What You’ll Learn

NTCA’s Smart Rural Community Designation can be a powerful tool to help differentiate your telco — if you leverage it properly.

Guest Speaker

Melissa Lanzourakis

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What does it take to be a Smart Rural Community, and how can you leverage that to help your brand? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns with WordSouth and Pioneer, and I’m joined on this episode by Melissa Lanzourakis, who is the marketing manager at Northeast Nebraska Telephone Company. Thanks for joining me.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Yeah, thanks for having me, Andy.

Andy Johns: So we are here live at the NTCA Sales and Marketing Conference, the kind of epicenter of the broadband marketing world this week. And so if you hear anything in the background, again, like we always say, it’s not background noise, it’s ambiance. So we’re right here with a lot of folks networking and having a good time.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Yes.

Andy Johns: Melissa, thanks for taking the time. I know you got a lot of places to be.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Like the beach.

Andy Johns: Well, the beach being right outside does.

Melissa Lanzourakis: I’m just kidding, Andy. I’d much rather be in here with you.

Andy Johns: Yeah, right. So tell us a little bit about what you spoke about today, and then we’ll get into the specifics with your company.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Yeah, well, I spoke on Smart Rural Community, the branding that NCTA has for members, and it’s for providers who want to embrace the SRC branding and really use it to pivot themselves to lawmakers, their customers, to economic development teams, to anybody that could be interested in the brand and the product that we have, which is normally broadband Internet.

Andy Johns: Perfect. So let’s talk a little bit specifically in NTC when you’re – how long have you guys been a Smart Rural Community? And tell us a little bit about that process. I know there are a lot of folks who listen who are also already Smart Rural Communities, but for folks who haven’t tried it, give us a rundown on kind of what it took to be named one of these.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Well, I am brand new to the SRC designation. We just got our designation last fall in 2021, and I had first learned about the Smart Rural Community brand when I first started working for the telco in 2017. But it really seemed a lot harder to get the designation years ago. But now it’s gotten, I don’t want to say easier, but it’s less steps you have to go through to get the designation.

Andy Johns: Streamlined.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Right. And it’s really a good branding to connect your brand with because the more telcos that do it and are part of it, the more recognition it gets, especially on a national level. When you think about the things we’re trying to do in D.C. and that sort of thing, it’s good to be part of that connection of being a Smart Rural Community.

Andy Johns: Absolutely. And it’s a program we have talked to the NTCA folks about before, you know, I think they’ve been very smart about kind of rolling that out and deploying that. So once you guys got it, I know sometimes folks celebrate and make it a big deal. Sometimes in the middle of a pandemic, you can’t do quite everything you’d like to. But what kind of things did y’all do as soon as you got it to kind of start getting the word out?

Melissa Lanzourakis: Well, I put it in the newsletter right away. Put it in the email blast right away. And then I kind of sat on it a little bit. I’ll be honest, I’m a one person marketing team, as you say. I am a one person team. There’s no “I” in team, right?

Andy Johns: But sometimes there’s a “me” right.

Melissa Lanzourakis: And so at the beginning of this year, I set out the goal to do open houses in half of our communities, and we have about 30 communities. And so I’m going to an open house almost once a month, sometimes more. And our GM said, “Hey, let’s bring the SRC branding into this. What can we do?” And you know, I thought, okay, I need to do something fast, inexpensive and easy. As bad as that sounds.

Andy Johns: No, that’s real life.

Melissa Lanzourakis: So I came up with this kind of recognition award to give the villages that I was visiting. And it has the award terminology on it; “whereas Prague, Nebraska, is deemed a Smart Rural Community by the NTCA” sort of verbiage. You know, got with the village, presented the award our GM talked about at these open houses, the significance of the SCR designation and why they got it. And then I sent a press release with a picture and newspapers started picking it up and running it, and the NTCA noticed it on Twitter because one of the papers had had it on Twitter. And so that’s really what I’ve done thus far, besides, you know, putting it in email blast and on posters and things like that, so yeah.

Andy Johns: Now you say 30 villages, 30 communities. Paint us a picture. What size and what kind of communities are we talking about here?

Melissa Lanzourakis: Well, all of our communities are probably anywhere from 100 people at the very smallest, up to about 800-900. So fairly small. A few of them are pretty close to like Omaha, Nebraska. So really leveraging the fact that when you’re talking about the digital divide and talking about how those communities that are near urban communities, but you wouldn’t think have the same if not better, broadband speeds than they do in urban communities. Really leveraging that and talking about how awesome that is for those communities, and how they can work from home in Prague, Nebraska. You’ve probably never heard of Prague, Nebraska, right?

Andy Johns: Sorry to say I have not, but sounds lovely.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Yes, it is. And they have high speed Internet.

Andy Johns: Perfect. Well, what was the reaction like? You know, anytime you throw the “whereas” kind of language in there, it makes it seem official, so.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Right. Right.

Andy Johns: I imagine you had some local officials. You are talking about the media reaction. So you got your local officials and just your your ordinary folks. What kind of reaction, and what things did you hear as you started to roll this out in those communities?

Melissa Lanzourakis: You know, the customers are really surprised, some of them. I mean, I should say they were surprised, but not really surprised because they a lot of our customers realize that they do have good Internet. Especially when the pandemic happened, and they weren’t having the trouble with video upload speeds and that sort of thing. But they heard other people were talking about several customers have said to me that they would have video conferencing meetings and they would be the ones to ask to initiate those video conferencing because they knew that they had the best Internet.

Andy Johns: They could handle it. Yeah.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Right. So in some respects, some people are not surprised, but then other times they’re like, oh, I didn’t know our Internet was that good, you know? So it’s good to educate your customers and especially the villages, so they can really leverage that brand if they are seeking out a new developer to come in or a new company to come in. I mean, when you can attract new companies because you’ve got fiber internet with gig capable speed, you’re doing good.

Andy Johns: Absolutely. Yeah. And have that kind of national standard to throw on there. That it is not just our local telco telling us they do a good job. Here’s a national organization to tell us they’re doing a good job. Very cool. Well, I know you said you’re a one person team, so what all do you have planned? What are some ways in the future that you see being able to leverage this? And what are some other things that you still want to do to keep celebrating and representing that brand?

Melissa Lanzourakis: Well, definitely finishing out this year with the open houses, then going to a whole new set of towns next year with these designations. And I would really like to start doing one-on-one meetings with the villages and the communities that have economic development departments to start getting our communities to possibly get the logo on their website and getting the economic development team to use the logo when they’re applying for grants or whatever it is, and really leveraging the brand like we are. That would be my next goal. I also love the street signs where you’ve got to get with your state highway patrol department to put the signs out on the road. But I would love to do that. I think that’s a really neat project.

Andy Johns: I think so. And that’s smart too. Whenever you’re a one person team, you got to call in, get help from other people to help tell your story. So it sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing by getting them to do that.

Andy Johns: That’s the goal.

Andy Johns: Smart move. Yeah. Well, last question for you. And I don’t know where we are in the cycle. I know it’s kind of an annual designation that NTCA does. What advice do you have for somebody who’s thinking, you know, maybe the Smart Rural Community program makes sense for us? We haven’t done it before. It’s been on my list. What advice do you have for somebody who’s kind of on the fence thinking about it?

Melissa Lanzourakis: Well, if you want to be a cool kid, you definitely need it. Kidding.

Andy Johns: Peer pressure works. Peer pressure is real.

Melissa Lanzourakis: No, it really wasn’t as tough to do the application and come up with what they needed to get the designation as I thought it would be going in. So I wish I would have done it sooner actually than just last year. But as a one person marketing team, I just kind of kept putting it off because it was like one of those things that was on the to do list but always on the back burner.

Andy Johns: I got one of those lists too, yeah.

Melissa Lanzourakis: But it really didn’t take too much effort. I mean, you know, I had to put a little effort in, obviously, but it wasn’t. It’s not like it used to be. It used to be, you’d have to go interview customers and get stories and all these things that seemed a little overwhelming, but not as much anymore.

Andy Johns: Got it. I think, that’s good advice. Don’t be scared of the process. Great. She is Melissa Lanzourakis. I appreciate you for taking some time to join me.

Melissa Lanzourakis: Absolutely.

Andy Johns: I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth and Pioneer once again. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.