Microsoft Posts In-Product Ads in SharePoint Online

In-Product Messaging Highlights Microsoft 365 Conference in Las Vegas

Ever since the earliest days of Office 365, Microsoft has assured customers that they control the data in their tenant. Largely, I think Microsoft has respected that aspiration, but there have been times when Microsoft product managers feel the need to reach out to end users. That’s just not right. Communicating with tenant administrators is fine, but Microsoft should only ever communicate with the people who work in an organization and use the services available to a tenant with the explicit approval of that organization.

The latest example is in-product messaging featuring ads for conferences, which I encountered yesterday when editing a SharePoint Online page. A notification popped up to tell me that I should expand my SharePoint skills by learning from experts at the Microsoft 365 conference in Las Vegas in May (Figure 1). I’m not sure if this was an A/B kind of feature test but I know that many other people suffered the same interruption.

Where did that annoying pop-up ad come from?

In-product messaging
Figure 1: Where did that annoying pop-up ad come from?

I also don’t know if this kind of thing will happen in other Microsoft 365 web applications like OWA, Planner, and Viva Engage.

Many Things Wrong with In-Product Messaging

There are so many things that are wrong here. For instance:

  • No notification appeared in the Microsoft 365 admin center to inform administrators that these notifications would appear. The experience seems like a large-scale experiment to see how people will react to in-product ads.
  • Microsoft shouldn’t disrupt user workflow with unnecessary and unwanted notifications. Microsoft talks about removing friction from its apps and reducing context switches to allow people to work better. Popping up useless and unwanted notifications is distracting and intrusive.
  • People pay for Microsoft 365 as an enterprise app. Microsoft 365 is not a consumer app funded by advertising.
  • Blasting out notifications without administrator oversight (where’s the control in the Microsoft 365 admin center to block these ads?) might be considered to infringe user privacy.
  • Telling someone who works in Ireland about a conference in Las Vegas next month seems like a no-op. There’s very little trace of artificial intelligence and Microsoft’s famed telemetry here. I imagine that 99.9999% of the people who saw this pop-up have neither the budget nor the interest to go to a conference in Las Vegas, even if it is wall to wall with “experts.”

The only saving grace is that the link in the notification didn’t take the user to a portal to buy a conference ticket. Instead, it opened Microsoft’s post about their conference guide. Things could have been worse.

[Update: If you don’t like what Microsoft is doing with in-product ads, please upvote this feature request for SharePoint]

Why The Microsoft 365 Conference

I don’t understand why Microsoft tested in-product messaging with an ad for a third-party conference. The only reason I can think of is that Microsoft heavily invests in the Microsoft 365 conference with direct sponsorship payments and providing speakers for keynotes and sessions. In addition, the conference is coming up soon, so a certain rationale exists that this event was a good one to test.

I personally don’t like the Microsoft 365 conference very much because I think it focuses too heavily on certain parts of the ecosystem (like SharePoint and Teams) and focuses too much on new features. For instance, if you attend the conference, you’ll hear a lot about Microsoft 365 Copilot, the Loop application, the Viva suite, and the new Teams client. That’s all very well and the content satisfies the need for many in the technical community, but the coverage of Exchange Online (the largest workload in Microsoft 365) and Azure AD (the underpinning of all authentication in Microsoft 365) is poor. I think other conferences, like the European SharePoint, Office 365, and Azure Conference or The Experts Conference achieve better balance in their coverage of Microsoft 365 technology.

What’s Next?

I hope Microsoft decides that in-product messaging is a horrible idea for Microsoft 365. I hope that customers tell Microsoft that they hate pop-ups about random conferences or anything else. I don’t want to be interrupted with “important messages” about random happenings as I work in Microsoft 365 browser apps. Life has quite enough interruptions without software surfacing more unnecessary distractions.

7 Replies to “Microsoft Posts In-Product Ads in SharePoint Online”

  1. Doesn’t look good. Another recent gem was a notification in Office app about Employee Benefit and 30% discount for personal Office license. It shows up in the yellow bar usually used to indicate security options (macros blocked, sensitivity label missing). Very shady.

  2. Completely agree Tony. It’s like the incessant “how likely are you to recommend the Teams Admin Centre to a colleague” prompt, which always appears when least expected and interrupts my workflow. Microsoft could and should do better.

  3. Was that on a production tenant or a demo one? We have noticed it on our cdx / dev tenants, but thought it was limited to those rather than public production ones?

    1. Production tenant. And others have reported seeing the same on production tenants too. In any case, no matter what tenants saw the ads, it seems to me that it’s important to nip this kind of thing in the bud.

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