A new ball game: Wireless networks throw down with performance-based marketing

Sprint and T-Mobile are counterpunching at Verizon's 'rolling balls' ad with their own data.

T-Mobile is asking consumers to take its #BallBusterChallenge in response to Verizon's claims
T-Mobile is asking consumers to take its #BallBusterChallenge in response to Verizon's claims

Three of the four biggest wireless providers in the US are engaged in an all out marketing war. Two of them, Sprint and T-Mobile, which were in merger talks at one point, have veered in different directions with their consumer PR and media messaging.

Verizon Wireless debuted a TV spot weeks ago that professed its network superiority to AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, using colorful, rolling balls to make its point.

In a rebuttal last week, T-Mobile repurposed the Verizon ad with pop-up quote bubbles in an online video challenging the metrics Verizon used.

Sprint also rolled with the same theme to show its LTE Plus network has the fastest download speeds.

(AT&T, which declined to comment for this article, was the only provider not to launch an ad with a "rolling balls" theme.)

Tim Farrar, analyst and president at research firm TMF Associates, notes wireless providers are ramping up marcomms efforts touting network performance and quality.

"They are taking whatever data they can that says, ‘We’ve got the best network or the fastest or the best coverage.’ Those kinds of statements have become more important to them because now they are trying to entice people to switch," he says.

Farrar explains that new ads tout how well a smartphone can work, rather than enticing users to upgrade to the latest device.

"This is the big change from a couple years ago; no longer can they say, ‘Come to us to and upgrade to a smart phone.’ Now it is ‘Come to us so that your smart phone will work better,’" he says.

PRWeek reached out to Verizon, but Jeffrey Nelson, VP of comms for the company, declined to talk PR strategy. However, in an e-mail he stated, "Our ball ad is a strong representation of Verizon’s network superiority. It stands for itself."

While Sprint and T-Mobile both released racing ball ads in response to Verizon, the former is aiming to educate the market about third-party measurement providers. Such companies supply carriers with the data used to trumpet performance indicators such as speed, coverage, and reliability.

Adrienne Norton, senior manager of corporate communications at Sprint, says, "It’s coincidental that we both ran ads challenging the Verizon ad, but it’s clear that people are taking issue with Verizon’s claims."

"We think the Verizon ad is misleading, and we wanted to set the record straight," she adds.

Its push-back included a blog post from Sprint Chief Technology Officer John Saw. He outlines three metrics used by the carriers, Nielsen Mobile Performance, RootMetrics, and Ookla and writes that Ookla and RootMetrics, which are used by T-Mobile and Verizon, respectively, "measure how fast a network is built to perform, not how fast traffic is actually moving."

"We used the blog as an opportunity to educate consumers and media on network claims being made by our competitors," Norton explains. "There are many types of network measurement, and the various claims from our competitors can be confusing."

Messaging has also focused on a price promotion offering customers 50% off what they are paying at Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile.

"We’re communicating the fact the [performance] difference between national carriers is really indiscernible to most customers in most markets," Norton says. "However, when it comes to value, there’s a big difference."

In the third quarter of last year, Verizon had nearly 138 million US subscribers, compared with 126 million for AT&T, 61 million for T-Mobile, and 58 million for Sprint, according to data from Strategy Analytics.

T-Mobile has focused its PR strategy on social media, where it aims to empower consumers to judge networks for themselves, rather than on the basis of independent third parties.

"We wanted to address the inaccuracies in Verizon’s advertising and we did that with a pop-up video. Admittedly the reality is people’s perceptions of our network are two or three years old," says Clint Patterson, director of consumer and business PR for T-Mobile. "We have a lot of work to educate people and help perceptions catch up to the reality of where our network is now."

He notes that the company’s own research verifies its claims about the speed of its network.

"We say we’ve got the fastest LTE network and we do that based on crowd-sourced test which we think are pretty indisputable," says Patterson. "Verizon uses research from RootMetrix, Sprint from Nielsen Mobile Performance, and AT&T says it has the most reliable 4G LTE network. But we understand that to some extent consumers are immune to these claims and stats."

"It all starts to sound like noise to the consumer," he concludes.

T-Mobile’s #BallBusterChallenge push aims to rise above that. The man-on-the street challenges, which the carrier is staging in both urban and rural locations across the US, invites customers to test their phone against Verizon data speeds. The initiative has hit locations in Washington State and will be in Santa Clara, California, before Super Bowl 50 next Sunday.

T-Mobile is sharing photos on Twitter of people whose phone failed the challenge versus a T-Mobile-enabled phone. They are holding signs with phrases such as, "Wow, Verizon you really dropped the ball this time" and "I had to see it to believe it. T-Mobile’s Network has balls."

The #BallBusterChallenge also includes an offer to journalists to conduct side-by-side comparisons. The company will give them two smartphones, one with three months of free T-Mobile service and the other from Verizon.

"We want the public and journalists to take the challenge themselves and see how the networks stack up where they actually work and play," says Patterson. "It is really about saying, ‘Don’t believe them and don’t believe us. You be the judge.’"

Porter Novelli is T-Mobile’s PR AOR. It also works with Waggener Edstrom.

T-Mobile has also generated press by creating an earnings call drinking game for Verizon and AT&T’s quarterly reports and conference calls, which Fast Company, Fortune, and Jim Cramer’s Mad Money all reported on.

"It wasn’t designed necessarily to take on Verizon’s claims," Patterson says. "But it did give us a chance to get some jabs into Verizon."

Tech PR pros applauded the marcomms moves from Sprint and T-Mobile.

"While Verizon has been winning the war on LTE coverage, the competition has been finding other ways to appeal to the customer base from loading times to price, which is a big one," says Kristen Sharkey, SVP at ICR. "The mobile carrier industry like any maturing market is based around a handful of competitors that need to win market share versus building market share. Anytime that happens, it’s going to a commoditization war."

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