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What are the marketing implications of Microsoft’s So.cl?

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24th May 2012
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In this series of Smart Insights Best Practice Advice, Dave Chaffey of SmartInsights.com shares tips on best practice to get better results from digital marketing. This week, as Microsoft quietly launches its new social network, Dave has a look at its qualities.

So.cl was launched over the last weekend. It’s a strange time to launch a product, particularly following the big Facebook IPO announcement. Apparently Microsoft wasn’t looking to make a big bang and are still refining their new service and how to position it.

Still, Microsoft is still a major provider of search, so we think it warrants an alert since you may be asked about it by colleagues or clients. You may need to say “it’s not relevant to our digital strategy”. This post explains why.

What is So.cl?

So what is So.cl? Is it a social network? Well no, not really, despite the headline that’s what it will be called… The main welcome page carousel doesn’t clearly show any differentiation – we have many ways to “connect with people” already!

But if you take a look at the panels bottom left: “Share your Search” and “Discover New Interests”; these hint at how Microsoft are trying to differentiate this new service.

If you sign up for the service how this works is clearer – you can see searches and comments being shared – or added to in a “riff” and tagging is also possible.

On their Help page, Microsoft describes it as:

“So.cl (pronounced “social”) combines web browsing, search and social networking”

It’s not clear what this means in practice without using the service, but it does show where Microsoft see the emphasis – it’s a combination of search and social where searches are shared. Is this a differentiated value proposition? I’m not sure – I can do these all already, but they are separate activities. If Microsoft can combine these in an effective way it may be. For now I can’t tell – as of Monday morning the service is overloaded with people trying to work out its relevance so attempts to post are failing!

However, I did work through the signup process which is straightforward if you’re already registered with Hotmail. This again shows the connection with search.

Although posts aren’t currently shown within Bing – it’s a separate service which incorporates Bing’s results. As you join you’re also encouraged to follow interests (but not people although this is possible).

Marketing implications of So.cl

If you’re asked by colleagues “how important is this?” I think the main point to say after explaining the low share of searches that Microsoft has in most countries, is there aren’t any brand pages currently. I think until there are this So.cl should be classed as a “wait and see” before involving it in your social media marketing strategy.

It’s also worth noting that this is branded as part of “Microsoft Research” so Microsoft want to position it as a research initiative. Some commentators have said this shows a lack of commitment to the service quite different to when Google+ was launched last year.

In the original announcement we link to at the start of this post, Microsoft Research focused on the student audience, saying that “So.cl Gives Students a New Way to Learn”. Again this suggests a limited mainstream for the audience.

How do you see it? Is it something to ignore, to “wait and see” or are there benefits for early adopters?

Eden Zoller, principal analyst at Ovum has contributed the following thoughts on the new network:

“Microsoft So.cl is not a fully-fledged social network and it is far too early to even suggest it could be a rival to Google+ or Facebook, and the chances are it never will be. The fact that So.cl is targeted at students echoes Facebook’s beginnings and has made many assume it is a Facebook clone. But So.cl is, as Microsoft stresses, an experiment and designed to be layer on existing social networks. Microsoft is being sensible in positioning So.cl in this way. The opposite approach of Google, which entered social networking all guns blazing with a full on service, is having modest success.
“So.cl is powered by Bing and is about social search and sharing, with little value add beyond this and no-where near the kind of features offered by Facebook or Google+. If So.cl gains significant traction, which we think unlikely, then Microsoft might well ramp up the service with additional features, particularly mobile where Microsoft can tap into the Windows Phone platform. But for now So.cl will most likely remain an experiment at heart, which is no bad thing and Microsoft will still walk away with valuable insights and experience that can help improve its overall search capabilities, which is its major priority.”
Dr Dave Chaffey is CEO at Smart Insights (Marketing Intelligence) Limited, a digital marketing portal and consultancy who provide advice and software to help businesses succeed online. He is author of five bestselling books on Ecommerce including Internet Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice and has been recognised as one of 50 marketing gurus worldwide who have shaped the future of marketing.

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