Making people all a twitter about Google

March 22, 2010
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Friday is the deadline for residents of Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Holland to convince Google to build and test its proposed high-speed broadband network in their respective city.

Public officials in those cities, and in others throughout the nation, have enthusiastically encouraged their residents to create a Google account and tell the company why their community is best suited to be the first to host the country’s initial 1-gigabyte fiber-optic pathway to the Internet.

Crowds have gathered in public squares throughout the U.S., including in Grand Rapids, to show Google how much they want what the company is promising. Billboards are up in Holland and along roads across the country touting the same message. Gov. Jennifer Granholm even visited Google’s home office in Mountain View, Calif., to pitch the company’s executives on choosing a Michigan city.

Other public officials have taken more unusual actions. For instance, one mayor eagerly jumped into freezing Minnesota waters to draw Google’s attention. Another mayor pledged last week to swim with Florida’s sharks to prove his city’s worthiness.

What the eventual outcome of all this clamoring will be is still virtually unknown. But one thing is for certain: Google put together one heck of a marketing campaign to generate that level of response for what is very likely a pittance of a budget.

“I think it’s pretty cool because it’s not costing them any money and they’ve gotten a lot of buzz,” said Ben Rudolph, a marketing professor at Grand Valley State University who chaired the department for 10 years and is a past president of the local chapter of the American Marketing Association.

“That’s the way media is going these days. Traditional advertising has been cut back, and so everybody is trying to get the word out. Of course, we don’t know what benefits it is really going to bring to the world and all that, but it gets people talking about it, thinking about it and excited about it. I think very few of the places that are applying for this are going to actually see anything, but nonetheless, that’s what they want to do in the world of marketing,” he added.

Rudolph pointed out one aspect of the Google campaign that has largely been drowned out by all the hoopla: The company has to roll out its new system somewhere, but instead of simply announcing where that would be, Google’s marketers turned the location into a national competition.

“I think it’s been effective. It’s going to cost very little, and they were going to probably test it out someplace anyway, just for scientific reasons. So this is a test market that they’re doing, and it is getting a lot of publicity because they’ve got everybody trying to get their oars in the water,” he said.

And that publicity hasn’t been limited to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Reports of the response to Google’s intention have been featured in network news shows, major daily newspapers, business publications like this one, and on National Public Radio. An ad budget to buy that much coverage for an unknown product would be unrealistic today — even for a major player like Google.

“They’ve gotten a big bang for the few bucks they’re spending. Now I think this test, when they actually do it, is going to cost money. But they would have had to do that for scientific reasons anyway, just to test the system and see what it can do, see who would buy it. So they were going to spend that money anyway,” said Rudolph, who also serves as a marketing consultant to local and national businesses.

“Furthermore, I think it was very clever of them not to just say ‘we pick this city or that city’ because the rest of the country would have said ‘ho hum.’ Now everybody thinks maybe we have a chance, because everybody wants investment from Google and all the benefits they will reap for being first with this. So I think it’s devilishly clever. It’s very smart and it’s exactly in tune with media today.”

But Rudolph said while everything may be coming up roses for the Google effort now, that may not be the case in the longer term, as two questions aren’t likely to be answered for a few years.

First, when the one or two test cities get the service, will residents in the locales that weren’t chosen hold a grudge when Google comes calling years later and tries to sell them subscriptions to the service? Second, what if the service doesn’t live up to the clamor being generated by the marketing campaign?

“Everybody is thinking this must be something that is really big, that it will revolutionize the world and we want to be in on the ground floor. So even if it really turns out not to be that important, they’ve gotten people thinking that it is,” he said.

From a pure marketing perspective, though, getting people to believe that something is big has all the potential to make marketing professionals envy and remember the Google campaign. And accomplishing that for peanuts could lodge the effort in those memory banks for even longer.

But will the Google campaign make the marketing textbooks as a case study in coming years?

“Well, I would say it depends on the success of this program,” said Rudolph. “If this launches a whole new industry, which is what I think they’re planning to do … then it will be a big case study. If not, then maybe it will fade from memory pretty quickly because people don’t remember things that don’t succeed.”

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