Otto von Bismarck once observed that people with an appetite for law or for sausage should not watch either one being made. MSOs looking to market VoIP would do well to heed those words. Apocryphal or not, there’s a germ of truth in them that relates to the key challenge operators are up against when trying to introduce this potentially esoteric product. The secret to successfully marketing VoIP is in keeping the signal-to-noise ratio relatively high, says Louis Holder, EVP of product development for Vonage. “When we first began to introduce our service, we tried to get technical,” he explains, “but that only seemed to confuse our early customers.” Once Vonage came to the realization that the average consumer would only become discombobulated by the nitty-gritty behind VoIP, the company quickly shifted gears. “We refocused to make it look similar to traditional phone service,” Holder says. “Then, over time, you migrate it over to what other cool things the product can do.” While Vonage began its initial campaign online, it was a single radio spot that helped push the company to the next level. “Howard Stern pitched our product as if he actually used it,” Holder says. “We saw a huge rush after that.” The start-up is looking to launch a new TV spot sometime in the next few weeks, Holder says. The cost of the service — $39.99 for unlimited long distance and local calling plus all the standard features — remains the key selling point. In promoting its primary line VoIP service, Time Warner Cable has come to some similar conclusions, says Brian Schmidt, director of marketing and sales for the company’s Portland, Me., division. “Phone is phone,” he says, sounding as though he were issuing a Zen koan. “From the marketing side, we’re focusing on simplicity. We don’t want to intimidate our customers with a technical approach.” As Portland is the first division to roll out VoIP, Schmidt has taken a cautious approach. “Because we’re first to launch, we really wanted to have total control over our rollout,” he explains. TWC’s initial strategy has been to slowly evolve from targeting potential customers with direct marketing and e-mail pitches, and on through a door-to-door approach. Once the service began to gain traction, the MSO hired Atlanta’s Bigelow & Eigel agency to handle its creative spots. “We had to be sure to differentiate ourselves, to stay away from the look and feel of what we’ve seen out there,” Schmidt says. As is the case with its HSD product, Cablevision espouses a strategy that adheres to a set of simple guidelines. “We have a very straightforward approach to marketing Optimum Voice,” says Tanya Van Court, VP of product management for the VoIP service. “While there is a lot of buzz around voice over IP and the technology that makes the service possible, we want to make the value and advantages of our new service clear to potential customers.” Overall, it appears that those involved in the early stages of VoIP are following the same basic script, although Cox Communications’ experience in circuit-switched telephony gives it a leg up on its fellow MSOs. As it continues to bull forward with VoIP — the company launched a marketing trial in Roanoke, Va., in April to complement the Oklahoma City trial from last year — Cox may be the first cable operator to let its customers have a peek at the sausage.

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