As a PR guy, product launches are one of the staples of my existence, which is why I read with great interest a post authored by Tara DeMarco last month regarding the ways in which brands can get consumers involved in the launch process.
As someone who has spent the bulk of his career working with media influencers – the journalists, bloggers, and analysts who have traditionally wielded extraordinary clout in product launches considering the power of their praise or dismissal – Tara’s post also got me thinking: How much do consumer reviews count in the immediacy of a product launch that is also one of the year’s biggest news stories?
Thankfully, we’re actually watching this play out in real time with the launch of Windows 8. Representing the biggest change to Microsoft’s flagship product since the release of Windows 95, there never was any doubt that Windows 8 had the potential to be a polarizing product – a description that could now be called a monumental understatement.
From the outset, Microsoft’s PR team has been greeted nearly every day with a new punch in the gut from the media (Disclosure: I’ve represented Microsoft in the past so, naturally, I’m sympathetic to the plight of my former colleagues). In the weeks immediately prior to the launch, market analysts opined on the lack of enthusiasm from Microsoft’s PC partners. At launch, tech reviewers offered a mixed bag of appraisals, perhaps best summed up by Gizmodo’s Kyle Wagner who called the new operating system “a rough draft of a deeply interesting idea.” And then Jakob Nielsen, one of the tech industry’s best-known user interface design gurus, called Windows 8 a “misguided” product that “smothers usability.” Reading it all, you would fairly believe that Windows 8 was nearly DOA.
Divert your eyes from the pundits, though, and you’ll get a different story from the conversations among consumers. As of November 30th, the Microsoft Store shows an average 3.9 star (out of 5) rating for Windows 8 Pro, with high marks for “Ease of Use,” “Performance,” and “Value.” The site proudly exclaims that “76% of reviewers recommend this product!” The view is similar, if not quite as rosy, at BestBuy.com, where the Windows 8 Pro Upgrade receives an average 3.3 star rating and 59% of users would recommend the product to a friend. Among the reviews are plenty of customers who refer to Windows 8 as either the “Best OS on the market” or “Needlessly confusing.” Yet, in between those perspectives, a majority of consumers comment that, after taking time to learn the fundamentals associated with the new design, they have found Windows 8 to offer an enjoyable and useful user experience.
So how does all of this manifest in the ultimate metric of any product launch: Sales?
At its Build developer conference on October 30th, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stated that the company sold four million Windows 8 upgrades in the four days following the product’s launch. Then, on November 27th, Tami Reller, finance and marketing head of the Windows business, stated that Microsoft sold 40 million Windows 8 licenses in the month since the launch. In fairness, the sale of 40 million licenses does not mean that 40 million users have adopted Windows 8, as that number includes licenses for PCs that have not yet been sold. Research firm StatCounter has reported that about 1 percent, or around 15 million, of the world’s PCs are actually running Windows 8.
Following Black Friday, reports from Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry noted that Sony, Dell, and Acer sold a large number of Windows 8 PCs on the biggest shopping day of the year. Other data points also show that Windows 8 may be gaining traction in the market, including reports that the number of Windows Store apps has doubled since the platform launched and several of those apps have been downloaded more than a million times.
None of this is to suggest that media influencers don’t play an important role in the product launch process or that, in the case of Windows 8, their commentary has been inaccurate or unjustified. However, the voice of the customer has been an effective balance for the voice of the media, and that positive sentiment is reflected in sales figures. It’s just one more example of why companies are well served by harnessing the power of consumer conversations to drive business success.