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Ads aim to simplify high-speed Net access

Excite@Home in its new ad campaign is walking a tough line betwen attracting the largest number of Net subscribers and oversimplifying a technology still struggling with speed issues.

Internet access providers are looking to market their high-speed services to the greatest number of Net surfers as possible, but in the process may risk oversimplifying a technology still struggling with speed issues.

Excite@Home, the nation's leading cable modem service, has launched a "multimillion-dollar" advertising campaign planned to run in several local markets where its service is available. The campaign aims to reach beyond the tech-savvy Internet users that now dominate Excite@Home's subscriber base to enlist people new to the Net.

The ads focus on Web page download times, comparing how much faster a user can access a certain page when using Excite@Home's high-speed service as compared with a standard phone-based modem. Broadband connections, like cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) services, are typically faster than dial-up services.

Excite@Home's ad campaign is part of a larger trend in the broadband industry toward simplifying complicated network technology and addressing potential users with language they can understand.

But the company's promise of faster downloads may be something it could find hard to guarantee, as there are many elements that can affect how fast a Web page can load over the Internet--even when using a fast cable modem.

The speed of a Web site's server, where data is cached locally, and general congestion on the public Internet can affect download speeds--regardless of what type of high-speed Net connection is used.

Excite@Home executives said they are aware of both the benefits and drawbacks of advertising to draw a larger subscriber base, but said that the short TV ads are aimed to focus on the positive aspects of the high-speed service, not its potential problems.

"You can't go in to all the caveats," said Fred Siegel, senior vice president of marketing for Excite@Home. "The basic advertising message is about the virtues, that this is a bigger Internet experience."

Yet while listening to marketing promises, new users should also keep in mind the potential pitfalls associated with the emerging technologies. Excite@Home is no stranger to speed problems, and has already struggled with slow service and network problems in some areas.

"As more people get on broadband connections, more and more of the Internet's limitations are going to come through," said David Eiswert, director of Internet research at the Strategis Group.

Fast connections, but not always
Although broadband service providers are looking to make their high-speed services understandable to the beginning Net user, they must be careful not to oversimplify their claims.

Excite@Home generally offers consumers speeds of between 1 mbps (megabits per second) and 3 mbps. The company says its service offers speeds up to 100 times faster than a standard dial-up modem.

Yet Excite@Home already has dealt with network speed issues in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as in Connecticut. The most recent speed problems and network outages forced Excite@Home's partner AT&T to offer refunds to many Northern California users.

The new ad campaign does stop short of making specific promises on download times, however.

"They're not promising a new experience. They're saying, 'You know that research you do? Well, you'll be able to do it a heck of a lot faster,'" said Eiswert.

Simple is key to sales
Analysts say few consumers will switch from a $20-a-month dial-up Internet service provider to a more expensive broadband service provider without fully understanding what the advantages are. For the average consumer, previous marketing messages may have been too complex.

According to a recent Strategis study, 42 percent of Internet users know "virtually nothing" about cable modems, and 60 percent know little about DSL. "You've got a case where users know almost nothing about the product," Eiswert said.

The ADSL Forum, a non-profit consortium of 300 companies in the DSL industry, has launched an educational awareness and advertising campaign aimed at showing potential customers how DSL service could change their life. The campaign slogan: "Not just a phone line--it's a lifestyle."

Excite@Home's new ad campaign also aims to show new users how the company's service can improve their online experience. Called "Think Big," the campaign touts a "bigger" Internet experience through faster downloads, so-called always on connections, and interactive content known as "rich media."

Analysts generally believe the higher speed argument will resonate with most Internet users.

"Consumers do feel like they wait a while, and they get frustrated," said Jeannette Noyes, research manager for residential and small business communications at International Data Corporation.

But when targeting a mass-market audience, companies must move beyond talking about specific downstream rates in kilobytes per second and other jargon, analysts said.

"I'd be more inclined to say what it means to people, rather than how they do it," Noyes said.

Excite@Home executives acknowledge that the technological details often are too much for the average user.

"The consumer doesn't get it," Siegel said. "The market for broadband really is the average person. It's not someone who is a techie. So when you start to use words like connectivity, people say 'Whoa!'

"That was the whole impetus for this campaign. How do you explain broadband in a way [the public] can understand," he said. "We explain it without using the words broadband, or connectivity, or data flow."