Community-building tips for local ISPs from a local business owner
Liz Hitchcock, Co-founder of Minim, also invests in companies and owns Bookery Manchester, a bookstore located in Manchester, NH. Bookery is Manchester’s first independent bookstore and has been the location of many successful events— beyond the typical book signings and readings they have even hosted pre-primary presidential candidates. Bookery has become a popular meeting spot for the community; it would be pretty difficult to not stop in while visiting Manchester.
As most of our ISP customers differentiate on local customer care, we sat down with Liz to discuss the community-building tips that have made her business such a hit.
Building the initial buzz
One of the most important things about owning a local business is building the initial buzz. Liz believes that local businesses need to take on the feel of the community in which they’re located. Rural communities are different from city-based communities, and local ISPs should reflect that in their culture and marketing. People are already hungry for wireless options, so local ISPs can fill that hole in their community.
“The Bookery team created our initial buzz by slowly releasing information about the opening,” says Liz. This included sneak peeks, as well as showing our differentiators from competitive bookstores and cafes.
“I would suggest this strategy for rural ISPs, especially with new fiber deployments. Build anticipation for better customer service or the faster speeds by educating about the new capabilities subscribers will have, from 4K streaming to simultaneous video conferencing.”
Hosting events—even without a storefront
According to Liz, people are always looking for ways to learn. She believes that ISPs have a great platform to educate the community they reside in.
“They know the people they’re working with, and they help educate their subscribers with their very specific needs from ‘how-to: home IoT solutions’ to, ‘why is the internet not working?’ There’s all different kinds of events and ways in which you can enrich your customers in order to help shape the experience you want to give them. Shape your events to address exactly what your customers ask for and because you can create your own local strategy for education and marketing you can use that to your advantage.”
A great example of touching subscribers with a learning opportunity was used by our friends at WhyFly. WhyFly hosted a happy hour in their local MDU’s community center where they taught elderly residents how to use Roku devices. This helped create the demand for these unconventional folks to “cut the cord”—they offered to give everyone a Roku device for signing up. By doing this, they created a need for education on the product allowing for one-on-one interactions between the support team and the community members and opening up a channel of familiarity.
“The subscribers found out the technology wasn’t as intimidating as they thought it could be,” she explained.
“Initially, they wanted to know, ‘Why are there only five buttons? How are we going to use this with only five buttons?’ And by the end, they were wondering, ‘why weren't there only five buttons on television remotes to begin with? All those buttons on a regular remote were so confusing, and I didn’t even use half of them!’ It’s really positive interactions like that that are so special when you’re a community-based organization.”
Bookery Manchester also uses education and inclusivity when appropriate, and Liz believes local ISPs should use every opportunity they have to do the same.
“We’re always looking for different ways to connect with our community- and continue to create curated and authentic reasons for our customers to connect with us.”
David vs. Goliath: competing with the big guys
People in communities get excited about options, but when there’s only one big “brand-name” option, it’s up to the local ISPs to step in and provide this feature.
“Offering options is extremely important for your consumers,” says Liz. “Often you’ll see that local ISPs do a little bit more for their community than a larger incumbent would, they may offer free WiFi in the downtown corridor. They could grant wireless service at a reduced price to low-income families. Local businesses understand the unmet demands of their community and can act quicker than larger institutions.”
Because smaller, local-based ISPs have the ability to see on a ground level where larger companies can’t, there’s a prime opportunity for community outreach. WhyFly, a local ISP based in Wilmington, DE, is a good example of some of these techniques Liz has outlined.
“Our friends at WhyFly offered to help during the initial stages of COVID-19 by offering hotspots within the downtown corridor. This allowed local school children to come and do their schoolwork,” explains Liz. “They also offered reduced-price WiFi for children to continue learning; that might not have happened if they hadn’t had WiFi at home.”
It’s also important to create a one-on-one relationship with your customer and deliver an experience that larger companies just don’t have institutional ability OR the start up mentality to create.
“There’s a huge value in knowing your subscriber,” says Liz. “There's nothing more valuable than creating a real relationship with your customers. With large companies you get a large data center or phone bank and you likely will not speak with the same person that you did last time. A local ISP can offer continuity with their user by switching through a smaller customer support team...
If local ISPs have such good service, then why do people subscribe to large companies instead? Sometimes, the bottom line is the price point.
“Sometimes people just want the cheapest way forward, it’s not always the case that it’ll be a good fit for everyone,” says Liz.
“If I’m a customer who’s looking for the least expensive option, then I might not go with someone in my community. But I do believe that a local ISP and a local bookstore have the opportunity to really shine and show that the local choice can offer a better service and a better product.
Liz believes that a locally operating business has the ability to have better service despite the price. She says she can offer customers a more curated experience with real people helping the customers, and she believes local ISPs have the opportunity to do the same.
“There has to be something special about it—otherwise, people will go to the behemoths. It’s true now for ISPs as well as it is for bookstores, ironically we’re all competing with the same folks: Google, Amazon, and other large providers… Local ISPs can offer an amazing experience for their customers, with the opportunity to provide hands-on learning, education, and an empathetic ‘real’ relationship.”
When to consider expanding your engagement
Every business has probably asked the question: When is it a good time to consider widening my target customer base and, subsequently, my engagement? Liz says it’s all internal.
“When you’re operating at a level that you feel you can reach outside of the audience that you’ve already created is when you’re ready to widen your boundaries. You want to grow fast enough that the business is sustainable, but you also want to make sure that you’re not growing so fast that the operation can’t take on more customers. It’s really an internal discussion in any organization: are we ready to make large shifts in the way that we do business?”
Liz believes if a business has a good operating team, a solid plan, and superior customer support in place the business is ready to make the shift and look for larger boundaries. Bookery Manchester has hosted several presidential hopefuls through pre-primary events, and grown from a small bookstore to a staple in the community—we’ve been asked if we would open other bookstores in the area or franchise the brand, but we want to have the entire plan for someone to open the next store. The entire plan to operate in new areas or offer new products so that you can continue with the level of service that you want to offer your consumer.
“We would not have been poised to do what we did without community support,” says Liz. “We love our community and we want it to grow, the primaries were the perfect place for us to do that. We had to do a lot for our community to get them to understand that we as a whole were ready to make a big impact for the New Hampshire First in the Nation Primary Process.”
They did a lot of behind-the-scenes marketing for the first in the nation, from branding to putting up banners and acting as a spokesperson for the city as a whole. Liz says that because they did the extra work and put in the effort and time into the events, they were able to grow both as a business and as a community. It’s a two-way street.
Promoting the business is one of the most important aspects toward increasing a business’s audience.
“We’ve had strict calendars for marketing plans and we’ve also tried a ‘take it as you go’ plan… obviously with COVID-19, our philosophy in where we were going with events, which drive a lot of our business and sales, have changed quite a bit. We’ve tried to readjust for COVID, but generally we try to plan with a cadence so that people can expect what’s coming in our schedule.- However with the ability to adapt with what is coming at us, we can offer unique offerings that are extremely context and time sensitive.
Outside of the modified schedule for the pandemic, Liz says they’ll plan accordingly with holidays—retail is dependent on Christmas, which is always a time for us to make up any operating deficit throughout the year—so planning events with a Christmas theme only increases their in-store traffic. Perhaps Super Bowl Sunday or Cyber Monday would be analogous events for those working in ISPs.
Liz thinks a fun idea for ISPs to try out could be a “speed dating” type of event over Zoom, or planning themed events like her bookstore does.
“It all depends on how willing an ISP is to get out of the box. Often we’ll say that the internet is like water: you need it. But all of a sudden if you begin to think of the internet as something fun, there are plenty of things that you could do. You could get an exclusive relationship with a local Nutcracker ballet group and offer a free streaming event to all of your customers. There’s a lot of really cool things you could do as a local ISP.”