Sling TV CMO Courts Cord Cutters, Careful Not to Undercut Dish TV

Despite Its Roots in Traditional TV, Sling Doesn't Tiptoe Around Problems Plaguing Sector

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Despite its roots in traditional TV, Sling doesn't tiptoe around the problems plaguing the sector.
Despite its roots in traditional TV, Sling doesn't tiptoe around the problems plaguing the sector.

Glenn Eisen is in a precarious position. As chief marketing officer of Sling TV, Dish Network's streaming TV offering, it's his job to convince consumers to ditch their traditional TV service and adopt a slimmed-down digital package -- all without undercutting the parent company's, ahem, traditional TV service.
The potential conflict hasn't stopped Mr. Eisen from openly criticizing "old TV." He is the first to admit the model isn't working.

"When you ask cord cutters why they are moving away from pay-TV it isn't because of the options, but because of the conditions," he said. "They are so fed up and disconnecting is them rejecting these conditions."

It's a delicate dance nearly all cable and satellite operators are grappling with in some way. They must find ways to retain subscribers who have been turning to new platforms and devices to watch content, whether because of ease of use, cheaper prices or both. In some cases that means promoting services or packages that may result in consumers abandoning the more expensive bundles that still represent their core businesses. But it increasingly seems necessary if established pay-TV providers want to remain viable.

Sling TV CMO Glenn Eisen
Sling TV CMO Glenn Eisen

Dish alone lost 81,000 subscribers in its most recent quarter, nearly double the number it shed in the same period in 2014. The company had just under 14 million TV subscribers as of June 30.
"It's the classic incumbent's dilemma," Mr. Eisen said.

Despite its roots in traditional TV, Sling doesn't tiptoe around the problems plaguing the sector. In its first national campaign, which debuted in July, Sling urged consumers to "Take Back TV" with commercials berating the industry for long-standing problems such as poor customer service, long-term contracts and hidden fees.

Mr. Eisen said Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen and Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch have given him the freedom to take risks. "They know the focus needs to be on the consumer, not on the environment," he said.

While the messaging is blunt, Mr. Eisen is careful about just who hears it. "We are cognizant not to artificially sway people who wouldn't be cord cutters," he said. "We are targeting those who are already ready to cut the cord."

And Mr. Eisen insists Sling TV, which starts at $20 per month and offers a mix of cable networks such as ESPN, AMC and CNN, isn't creating cord cutters. Instead, he said it is providing opportunities for the pay-TV industry to retain consumers who would otherwise abandon TV altogether.

Dish does not break out its subscriber base for Sling TV. What is known is that 169,000 subscribers signed up for the service between its debut in January and the end of March, according to a regulatory filing. A Dish spokeswoman declined to provide an update on that figure, but analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson has estimated Sling could have averaged 275,000 users during the second quarter.
Data plays a meaningful role in Sling TV's marketing strategy. Mr. Eisen describes the process as "surgical," involving deep targeting to reach potential consumers one-on-one.

Of course, nearly every major marketer is using data to better target consumers, but it is especially crucial for Sling TV as it tries to avoid inadvertently pushing away a consumer who perhaps wouldn't have disconnected otherwise.

Through its own research, Sling TV gauges who responds to its marketing and tries to target people who display similar characteristics. Mr. Eisen said Sling TV's core customers fall into three buckets: cord-nevers, who haven't paid for TV before; cord cutters; and supplementers, whom he defines as early adopters with discretionary income and a passion for TV.

Following its national campaign this summer, Sling TV now allocates the bulk of its marketing to channels where it can find specific consumers -- predominantly young millennials who are heavy social-media users and quick to try new technology.

Its biggest hunting ground may be streaming video via devices such as Roku, Apple TV and Xbox One, where people are already using the web to get their TV. Sling TV is also active on social media, where Mr. Eisen said it can hyper-target consumers.

Part of Sling's pitch is the "instant gratification" element of the service, Mr. Eisen said. Sling has been working with programmers like AMC and ESPN around series premieres and live sports, telling consumers they can watch big programs whether or not they're home and without setting a DVR.

Ultimately, Mr. Eisen's goal is to get Sling TV in front of the right people at the most opportunistic time. "We aren't going to create cord cutters," Mr. Eisen said. "We are going to be an option for those who are so fed up."

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