Marketing Is ... Rural Telcos Explore New Ways to Connect With Customers

The theme of the 2019 NTCA Marketing + Sales Conference (formerly PR & Marketing Conference), held April 29–May 1, 2019, in New Orleans, La., was “Marketing is”—a play on the idea that marketing can mean many things to many people. What “marketing is” for NTCA members depends on a variety of factors and perspectives, and the conference theme is befitting of the diversity of thought the event draws, with companies of all shapes and sizes represented. Here are some answers to the question, “what is marketing?” through conversations overheard and presentations observed at the inaugural marketing and sales event.


The 2019 conference marks the first time NTCA has focused in earnest on marketing and sales strategies for the rural broadband industry, building on the successful PR & Marketing Conference of the past. The 2019 conference also drew more than 300 marketing and sales professionals from across the industry—a new record. More than 50 of them were first-timers. The conference has attracted communications pros from outside NTCA’s membership for several years. In 2019, however, more than a dozen attendees from electric co-ops and ISPs offering broadband services to rural communities outside of traditional ILEC territories were in attendance. This growth reflects new industry entrants as well as an increasing focus on marketing and sales among NTCA members,
with more companies sending multiple people.


One of the favorite sessions during the conference was “Innovation Ignition,” featuring short presentations about broadband-supported innovations. The presentations embraced the “Ignite” style, which is like a TED Talk, but shorter. In Ignite presentations, each speaker has five minutes and must use 20 slides, with each slide advancing automatically after 15 seconds, forcing speakers to get to the point, fast. Larry Montgomery, director of sales and marketing for Etex Telephone Cooperative (Gilmer, Texas), presented his company’s sales and customer service strategy, featuring highly personal emails and  meaningful face time with business clients. He shared that the co-op’s focus on creating long term customer relationships has transformed its culture by making everyone part of the “Etex family.” The true star of the session was a stick of 288 strands of fiber optic cable capable of connecting thousands of Etex customers that Montgomery and his team use to sell the power of broadband and connection.

Brianne Partlow, marketing coordinator at Dakota Central Telecom (Carrington, N.D.), followed with a presentation about the Anne Carlsen Center, a Jamestown, N.D., nonprofit that provides disability services and support and is served with Dakota Central’s broadband. Partlow shared how a visit to the
center opened her eyes to the impact technology has on those touched by developmental disability or delay. While visiting the center, Partlow met a young woman who uses voice-activated devices (like Amazon Echo) and tablets to communicate and write—all supported by Dakota Central’s broadband.

Ashley Spinks, NTCA communications coordinator, presented the tale of Citizens Cooperative Telephone (Floyd,Va.), an NTCA member in rural southwest Virginia that recently announced its fi ber-to-the-home project. Spinks shared that 97% of Floyd County will have access to gigabit speeds by 2021, and broadband connectivity is already spurring e-commerce in the county. Because of Citizens’ broadband services, Henry’s Healthy Pet Foods ships all-natural pet food for squirrels, hamsters, rats and mice all over the world (because even squirrels deserve to be healthy!)


As I have attended this conference over the years, I have seen firsthand a transformation in its energy and enthusiasm. In the past, chatter about overcoming regulatory challenges and plugging holes in federal cost recovery support was regular fare, leaving many with more questions than solutions.

Now, hallway discussions focus more on bringing broadband to new customers and engaging those customers with unique service offerings. The 2019 Marketing Excellence Awards, formerly TeleChoice Awards, awarded campaigns promoting faster broadband speeds; solutions for “stinky” Internet; brand values of customer support, innovation, integrity and dependability; and community impact activities. Themes of community commitment, service excellence and reliability were featured prominently throughout the award winners, including honorees in the new Sales Strategy and Website Redesign categories.

Another highlight of the conference was the announcement of the improved Smart Rural Communities™ program from NTCA, including a new branding component. NTCA members can now become Smart Rural Community Providers through an annual license, receive a small marketing kit to help tell
their success stories and join the network of Smart Rural Communities building a brighter future for small town America. In addition, the Gig Certification program has been brought under the Smart Rural Communities brand through a new Gig-Capable Smart Rural Community Provider logo, which is also
available through an annual license. For those in attendance, the 2019 NTCA Marketing + Sales Conference gave a glimpse into the future. Marketing plans are in place, and those plans are being executed in furious fashion to connect more rural Americans to cutting-edge technologies. What’s more, talk of innovative partnerships—overcoming distance and density with innovation and entrepreneurship—is both invigorating and inspiring.


This article was published in print on the Rural Telecom, Summer 2019 issueRural Telecom, established in 1981, is the quarterly magazine published by NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. Print subscriptions to Rural Telecom are $35 for NTCA members; $135 for nonmembers.