Watching Chattanooga’s progress using broadband to impact economic development, I’m reminded of a slogan I used to print on my business cards: “The great thing about marketing is … it works.” Chattanooga has engaged its diverse community in the marketing of its broadband network to spur economic outcomes. And it works.

In a corporation, selling products relies on every department contributing to creating and maintaining the company image. Apple Computer’s “Think Different” campaign, for instance, was more than creative ads and brochures. How the company’s retail stores operated, the products Apple developed, the way service reps treated customers, and how employees from the mailroom to the boardroom spoke about Apple — all conveyed directly or indirectly that singular message.

If broadband is to improve economic development by improving existing businesses’ profitability and attracting new ones, various community stakeholder groups must convey and amplify the community’s marketing message. In Chattanooga, the public utility, Electric Power Board (EPB)  which owns the network and its marketing staff constitute one group. The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce is another, several nonprofit organizations provide marketing support, and business leaders are yet another group amplifying the message.

EPB launched its gigabit network service in September 2010. Press releases, EPB participation in national conferences and promotional material continually cited the service as the first of its kind in the U.S., and a compelling reason to do business in Chattanooga. At the grass-roots level, the CEO of a technology incubator in Chattanooga is one of several business people who send out Twitter messages and contribute to media coverage reinforcing the marketing message.

This concerted effort reflects how deeply the various stakeholders both understand and believe in the message that Chattanooga is a technology leader. Communities that are implementing or contemplating broadband projects need to build this depth of support if they want to compete nationally and locally for business subscribers.

Collaboration Is a Challenge, Success Is its Reward

Collaboration is a much (over)used term, but to actually get stakeholder groups working closely together is a necessity and a Herculean effort. Chattanooga laid the foundation for marketing itself as a technology-centric economic powerhouse back in the mid-’80s. At that time its main claim to fame was being the nation’s smoggiest city. Civic leaders started recruiting private-sector companies to work together to turn around the city’s image and its economy. The Chattanooga-based Lyndhurst Foundation invested $2.5 million into city planning that drew the public leadership into the picture.

The city’s downtown redevelopment effort produced a $120 million waterfront project in the early ’90s that drew new residents and tourists to Chattanooga. In 1997, EPB started the planning to bring its 19th-century utility into the 21st century. As the new millennium got into full swing, Volkswagen’s 2007 decision to set up operations in Chattanooga electrified city constituents and stakeholders.

One side effect of this turnaround and string of economic wins was that several private, public and nonprofit organizations strengthened their positions as standalone entities, key stakeholders and partners in the city’s growth. As this happened, they perfected their ability to effectively market Chattanooga.

“Over years, everyone just figured out how to work together,” said Ken Hays, partner in economic development consulting firm Kinsey Probasco Hays. It seems people instinctively knew which groups should partner for whatever efforts were under way; they teamed up and they executed. Now everyone realizes what they need to do and they get it done. They succeed because they communicate very well to each other and to constituents.” 

EPB, after deciding to make fiber-optic infrastructure the heart of its plan to transform communications within its 600-square-mile territory, began exploring how to make smart grid and broadband major economic engines for the community. As the vision took shape, the public utility met with each stakeholder group to educate them on the vision, so each respective group could help evolve and refine it. When the fiber network came online in 2009, and the gigabit service rolled out in 2010, EPB tapped into the city’s spirit of collaboration to enlist the full range of stakeholder groups to create a consistent message that’s communicated nationally.

Different Messengers, Same Message

Kinsey Probasco Hays is a driving force behind the local and national awareness campaign. The chamber provides much of the hands-on national joint marketing of the city and the network, while EPB’s team markets the service locally. The chamber, EPB, the River City Company (which some refer to as the Department of Downtown), and the Enterprise Council (which promotes high-tech economic development) team up to recruit new companies to move to Chattanooga or expand there.

SIM Center Enterprises is a nonprofit that brings together The University of Tennessee and private enterprises to research new applications, including some for the gig network. The city’s entrepreneurial community, including technology incubators the Lamp Post Group and Company Lab, has united under the banner GigCity to collaborate on programs and activities that galvanize additional gigabit network apps development. These include bringing teams of students and entrepreneurs to Chattanooga this summer to develop leading-edge apps for the network.

 

Hays believes another key to Chattanooga’s marketing success is that “EPB quietly went about building a community asset and didn’t talk to many people outside of Chattanooga until the project was near completion. We didn’t know all the ways the network would be beneficial.” Other communities tend to talk about their networks in a big way before they become real, and constituents’ expectations become inflated. This hinders effective marketing if the network is delayed or runs into trouble immediately after launch.

Once they publicly announced the network, stakeholders quickly expanded discussions with stakeholders and citizens through “intentional conversations.” Every few days a different group of 10 to 15 people would have a roundtable discussion about network developments in order to solicit feedback. “You plant seeds at these [discussions], then come back later to see what ideas people have,” Hays said. “We talked to 300 people in 25 to 30 meetings during the run up to the network launch date.”

Chattanooga’s coordinated efforts have produced strong awareness of the network nationally and internationally. The city recently reported 2,000 jobs were created from two companies moving to town largely because of gigabit broadband, and that they are 30 percent ahead of subscriber projections. For Chattanooga, marketing definitely works.

Craig Settles  |  Contributing Writer

Craig Settles is an industry analyst, broadband strategy consultant and co-founder of Communities United for Broadband, which delivers on-site training to private- and public-sector organizations. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) and his blog, Fighting the Next Good Fight.