For Rural Electrics Broadband Marketing Means Entering a New World

Randy Sukow


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Rural electric cooperatives starting up consumer broadband operations are learning that many of the proven practices they’ve used for decades to reach their customers do not translate well to marketing broadband services. It is more difficult to market a competitive service that is not quite as essential as electric power. It is useful to listen to co-ops that already have faced the task for their own start-up broadband operations.

“What it really all boils down to is that you need more money than you think,” said Becky Mashburn, communications and marketing manager, for Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) in Colorado, during “What Are We Getting Ourselves Into? De-mystifying Broadband Marketing to Drive Success,” a recent NRTC-hosted webcast.

Knowing exactly where potential customers are and what they want from the internet turns out to be the most important factors in rural broadband marketing. Cooperatives must determine which regions are likely to respond to sales appeals and the types of appeals that will be most effective.

As Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative in Iowa began its broadband project four years ago, it knew it would be entering unserved areas that had a high need for broadband. And yet, two years after commercial launch, it found that its take rate was hovering around 35 percent. The co-op knew that it needed to know more about why more some people did not respond.

For one thing, Maquoketa Valley learned that its existing web site for electric customers was not designed to sell broadband. The co-op regrets not using digital marketing techniques on a dedicated website from the beginning. Its MVlink site now allows customers to identify where service is available and choose from four symmetrical home data packages ranging from 85 Mbps to 1 Gbps.

“But we did learn from that. We learned what search words were and we learned that people were looking for us and that our name was out there,” said Patty Manuel, Maquoketa Valley’s public relations director. After doing a survey of its members it found out that many were happy with existing internet providers, but that 70 percent were willing to consider MVlink in the future.

“We have to constantly stay in touch with people, not only the people we want to attract, but our current membership as well,” Manuel said. Since building their digital marketing capabilities, MVlink has increased its take rate to 41 percent overall and to 51 percent in the original areas where it build out broadband service first.

DMEA also learned the value of researching information about its potential customers. Like Maquoketa Valley, it now regrets using the electric cooperative’s web site and social media channels to market its broadband service. “One of our digital successes was working with CrowdFiber” DMEA’s Mashburn said. “We worked with them to create a web site geared toward crowd sourcing.”

NRTC’s CrowdFiber™ is a web-based tool that uses geographic data to develop sales and marketing strategies. In addition to helping DMEA identify which areas to deploy its fiber-to-the-home service first, “CrowdFiber helped us build a site that became a one-stop shop, where members could pre-sign up, they could get [construction] updates and they could check out what we planned to offer and our prices,” she said. CrowdFiber and DMEA accomplished much of that, even while operating on the DMEA website.

Later, DMEA launched the stand-alone Elevate-brand web site with even more features. “Today, CrowdFiber’s crowd-sourcing module is actually embedded within our site so people can still pre-sign up and in places where we don’t have service, but they can also place an order right then and there and sign their contract in places we do have service,” Mashburn said.

“I playfully refer to [CrowdFiber] as the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ They helped us develop a smooth process for determining where to build and how to get people signed up,” said DMEA Chief Operating Officer DMEA Virginia Harman. “They are basically the brains behind our web site and continue to be an essential part of our business.”

The webcast panel also covered topics including choosing a brand, organizing special events, consumer education and other important topics. We urge NRTC members who would like to hear a recording of the webcast to contact their regional business managers or leave a message on our Contact page.

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