The former Cox chief Jim Robbins realized it was obvious, but he knew it was crucial. On the eve of his Cable Hall of Fame induction last year, he noted that cable and its competitors eventually will "have the same programming, the same hardware. The difference is how you treat your customer." And an excellent corollary: "It sounds like motherhood and apple pie — easy to say, hard to do."

In a way, the not-so-simple idea of concentrating on the customer was a central theme of the CTAM Summit in Washington, D.C., where relationship, or customer-based, marketing came to the fore. This type of marketing, done for years by supermarkets, calls for cable operators to market to individual customers. Using huge databases, cable operators will predict customer preferences and attempt to induce an action. What’s to come? In Japan, when a consumer is within 100 feet of a store, the consumer receives a mobile phone text message about a sale on an item the retailer believes, based on data, is likely to interest the customer. Gone are the monopolistic days when cable marketing consisted of sending generic bill stuffers to your customers. Maybe.

As it’s done with HD, interactive TV and the wireless joint venture, cable is moving cautiously — slowly, some say — into relationship marketing. Indeed, VP Tony Maldonado says relationship marketing is "in its infancy" at Cox, one of cable’s most progressive MSOs.

To an extent, cable is right to tread carefully. Getting intrusive with customers can lead them to feel they’re part of a "Big Brother is watching you" scenario, which Maldonado illustrated with an outstanding short video about pizza (http://www.aclu.org/pizza/). Data sharing is another reason for caution. To market particular networks to subs, operators would share data with programmers. But operators understandably are wary about that. After all, some programmers count DBS and the telcos as partners. "We own the customer," Maldonado said at CTAM, while ESPN VP Sharon Otterman urged operators and programmers to discuss sharing data. Oh no, another reason for operator-programmer hostilities.

Another concern is that large cable operators may become so reliant on computer database marketing that the human touch will be lost. Some reasons for optimism: CTAM presentations by Hallmark Channel and USA Network about their rebrands and ESPN about its Monday Night Football campaign had at least one thing in common, besides being successful. The networks listened to their customers.

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