Why Microsoft Shouldn't Have Bothered 'Scroogling' Google

[Editor’s note: Joachim Kempin is a former top Microsoft executive and author of a new memoir, Resolve and Fortitude: Microsoft’s 'Secret Power Broker’ Breaks His Silence. This is Kempin's third column on Microsoft for ReadWrite. See his earlier contributions here and here.]

When I saw a TV ad using this strange word scroogled, I wasn't quite sure what it meant, so I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. I got this reply: “The word you've entered isn't in the dictionary.”

Frustrated, I thought maybe the dictionary hadn’t been updated recently. So l pursued an alternative way of exploring the word’s usefulness: Microsoft Word. The software redlined the word, meaning scroogle is not a genuine word.

I don't Google. As a loyal ex-Microsoft employee, I use the all-knowing Bing. So I challenged the oracle-engine from Redmond to find out what this mysterious word without meaning (or, should I say, meaningless word) stands for.

I soon discovered that “scroogled” is the centerpiece of an advertising campaign in which Microsoft warns Internet users of ugly consequences if they don't let go of their despicable habit of Gmailing. It soon dawned on me that the word must have been invented by somebody who wanted to avoid saying “scr(ew G)oogle” in public.

(See also: Undeterred By Failure, Microsoft Vows To 'Scroogle' Google Some More)

A dirty word indeed, so my kids will definitely be forbidden to use it in school. But I decided to add it, just for fun, to my Word vocabulary.

What Is Microsoft Thinking?

That Microsoft is using this silly word in TV and online ads nevertheless remains a conundrum. I'd thought the company had stopped nastily smearing competitors right after its painful antitrust experience. Now I'm wondering if this inexplicable little word is just a simple faux pas, or a sign that the company is returning to its innately competitive, if not exactly pleasant, roots.

I broke my own rules and turned to Google’s search engine to dig deeper. I was surprised to find a richer and more revealing trove of information than Bing had offered me.

I learned that Microsoft’s ad campaign is designed to lure Gmail customers into the realm of Microsoft’s recently launched and updated Outlook e-mail system. (This is a replacement for its old Hotmail product, which I've  used for eons.)

Mark Penn, Idea Man

The person behind the ad campaign is Mark Penn, who made his mark as a political operative and is best known for his involvement in Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.

He joined Microsoft last year because its CEO, Steve Ballmer, was reportedly impressed by Penn’s novel ideas of how to present Microsoft’s products to the public. I'm surprised the company hired him, knowing from a most trusted source that he was one of the most useless consultants Microsoft hired during its antitrust trial. He apparently believes that where search engines are concerned, “people these days are making a choice, just like they’re making a political choice.”

So here we have it. What works well in politics should, according to him, work as well for Microsoft in the 21st century. The notion of this software-driven company resorting to politics is nothing novel. The only surprise for me is that its latest target is now its current and former customer base.

(See also: Incoming! Microsoft Launching Another Pathetic Smear Campaign Against Google)

Smearing a competitor might work in politics, as we witnessed again in the last presidential election, because in that universe the word truth does not hold a lot of water. The software business is quite different. Ease of use, performance and affordable prices have long been the foundation for success. In short: Better products eventually win.

In Software, It's All About Products

Remember how Microsoft once beat another fierce competitor called Netscape? Its browser, Navigator, reigned supreme for nearly three years until Internet Explorer caught up and the development community and the pundits eventually regarded Explorer as superior. Only then did its public usage increase, and only then did Netscape lose the race. This is a lesson Microsoft needs to recall.

To retain customers, companies often build marketing campaigns around FUD — that is, by spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about competitive offerings while promising future improvements for their own. It’s pretty nasty when you're on the receiving end, but if you have an inferior product this tactic can work by delaying customer defections, buying you time to beef up your offering.

But the Scroogled campaign doesn't follow this well-known pattern. It seems to be built solely on fear. Has Microsoft’s obsessive-compulsive disorder spread so far that it can’t get past fear to uncertainty and doubt?

Oh, no! Google has the audacity to match ads to words found in a machine search on customer emails! Therefore Microsoft wants Gmail users to believe that their privacy is endangered. My Google search, however, quickly discovered what Microsoft states in its own usage policy:

Information about your past online activity, or the activity of others using this computer, might be used to help predict your interests and to select the ads that you see. But you’re in control and can opt-out of receiving personalized ads at any time.

Google allows its customers to opt-out as well. So what is there to fear?

If Microsoft could match Google’s smarter technology, the word scroogle would have never been invented. A couple of years ago, Microsoft bought an Internet-wide advertising platform by buying aQuantive for $6.3 billion, but then couldn’t make it work properly to beat Google and subsequently wrote off nearly the entire value of the acquisition.

Now, guided by a political smear artist, the company has to resort to a fear campaign where very little fear exists. If you're the sort to worry that the postal service knows where you live, then you might be scared about the ads Google derives from your email content. The government, under the Patriot Act, snoops way more intensely — and for uglier reasons.

Outlook Is Actually Better!

Even more disturbing, when you compare the new version of Outlook with Gmail, Outlook already wins. Instead of designing a campaign designed to stir up privacy anxiety among Gmail users, the energy should have been directed towards making Outlook usage most desirable. Microsoft could have challenged its marketing folks to create additional incentives for switching to Outlook, instead of wasting between $30 million and $90 million of shareholders’ money on useless slander.

Consumers make their product decisions in private, helped by their friends’ recommendations and information derived from the Internet. Most seem to consider Google to be a couple of notches less evil than the bully from Redmond, which is why Microsoft’s scare tactics won't work.

There's another reason Microsoft’ energy is totally misdirected. Neither Microsoft nor Google represent a political party. The process of choosing the right software isn't really comparable to voting in political elections, where fiscal or social principles in general determine the outcome.

Therefore I will keep the ugly word scroogle in my dictionary just to remind me what not to do in sales and marketing. A company and a CEO that resorts to a political smear campaign to promote its products and services has most definitely seen better days.