“Populus led the workshops with BT’s propositions and marketing teams which helped develop a converged ‘Always-On’ service.”

Mike Tomlinson, BT Managing Director of SME

In the developed world we take round-the-clock internet connectivity for granted. Our economy would not function without it. When it falters, so does our ability to do business. For large organisations, the occasional connectivity disruption can cause frustration and dent short-term productivity. But for SMEs (small and medium-sized businesses) in all corners of the country, which account for 97% of the UK’s businesses, it can be the difference between profitability and not being able to operate at all.

In 2018 BT launched 4G Assure: the UK’s first business-grade broadband product which switches automatically to 4G to help small and medium sized businesses stay connected if they experience an interruption to their fixed broadband service.

The launch of the product was hugely successful and surpassed all expectations.

The challenge

In 2015, NPS results among BT Business customers with broadband were underperforming where BT hoped they would be, with the outlook unlikely to change unless BT came up with a solution.

At the same time, BT’s team of inventors were developing several different technical solutions that might provide failover internet connection for BT’s customers. But they didn’t know whether a device of that nature could sell, and if it could, how should it be marketed.

The questions BT sought to answer with their research partner were:

  1. Was there a market for those technical solutions?
  2. If so, what did the market look like? Where did the greatest opportunity lie?
  3. Which solution should be chosen to best appeal to that market?
  4. And how should that solution be presented to the market to maximise that opportunity?

What we did

Populus realised BT needed to immerse themselves in the world of SMEs, a world that – particularly when it comes to the use and reliance on technology – was alien to the way a large corporation operates.

Populus conducted a quantitative survey of 500 SME broadband decision makers. We found that broadband is vitally important to SMEs’ ability to function. In fact, half (49%) said they couldn’t function without broadband at all, while a further 38% said they could only function for a day or two. When signing up to any broadband service, reliability is the top of mind for SMEs, who cannot afford for it to fail.

This seemed to suggest potential for a device that would take over when broadband failed. But the research also pointed out the problem that BT customers already saw BT as reliable. How could BT make the case for an add-on product aimed at providing reliability when BT customers already thought this was part of what they were paying for? Why did the idea of ‘resilience’ not resonate with the target audience?

To answer this, Populus also conducted qualitative interviews, focus groups and auto-ethnographic studies with eight SME managers and owners. We also immersed BT’s key stakeholders in every stage of the process to bring them into the world of SMEs. A key part of this was a day-long workshop held with those involved in developing, marketing and financing the product, all hosted by an SME.

This immersive workshop revealed that resilience was not understood as much as the concept of ‘reliability’. Resilience implied the ability to bounce back after a failure, but when it comes to SMEs, then might not be able to afford the failure in the first place.

In this context, resilience and reliability fell flat. Even ‘re-assurance’ wasn’t enough, because that implied failure in the first place. The solution had to be automatic and it had to assure customers that it would never fail in the beginning.

Developing and marketing 4G Assure

BT settled on two final options: an ‘Always On’ router and a mobile Wi-Fi device. The router would automatically connect Wi-Fi enabled devices to a BT Wi-Fi hot spot, or to a 3G or 4G connection. With the mobile-phone-sized Wi-Fi device the customer would log in to the Wi-Fi device to connect to a BT Wi-Fi hot spot, or to a 3G or 4G connection.

The ‘Always On’ router was seen as the product that would work best in the SME world as it required no manual input from the business owners. It worked automatically, in the background, with no need to keep track of the device. And most importantly, when branded as 4G Assure, it made clear that the customer would never have to worry about broadband outages because, in their eyes, a continuous connection could always be assured.

The results

This outcome would not have been achieved without the BT team coming as close as possible to their customers and seeing working life through their eyes. This process helped BT move from thinking like a technology-driven, multi-billion pound organisation to one that fully understood customers’ needs.

Its ‘We’ve got your back’ advertisement directly mimicked the experience that BT’s team went through showing the daily lives of shop owners, florists, tattoo artists etc from their point of view with a camera tracking behind them.

The success that followed shows how important it is to design research in a way that strikes at the heart of the business challenge. In this case, BT needed to walk in its customers shoes. Without this immersive research programme, the product would have fallen at the first hurdle.