Recently, several internet service providers (ISPs) have toyed with the notion of, or actually deployed, bandwidth caps on their subscribers. Comcast, Time Warner and Cox, among others, have either tested or plan to implement policies that limit how much of the internet customers can actually "use" in any given month. Comcast is currently implementing a monthly bandwidth cap of 250 GB, while Time Warner has been testing a bandwidth cap (in Beaumont, Texas) ranging from 5 GB to 40 GB per month. The majority of today's customers will never use 250 GB per month, but lower caps such as 5 GB have the ability to influence online behavior and consumption, not only in the near term but also as average users become heavier users.
This trend begs key questions: What if marketers were faced with a decrease in online consumption? Would it influence how they advertise their brand and products? Would they over-react to new trends or fail to take them properly into account? One of marketing's traditional principles has been that marketing influences consumption. The more you market your brand or product to your target audience, the more they will consume. Consumers experience the results of this belief every day, as they're bombarded with ads built on the concepts of reach and frequency. But if consumers cut back their internet behavior for fear of higher rates or being booted off the internet altogether, what is the significance for marketers?
A decrease in internet consumption means marketers should strengthen their current customer relationships. The question isn't necessarily how to reach more customers in a new bandwith-conscious internet environment, but how to enhance existing relationships with brand advocates and ultimately lead adopters. These are the users on whom marketers should focus their efforts. Bandwidth caps or not, it's cheaper to retain a current customer than to attract a new one. These customers truly feel a connection with their favorite brands and will spread positive word of mouth that an increase in ad buys may not.
The value of word of mouth can outweigh the ad dollars spent trying to target additional consumers, especially in a bandwidth-conscious environment. Brand advocates push and disseminate positive word of mouth to others in ways that a single ad cannot. Influential blogs and bloggers can attract a readership on a daily basis that would ignore a carefully placed ad. For example, blogs such as Engadget attract hundreds of comments a day from tech enthusiasts and lead adopters who discuss new technologies, products and gadgets. The page views alone among enthusiast blogs such as these can be extraordinary.
According to an internal document attained by TechCrunch, Apple's recent MacBook announcements on Oct. 14 attracted 14 million page views that day alone. Blogs such as these are often the first touch point for product and review information. Marketers should consider whether they would be better off with additional ad placements or a positive reception among sites such as Engadget. There is no perfect mix, but enhancing influencer relationships will help guide future advertising strategies.
Twitter has garnered quite a bit of media attention in recent months because brands are leveraging this social media tool to enhance current relationships with their customers. Zappos is among the brands attracting praise for its efforts. The point is not that Zappos has hundreds of employees active on Twitter -- including its chief executive Tony Hsieh, helping to lead the way -- but that Zappos is leveraging the platform to build upon its core strength and value of customer service. The company has even gone so far as to establish its own Twitter microsite dedicated to its customers.
The emphasis and passion Zappos places on building relationships at a personal level and improving its consumers' brand experience is a rarity, but spend five minutes skimming through the comments on the microsite and it becomes very clear the connection the company's customers feel with the brand. Even if online consumption changes, consumers want to know that the company they are purchasing products from cares about them after the initial transaction.
Does another ad or video placement improve a customer's emotional feeling? The possible change in consumption due to bandwidth caps should make marketers aware of the importance of targeting relationships versus ad space. Forums such as these are key touch points not only for information, but also for service.
Finally, if consumers begin to decrease their online consumption, marketers should focus on the quality of their content versus quantity. Dove's "Evolution" video and BMW's short film series titled "The Hire" instantly come to mind. Marketers dream of creating viral content like this that consumers pass on to others; millions viewed each online campaign. It wasn't the file size or quantity of these videos that attracted interest; it was content. BMW captured the feeling of what BMW enthusiasts experience when driving their cars. Dove tapped into the emotion that beauty isn't skin deep.
One highly relevant and focused ad can have the same impact as multiple ads with unexciting content. Many marketers have seen weak results trying to create viral ads because the content failed to create a connection with consumers. If bandwidth caps do ultimately change user consumption, content increases in importance and needs to be as relevant as possible, ideally striking an emotional chord with the audience. Consumers value transparency and will gravitate toward the content they connect with. Both Dove and BMW created content that went beyond their core base, attracting non-customers.
Bandwidth caps may not change online consumption instantaneously or necessarily be permanent. Verizon and Qwest have not jumped on the bandwidth-capping bandwagon -- at least for the time being. Comcast's generous 250 GB will not change online consumption or behavior for the majority of users online, but lower caps have the potential to influence consumption. In an age of bandwidth caps, marketers should be more selective in their communication methods. Consumers, for example, might become more discerning about what they view and may ultimately block high-bandwidth content. Marketers should be proactive and invest in strategic efforts that target relationships with high-value advocates, building organic growth rather than reacting to an environment impacted by a bandwidth shortage.
Brandon Eshman is an analyst for Nielsen Online in the consumer technology vertical.