How To's, Lessons from the Field, Strategy

Marketing 1: Why is marketing important for your public broadband utility?

This month, we wrap up summer vacation and segue into fall with some discussion of the importance of marketing your public or community broadband services. Today, we discuss the benefits of marketing. Next week, we look at a few experiences from communities around the country. Finally, in our third entry, we posit a few new, interesting ideas for marketing that are off the beaten path.

Broadband service, whether public or private, is a good that benefits communities in myriad ways. All broadband industry professionals know this. But your city or county’s investment in laying miles of fiber in commercial and residential areas won’t make much of an impact – or net your organization sufficient return – if nobody knows it’s there. Informing businesses and people, and getting a sufficient take rate to meet your ROI goals – is where intelligent marketing can make a difference.

I’ve spoken to a variety of community broadband managers, technical experts, and private partners across the country over the course of the last few months, and all agree that marketing – or getting the word out about their organizations’ broadband services – has been essential to their success in getting local businesses and residents to switch from private ISPs with inferior services and/or higher prices to their offerings.

In this series, we’ll discuss a few experiences, and look at some innovative ideas, in marketing public broadband services. But this week, I’d like to begin with some considerations on the purposes of marketing.

While marketing campaigns almost always have multiple goals, for the sake of discussion, I’ll examine three main goals separately: information dissemination, goal communication, and reputation building.

1. Information dissemination: The goal that is arguably the primary objective of marketing campaigns is to get the word out that your service exists. If your city or county is large enough that not everybody knows each other, it might be that only your city officials and a tightly-knit group of broadband activists knows what’s going on at any point in the process of building out your fiber network – from fundraising to construction to the beginnings of service provisioning to early adopters.

Intelligently marketing your service to residents of neighborhoods that have received – or are to receive – fiber infrastructure can improve the odds that those residents will think about switching Internet providers (or subscribing for the first time to an Internet service, if they don’t already have service in their area). Sometimes, after all, people choose not to switch because they simply haven’t thought about it.

There are contexts in which the goal of information dissemination is less obvious than it is in others: Scott Rochat, the Public Relations and Marketing Specialist of Longmont Power & Communications in Longmont, Colorado, told me that public broadband utilities need to “start your discussion work very early on with MDUs [multi dwelling units], because… in many case there might be MDU owners who live elsewhere, and haven’t heard of the service you’re providing. It’s not uncommon for MDU owners not to know that they can sign an agreement to have [your service] in their facility. Many MDUs have exclusive marketing agreements limiting marketing displays in their buildings, but they often mistakenly think they also have an exclusive service agreement – but in federal law, they can’t. Often, they just don’t know that.”

2. Communicate your goals: If your organization is a public utility, an NGO, or a cooperative, you likely have goals that go beyond securing your bottom line. These can include closing the digital divide, providing broadband to underserved communities – whether low-income, or rural – or simply supplying your community with faster, more reliable service.

Either way, when you prepare materials to disseminate to your community, remember Marketing 101, Rule #1: Market the benefits, not the product. People are more attracted to products for which they can easily envision uses. Want to run faster? Buy Nike shoes. Want to get more work done while also streaming videos and playing online games? Buy the new MacBook. Want to be entertained? Buy the new James Patterson novel. And so on and so forth. Successful marketers communicate their goals by relating them to consumers’ needs and desires. Using various methods, they say the same thing: We want to provide you with a product or service that will enable you to run faster/do more work/play harder/be more entertained/etc. etc. etc. And by the way, our product is called “_____.”

3. Build your reputation: Goal 3 can also be referred to as “building your brand.” With successful marketing – marketing that disseminates information about your product while emphasizing the benefits – and then following through on your promises, you can build a reputation among early adopters for competence and reliability. Once you’ve secured your reputation, word-of-mouth from early adopters to more cautious consumers should help take your organization the rest of the way toward meeting your desired take rate, and enabling you to achieve ROI within your desired timeframe.

This goal, however, depends as much on your investment in your organization and your service as it does on your marketing campaign. While fliers, YouTube videos, and TV commercials can convince early adopters to subscribe to your service, nothing undoes good marketing campaigns faster than poor products and services. So as you gear up to begin marketing, remember that while you should present the benefits of your service in a positive, attractive light, you must also make sure that your organization can follow through and provide promised levels of service.

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