In 2001, EarthLink, one of the nation’s largest Internet service providers (ISPs), sharpened its internal focus and outward marketing and media efforts on its high-speed Internet access offerings. The company sought to gain national exposure and recognition of EarthLink’s broadband executives, current and future broadband strategies/services and market positioning in addition to reaffirming EarthLink’s position as the leading, successful and financially sound ISP of today. As EarthLink is not tied to any single high-speed technology, the company was positioned to leverage this advantage by educating the media and other key opinion leaders about DSL, cable, and satellite.
When the Ogilvy PR team initially began planning for the program, the date for the all-encompassing media and analyst tour was set for January 2001. However, EarthLink needed to wait for several key product announcements to be confirmed, and the tour was pushed back twice to its eventual start date in mid-April. Due to the repeated schedule shifting, target audiences were hesitant to commit to meetings, and the scheduling timeframe took much longer than anticipated.
Research and Planning
In addition to EarthLink’s primary market research, the Ogilvy PR team analyzed additional research relating to applications which are better-delivered by broadband than by standard dial-up, as well as current residential broadband usage. The research showed that consumers lacked a complete understanding of broadband and its everyday benefits. Armed with this knowledge, the PR team was able to focus its efforts on educating the target audiences about EarthLink’s technology agnostic stance, that EarthLink is the only ISP that provides all broadband connectivity options – DSL, cable and satellite.
By demonstrating the ways in which broadband was better than a dial-up connection, EarthLink hoped to discover the “killer app” that broke down the barrier of a higher price. Home networking had the potential to be that application. With market research in its back pocket, EarthLink become one of the first ISPs to offer home networking. EarthLink had to communicate effectively the practical uses of home gateways, the future services it would enable, and the ease of setup and ongoing support that EarthLink’s solution provides.
In addition, there are many markets that do not and never will have high-speed access via cable or DSL due to the geographical limitations of the technologies’ infrastructure. EarthLink had the answer in its two-way satellite solution. Despite the higher cost, there was a market for high-speed service among those limited to dial-up or no Internet access at all. However, the company needed to raise awareness of the service’s existence and explain how it worked.
· Educate the media and key opinion leaders about the range of DSL, cable and satellite options.
· Position EarthLink’s broadband services as the new core of the company’s future with initial emphasis on home networking.
· Attract mainstream consumers to EarthLink’s broadband technology.
· Reaffirm EarthLink’s position as the number one provider of the real Internet – the leading, successful and financially sound ISP of today.
· Gain national exposure and recognition of EarthLink’s broadband executives and establish them as industry leaders and spokespersons.
EarthLink was in a unique position in the industry since it was not tied to a single high-speed connection, but instead, holds a rare “agnostic” approach. To gain credibility and media traction, we positioned EarthLink as an impartial expert, willing to discuss each technology’s strengths and weaknesses and provide the best type of connection, without bias toward any one in particular.
To validate our announcements during the tour and create continued momentum, one of our strategies was to be opportunistic with the pending launch of high-speed Internet cable access in the 20 largest markets of EarthLink’s partner, Time Warner. If the tour was a success, we knew we would be ready for a major Time Warner launch in Q3 2001.
· To support the objectives of the plan and the overall company goals, Ogilvy PR:
· Leveraged several key product announcements in the weeks prior to and during a bi-coastal media and analyst tour.
· Placed the emphasis of the media and analyst tour on high-level national business and broadband-focused press/analysts.
· Announced the release of EarthLink Home Networking, a residential home gateway service, three weeks prior to the tour.
· Played off the momentum of the first release and unveiled EarthLink’s technology trials with Cox Communications for EarthLink’s Internet service available over Cox’s cable systems.
· Hit the road for 50 meetings in five cities over the course of two weeks.
· Conducted aggressive media outreach during the tour, announcing the new EarthLink Satellite service, the third major product announcement in four weeks.
Evaluation/Measurement of Success
After securing 33 face-to-face meetings and 22 phone briefings with media and analysts, combined editorial coverage from the momentum-building product announcements resulted in nearly 100 print, broadcast and Internet placements in a little more than four weeks. Reaching more than 239 million readers, these announcements have been covered by business and trade media outlets such as The New York Times, Reuters, CNET News, Bloomberg, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Broadband Week, Telephony, The Industry Standard, Motley Fool, BusinessWeek Online, CBS MarketWatch, TheStreet.com, The Washington Post, CABLEFAX, CNN.com, and Forbes.com, among others.
In addition to industry analyst, national business media and trade media coverage, the EarthLink stock price responded favorably to EarthLink’s broadband strategy – from an all-time low of $4.75 to a high of $13.96 in May – a 294 percent increase.
As a result of the tour, EarthLink currently is breaking into the cable segment with launches in 20 of Time Warner’s biggest markets, opening the door to a third EarthLink-branded broadband technology. These launches demonstrate EarthLink’s ability to help multiple cable service operators add to their bottom lines and generate substantial broadband sales in Time Warner territories.
As evidenced by an Interactive Week article, EarthLink was successful in educating the media about its agnostic approach: “No Internet service provider is more deserving of a top spot in the ISP category than EarthLink. … [A]ll in all, the message of these ISP rankings is clear: Stay technology-agnostic, stick with customer service, focus on new customer-friendly technologies and ISP stardom may await just around the corner.”