How Verizon Is Taking Social Media to the ‘Burbs

NEW YORK On a Saturday in mid-September, more than 500 people gathered in the Philadelphia suburb of Yardley for an unusual celebration: Their neighbors, the Kaczors, were the stars of a new reality TV show, My Home 2.0, debuting later this month.

The gathering and show are part of a test case for Verizon to see if it can combine traditional outlets like a TV program and events with advances in social media, including blogs, video sharing and wikis, for a targeted local marketing program.

The campaign was born out of the marketing challenges associated with Verizon’s rollout of its fiber-optic TV and Internet service, FiOS. Two years after it was first tested in Keller, Texas, FiOS is now available in 3.9 million households in 12 states. It is not uncommon for one neighborhood to have access to FiOS while another next to it does not.

“It’s literally street by street,” said Beth Mulhern, Verizon’s director of consumer marketing for Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Verizon began running regional FiOS TV spots in the spring to build awareness, but on the local level it has been open to new marketing approaches, such as driving Hummers wrapped in FiOS logos through neighborhoods that can get the service and setting up “FiOS lounges” where consumers in dozens of local markets could experience it.

“In the past, it was all about mass media,” Mulhern said. “But that media doesn’t fit well with FiOS.”

While the TV spots try to communicate the advanced technology of FiOS indirectly—one shows an installer explaining in technical jargon what’s in his truck to a small boy who simply responds, “Nice truck”—the local marketing is taking a more experiential, community-based tack to complement direct mail and some print.

Verizon turned to Campfire Media, the production company best known for its work on viral hits like Sega’s “Beta-7” and Audi’s “Art of the Heist” campaigns, which has remade itself as an agency focused on community building. The shop hatched a plan to harness social media tools, along with the traditional glitz of a TV show and personal touch of events, to reach consumers street by street.

Campfire began with a Web site, www.2pointhome.com, where visitors in five target markets could submit video entries for an electronics makeover from three tech gurus, who use FiOS to make it happen. Campfire also visited local arts festivals and community events to record entries. The show will be aired on local cable TV in the five markets.

While My Home 2.0 would seem a typical piece of branded entertainment, Steve Wax, a partner at Campfire, said it is actually a “Trojan horse” used to lure people to the block parties held before each “reveal” of the remade home. In Yardley, Campfire offered a band, face painting, hot dogs, Guitar Hero stations and an appearance by Verizon spokesman James Earl Jones.

“The beauty is we’re getting branded content and doing it in a way that’s experiential,” said Karl Gneiting, group manager of consumer marketing at Verizon.

For the Kaczors, the gurus built the father, who is a real estate agent, a home office with all the modern trappings. They also kitted out the family room. Photos from the event, along with videos of the entries, were posted to the Web site, which chronicles My Home 2.0 with blogs and videos.

The three legs of the campaign—the TV show, the events and the online community—are what appealed to Verizon, said Mulhern. Campfire further sweetened the pot by making 5 percent of its fee contingent on meeting performance goals, such as site visits, auditions and FiOS sign-ups. Verizon’s other eight regional marketing chiefs are closely monitoring the program for signs of success, she said.

Verizon has an uphill battle in convincing consumers to switch from their current cable providers, who are pushing “triple-play” packages that combine phone, Internet and TV, said Yankee Group analyst Josh Martin. “It’s a significant investment in time to have your house wired for FiOS,” he said. “It’s a hassle.”

Yet those who make the switch seem to be pleased. According to a survey released last month by Rockland, Md.-based consulting firm ChangeView, 96 percent of FiOS users expressed satisfaction with their service, while cable companies rated much lower.

Like most marketers, Verizon wants to harness customer satisfaction to become a passion product, like TiVo or the iPhone, whose consumers are its greatest advocates. “FiOS is an experiential product,” Mulhern said. “Those that have it, love it; those that don’t, want it.”

In order to cater to those advocates, Campfire added a final community component to the campaign: It redid the site’s Frequently Asked Questions page. It may seem odd that a shop started by filmmakers would want anything to do with the unsexy FAQ section, but Wax saw a chance to build community. Campfire’s research turned up Web sites devoted to troubleshooting FiOS, so it took the FAQs from a dry exercise in technical writing to a user-generated wiki. “We’re a traditional company so we were terrified of it, but we know it’s the right thing to do,” Gneiting said.

Mulhern got into the spirit by responding to a local mom’s blog post. She plans to incorporate some of the blogger’s feedback into the program. “As a big company, you can’t ignore what people are saying,” she said. “We’re trying to change our culture.”