Microsoft's "Mojave Experiment" (visit the Web site) is a controversial and effective ad campaign aimed at getting individuals to form their own opinions about Windows Vista. This effort cuts to the heart of a matter with which I've been heavily involved over the past year and a half: An astonishing number of people are aware of the conventional wisdom about Windows Vista--that it's too slow, too unremarkable, too incompatible, or just plain lousy--despite the fact that very few of these curiously opinionated people have ever actually used the thing.

If you're a regular reader of this site, or of my blog, or a listener of my podcast, you're familiar with the refrain: Windows Vista is not the piece of junk that so many people think it is. And yet everyone's heard that it's horrible. I blame a number of factors for this disconnect between the reality I see every day with Windows Vista on a wide range of machines and the fantasy world in which Windows Vista is a poor product doing poorly in the marketplace.

Apple's "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads. Despite a slew of problems in many of its own products over the past year, Apple's "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" advertisements are effective because they play off of the common (if misguided) consensus that Windows Vista is somehow broken. By focusing solely on the problems (real or imagined) with Windows Vista, Apple has kept Microsoft on the defensive and directed attention away from its own products' issues.

Clueless tech pundits and bloggers. High profile tech pundits and bloggers were quick to point out issues with Vista early in its life cycle, and in many cases before the product was made broadly available to consumers. As various software and hardware incompatibilities were fixed over the ensuing months, none of them thought to reassess Vista, so their early off-the-cuff remarks remain, unchallenged, on the Web.

Mainstream media. Lacking the technical acumen required to fairly review a product like Windows Vista, the mainstream media turned to the tech pundits and bloggers who were lambasting Vista for their expert opinions. Let's just say that the early reports on Vista were mixed. And they were certainly never revisited.

iCabal. There is a small but vocal group of people dedicated to criticizing and belittling everything that Microsoft does. Most of these people are Apple fanboys, but there are contingents of the iCabal in the Linux and open source camps and elsewhere. Suffice to say that Vista's high profile problems have been a target-rich environment for these guys.

Microsoft. Sadly, Microsoft has contributed to today's state of affairs in two ways. First, they were ineffective in getting Windows Vista to market, dramatically delaying the time between the first public exposure of the product, in October 2003, and its general release, in early 2007. This silence allowed Windows XP to remain on the market an artificially long time, turning what had been a fairly unexceptional product into something that hundreds of millions of people grew quite comfortable with. Second, as Apple, the tech pundits, the mainstream media, and the iCabal all piled abuse after abuse on Vista during its first year and a half on the market, Microsoft did little directly. (It did work on co-marketing efforts with PC makers.) This allowed the company's enemies, with their own partisan agendas, to direct the conversation about Windows. And it lasted for far too long.

Turning it around

Well, the company is finally waking up. And this year, it began looking into ways that it could counter the groundswell of negativity surrounding a product that, quite frankly, is selling incredibly well and is overwhelmingly liked by those who do use it. The first visible sign of this effort, of course, is the Mojave Experiment, a "taste-test"-type campaign that I think hits the mark quite squarely. I spoke recently with David Webster, the General Manager for Brand and Marketing Strategy at Microsoft, and the person who originally thought up the Mojave Experiment. Here's what he had to say about the genesis of this project and how his idea turned into a wonderfully effective way to get the message out about Windows Vista.

"Not surprisingly, as a marketer at Microsoft, we toss around ideas for sport during the day and try to figure out what's been most effective at breaking through the noise," he told me. "We try to tell the story about the products we have and represent them in the best possible way. Windows Vista is one of those products where we think it's great, and we know that our customers do too. But every day we see noise out there that doesn't seem to correlate with reality. And we've been discussing and debating how to turn it around."

"First, and most important, Windows Vista is a solid release," he said. "As far as which tactics to employ in telling that story, we concluded that breaking through the noise, 15 to 16 months after it launched, would not be easy. People have already settled into a groove about the conventional wisdom, what it is, what it isn't. So we knew we had to do something disruptive."

"We spend a lot of time looking at data," he added. "What struck me was that we have solid statistical numbers showing that the more people use Windows Vista, the more they like it. Also, we've noticed that people who have adopted Windows Vista more recently like it even better than those who did so over a year ago. Familiarity with the product was directly correlated with how favorable was the reaction. The question, then, was how to get more people to be more familiar with it."

The Pepsi Challenge

Webster said that in traditional marketing, a company might give out free samples to educate consumers about a new or unfamiliar product. Obviously, with an operating system, that's a bit difficult. "It's not like we can say, 'here, try these pretzels,'" he said. "Getting people to install a trial version of an operating system is not a trivial process. You can't just stop them in a mall like you can with [food]."

"At the same time, I figured there was something to be learned from those [blind taste test marketing] experiments of the past," he told me. "We didn't know the results we'd get, though I thought it would be positive. The feeling was, let's just see what happens, and get a clean reaction to the product from people who we know don't like it based only on what they've heard. Let them see it and think for themselves."

"The great thing about this was that--given the size of Microsoft, you'd think that you'd never be able to have an idea like this on a Wednesday and then have focus groups running the following Monday. But that's exactly what happened. I fired off an email to Bill Veghte [Senior Vice President of Microsoft's Online Services & Windows Business Group] and some other executives and within 72 hours we were up and running. We did a trial run on Sunday and recorded live sessions on Monday and Tuesday."

A hostile environment

"We specifically went to San Francisco because we knew it would be a tough crowd," he said. "There are lots of Mac guys there, and Linux users. In that sense, it was like the belly of the beast. We surveyed and screened for people who had not used Windows Vista but didn't like it. These people were predisposed to not like it, not the other way around. We gave them a demo of a new version of Windows we said was codenamed Mojave. [It was really Windows Vista.] One semi-positive thing about these people, from our perspective, was that they at least had a general interest in what we were doing."

"We showed them features based on who they were. So for example, we showed parents the parental controls feature in Vista. We showed DVD burning to people who were into digital media. We highlighted features we thought would be of interest to those people."

Changing minds... one person at a time

"What was most fascinating about this was the radical swing these people went through," he said. "We were seeing people who gave Vista a score of zero initially, but then when they actually saw it they got really excited about it. So a few minutes later, they're giving it a 10 [a perfect score]. We knew immediately that we really had something there. The response was uniform across the board. All of these people changed their minds--well, 94 percent of them did--and the average score jumped from 4.4 to 8.5."

"All it really took to change their minds was a few minutes with the product," he added. "In fact, many of them told us they'd have given Vista a higher score if we had provided them with more time. We were just constrained by the format."

Since the release of the initial wave of Mojave Experiment videos, there's been a lot of critical chatter online about the "scientific" nature of the "experiment," whether the computer(s) used were super-decked-out supercomputers, and whether the participants were actors. All of these criticisms are bogus, Webster says, and have been addressed in a new wave of Mojave Experiment content that went live this week.

"We used an off-the-shelf retail laptop with 2G of RAM," he said. "And we very specifically had regular guys doing the demos, not someone famous like Bill G[ates]. Those were the actual Vista bits, running on a real PC, not a canned demo or video. So they could see the real performance in real world conditions."

"The uniform reaction we got to Windows Vista gave me confidence that we had an interesting and conclusive story to tell," he said. "We had to find a way to tell this story, and let people in on the secret."

Webster told me that there are two other audiences for this information. The first group is those who are happy with Windows Vista but would like to have some ammunition against the constant stream of bad news invented by Microsoft's adversaries. "It's been fun to watch these guys come off the benches," he said. "We were really surprised by the size of this group, who are active and fighting the fight."

The second group is what he calls the "silent majority," those people who are actually quite satisfied with Windows Vista but won't go out of their way to proselytize the product to their friends, family, or coworkers. "This campaign brought them out of the woodwork," Webster noted, "giving them 'an I told you so' moment with their fanboy buddies, or relatives who refused to even consider Vista based on what they had heard. It got them commenting in a productive way online, in the comments sections of blogs."

"The hook here is that it's intriguing to consumers," he told me. "It lets us take our story to them in an intriguing way. First, we put some videos on the Web site. Now, in the second wave, we've added content based on the criticism and questions we received from the first wave. And it will be on TV soon as well."

"We're not trying to convince people who actually used Vista but still don't like it," he said. "Fine, they're entitled to their opinion. What we are doing is trying to reach the tens of millions of people who haven't seen it, and haven't used it, and tell them it's worth it investigating. To do this, we can't just be online, we have to be on TV as well. That's how we get the message out there to regular people."

Answering the critics

"It was amusing to watch the criticisms we got for the first batch of videos online," he told me. "So we decided to address all that in the second wave." These new videos show the mainstream laptop that was used, the actual guys doing the demos, and more of the reactions. "It just reinforces that point: You need to see this for yourself," he told me. "I'm hoping that a reasonable number of people will take step back and admit that their conclusions about Vista were misinformed, and guided by people who had motives of their own. That's the goal for this: Use TV to reach regular consumers and maybe drive them to retail events to get more intimacy with the product. We need to start the conversation and get people to just look at it. "

"The Mojave Experiment is not science," he said, alluding to complaints about the lack of science in this "experiment." "But we did follow a methodology. In the beginning, we didn't know we'd use it as a campaign. But now that it's out there, people keep trying to poke holes in it."

Webster said there were two business goals in going after the naysayers. "First, is it really so implausible that regular user would like Windows Vista? Really? They seem to want to prove that it could never have happened. Look, it's not going to burn your fingers. The motivation for the additions we made to the site this week, and blogging about it, is to show that there were actual people behind all this. That's part of the point. Plus, we wanted to be more aggressive, and take on speculation about actors and supercomputers. It's not true."

"Again, if you've used it and don't like it, fine. But don't make inaccurate statements. Let people get a fair trial of the product and then decide for themselves."

Second, Microsoft wanted to highlight some interesting dynamics of the early adopter crowd. "This is the roll-your-own crowd that runs out on day one and installs a new OS on whatever PC they have," he said. "The experience they have is 100 percent valid for that customer. But the notion that their experiences are a good proxy for my mom walking into Best Buy, well, their conclusions are valid for them, not for others. It's an interesting dynamic: A vocal minority that had issues, and then the mainstream media picked up the conclusions of these people but not the substance. Inappropriate conclusions are not indicative of a broader trend." [Note that his comments here echo my own explanations above for Vista's bad reputation. --Paul]

"We're telling people, 'be skeptical and reach your own conclusions,'" he added.

More to come

The Mojave Experiment is interesting because it's something that Microsoft did on its own after an individual came up with an idea about turning the tide on Vista acceptance. So while it can seen as part of a wider ad campaign (such as the rumored Jerry Seinfeld ads), it should be viewed as a singular event that took on a life of its own.

"The Mojave Experiment is reflective of a renewed interest on our parts to do a better job at telling the Windows story," Webster said. "It's a homegrown effort, not something that came out of our typical ad agencies. It's distinct, but at the same time, it's part of an overall strategy. We do see this as being part of a wider effort. The theme of 'deciding for yourself' is not the only thing, it's a piece of a larger effort. You'll see different things moving forward around small business work and retail stuff we'll do. And we will keep looking at it and do different things."