What Microsoft can learn from the Seahawks’ “12th Man”

Tomorrow, Sunday February 2nd, the Seattle Seahawks play the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl for the NFL championship. Seattle is pretty excited about it all, partly because we haven’t won at much of anything, partly because the NFL is by far and away the most popular sport in the US, but also partly because we feel as Seattleites that we’re part of it all. You see, we’re the “12th Man”, and that makes us not only fans, but part of the team.

The Seahawks, to their credit, recognized early that establishing such a relationship with their fans, that embracing their passion and fueling it would pay dividends, and it has. Now, we’re sure that the fans in Denver are excited too, but as the 12th man, it’s not just our city’s team that’s going to the Super Bowl, it’s us. We’re on this team, and we’re doing everything from painting jets to creating human flags to lighting up the Space Needle to, oh by the way, buying just about anything and everything with blue and green on it we can get our hands on.

You can’t go five feet in this town without seeing someone all decked out in Seahawks paraphernalia (purchased, by the way, at top dollar), because, you see, that’s what you wear when you’re on the team. The Seahawks embraced the 12th man, told them they were special, that they helped the team win, and now they have fans for life.

So why post about the Seahawks on a Microsoft enthusiasts’ blog?

First of all, because Microsoft has taken nearly the opposite tact when dealing with their “fans”. Microsoft makes a lot of money in the enterprise, and we understand that. Does that mean that consumers need to be treated as second class citizens? If you want to be a Microsoft fan, you have to fight and claw to do that. Instead of embraces, we get cold shoulders, and snark and “Scroogled”. Gone are the days when beta testing programs offered rewards and a sense of belonging to early adopters and enthusiasts. Those programs have all been replaced by automated “Watson” testing. Instead of embracing tech writers who were pro-Microsoft, we’ve been shunned and ridiculed and treated like the enemy.

Just as an example, has there been a less engaging exercise than the renaming of SkyDrive? Box and Dropbox have loyal followers, who are committed to their products. Microsoft has a product that undergoes name changes, seemingly for no reason, and certainly with no user input, every two years.

Microsoft is at a crossroads, and yes, things have gotten better since the master of secrecy and deceit, Steven Sinofsky, was ushered out the door. As soon as next week, Microsoft will have a new CEO, one that very well may be focused on enterprise and servers and the cloud. Will he or she be as focused on making Microsoft fun again?

What Microsoft can learn from the Seahawks is not how to sell software, or phones, or servers, but how to offer a chance to be a part of something that turns out to be pretty dang fun, regardless whether you’re a club level season ticket holder or a guy watching the game at the end of the bar. Becoming a 12th man doesn’t cost anything. You can’t really measure its effect, or chart the numbers of 12th man flags being flown out of car windows. There aren’t 12th man metrics, that’s not the point.

Being a part of the team is important. Sure, you can sell servers and software and devices without it, and plenty of sports teams treat their fans the way Microsoft treats its customers. Come to the games, buy a sweatshirt and a hat and a $10 beer, consume our product. That’s a lot different than what the Seahawks are doing, though. It’s different than what Apple has done, too. You buy Apple products not only because they’re good, but because then you belong. It’s an important distinction.

By embracing the emotional appeal of being part of the team, by joining in rather than selling to, the Seahawks have gained a following that will be loyal for years and years to come. Can Microsoft say the same?

(Obviously we’re a little excited about tomorrow’s big game, and maybe you have to be here to feel just how fired up this city is for their team. Here’s hoping we’ll be this excited again about Microsoft, too!)