With LinkedIn, Microsoft risks gaining a reputation as a nag

The $26bn deal to buy LinkedIn might worsen a growing sense that Microsoft is bugging its users

Pundits seem to have coalesced around a central argument when it comes to the $26.2bn Microsoft-LinkedIn deal announced earlier this week. The big benefit that justifies the big bucks Microsoft is spending comes from adding the LinkedIn graph of users to the Microsoft graph and then forging links to Microsoft’s Dynamics ERP, Office and search/advertising services. The result: unprecedented convenience, enormous reach and depth of engagement between users to inspire knowledge management, improved hiring/HR processes, superior online learning and so forth. This, it seems to me, is representative of the zeitgeist in technology thinking today – it’s about the data, stupid. Forget hardware, services, web properties and even software – the real value is in the user data because data is the new oil, right? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

One challenge here is that joining systems so you can’t see the seam is rarely as easy as it appears on a PowerPoint slide. Look, for example, at another high-profile acquisition – Skype. Microsoft is paying top-dollar to do much more than an API segue and yet there’s no certainty that it can pull off a slick connection. The situation is made more challenging by the fact that LinkedIn has a user interface that even its own mother might shun. Will there be a major overhaul? And if so, will users prefer a new look and feel or resent the change to familiar, if not beautiful, site?

But imagine that Microsoft does a great job and that Microsoft users gain access to that world of LinkedIn data by right-clicking on a Dynamics CRM tab or Outlook communications pane, providing an open sesame to a vast and valuable database that is highly usable and simple to manipulate. It’s still going to be a judgment call as to how Microsoft and Microsoft customers will tap into that data without creating trust issues. We are only in the infancy of understanding how people like to be approached online but we know for a fact that they don’t like spamming and scamming.


Bad form

And here, forgive the detour, Microsoft has recent form. With Windows 10 Microsoft has, if nothing else, raised (or is that lowered?) the bar for mainstream software that annoys the hell out of users with incessant requests for them to click on things and activate features they don’t want or need. Worse than just persistence, either deliberately or through unconscionable bad design, Microsoft has made it difficult for users to opt out of seeing these reminders or avoid activation. In its desire to get the Windows -installed base onto the latest version of the operating system the company must know that it has gone way beyond acceptable means of marketing and persuasion. There must, conservatively, be tens of thousands of users who have given up in the face of such doggedness and made the switch to 10 without great enthusiasm but merely in order to avoid its constant bothering.

Microsoft is not alone. Other companies that have given themselves a bad name for going heavy on the upgrade nagging front include the RealPlayer multimedia client and of course Adobe where the free Acrobat Reader software is as demanding of attention as an abandoned kitten. But of all companies Microsoft should know not to upset users with such a clashing abuse of user interface real estate. This is the company that wrote the book on user interface testing in the 1990s. And, after all, this is the company that gave us the cartoonish Bob and Clippit as assistants to help us navigate screens. Both were deemed annoying flops and summarily dispensed with.

In Windows, Microsoft has one of the world’s great franchises and with LinkedIn it adds the world’s most useful business network. But the company must tread a fine line between innovation and wearying its customers.   


Addendum: I spoke to Martin Moran, senior vice president at sales analytics company InsideSales.com, who contributed several interesting insights. (Microsoft and Salesforce.com both have stakes in InsideSales.)

“Its 433 million users and billions and billions of data interactions put LinkedIn in a great place one,” Moran told me. “That’s the true value and if Microsoft can leverage that, it’s a potential game changer. How data is used and data privacy are always going to be a challenge but I can tell you that when we’re partnering with Salesforce.com and Microsoft and see customers using their technologies I see a scenario where they already using LinkedIn. The challenge is that it’s not integrated and that creates a significant overhead on the selling function. But Microsoft ingesting LinkedIn is going to be a huge leap forward in understanding buyer behaviour. Customers are prepared to pay for insight and understanding buyer behaviour that allows them to be more surgical in their interactions.”


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