Small Operators: Big Ideas For Digital Switch

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Orlando--Here’s the good news on the upcoming digital transition: awareness among consumers is up dramatically. The bad news: it’s not clear what they are aware of.

For example, around 70% of the consumers who know about the transition have no idea why the federal government is undertaking a nationwide campaign to change the way every TV viewer gets their programming.

Smaller operators, which have some different concerns than giant MSOs, shared strategies and tips for the Feb. 17, 2009  transition at the digital TV marketing panel Tuesday at the Independent Show, hosted by the American Cable Association and the National Cable Television Cooperative.

Nearly 90% of consumers are aware of the digital transition, which will allow the federal government to reclaim spectrum for emergency services, among other purposes. According to various studies, more than 20 million coupons have been sent out, with more than 105,000 requests a week.

Small operators can be more flexible with their marketing, but often the struggle to get the message out is fraught with difficulties. Sunflower Broadband, a small operator serving towns in Kansas, already made the switch to all digital delivery on June 2. 

On the day of its transition, severe thunderstorms took out 12,000 subscribers, there was a power problem at the head end, and “a piece of equipment that is never supposed to go bad went bad,” said Andrea Pritchard, programming manager at Sunflower. “Most people thought it was the [federally mandated] digital transition.”

Despite a 1000% increase in call volume, the company lost less than 1% of customers that month, and VOD revenue increased. Pritchard credits the big educational effort by the company, which included a TV campaign, a Web site, talk radio spots, visits to senior centers and a “hometown care checklist.” The company even put kiosks in grocery stores to help distribute boxes.       

To aid smaller operators, the NCTC is offering turnkey campaign advertisements.

Indeed, some cable systems are making the switch to digital early, which may cause marketing problems for nearby operators. In certain markets served by Armstrong, the Butler, Pa.-headquartered operator had to deal with early birds in a nearby market. “It will generate more confusion for our customer base,” said David Wittmann, vice president of marketing for Armstrong. “Our messages are going to collide with those two systems.” 

The most critical advice for any operator, large or small, said Wittmann:  “Know your market – use different strategies in different markets.” 

In addition to educating employees, events for customers and a media blitz, Armstrong, which also serves customers in Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky, has searched out which areas are most prone to weak signals. “We want to notify them before its an issue,” said Wittman.

The upcoming switch also offers new business opportunities. Armstrong will use the event as a way to upgrade customers with other products, as well as make acquisitions of operators serving apartments and colleges that aren’t prepared to make the switch.

To simplify things even further, Armstrong recently dropped the word “digital” from all of its advertising. “We eliminated digital …..the word digital is so overused at this point…It made the message so much easier to grasp.”