned editorial values, and avoiding any direct links to ROI, product sales or even product awareness.

“Marketing is a perfectly fine thing to do, and we have people who do a great job at that, but it’s not how we go about storytelling,” he added. “We are not trying to sell a product. I hesitate to even say we are telling great stories to sell Microsoft, because that still feels too commercial.

“The other main factor we look at is how are we helping to change the perception of the company. Now that is a really hard thing to measure, but you can kind of sense it, feel it and smell it in the air because people are saying that this is a company that is changing.”

Other stories, such as the 88 Acres project—the team’s first big success story almost three years ago—also point to concrete commercial benefits, despite only referring to a product/service in one sentence.

The long-form story, peppered with striking visuals and video content, charts how the Microsoft estates team effectively digitized all the buildings at its Redmond campus in Washington, from air conditioning to fire-safety sensors, so it could analyse vast amounts of data to more efficiently manage and maintain the site.

It has saved the firm tens of millions of dollars, and the content, based on the style of the New York Time’s grounbreaking Snow Fall coverage in 2012, racked up 250,000 views in the first 48 hours after it was highlighted by the Techmeme website.

Not long after, the business enquiries started rolling in, said Clayton, who added: “Like most good stories, this started in a pub on our campus when this guy came up and said 'I’ve got this story for you from our real estate and facilities team'. I was kind of thinking, this doesn’t sound like the kind of place we’re going to find a really compelling story…but it became a big publishing and commercial success.”

Not every story gains the traction that Clayton would like, however.

Take another long-form multimedia piece from Kenya last year—where CEO Satya Nadella launched Windows 10—which showed how the company provided internet access for 30,000 people in rural Nanyuki by utilizing TV 'white spaces' (open areas of the electromagnetic spectrum not used by television signals).

“The Kenya story was picked up reasonably well, by Forbes and a few others, but I wish it was picked up more,” said Clayton.

What irks him most is the vast number of column inches given to “sexier” efforts from Facebook and Google to enable internet use via drones and balloons—“both noble efforts”, he hastens to add—while the Microsoft project “is actually working right now”.

“I don’t know whether there is something we need to do more of, maybe there is,” he conceded, adding the company invests relatively little in paid media and publicity for its stories.

“Part of that is because I have this altruistic view that good stories should find their own way to the top. We do invest in some paid media and obviously use our social channels, but in general we don’t put too much amplification behind them, also because very few of them are time bound,” said Clayton.

What he does invest heavily in, however, is high quality visuals and design; traditional publishing values that he believes are still vitally important, especially in an age when anyone can be publisher online.

“My one piece of advice would be to focus on visuals,” he said. “As nice as a 3,000 word article is, it takes a lot to get someone to read that on a screen. The old adage that a picture tells a thousands words remains true to this day.”

Also true: That the work by Clayton and his team doesn’t neatly fit into any of the siloed marketing functions—something one suspects he is quite happy about.

“People say, 'Are you in the content marketing business?' Well I’m definitely in content, but I don’t know about marketing. Then they say, 'Well is it native advertising?'

“These are all good buzzwords but I don’t really know what they mean. I really don’t. We are the business of good stories, that’s all.”

Please see a related story on PRWeek Asia: Microsoft's chief storyteller: Content marketing? Native advertising? We just tell good stories

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