VoIP might just be all talk

The narrative arc for new technologies goes something like this: Its emergence is greeted with a mixture of hope and skepticism. As buzz starts to grow, so do expectations, and if it proves successful, pioneers find themselves flooded with competition. Next comes legal and regulatory concerns, followed

by security problems. Nothing has ridden this roller-coaster at quite the speed that voice-over-IP has, which makes the marketing strategies around it far less predictable.

We at ITBusiness.ca hear about some new technologies so far in advance that by the time they actually arrive we can barely believe there’s actually something to see. In just over half a year we’ve seen major debuts from Bell, Primus, Rogers, Vonage and a host of others (not to mention ancillary products and services to complement VoIP offerings). We went to the first couple of press conferences. Then we opted for the teleconference line. It’s now getting to the point where covering new entrants would be like giving the press we gave to every competitive local exchange carrier five years ago, only to watch them go belly-up by the time the issue reached readers’ hands.

Primus has won the early branding battle in this marketing war. TalkBroadband is probably the most recognizable name among early adopters, thanks to a blitz of TV, radio and print ads. A sign of its success comes through imitators like Toronto-based Telehop Communications, which earlier this week launched a similar service called BroadTalk. At this point, BroadTalkBand and BandTalkBroad cannot be very far behind.

At this point, you can’t consider yourself a 21st century telecommunications provider if you don’t at least have a short-term VoIP strategy you can talk about, if not an actual product or service. This is despite the fact that VoIP is still a nascent and highly unproven industry, where quality of service issues and cost comparisons could lead to a backlash in positive buzz. Several of the so-called launches are largely preliminary. Rogers, for example, will only offer its VoIP service through its DOCSIS cable network combined with soft-switching technology by the middle of next year, but its executives knew that the priority was to simply get in the game.

Now that everyone’s taking a piece of the action, the marketers at these firms will need to decide how to position themselves outside the hornets’ nest of rivals. They need a pitch that will prove compelling not only to consumers but also to mass media, who have mostly pegged VoIP as the struggling telecommunications industry’s Great White Hope. VoIP needs to be seen as simply a complementary part of an otherwise comprehensive portfolio — unless it takes off like gangbusters, at which point you take the route Blockbuster did when DVDs overtook VHS tapes, and simply push customers to adopt the new standard.

Bell, with its enterprise-class investments with Nortel, will have a possible edge, given that it can aim its VoIP offerings primarily at larger commercial customers. That leaves Primus, Rogers and others to duke it out in the small and medium business segment, the same place where many traditional high-tech firms have stumbled.

Underpinning any successful brand, of course, is trust, and reliability of service will be the only important element of VoIP marketing, far more so than price. As much as users curse their long-distance charges, they know they can count on their traditional phone services. The Internet, with its viruses, worms and frequent server outages, has none of that credibility, even when Web-related services are offered through well-known telecom firms. Whether it’s through testimonials, benchmark tests or some kind of word-of-mouth miracle, the company that can prove its VoIP is ready for prime time now will get the most attention after the others deal with customer complaints. We’re already sick of the hype. You can only TalkBroadband for so long before people stop listening.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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