Case Detail

Case Summary

Microsoft Office: Gaining Insight into the Life of a College Student (B)

Case Number: 5-111-011(B), Year Published: 2011

HBS Number: KEL655

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Authors: Mohanbir Sawhney; Ashuma Ahluwalia; Yuliya Gab; Kevin Gardiner; Alan Huang; Amit Patel; Pallavi Goodman

Key Concepts

Digital Marketing, Observational Research, Customer Insights, Consumer Behavior, Ethnographic Research, Focus Groups


Microsoft Office was facing an uphill task in engaging the undergraduate student community. Attracting this audience—the most tech-savvy generation ever—was critical to the future of the Microsoft Office franchise. Microsoft’s past advertising efforts to reach this audience had proven lackluster, while its key competitors were gradually entrenching themselves among this demographic. Microsoft’s challenge was to determine the best tactics that could successfully connect with this audience.

The (A) case describes Microsoft’s dilemma and briefly addresses what college students mostly care about: managing homework, creating great-looking schoolwork, preparing for the workplace, and collaborating with friends and classmates. It also provides competitive information, chiefly Google’s increasing presence in universities and its focus on the higher education market and the growing influence of Facebook among students and its evolution into a productivity tool.

The (B) case describes the qualitative research tools that Microsoft used to get a better understanding of college students: day diaries using Twitter, technology diaries using the Internet and smartphones, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews with students.

The case helps students understand the value of ethnographic and qualitative research techniques, draw inferences from the data, and subsequently make recommendations. It illustrates how ethnographic and observational studies enrich research by generating deeper consumer insight than traditional methods.

Learning Objectives

Students will learn:
• How online tools in ethnographic and observational research offer new insights not revealed by traditional survey research
• How different qualitative market tools are used to collect data, as well as the pros and cons of different ethnographic research techniques
• To interpret and synthesize data from qualitative and ethnographic research
• How research can influence a firm’s marketing and advertising tactics

Number of Pages: 28

Extended Case Information

Teaching Areas: Marketing

Teaching Note Available: Yes

Geographic: United States

Industry: Computer Software

Organization Name: Microsoft

Decision Maker Position: Program Manager

Decision Maker Gender: Female

Year of Case: 2009