February 4, 2011

Marketing ICTs - the hard sell

A lady came knocking on my door this afternoon.  She was a sales representative for Deutsche Telekom and was bravely trying to recover customers that had gone for rival companies (Alice, Vodafone, O2 and suchlike).  She politely enquired how much my monthly phone bill was and when I told her, she had to admit that, yes, I did have a point in defecting from the mighty DT.

In reality, I rarely use my landline phone to make calls.  It's infinitely cheaper for family members to communicate with mobiles (and cards, not contracts); even more so when we all belong to the same company.  As for long distance and overseas calls, there is, thankfully, Skype.  Who in his right mind would use a landline today to telephone abroad?  Not surprisingly, international Skype calls were three times as many as landline calls in 2010Besides that, there are so many mobile companies offering landline connections with internet, mobile telephony, television, etc. that it really is a buyer's market and it pays to shop around.  Virtually everyone nowadays has a telephone of one sort or another, which means the companies are chasing after smaller and smaller pieces of a diminishing pie.  So the nice lady from Telekom with her heavy bag of leaflets and tariffs was sadly wasting her time with me.

This set me thinking about how companies at the turn of the century went about attracting new customers.  They didn't have the benefit of huge billboards, television or radio commercials to spread the word to a wide audience.  I'm not sure how early the first ads would have been placed in newspapers, journals and magazines - some of the people who read and could afford these publications may have been able to afford a telephone connection too.  But would they have found a need for a connection that justified the cost?

Companies that offered telephone services in the first decades weren't really sure what people could actually do with a telephone.  The obvious answer (one-to-one communication or 'mere' chatting) wasn't as obvious to the late Victorians as it is to us.  Hence, we are amused by the quaint reports of concerts broadcast over the telephone, or church services, or distribution of news and information.  I think the mistake here is that they conceived of the telephone network as something for public, i.e. mass, benefit rather than a private medium.  What happened to make them realise they were going in the wrong direction?  What made people think the telephone was a suitable medium for public entertainment and dissemination of news?  How did the telephone companies, and later the General Post Office, come to 'discover sociability' (in the words of Claude Fischer)?  

It will be interesting to find out how the GPO sold new connections and if, indeed, they had a tangible marketing campaign to attract new subscribers.
  • which type of customer did they have in mind (gender, social class, occupation, type of residence, location)?
  • which reasons would they cite to a potential customer for needing a telephone?
  • what benefits could the GPO, as a company, offer the customer?
  • how did the GPO position itself against its competitors (telegraph, post, messengers)?
I predict a prodigious amount of research ahead of me!

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.