November 18, 2016
Whether it’s fair or not, cable companies are battling a public perception of decline and obsolesce.
Not so, says Vicki Lins, CEO of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM), a media trade association with the teeth to actually influence and coordinate marketing efforts for its members. Previously a senior vice president of marketing and communications for Comcast, Lins has been around the industry long enough to recognize the rules have changed for the better. Those changes are leading to tech and service innovations that, Lins says, are both unpreceded and more mindful of consumer preferences than ever before. As Lin tells it, the story isn’t: what happened to cable? It’s where is cable going?
Q: What are some lessons that you learned as a marketer that guide you as a CEO?
A: In this day and age, CEOs need to be more marketing centric than ever before with consumer choice, consumer engagement and consumer empowerment. That consumer-centric view to running a business is important pretty much across that board. I would say the No. 1 I bring as a marketer is that customer-centricity, which remains at the core of what CTAM does but is certainly applicable to businesses across the board.
Q: What are the common goals of CTAM, and how do you use marketing to achieve them?
A: CTAM is unique as a marketing organization. Although we are an industry association, as a marketing association we actively market with and for our members. We’re providing a large-scale focus to support industry-wide success. Along those lines, we really work to positively position the collective brand, strengthen the overall pay-TV business model and market best-in-class consumer experiences. So those things are really no different than what I would be doing in another CMO role.
Q: How do you stay neutral between member conflicts when you’re heading up a trade group?
A: Because of our hybrid business model, it requires strong relationships and collaboration between the companies that have the most robust infrastructure for delivering expansive amounts of content and the content providers. Because everyone works together to deliver the best value, CTAM’s role as an organization [is different] from the stereotypical association. Although there are certainly conflicts that arise, we exist in a solid space of collaboration and work very hard to positively positon the collective brand on behalf of all. It’s a little bit less contentious than it is collaborative, and that’s unique to the industry.
Q: This seems like a challenging time for cable companies. A recent report by the Convergence Consulting Group found 1.1 million Americans cut the cord in 2015 . With the rise of streaming options, how can cable companies sell their value amid this disruption?
A: We sit at the 30,000-foot level and get a 360-degree view. We have an incredible vantage point of what’s going on across the spectrum of the industry. We’re always looking for unifiers. Our members include cable companies, broadcast and cable television networks, movie studios, agency and technology companies, so our membership is actually very diverse. Our membership is configured of companies that, years ago, might have considered each other competitors, but now consider each other colleagues, and the lines are really starting to blur.
So although the press loves negative stories, it’s important to know that both Comcast and Time Warner—the two largest cable companies—recently reported growth in their earnings calls. So not only do I think that the press is largely overblown and a somewhat inaccurate reflection of the state of things today, but it’s also important to remember that cable companies are broadband providers as well. So when you talk about consumers acces
Q: How are cable companies adapting?
A: I think that people would be shocked at the amount of innovation that is going on within cable companies today. There’s a lot of history and baggage there, so reputation-wise that segment of the industry continues to be challenged, and in many cases unfairly so. CTAM works to positively position the collective brand and part of that industry brand is certainly cable’s reputation, so we work on that with our members. But in doing so, the reality of the innovation taking hold is so impressive that we stare at each other saying, “Why don’t people know this more?”
The press likes to write about cord-cutting, they don’t necessarily like to write about the new interface that is curating an improved viewer experience. Or the portal that allows cable subscribers to access all of their programs on-demand across multiple screens. Or the industry initiative around TV everywhere, which happens to be a CTAM-led initiative, where we’re driving an improved customer experience by ensuring that consumers can tap into the many options available for controlling their many viewing opportunities anytime, anywhere across of multiple screens. Those types of experiences are becoming ubiquitous today. Cable Wi-Fi is a program that, in my opinion, is largely unsung. The network of Wi-Fi hotspots is interconnected, allowing paid TV subscribers to access Wi-Fi almost anywhere wherever they are.
It’s no longer about a pipe or a region, and especially in the world of CTAM, it’s very much about the customer experience, the ubiquity of improved value, convenience, access, quality—and that’s not even talking about the quality or quantity of providers that’s coming from the content providers and the cable networks and is consumed across screens, platforms and a multitude of services.
I think the industry reputation that surrounds cable is grounded is history and probably grounded in the old realities of a business that was trying to catch up and not reflective of the state of the industry today that has become very customer centric, very innovation driven, and is, in many cases today, leading—not playing catch-up or keeping pace with—the state of change in the paid-TV business model and content universe.
At the center of all of that are the consumers, and they’re in control. They’re going to configure their content consumption the way that works for them, whether it be on different screens or through different providers, or whether it be a streaming solution or a paid-TV solution, and in many cases both. Keeping on our eye on consumers and building incremental value for consumers is absolutely due north for us.
Q: Do you think there will ever come a time when channels will be offered à la carte? Is that good from a marketing perspective?
A: It’s so much more of a policy hot potato than a marketing questions. The economics of that are challenging, and I think that it sounds really good because we all want to put consumers in control, but the reality is that it would impact the diversity, quality and quantity of content and so we have to be careful. We’re clearly headed in a direction of consumer choice and consumer control. I think we will be reactive and responsive as an industry to that consumer input and direction. But I don’t know enough at this point, nor does anyone really, to know whether or not we’ll go all the way to the extreme, and whether or not that would even be economically feasible, even if consumers actually really want it.
Q: So it seems collaborating is a big trend among cable media. Is there any advantage to injecting a little more competition and opening up the cable markets to make things more competitive in regions?
A: The word region is an interesting word. One of the great purposes that CTAM plays in this pay-TV business model universe is that we enable the cable companies to engage with consumers on a national basis. We know that consumers want access, convenience, a quality experience, a quality interface, flexibility, opportunity to curate their own viewing experience across streams. Comcast has developed what serves as a gold-standard experience with its Xfinity X1 platform, and to that degree, has licensed it to other cable companies. Cox most recently announced the introduction of their new, improved Contour product, which in fact, they licensed the X1 platform from Comcast and introduced to their subscriber base. This creates a more ubiquitous and seamless experience for customers within that cable pay-TV universe. It also helps that portion of the industry compete against other services that are offering national footprints to customers.
Q. It seems that live events continue to be a differentiator between cable and streaming services. How can you use that to market yourself?
A. Live events continue to be huge. It’s no secret that the political season has been a robust ratings boost for all news networks. This is something that is very compelling to consumers and there’s a much greater appetite for engagement. We find more multi-screen activity. Live events also shift consumer behavior in the content universe in many ways. Live events also drive exposure. The Olympics [were] a viewing experience and very deep engagement, integrated experience for consumers. Comcast NBCUniversal has done a remarkable job of teeing up a consumer-centric plan, allowing consumers to dive into the live experiences of the Olympics in almost any way possible. And then to curate their own set of interests around what they may not be able to watch because of time zone changes.
So it’s a great opportunity of how the industry is both keeping pace with the changes in the marketplace and also leading the marketplace into innovative and exciting areas. That also creates great opportunities for advertisers to engage consumers with their brand in the moment, in that passion zone when interest and engagement is so high.