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When Rolling Out Digital, Be Wary of Buyers

Over a year ago, a friend started raving to me about her new advanced-analog cable service. She got several more basic channels, dozens of digital-music channels and an on-screen program guide for only a couple of bucks more a month.

I was jealous. I wanted it, too. So I called my cable company, only to discover that my block had not yet been upgraded. I waited. I called again.

By now, the block had been rewired, but my building had not. I waited some more.

Several months, later I finally received my advanced-analog service and was a happy customer.

If I was so pleased with this service, surely others would be too, which is why I was surprised that I had not seen a single marketing message about the availability of the new package. If I had not been presold on the service, I would not have bothered to keep pursuing it.

Fast forward to a previous week, when another friend proudly demonstrated the wonders of his new digital-cable service. Five Home Box Office channels! A real interactive program guide that sorts by channel, time or genre! Near video-on-demand!

I'm in the cable industry, for goodness sake. I know how great digital service is, and I had been waiting patiently for it to become available. So I didn't appreciate feeling like I was the last to know that digital had arrived in my neighborhood.

Again, I had not seen a single communiqué from my cable company telling me the service was available-and I was looking for them!

It's a couple of phone calls later and my installation is set for next week. But I'm still sore about being in the dark. Why would my cable company do this to me? Don't they want me to upgrade?

Now, it is entirely possible that I missed a bill stuffer here or a cross-channel spot there, but I do pay more attention to such things than the average customer does. If I didn't notice a campaign, you can bet that no one else did, either.

It's also likely that my cable company wasn't advertising because their installers couldn't keep up with the demand generated by word-of-mouth alone, but I'll save my "lack of technical staff" tirade for another time.

I simply can't overstate the importance of promoting a product launch with a comprehensive marketing campaign. It's not just a way to sell more. It's good customer service.

People want to know what these new toys are and when they'll be available. Just because you're sick and tired of that ad you've been working on for months doesn't mean that your customers have seen it or remembered it.

You're right to focus on getting the product up and running first. Just don't forget to tell people about your new services and how they benefit the end user, again and again. Furthermore, you might understand every feature of the thing, but you can't assume that everyone else is as tech-savvy.

I'm not suggesting we have to dumb down our messages and speak to the lowest common denominator. I do, however, believe that as marketers, we sometimes forget that regular folk out there may not be as intimately acquainted with what we're selling as we are.

Branding is important, but when it comes to convincing people to purchase products they've never heard of before, so is explaining the advantages. If they don't know what it does and how it benefits them, why on earth would they go out and buy it?

Add to this the fact that direct-broadcast satellite providers have done a darn good job of letting people know what's to like about their service.

Say "DirecTV," and most people think, "lots of channels and good-quality reception," not "lack of local independent stations" and "rain fade." Say "digital cable," and you're likely to meet with blank stares or questions about whether they'll need a new TV.

As an industry, we seem to keep getting stuck with terms that confuse our customers or obfuscate our marketing messages. "Pay-per-view," for example, has always had a negative connotation. Why focus on the facts that you have to shell out bucks? Nobody likes to think about that.

I actually have different standards for movies, depending on where I'm watching them and how much I'm paying for the privilege. If I decide to spend $3.95 for a PPV, I feel like I've wasted my money if I don't like it. If I catch the same film on a basic or premium channel, where there's no incremental cost whether I watch the thing or not, I'll just flip to something else and not feel like I've been robbed.

Don't even get me started on the word "broadband." It sounds like The Go-Gos or the Dixie Chicks. Who thinks up these names, anyway?

Ah yes, the engineers. Gotta cut them some slack, they are coming up with all of these cool products. What we cable marketing gurus need to do is remember to focus on our customers instead of our products. Think about what they want to buy, not what we want to sell.

America Online Inc. isn't marketed as a technology company. Steve Case figured out pretty early on that people don't want to know how it works, they just want to know how it benefits them. In AOL's case, the key benefit is that it's easy to use.

AOL has stayed "on message," as the politicians say, and dominated the market. Its success is due as much or more to its marketing progress as its technology.

So what's my point? In the new media landscape, marketing is more important than ever. Not necessarily more marketing, but smarter marketing. Don't forget, at every stage of every campaign, to put yourself in your customers' shoes. Remember, they're only going to wear the shoe if it fits them-not you.

Ingrid Hübler is account director at M/K Advertising Partners Ltd.