Seven Communication Lessons from Cullman Electric’s Broadband Launch
Cullman Electric Cooperative, Alabama, an electric distribution cooperative serving 45,000 members, began planning Sprout Fiber Internet in 2018. Construction began in June 2020, followed by a small pilot program in November 2020. The first subscribers joined in January 2021. In Phase 1, slated for completion by 2022, up to 12,000 co-op members will be eligible to subscribe.
Cullman Electric teamed up with WordSouth to name the program and developed marketing and training support for the program.
We asked Cullman Electric Communications Manager Brian Lacy, CCC, and Marketing Coordinator Bonnie Baty what went well — and what could have been better — for a launch that was two years in the making.
Here are excerpts from our interview. Get more broadband program launch tips in our e-book, “What to Expect When You’re Connecting.”
Manage the Message
“We did a good job generating excitement without overselling expectations. Our biggest concern from the first day this project was discussed two years ago was “Can we meet the demand?” shares Brian. “There is no broadband fiber internet service option in our service area, so we knew our members would be thrilled. We were concerned about meeting the demand and if our members would get upset if we couldn’t build it fast enough.”
“Messaging had to be all about managing member expectations: under promise and over deliver with a whole lot of transparency,” adds Bonnie.
“Our message has been very focused on recognizing the need, acknowledging the demand while reinforcing that it’s coming but won’t be available overnight,” says Brian.
“Our crowdsourcing/lead generation tool — essential to our marketing efforts — had issues,” explains Brian. “We considered several similar products and chose the cheaper one. It cost us. After several months, we switched to the vendor that costs a little more. It was absolutely worth every penny.
“Our CEO had a great attitude. He referred to the vendor issues across the board as ‘tuition.’ It was the price of learning about a new technology, a new service, a new business model and a new approach to marketing and sales where co-ops traditionally have no experience.”
“Another big bump we ran into was data on our electric side,” says Bonnie. “The internet business is all about the ‘service address,’ but that isn’t the case on the electric side. Old school map numbers and meter numbers along with a billing address wasn’t enough information. The best advice I could give to anyone expecting to launch a broadband program is to make sure you have 911 addresses on all electric accounts EARLY!”
“We were fortunate to be involved early on, but things moved very quickly,” says Bonnie. “Communications has to have a seat at the table in all parts of the conversation. Our internal communication was OK, but it could have been better — more structured and documented. I wish we had implemented a companywide project management platform from the onset.”
“We started the branding process six months before our public announcement, and that was barely enough time,” says Brian. “From the first day your boss says, ‘We’re thinking about fiber,’ the communications team needs to get the naming/branding process started.”
Explain the Timeline
“We emphasized the primary purpose of the fiber construction project was to benefit the co-op’s electric service,” explains Brian. “Fiber will allow Cullman Electric to connect all of our substations and take advantage of new and emerging technology that will result in better reliability, including:
- Faster power restoration
- Fewer outages
- Preventative maintenance
“As a result of building a fiber ring around our service area to connect our substations, more than 12,000 members who live along the path of the fiber ring will have access to high-speed internet service,” concludes Brian.
Train Staff. Repeat.
“Every single person’s job will be changed in some way,” says Bonnie. “The sooner everyone gets that, the better.”
“We hosted a training day with MSRs in spring prior to our public announcement,” says Brian. “The day included hands-on fiber equipment demonstration, FAQs and a terminology glossary. We also made a point to share everything we’ve produced for the public (videos, website forms, brochures, etc.) with our MSRs before releasing information to the public.”
“We’ve tried really hard to keep the MSRs and our other departments informed through emails, employee newsletters and our employee Facebook group,” says Bonnie. “As we got near our ‘go live’ date, it became more real to everyone. We ramped up our training efforts. My biggest takeaway is everyone HAS TO understand their ‘What’s in it for me?’ How does this impact their job? What new things are going to be added to their plate? What are they going to be expected to know and do?”
“Our initial training was necessary to make sure MSRs didn’t feel ‘left out,’ but in terms of their daily work responsibilities, they were still six to eight months away from dealing with fiber,” says Brian. “As we go live, we are having to go back and do training all over again.”
“Brian’s right,” says Bonnie. “The initial training was like going over the Cliffs Notes. Now we have to cram for the exam!”
Share Your Story
“Every month we dedicate two pages inside Alabama Living, our statewide magazine, to promote Sprout,” says Brian. “We used a combination of feature stories on how members can use Sprout Fiber Internet in their home (telehealth, telecommuting, education, gaming and entertainment, smart appliances, home security, etc.) and construction updates, including a progress map and statistics with miles of fiber, homes passed and subscriber sign-ups.
“We are using email addresses from our online interest form to send progress reports to members interested in Sprout. We’re planning to do community events in 2021 to educate members on streaming video and other fiber-enabled smart home equipment.”
“We’ve got some good social media paid advertisement planned, but I’ll be honest, our strategy will be more about holding the reins than letting the bull out,” says Bonnie.
“We had ‘come get the scoop’ ice cream socials in July right after we made the announcement,” says Brian. “We had to make a pandemic adjustment and turn it into a drive-thru event, but we hosted one in every community in our service area and had a really good turnout.”
“The ice cream events were super creative,” says Bonnie. “They were a ton of work, and lots of hours out of the office in the hot July sun, but, hey, we had ice cream!”
Build Powerful Partnerships
“People lived in big cities because they had to — that’s where commerce and community was,” shares Brian, citing a TED Talk he shared with staff last month. “Now you don’t have to live in a big city to get a job at a big company — you can work from home. You can shop from home, and it gets delivered to your doorstep. You can have community while hundreds of miles away from people. What we are doing right now has the potential to reshape how Cullman County looks for the rest of our lives.”
“The pandemic added to member frustrations,” shares Bonnie. “Lots of, ‘I have kids at home trying to do their schoolwork.’ There is such a huge need right now! Everyone is excited.”
“Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Brian. “People are excited and know it will take time. The negative feedback we receive is mostly frustration related to why we can’t serve them right now. We try our best to empathize and explain the ‘why’ of our construction process.”
“It’s all about partnerships,” says Bonnie. “For anybody who is a one-communicator team, this is going to be too much. We’re fortunate that Cullman Electric has multiple communicators, and we brought in WordSouth as a partner. Having partners you can brainstorm with, where you can talk things out and go through the exercise of ‘What if we did a separate landing page?’ or ‘What if we did a separate website?’ — being able to have somebody to bounce those ideas off of — nobody can do this by themselves.
“We were capable of handling this in house,” says Bonnie. “But we were also smart enough to realize we shouldn’t. Funding was put in place to have a partnership, and it’s the smartest thing we’ve done.”
Need a partner for your broadband program? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how we can support your program.