Wireline services, such as cable and home internet, are the backbone of the connected home. As such, they require a lot of thought and research before purchase. How do shoppers go about making this big decision? More and more, they are turning to digital. In a recent study, we explored how people are using the web to make these critical purchase decisions, and how service providers can increase brand awareness and drive customer acquisition during the all-important path to purchase.

Written by
Nina Thatcher
August 2013

These days there aren’t many things we buy without consulting the web. Even when we head out to a car dealer to do a test drive or a retail store to try on shoes, there’s a good chance that we’ll already have done at least some research online.

But there are entire categories of intangible products that you can’t try out, or even buy, in a store. Take wireline services — cable, home internet, pay TV, phone, and streaming video. While some providers have storefronts, they are selling services, not physical products. Yet these services are incredibly important; they power our lives. As such, they deserve careful research and consideration. So how do people decide which to buy? And what role does digital play in the process? We partnered with Millward Brown Digital (formerly Compete) to survey shoppers and analyze their online behavior from May to June 2013, comparing the results year on year to see how the category is evolving.

The stand out result? Digital has become the main way for shoppers to research wireline services. Half use search engines throughout their decision-making process and over a quarter use consumer review sites, while TV is used by only a quarter of consumers and newspapers, direct mail, radio and print are used by fewer than one in five.

It also emerged that customers are taking more time to make up their minds, mixing research from a range of digital sources including search, online video and mobile devices. And they continue to use digital post-purchase, turning to the web for customer service. Exploring these findings in more detail, a more complete picture of today’s wireline buyer emerges, along with a set of learnings that should be useful for anybody whose business involves selling wireline or similarly ‘hard to hold’ products and services.

Careful consideration

Digital gives consumers more control than ever before over the research process, and they take it seriously. They know they can seek out information from a vast number of sources, from a brand’s website to user-generated reviews, and they invest the time to do exactly that. Over half of the consumers studied began researching wireline services more than two weeks prior to making a purchase, and during that period two thirds of them visited more than five sites before buying. The web makes it easy to compare brands and features, but also to narrow down choices. Case in point: More than one in three shoppers visited the same provider site more than twice in the research period, suggesting that service providers have the opportunity to influence consideration among those consumers who have already shown interest.

The value of video

One of the fastest-growing opportunities is online video; a quarter of shoppers used it in their research, twice as many as last year. They watched many types of videos, the most popular being advertisements (55%), professional reviews (42%) and product/service feature videos (24%), and importantly, the videos emerged as highly influential. More than 80% of customers went to the provider to seek more information after viewing related video content, and they used multiple devices to do so; half of mobile researchers watched video on their mobile devices, and a quarter of shoppers used their devices to get more information after watching a video (up 127% on last year).

Discovery across screens

Beyond video, mobile has become a key part of the research process for many wireline shoppers. More than one in four now use a smartphone to research their purchase, while more than one in five use a tablet. Usage of these mobile devices has doubled in the past year, becoming a major way for customers to discover new brands; over half of consumers learned about brands they were not aware of, or were not previously considering through mobile. And many of them made those discoveries via search; 82% of multi-screen researchers now search on their device, which has more than tripled since last year.

The search for new customers

Search remains one of the most important discovery tools for shoppers, especially new customers. In fact, the majority of leads driven from paid category search (over 90%) are from prospective buyers. And they often don’t have brands in mind; one in six wireline shoppers search exclusively on category search terms (such as “cable TV”, “broadband internet”, etc.). We saw that ads on category terms drive purchases, brand searches and brand site visits, even when people don't click. And when they do click on a brand’s category term ad, shoppers are four times more likely to perform a search on that brand.

Satisfaction guaranteed

For the buyers we surveyed, making a purchase is not the end of the road. Customer service is a major consideration that can make or break a brand’s relationship with a customer, turning a potential advocate into a detractor (armed with their very own social media megaphone). We found that increasing numbers of customers are turning to digital channels for their post-purchase needs, with customer service searches performed on smartphones up 52% since last year, and YouTube customer services searches up 72%.

Digital has become the primary way shoppers research wireline services.

But are brands responding? In the six-month period after purchasing wireline services, one in five respondents said they were dissatisfied. It’s unavoidable that problems will occur, so in a competitive marketplace with a savvy, connected audience it’s essential that customer service is addressed across devices, providing information, connecting to call centers and responding to concerns. If done well, social media can also be a key part of a retention strategy — a way to serve existing customers and use their advocacy to attract new ones.

Marketing the invisible

So what does this mean for marketers of wireline services and similarly “invisible” services that people can’t see in a store?

  • Digital, including mobile, is where your customers are. To make your brand stand out, you need to be there too.
  • More and more consumers are watching relevant video content, but over half of the people we surveyed weren’t aware it even existed. Create useful content, then make sure they can find it easily though search and video sites.
  • The more research consumers do online, the more opportunities you have to influence their decisions. Capture attention by optimizing search and stay top of mind through remarketing.
  • Invest in search ads on category terms. Otherwise you’re missing one out of six undecided shoppers.
  • Keep investing in mobile and explore its full impact. For example, are mobile searchers then hopping onto their PC or making a phone call? How does this play into your attribution strategy?
  • As people turn to the web for customer service, make sure they can get answers to questions and information about your products quickly and easily across devices (think click-to-call from mobile and how-to videos on YouTube).