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September 1997

Guest Commentary by Kristen Kirkpatrick

*Guest Response by Patricia Mokhtarian

The Unmarketing of Telecommuting

wheel logoFour years ago I was part of a team hired by the University of California at Davis to market the Neighborhood Telecenters Program  to employers and their employees. At the time I was brought into the project, I knew very little about telecommuting. By the end of the project, however, I knew exactly what marketing is needed if this great concept is to catch on.


Unfortunately, I found that many of those who had the greatest interest in making telecommuting work were frequently those who did the most damage to our marketing efforts.


program logo Take, for starters, the word "telecommute." As our understanding of the project grew, so did our conviction that we had to refer to the program as a "teleworking" project, not telecommuting. After all, it was clear from the research that employers don't really care about the commute aspects of a job -- they just want the work to get done.


Thus, we realized we had to craft dual messages in order to achieve success in our telework marketing effort. The hot buttons for Target Audience #1, the employer, are vastly different from those of Target Audience #2, the employee.


The two messages are more than just different -- in some ways they actually contradict one another. While we utilized "quality of life" to entice prospective teleworkers, we emphasized "quality of work" to employers. We had to be careful that we didn't make life as a teleworker look too comfortable and risk losing employer support.


Likewise, while most employees are committed to the company's bottom line, they tend to resent the control decision-makers have over them. The injection of "improving productivity" into the message to employees, therefore, also required careful crafting to avoid the impression that telework was just more management manipulation.


Critical to the success of any marketing program is selection of the media that are most appropriate to the overall objectives of the project. In our case, we recommended the following tactics:

Brochures targeting employer issues and concerns;


Brochures targeting employee issues and concerns, with a business reply card to allow us to build a data base of eager prospects;


Door hangers for distribution in each of the neighborhoods surrounding the telecenters; and


Radio spots during the heaviest commute hours.


We were successful in selling our client, UC Davis, on the importance of the first three elements, but the state agency, the California Department of Transportation {Caltrans}, that controlled our budget felt the fourth element was ill-advised and declined to fund radio advertising.


Think about it: We're targeting commuters, trying to get them to telework instead of making that long drive. What better resource for communicating the message than radio? Especially commute-time radio? Interestingly, one of the project centers, the Vacaville Telecenter, funded its own radio spots, and theirs has been one of the most successful telecenters of all ...


Meanwhile, in the last four years a new and better marketing tactic has become available that I strongly advocate: Web sites. Every telecenter, every telework resource organization, and anyone with statistical information supporting the success of telework should be on the Internet's World Wide Web. It is this very technology that makes teleworking not only possible but successful. It's quite simple: Use the technology to sell the concept!


I called this paper "The Unmarketing of Telecommuting" because I learned firsthand that almost every great marketing idea we recommended was rejected or altered considerably by Caltrans to ensure that things remained safe and politically correct.


There is a supreme irony here: The State of California, as a matter of legislated public policy, is on record as one of the first and largest supporters of remote telework. Yet, the state agency responsible for the funding of this project did the most to minimize the success of marketing the Neighborhood Telecenters Program.


Teleworking is a revolutionary concept that can change the way we work and live forever. However, it requires aggressive marketing to ensure that both the public- and private-sector decision-makers receive the right kind of information and incentives. It requires educating employers and enthusing the employees. It requires a solid commitment of marketing dollars and an appreciation of the right marketing strategy.


And most certainly, it requires that public agencies implement, not impede, public policy.


Kristen Kirkpatrick 
916 747-3184 

Copyright 1997 - Kristen Kirkpatrick

[The purpose of the Fleming LTD Guest Commentary Series is to raise issues, not necessarily to debate them. Upon reasonable occasion, however, we will publish a thoughtful response to a provocative commentary. This is one of those occasions. dmf]

Guest Response by Patricia Mokhtarian

I would like to respond briefly to several points raised by Kris Kirkpatrick in her September 1997 guest commentary. Ms. Kirkpatrick had some novel insights into the dual nature of the marketing challenge for teleworking.

Nevertheless, her column included a number of statements that I consider inaccurate or misleading, or on which I have a decidedly different opinion. Let me offer another point of view on several of the issues she raised.

With all due respect to the hard work of the center developers, Vacaville has not been notably more successful than other facilities in the Neighborhood Telecenters Program (NTP). Vacaville was originally operating two sites, and closed one due, in part, to low utilization.

In the last year for which we collected data (July 1995 - June 1996), after it had already been open one year, the remaining Vacaville site had an average usage rate of about 12% - typical-to-low compared to the other sites in the program.

We have extensively analyzed the effectiveness of various marketing strategies in our forthcoming final report on center operations. For every participant possible, we identified the marketing techniques that initially captured him or her. We found that internal distribution of information by employers and newspaper reporting were by far the most effective tools for raising awareness, jointly impacting more than half of all placements.

For the *seven* NTP sites which did use radio advertising, that technique was important to only 12% of their placements, and was ultimately considered by most centers not to be cost-effective compared to other strategies.

Even though all of our centers used door hangers, we only found two instances in which that method led to eventual placements.

I also disagree about the effectiveness of a Web site as a marketing strategy. The NTP has had a Web site up for well over a year (at the urging of Caltrans, incidentally), which has links to centers' own Web pages, where they were available. Again, we are not aware of a single placement as a result.

Now I'm a fan of Web sites myself - they are very helpful for disseminating information, and centers with Web sites report a gratifying number of hits. But there's many a slip between an inquiry or expression of interest, and a final joint decision on the part of an employee and employer to use the telecenter. Furthermore, many of those hits are worldwide, whereas the markets for neighborhood telecenters are for the most part not global but quite local.

The barriers to increased telecommuting are not technological, and hence, technology is not the solution. The resistant (and often computer-limited) manager is not going to find reassurance from the Internet that is not already available in more "high-touch" forms.

There is no substitute - at least in this early stage in the life cycle of telecommuting in general and telecenters in particular - for labor-intensive, personal, targeted, intelligent salesmanship after initial awareness has been raised through the means described above.

The mass-marketing, high-tech, hands-off approach is woefully incomplete at best and largely ineffective at worst.

Having worked in this field for a number of years, and having watched a number of enthusiastically promoted telecommuting projects - both public *and* private sector -- come and go, I can't imagine anyone saying they know "exactly what marketing is needed if this great concept is to catch on."

Prof. Patricia L. Mokhtarian, Principal Investigator 
Neighborhood Telecenters Program 
Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering 
University of California, Davis 
916 752-7062 (voice) 
916 752-7872 (fax) 

[Ed. note: To clarify an apparent contradiction between Kirkpatrick's and Mohktarian's statements regarding the effectiveness of radio advertising, we contacted Ed Huestis, manager of the Vacaville Telecenter. He confirmed Mokhtarian's report that the center did use limited, local radio and cable television advertising during the term of the Neighborhood Telecenters Program - and that it had little effect on attracting business to the telecenter.

However, Huestis also corroborated Kirkpatrick's contention that after the NTP study was concluded, the telecenter used a much larger radio and cable TV ad campaign targeting commuters on the Interstate 80 corridor between Sacramento and San Francisco. This most recent campaign has netted a potential anchor tenant that would make the Vacaville Telecenter one of the few self- supporting centers in the state, he said.

None of funding for the radio advertising came from Caltrans, Huestis stressed. The local air quality management district underwrote the over-the-air advertising both during the NTP study and after it.

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