This is an excerpt from an article originally published in NWPPA’s Bulletin Magazine, How Utility Pioneers Market Broadband. Want more broadband examples? Get our eBook, What to Expect When You’re Connecting.

story connectPublic power utilities across the nation are entering or expanding into the broadband space.

Communicators are often tasked with creating messages for both electric and broadband consumers, but these audiences — and expectations — differ.

Avoid misunderstandings, confusion or unrealistic expectations. Work to design a clear marketing strategy that will educate, inform and engage your employees and members throughout the process.

Don’t forget to focus on how customers engage with you. Journey: Exploring the Customer Experience, a six-part podcast series from  StoryConnect: The Podcast, offers insights from several broadband utility staff.

To help you identify ways to strengthen your broadband marketing plans, we asked Utility Pioneers at California’s Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications in Portola, California, and Hood River Electric Cooperative in Hood River, Oregon, to share their experience.

Co-Branding Broadband

Before the first mile is built, think about branding. You may not have 100 years of history to support your broadband program, but your utility has a strong brand you can reflect and build on. The biggest choice you’ll make is whether you want your broadband brand to build on your current utility look and feel or if you want to create a fresh look without utility ties.

Libby Calnon

Hood River Electric Co-op has provided internet service for 15 years, but branding took a backseat until now.

“We’ve done little to advertise our services during that time,” Hood River General Manager Libby Calnon says. “Because of that, we find not everyone is aware we offer internet service.”

When the co-op decided to improve service by building fiber to homes throughout their service area, branding became critical. In 2021 the co-op rebranded both the electric and telecom sides, partnering with Pioneer’s broadband marketing team at WordSouth.

“Rebranding is part of our efforts to make sure our members, who know us and love us for the affordable, reliable electric service we provide, know they can have the same experience if they choose us as their internet provider,” Libby shares.

Hood River Electric original logo, and Hood River Electric & Internet logo after rebranding

“We’re thrilled with our new logo and know that our current members will recognize that it’s us right away,” Libby says.

“We want our members to choose us as their provider. There are other companies moving into the area who would like to serve them, but we are confident that both our relationship with them, and our fiber offering, will be competitive in the market.”

Keep Staff Connected

Make sure employees and members understand the value of the investment and know what to expect. Develop an internal communications plan to share your story at a mix of all-hands meetings, small groups and one-on-one sessions. Make it easy for staff to share questions about the effort, and then clearly communicate the answers.

Pioneer helps utilities equip staff with broadband knowledge through FAQ sheets and engaging training. Common staff questions include:

  • Will there be new employees?
  • What new skill sets will be required?
  • How will this affect my current workload?
  • Will training be offered so I can advance?

Every employee will be affected by the addition of broadband service. All employees must be equipped to answer questions.

By starting with a focus on internal communication and training, employees become broadband ambassadors.

Focus on Timelines

Some broadband utilities explain the investment by focusing on the benefits of fiber. How will broadband improve outage response times and serve community needs?

Most consumers only want to know one thing: “When can I connect?”

“Set expectations for timing,” Libby advises. “Fiber builds are complex, and people are eager for the connectivity. It’s important for them to understand up front what your timeline is and that there are a few steps to getting people connected. Communications like this help take the frustration out of waiting.”

Corby Erwin

The same holds true at Plumas-Sierra. The co-op has provided internet access in several forms (dial up, wireless, fiber to the home) since 1995.

“Our biggest challenge is making sure to keep people apprised of our construction schedule, because things are fluid,” Member and Energy Services Manager Corby Erwin says.“Keep up with the details. Let people know if something changes.”

Timeline communications are essential.

“Know when you will get to an area accurately,” Corby adds. “If you don’t make it and consumers are waiting, they need internet service. They’ll sign up with another provider.”

Expand Storytelling

Want your message to reach potential broadband customers? Invest in a diverse set of storytelling tools. Corby ranks the effectiveness of Plumas-Sierra’s marketing efforts.

“If you’ve got Ruralite magazine and you’re targeting current members, that’s a highly effective tool,” Corby says. “Direct mail is the next best thing. If you have an interest list, then direct calls to hot leads when we’re in the area give us a high take rate. Word of mouth is huge, too.”

Make sure your marketing plan includes:

  • Website (use interest forms to create marketing segments)
  • Social media posts
  • In-office print materials
  • Monthly Ruralite feature
  • Direct mailer to electric utility members
  • Pre-registration campaign for service area
  • Email campaigns (pre-registrants and people on the interest list)

Once consumers can apply for service, targeted marketing begins. As Plumas-Sierra enters each new area, a hyper-local marketing plan kicks in:

  1. Pull consumer interest data
  2. Send an email blast
  3. Call consumers to ask if they’re ready
  4. Leave door hangers when doing installs
  5. Share new service area on social media

Educate to Connect

Education and training is a cooperative principle, but it’s also a powerful storytelling tool. At Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications, recorded webinars started as a way to continue education during the pandemic.

“We used to do a lot of community events to talk about our plans for both the electric and telecom consumers,” Corby says. “In 2020 we decided to do a webinar series using MicroSoft Teams. Not a huge number of people attended live, but we got good feedback.”

Recent webinars covered:

A new series of pre-recorded videos are in the works, targeting common electric and internet consumer questions.

We are More Powerful Together

Every project is different, but we are all looking for ways to tell our story, market services and train staff. Sharing what works with our peers is what makes our public power network stand apart.

“Pick good partners,” Libby advises. “We have been blessed to have worked with several, including NRTC for fiber project planning and consulting, and WordSouth for rebranding. It’s helpful to have experts you trust and work well with when undertaking these big projects. They will have answers to questions before you even know you need to ask.”

Are you planning to add broadband to your services? Download our free eBook, What to Expect When You’re Connecting, for broadband marketing tips and examples from your peers.

What marketing tactics work best for you? Share your ideas here!