bingbox11On my way to lunch last week, I saw what looked like a cross between an oversized moving crate and that big black obelisk from 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

The box sat in an awkward position on a sloping parking lot, right in the middle of Seattle’s South Lake Union, or Geek Town as we call it, thanks to the thousands of Amazon developers that work in a series of personality-less buildings.

As I neared the box, there were a lot of people milling about, looking at it, but all keeping a safe distance. Music was busting out of the box, playing Daft Punk.

I saw someone standing nearby, with a look on her face that said: “Come talk to me about this big box.” I did. She said that the box – which I now saw was festooned with branding for Bing – was a metaphor for Microsoft’s search engine. She pointed out the box had a series of doors, similar to the annotations in Bing. She invited me to push on one of the doors, which opened to a little shelf with a Bing-branded hoodie inside, for the taking.

About then, in a fashion not dissimilar to the simian co-stars of the Kubrick masterpiece, the Amazonians began to draw closer, recognizing that this big black block might be something cool, something dispensing free stuff.

By the time I left, the crowd made the connection. While not hooting and waving bones as weapons, the energized mob jostled to form a line to push against the black box, urging it to expel babbles and tchotchkes. Someone got lucky when the box expelled things like emergency phone chargers. Others walked away disappointed, with mouse pads or t-shirts that were either too big or too small.

When I walked past after lunch, it was quiet again; Mr. Punk was quiet, and the lines gone.

Mark Firmani

I asked if the campaign was successful. Unbelievably successful she told me, all ebullient and bouncy. When I asked how she knew it was successful, her answer gave me pause. She said they were able to give away all the free stuff in less than 30 minutes, instead of the two hours they intended.

I didn’t push her. We all know that the speed in which a black box can distribute free hoodies and phone chargers to a mob of 20-somethings isn’t a good metric of success – but I doubt if she had access to the metrics of click-through or recruitment.

I do know from experience that rarely is it enough to give away what one client refers to as “happy crap.”

Instead, smart companies use promotions like this to create an opportunity to engage their audience. A better model would have a team of well-informed, well-trained Microsoft ambassadors on hand to actually talk with the Amazonians while they waited online for the box to spurt forth. Those ambassadors’ job would be simply to engage in a non-threatening way; in this case to talk with the Amazonians about their company, and why they owed it to themselves to see what Microsoft could offer. That interaction has a far greater chance of convincing someone to check out a URL than even the sweetest hoodie could.

Maybe I am wrong – maybe all it takes to get someone to move from Amazon to Microsoft is a URL on the back of a t-shirt. Maybe.

What I couldn’t shake, though, was a feeling that the overall concept was off brand message. Then it hit me: Is it a good thing to liken your search engine to a brainless black box that indiscriminately spits out good things and bad?

Mark Firmani is president of Firmani + Associates, a PR and marketing firm based in Seattle’s South Lake Union

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline


  • Hal

    Kubrick, not Kubric.

    • johnhcook

      Apologies. As a fan of A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove, I should have caught that. We fixed it above. Thanks for letting us know.

  • eknirb

    Well, I know I’d love a hoodie, mousepad or T.

  • Brian Myers

    I have to wonder what it cost Microsoft to do the promotion. The whole enchilada of in-house execs, outside PR, outside graphics people, carpenters, painters, the trucking company and staffing. How many people saw it? How many people were persuaded…to do what exactly? Certainly this crowd knew that Bing exists and had tried Bing before. So what is the call to action? To get those who don’t use Bing to try it for the second time? Given the most optimistic assumptions of the number of viewers and conversion rates, how on earth was the promotion going to be cost-effective?

    Why does this feel like sock puppets on a smaller scale?

  • spell check

    babbles = you mean baubles, online = you mean in line

  • drewder

    seems like they wanted them to switch from Google to Microsoft rather than from Amazon to Microsoft. Unless of course Amazon has a search engine I’m unaware of.

Job Listings on GeekWork