Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Millennials

The venture capitalist Marc Andreessen recently retweeeted Ben Throop, who wrote:

Throop surely wasn’t trying to, but he actually expressed the sentiment of US millennials. We at Creative Strategies recently surveyed over 350 students at more than 40 colleges across the country. It turns out that they, like Throop, love the collaboration Google Docs enables.

When students write papers by themselves, only 12 percent use Google Docs. But when students write papers in groups — when they collaborate — 78 percent use Google Docs. On the other hand, 80 percent of students use Microsoft Word for individual work and 13 percent use it for group work. The dynamic is the same for all millennials, regardless of gender, the phone they use, or where they live: Microsoft Word for individual work, Google Docs for collaborative work.

Through qualitative and quantitative interviews, we learned this behavior is firmly entrenched. Not even losing important files in a computer crash prompts millennials to start using Google Docs for individual work, even though doing so would prevent future file losses. There is so much behavioral debt associated with using Microsoft Word for individual work, not even a catastrophic event can overcome it.

Millennials are similarly loyal to Google Docs for collaborative work. In our qualitative interviews, we asked students how they would collaborate if they couldn’t use Google Docs. Many had emotional reactions. One person responded with five seconds of silence, another with a solemn, “I would be very sad”. Needless to say, it was shocking to discover that millennials are emotionally invested in a word processor.

That’s just some of what we learned from our study and it has many important implications. As millennials continue to join the workforce, they’ll be frustrated if they have to use Microsoft Word for collaborative projects. They’ve grown up using Google Docs because of the real-time collaboration it enables and, to them, it would be a giant step backwards to email files back and forth.

Additionally, the fact millennials’ behavior is so entrenched is both good and bad for Microsoft and Google. Microsoft owns individual work and Google owns collaborative work but each company definitely wants to own the other’s domain. However, because millennials’ behavior is so entrenched, it’s unlikely either company will convince them to change any time soon.

For both individual and collaborative work, Microsoft Word has been older generations’ default word processor for decades. But not for millennials. Microsoft failed to address their collaboration needs, so millennials don’t use Word to collaborate.

This illustrates two important points. First, when you don’t meet the needs of your customers, your customers will leave you and go find someone who does. Second, it shows millennials behave differently than older generations do.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s failure to address a behavioral change is a lesson others can learn from. Millennials are different and you need to understand their needs and behaviors to successfully build and market products for them.

Published by

Matt Richman

Matt is a student in Philadelphia. He’s been analyzing the tech industry at for more than five years, and he’s currently interning at Creative Strategies. You can follow him on Twitter at @MattRichman.

26 thoughts on “Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Millennials”

  1. Which Google Docs features that aren’t included in Word Online do you consider most important for collaborative authoring? Microsoft faces a big challenge in getting people to check their assumptions about how much Word has evolved over the last decade, but it hasn’t been standing still.

    1. Very true. Also with Microsoft, you can take the collaborating authoring platform into your own datacenter with Sharepoint. Sharepoint basically provides a Google Docs environment with the option to edit cloud-stored documents with more fully featured native apps (instead of the web-based apps which have less features, much like Google Docs).

      The question is, do millennial love Google Docs, or do they love the collaboration features? If it is just the collaboration features, then they should be happy on Office 365 or Sharepoint combined with Office.

      Maybe the author should try an Office 365 demo or a Sharepoint demo.

      1. I looked at Google Apps for Work and Office 365 for Business, for collaboration with clients. In the end I just couldn’t trust Google with my data (and my client’s data). Both services are very similar, and I have to say that Office 365 is pretty good. It could be better, but Microsoft has come a long way. I can edit documents online with clients, allow them to edit, easily share docs and folders, and it comes with a terabyte of storage in OneDrive. All for ten bucks a month. I can also use the Office suite on my Mac if I want, just download the apps for free as part of the service. But I prefer using the online apps, it’s simpler.

        Microsoft is also doing some interesting stuff with apps like Sway, which needs to mature and is lacking a few features, but it’s a pretty cool idea.

        One more point, the office 365 support is really good, I can log a support issue and get a phone call back in ten minutes or so. Every issue has been resolved so far. I can’t speak to Google’s support, but I would be surprised if it was as good.

        1. One additional point is that while Microsoft has been adding AI to Office, Google Docs mostly remains where it was 10 years ago.

          Google Docs is a typical case of nesting on its laurels and/or a case where a product that didn’t generate significant revenue was rightfully neglected (Gmail probably provides them with much more advertising opportunities and personal information). On the other hand, maintaining Office’s profits is a life & death issue for Microsoft, and they are going full steam ahead on it.

          1. I didn’t know that about Microsoft’s AI efforts, thanks. I’m pleasantly surprised with how good Office 365/OneDrive is, and I’ve received positive feedback from clients about using it for content collaboration and file storage/sharing. I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft software, but so far so good with Office 365 and OneDrive.

          2. Avoiding featuritis and over-serving probably makes sense. Trying to match MS Word’s features would be a big endeavour, and add complexity for the 90+% of users whom gDocs currently serves well.

            Also, Google did just announce add-on support for Docs and Sheets, which is a way to both acknowledge the need for more features, and hand over the issue to 3rd parties. Probably very helpful for document automation, and proof Google is not resting/neglecting.

          3. What Office for the Web (Office Online) and Mobile have done is to reduce the feature set but retain a high level of format and layout compatibility. Format and layout compatibility may be complex to implement, but are features that even casual users will find valuable, even essential. (I find it interesting that Google failed to implement this, even with all their resources. Add-ons do not address this issue at all.)

            Microsoft Office has a monopoly on one of the most basic features of an Office suite. And it uses that well even in their dumbed-down Online and Mobile versions.

          4. I think the reasoning is the same as for features: you can’t go half-assed on compatibility either, so that becomes a big effort that caters to rather few and those few are already well served by Word.

            Plus supporting the format implies supporting the features, so we dovetail back to the feature issue. Google seem happy to serve only the users not dependent on Word’s advanced features and format.

            I agree that format lock-in is a huge advantage for MS. Or was, until they rested on their laurels so much that gDocs happened. I find the discussion a bit similar to BYOD: will MS entreprise grip be threatened by BYO App ?

        2. Talking about trust… I trust Apple the most and Google the least. If I want to save some things safely on the cloud, iCloud is my first choice. But that’s me, and I’m not millenials.

          As the author had written in the article, to market a product to the millenials, one should understand their needs and behaviors. It’s not about me or even us —as I believe most millenials are unlikely to be here— but about them.

      2. Likely with many millennials already having a gmail account, it is a pretty frictionless decision to use Google Drive/Docs. Just by nature of Office 365 (which I also use) being an MS solution, there are mentally imposed hurdles, real or imagined.


    2. I think it’s not about features per sé. It’s more about common practice and discoverability. In millenials paradigm, the king of internet is Google and the king of office applications is Microsoft. Just like the way they think iPhone is the king of smartphones. When they need to do online collaboration, their mind would likely to turn to Google’s solution. Google’s brand is almost like a warranty to them that Google’s solution for online things is the best. It’s the king of the internet, after all. Also, they see all of their friends are using it as well.

      On the other hand, when the millenials need to write document —or any office related things— *on* their computer, their mind would likely to look for Microsoft’s solution. It’s the most known for that kind of applications all these times. Also, when they look around, many people (especially the elders) are using it as well. It’s like the common practice. I bet they have never heard of Office 365 nor SharePoint. Even if they have heard of it, I think they wouldn’t use it anyway, because their friends don’t use it.

      1. Exactly my point. So going back to the closing remarks of the author;

        For both individual and collaborative work, Microsoft Word has been older generations’ default word processor for decades. But not for millennials. Microsoft failed to address their collaboration needs, so millennials don’t use Word to collaborate.

        It isn’t that Microsoft failed to address their collaborations needs; they have provided the features. So when they join the workspace, which is still predominantly MS-Office outside of Silicon Valley, they might actually feel right at home on Office 365/Sharepoint once they give it a try.

        That is why I would very much like to hear the author’s opinion after trying out a full feature demo of Office 365.

        1. Microsoft absolutely failed to address millennials’ needs until it was too late. Google Docs launched, millennials started using it and got hooked, and now they’ve grown up on it. At this point, Google Docs is so well-liked by millennials that it doesn’t really matter if Microsoft has a product that provides similar collaborative features. Google Docs is the default, just like Word is for older generations.

          We asked our millennial panel if they use Office 365 for collaborative work. 1 percent said yes.

          1. I would be interested in what you mean by “too late”.

            Businesses outside of Silicon Valley still predominantly use MS Office, and so millenials will still find themselves using Office sooner or later. At this point, they will realise that Office is actually pretty good and mostly satisfies their collaboration needs. They might not use it for private document creation, but that is a small and unprofitable segment anyway. There seems to be little reason to believe that hooking millenials to Google Docs will persuade corporate IT to switch from Office. It’s more likely that millenials will get over their emotions.

            From my perspective, as long as Microsoft still holds the profitable corporate sector, it isn’t too late at all.

          2. I think we’re talking about two different things. I was talking about students in particular. For collaborative work, only 1 percent of them use Office 365.

            Once you get into the workforce, yes, that’s a different story. Agree with you there 100%.

      2. Thanks for the feedback — to touch on a few of the topics in this conversation thread:

        1. You don’t need an Office license or a SharePoint license to use Word Online in conjunction with OneDrive — the app and related services are free.
        2. Microsoft hasn’t done much to emphasize that fact, perhaps due to concern about price erosion on Office and/or Office 365, but I think most people who find Google Docs compelling for collaborative authoring would find familiar features in Word Online.
        3. Microsoft also has an advantage when it comes to beyond-the-basics word processing, of course, with native Word apps for Windows, Mac OS, iOS, and Android; there’s less disruption when shifting from browser-based collaborative authoring to more traditional word processing.

  2. I wonder if the ubiquity of the Google account vs a Microsoft account is a contributor to this? Virtually every millennial is likely to have a Google account, but MS is probably not as prevalent.

    When choosing a collaborative tool, they’ll likely go for the one with the least friction to get going, and having a relative certainty that group members won’t have to go through the rigmarole of setting up a user account is probably part of that.

    When it comes to individual work, there is no need for user accounts, so they just go for the tool that is most familiar and arguably most fully-featured – ie Word.

    1. That’s an interesting angle that essentially suggests that Google Docs is like SMS in its heyday, except that it’s free (with ads, etc.).

  3. My own millennial offspring use Google Docs exactly this way at school, but are not impressed by Word for other things they need to create; they use Pages on Macs if it needs fancy formatting, and see no difference between that and Word (other than Word being more bloated). They haven’t yet entered the workforce, whatever that is.

    Even with adults (or “olds”, as we’re now called) I rarely see any professional use MS Office for anything very complex. It’s still a challenge to get people who’ve worked in offices for 30 years to use Styles in Word, and most PowerPoint presentations still look just as awful as ever. For many of these people (including myself much of the time) the features that Word offers over Google Docs are largely unnecessary. When I hear that people want a “full featured word processor”, I have to wonder exactly what features they think are necessary beyond page numbers, bold & italic text, and the dreaded “track changes”. It doesn’t seem like a long list at all.

    As to Office365 – I have the full version of that at home and at work, where we’ve decided to standardize upon it. It works, but is filled with annoyances like endlessly having to login again, and unpredictable differences between online and native versions of applications. It feels like a very sluggish, “heavyweight” solution in comparison to the svelte Google Docs, requiring quite a bit of time and CPU to load pages in a byzantine web interface. Sharing files is painful and often fails to meet practical objectives. Thus far, no one in our organization is terribly impressed, and several are slipping back into old patterns in frustration. We’ll see if and how that changes.

    1. People often do not want a “full featured word processor”; they want Microsoft Word. There is a very, very important distinction there.

      Importantly, the web-based versions of Microsoft Word are remarkably good at document compatibility and are very good at preserving the complex layouts that I’ve tried. Layouts where Google Docs falls on its face.

      The fact that many people don’t use Styles in Word actually makes the situation worse. Because they don’t use Styles or tabs, but instead use spaces, the layout becomes extremely dependent on the font rendering with exactly the same spacing, and the line widths (hyphenations, justifications etc.) being calculated exactly the same.

      Of course, the situation is different depending on what kind of work you do. I have found though, that there are many tasks around me where nothing but Word would suffice.

      1. I agree that the brand of Microsoft Word is still very strong, which is why “People often do not want a “full featured word processor”; they want Microsoft Word.” That makes complete sense.

        I submit that for a majority of users, the actual features of Word are less important than the brand, as evidenced by common practices mentioned – not using Styles, etc. These people could in fact use a far simpler tool, but this would never occur to them because the brand value cannot be displaced.

        On a strictly technical level, there are many word processors that support a very similar feature set to Word – Pages, Nisus Writer, WordPerfect, etc. They can all do styles, headers, tables of contents, text wrap, etc. And I’ll bet that many users of these applications use them as naively as they do Word.

        I’ll confess that despite using these products in my work for 23 years, there is nothing I do that “uniquely” requires anything in Microsoft Office (I am a Product Manager for a tech company). There really isn’t anything that cannot be done easily and sometimes better in a competing product. My reasons for using Microsoft Office are that 1) it is adequate, and; 2) everybody has it. If you took away item #2, I might never find a use for it. But #2 is precisely that incredibly strong brand value.

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