How To's, Lessons from the Field, Strategy

Marketing 2: The experiences of a few cities

This month, we’re fighting off the D.C. heat with some cool commentary on the importance of marketing. Last week, we discussed why marketing is important for your broadband utility, and this week we’re going to take a look at a few experiences that broadband utilities have had with marketing. Next week, we’ll conclude with a few innovative suggestions for building your brand and reputation.

As we discussed last week, a well-designed marketing campaign serves three related purposes: First, it tells your potential customers that you exist and what you’re offering (information dissemination). Second, it informs people of your goals (goal communication), which might be economic (e.g. “provide faster service at a better price”) but, if your organization is a public utility or an NGO, might include social objectives (e.g. “close the digital divide by building in underserved areas”). Finally, the combination of information dissemination and goal communication, done competently, builds your brand and reputation.

But how should you disseminate information and communicate your goals? Here are two relatively inexpensive strategies, with examples:

1. Word of mouth: In April 2016, I attended the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, where Keith Gabbard, the chief executive of the People’s Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC) presented the history and successes of PRTC’s gig in the rural, impoverished Kentucky counties of Jackson and Owsley. He didn’t just tell us about the long process of building out the network, and its successful provision of gig fiber to all of its customers by October 2015 – he played up some of the quirks of stringing fiber in the mountains of eastern Kentucky: famously, PRTC employed a mule (Old Bub, pictured above) to help with last-mile fiber installations. This detail appealed to me, and I later sought Gabbard out and interviewed him. I wasn’t the first: Lane Report and Reuters, among others, got there first.

PRTC’s decision to make Jackson and Owsley counties the first gig counties in Kentucky, and the fact that the co-op employed a mule, worked in the organization’s favor with respect to word of mouth: Gabbard has told the story at conferences, in interviews and at local celebrations organized by PRTC, and each time he tells it he brings more positive publicity to PRTC’s fiber network. When I interviewed him, he gave me one example: “In October [2015],” Gabbard told me, “we had a celebration when we got gig certified, and [FCC] Chairman Wheeler heard about that, and visited in February.” Wheeler’s visit, reported here, shined an even brighter spotlight on PRTC.

Much of this “word of mouth” publicity was free, minus travel costs, party favors, and conference fees for Gabbard and his PRTC colleagues. But travel to regional and national conferences isn’t the only inexpensive way to disseminate information and communicate your goals: You can also use YouTube.

2. Make YouTube videos: A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of interviewing John Dick, Deputy Director of the Department of public Works and fiber project manager for the city of Westminster, MD; and his Ting counterpart City Manager Val Giovagnoni. Since 2012, Westminster has been planning a citywide broadband network, and the city teamed up with Ting in 2015. While Westminster has built the network, Ting is managing it and will provide service to residents.

One big challenge John and Val have faced is to educate residents and businesses around Westminster, in order to attract subscribers to the new network. To this end, Ting and the city have taken both a low- and a high-tech approach: On the low-tech end, Ting hung fliers on door knobs in neighborhoods slated to receive services in phases 1 and 2 of the fiber project implementation. They then followed that effort up with a mailing. Finally, the city and Ting are currently “partnering to hold open houses for citizens to ask questions. We’re also doing a lot of marketing through the newspaper and on the radio, as well as some online video via social networking,” John and Val told me.

What does this online video strategy look like? Ting and Westminster have posted several videos to YouTube, combining commercials with public information campaigns. One commercial, from March 2016, emphasizes how unique it is to have lightning-fast internet in a relatively small town like Westminster. Another, public service announcement, reports on a town hall that introduces Ting to Westminster. While the former is professionally produced, the latter is really just a 24-minute PowerPoint presentation with a voice-over.

Together, these fliers, mailings and YouTube videos posted by Westminster and Ting get the city and company’s message out there, and keep residents updated on the progress of network construction. By combining different media, the city and Ting cover both those who are already connected (and so can access YouTube easily) and those who are still awaiting fast Internet service (and so may be interested in the fliers and mailings). And by combining different types of videos on YouTube – from interviews with local city leaders, to informative PowerPoints, to sleek commercials – Westminster and Ting not only disseminate information and communicate their goals, but also begin to build their reputation for competence, professionalism – and service to the community.

Private ISPs have extensive marketing experience while, too often, city utilities do not. If your budget is limited, the goal is not to compete directly with the money that national providers like Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, and Verizon can pour into publicity, but to take advantage of less expensive options that can still get your message out there. To this end, giving talks at national conferences, producing fliers and mailings, and posting videos to YouTube, are a few good, inexpensive options that can tell people about your broadband network’s benefits, communicate your goals, and build your organization’s reputation for competence and service to your community.


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