Broadband for America: Slick or Sick?

I received a mailer today from “Broadband for America.” Featuring a forlorn African-American boy, it stated that while “high-speed Internet has become a vital part of our lives…two out of three low-income families don’t have broadband internet” service.

It also urged me to sign an online petition and “let Congress and the FCC know that I support bringing broadband to everyone.”

I’ve been around long enough to know a front group when I see one. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Broadband for America is a coalition of technology companies seeking to influence the policymakers who are crafting our national technology policy. That’s nothing new.

What’s new is their aggressive grassroots campaign. Groups like Broadband for America are a dime a dozen.  But they typically spend their money on expensive lobbyists, advertising and meetings.  Broadband for America is doing that, but they’re also aggressively reaching out to the public using tried-and-true grassroots communications tactics like a petition drive.

This has clearly gotten under their opponents skin. Karl Bode of DSL Reports savaged the group in September, calling it a “dog and pony show” by a group whose members “have collectively spent billions of dollars preventing [expanded access to broadband] from actually happening.”  Blogger Phillip Dampier went even further, calling Broadband for America the “Mother of all Astroturf Front Groups.”

So here’s my question: Isn’t this exactly what Broadband for America should be doing?  I’m not an expert on technology policy, so I won’t comment on the merits of their political proposals.  I am, however, an expert in grassroots communications and  word-of-mouth marketing.  And there’s no doubt about it; the Broadband for America campaign is slick and effective.

I already mentioned the petition drive.  But Broadband for America also has a Twitter feed on which visitors can post comments.  They also have a blog, videos and discussion forum.  I’m not sure how many people are actually using these tools, but having them removes barriers to communication and makes it easy for people to rally to their side.

My recommendation to their opponents?  Stop whining and start organizing.  And don’t tell me you don’t have the money.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had no money either, and they were faced with a much stronger opponent (300 years of institutionalized racism).  If they can do it, you should be able to find a way too.

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2 Responses

  1. “What’s new is their aggressive grassroots campaign. Groups like Broadband for America are a dime a dozen. But they typically spend their money on expensive lobbyists, advertising and meetings. Broadband for America is doing that, but they’re also aggressively reaching out to the public using tried-and-true grassroots communications tactics like a petition drive.”

    This isn’t new. If you’re an “expert in grassroots communications and word-of-mouth marketing” you should know that groups like Issue Dynamics (now Amplify Public Affairs” have been engaged in these kinds of grassroots, blog/forum campaigns for quite a few years now. Companies like Verizon and AT&T are among the very best in the industry at using artificial consumer advocacy (and sometimes even artificial consumer groups) to lobby politicians and mislead consumers.

    I’m not necessarily sure this is something to be particularly impressed by, but that’s a different discussion. It is clever, certainly. Occasionally ingenious, sure. But it’s frequently dishonest and disgusting as well.

    “My recommendation to their opponents? Stop whining and start organizing.”

    I’m a blogger that covers the technology sector, not an “opponent.” I lack the funds or interest to defeat marketing organizations like this. I simply illustrate how they work to consumers in the hopes of educating them.

    • Many thanks for your comment. I agree that grassroots communications have been used by industry groups for years. But what differentiates the Broadband for America campaign is its incorporation of many social networking tools, their seamless integration and their willingness to reach out to the general public through mailers and credible spokespersons.

      Most of the campaigns I’ve seen in the last ten years have been grassroots in name only, truly astroturf. This feels different, more credible.

      And I’m not sure I would call this “artificial consumer advocacy” simply because the companies are whipping up voices to speak on their behalf. That’s exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. If opponents of these groups were whipping people up, would that somehow be different?

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